By Mary Overly Davis
What’s a Texas girl doing in Andes?
I was drawn to the Catskills as if I was sucked through a blue hole of clarity, that bright clearing in a grey turbulent sky. There was a place in my childhood that seeped down into my blood. It’s a place like Andes, a small remote village with a hotel, vistas, and farmland as far as you can see, and a gazillion stars. It’s a place with history, family, lore, and some true stories too.
The present feels clear and strong. I write as the season’s first snow blows horizontal and white from the North, a blizzard. Five minutes later the sun is out in full force, the veneer of snow cascades down the rain chain, then another blizzard, then sun again. Thus the day passed leaving me time to forage through my past like a butterfly building a cocoon, to weave in places, experiences, and family into one neat new package, my life in Andes.
This place like Andes is also a place of extremes. Floydada is far west Texas land where the winds blow sand that turn days into night and rolls tumbleweed around that could knock over small cars. Heat lighting illuminates harmless summer skies across a parched flat farmland to the horizon, a flat out straight horizon that stretches wider than out-stretched arms. Fall can bring frozen slicing winds that cut through the Panhandle sky, like a Rothko painting; half white half black, a Blue Norther. In this biblical haven the gods can let loose millions of tiny frogs. Florescent white specs in flashes of infinite lighting, violent nighttime storms rain frogs.
The Lamplighter Inn is a sun soaked stucco structure baked in west Texas history, complete with the ghosts of Floyd smelling of Old Spice and his wife Ada with the scent of lilacs. Floydada was the junction for the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railways in 1912, when my grandmother’s brother decided there was a need for the Commercial Hotel, as it was called back then. Business travelers, salesmen, arrived in town by train, were carted to the hotel on horse drawn buggies and escorted across the steaming slab of a front porch, through the screen door to the hotel lobby. A long narrow room with a row of ceiling fans overhead and flies swarming down below, the window wall was lined with low leather club chairs beside spittoons. They felt cool, especially with a glass of scotch.
Dinners were served in the restaurant, a large expanse of linoleum holding formica and steel tables, and naugahyde covered chairs you would stick to like wet glue. There was always the scent of freshly baked bread and pies. Grandmother in her apron piled up plates with ham, mashed potatoes and peas from behind the counter, in the back by the restaurant kitchen. A bomb shelter was built underneath after World War II, because of the nuclear threat. Grandmother was the proud owner of a Geiger counter, lots of canned food and a fearless disposition. She did all the cooking for the restaurant and in her retirement wrote What’s Cookin’ ~ Recipes from The Lamplighter Inn.
My Grandmother was no ordinary mortal woman. She had a whim of iron. Obdurate and virtuous daughter of a Baptist preacher, she married in her teens to an “unchurched” character twice her age. Pops was a gambler and a drinker from the north and never denied jockeying in the Kentucky Derby in the 1890s. She gained traction when Pops stopped working and would hole up in his room right off the hotel lobby. A wordless striped room, wood shuttered sunlight through pipe smoke, it smelled of tobacco and scotch that he said he drank for his health. Plagued with allergies, he believed he had a cold for 50 years.
My mother was the youngest of four, a blithe spirit twenty years younger than her oldest sibling. She played a reedless clarinet in high school, allowed in the band for her enthusiastic marching. She left home for the Permian Basin oil fields in a new Neiman’s suit, a Buick convertible, and a teaching diploma from Texas Tech. Despite being an inveterate teetotaler she developed a penchant for political discourse, a quick two-step, a competitive game of bridge, and a flawless eye for a bargain. Against all protests she married an Irish Catholic rough neck who wasn’t accepted fully into the family fold until all we children came out all right. In the 1950s Mom produced a brood of four little heathens in only five years and one month.
We were taken to Floydada every summer to get a dose of Baptist in the bosom of her family. Descending on the hotel as welcome as a swarm of bees, we were promptly installed in Vacation Bible School, which resulted in potholders galore and decorated cardboard fans on a tongue depressor stick. Late afternoons, as the crescendo of heat tested women’s nerves while they prepared dinner for hotel guests and family alike, we were banished to the outdoors with our new cardboard fans. We’d occupy scorching rusted metal chairs on the roofless front porch, a long rectangular block of concrete. Four young children vigorously fanning the heat and the flies, an ill intentioned aim here and there with a Baptist fan was inevitable, sending the brood through old screen door with four mighty slams.
Pops would be sent out to monitor our goings on, his straw fedora, pipe, scotch, and a pocket full of silver dollars. He’d say “skedaddle you cats” and give us one to do so. We skedaddled off around the corner one day to play horsey on a broom. I fell (or was pushed) on the uneven pavement, cut my chin open and was rushed to the emergency room at dinnertime and left past bedtime with two large stitches, the future checkerboard scar under my chin. Sometimes we just caught fireflies to disembowel, rings for our fingers, or we’d bolt for the lobby staircase to play Mother May I. Starting at the top we’d yell down “May I take 3 baby steps down…may I take one giant scissor leap…may I jump down 3 steps…”, until someone got hurt.
Christmastime was peak story telling time. A ring of Moreheads sat shoulder to shoulder around the small private living room spooning Pops’ eggnog spiked with a fifth of Four Roses Bourbon, minus one stiff drink, into their mouths. Overly children sat on the floor, advised to be seen and not heard. Stories commenced with details on the production of the eggnog ~ the quality of the eggs, the number of bowls used, and how long it took. There were stories about the family’s Cloverlake Dairy, named for a depression in the earth that accumulated water when it rained. Dry most of the year, a bed of clover marked the spot. We heard about the “famous” red silk robe, Pop’s peace offering to Grandmother 30 years prior, and despite its absurdity she milked cows in it, thrown out behind her like a coronation cape. There were stories about the depression, when grandmother served the goldfish for Thanksgiving dinner, and the dust storms. Pops once wrote his sons living in Austin, “I am sending you my last 20 acres by airmail”.
There were stories about weather, water, oil and the price of cotton. Mostly there were stories about politics. Family lore has Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman stopping to deliver stump speeches from a caboose, down by the cotton gin. Whether these politicians actually stayed at the hotel is immaterial. It doesn’t matter if it’s a true story — it’s a story. And to further the lore, three memorial rooms were established for each of them, for the hotel’s dedication as a Texas landmark.
Floydada celebrated with “Old Folks Day”, a parade of combines, cotton pickers, tractors, harvesters — monumental farm equipment with air conditioners. Men with duck-tails drove convertibles of women with permanent bee-hive hairdos. Homemade floats carried cousins and Baptist Sunday-schoolers. Nighttime hosted a “slab” dance at the stockyard. A vast expanse of concrete, strewn with cornmeal, was illuminated by strings of twinkle lights and the vast array of west Texan stars. A country western band played from one end; pick up trucks, tail-gates down, backed up along the other three where cowboy-booted dancers could sit one out.
When I moved to Andes full time I purchased a small piece of the Catskills, on Bussey Hollow. I now have my own pastureland, and vistas, and a gazillion stars. Embedded in the walls of my 140 year old house are stories and ghosts, some who departed one summer night in 1987 with a slam of the front screen door. This place is where my daughter and her pals caught frogs with bare hands, salamanders in nets, and fireflies for their fingers. Happy feral children all, I fed them like a short order cook. I still have my copy of What’s Cookin and I still make Pop’s eggnog for Christmas. My family has their own stories, some of them true.
One morning my windows were open when a breeze started up and surrounded my bed like a raft in a lake. A chorus of frogs sprang up from the underbrush from a deep slumber, their song reached for the heavens in gratitude and joy. I’ve come full circle. ~