Near the middle of her book When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams stops and quotes a question: “What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?” Places are politics. Stories—ones we tell and ones we are told—are politics. Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to each other.
Exactly four years after the day his mother died, Colton and I drove from Ada, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City. It was the first time I’d ever seen an oil well—they lined the highway, pumping up and down like steel heads of mechanical horses. Colton said the state capital building was built on oil, so there’s a giant well right in the middle of the lawn. No such thing as going to waste.
The grass by the highway was fading one shade into another, reminding me of the watercolors I used as a child: brown into yellow into green. Every few yards there were clusters of yellow flowers, and the last of the castillejas, speckling the landscape like drops of paint fallen from the soft horsehairs onto a canvas. In some places there were also plastic bags clinging to chain-link fences, and McDonald’s cups in the rain gutter, and a single sheet of white newspaper climbing into the air with the whip-poor-wills and grasshopper sparrows, easing to a gentle float before reaching the altitude of the hawks circling round and round above the highway. It’s hard to tell what posed a more imminent threat to the armadillos: aerial predators or car tires.
As we entered the Indian no-man’s-land of Oklahoma County, the sleepy-slow neon pulse of Chickasaw Nation casinos was replaced by marshy creeks swelling with the desert’s rejection of unexpected rain, roofs of corrugated tin floating on the still water. And then there were the trees. Colton said about all that’s left from the Dust Bowl now are the tree lines and Meme’s stories (when she was very young, three or four, they slept all wrapped up in wet sheets and still woke in the morning wearing a layer of dust like a second skin). Deep roots and strong branches kept the ground from being pulled out from under homes and slowed the wind before it could gain momentum enough to spiral all across this wide, wild West. On a highway overpass a group of women held up signs that read “Obama Sucks.” I tried to calculate how long it would take for new rows of oaks to grow.
That was before I saw the path of the tornado. Oaks like the one with the swing in your grandma’s backyard, thick as the columns in front of the White House, ripped in half. Bent and twisted branches, shattered fragments of the trunks still reaching toward the sky, roots unearthed and crawling up the stumps remaining around them—for miles. Colton and I were quiet till we reached the city.
On April 19th, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated an explosive-packed truck in front of the Alfred P. Murray federal building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168, nineteen of them children. Nobody visits this city without seeing the memorial. Across the street from the site, there is a Catholic church, with its own memorial at the edge of the lawn. Twenty-two pillars representing the children killed (there were three pregnant women among the victims), and a statue of Jesus turning away from the site and hiding his face, weeping. Between the truck bomb and the federal building, a single elm withstood the explosion: the Survivor Tree. Its gnarled trunk is bent towards the ground, but eighteen years later, it’s still growing.
Colton and I drove to Oklahoma City for the birth of our godson. In the “Joyful Beginnings” ward of St. Anthony’s hospital, overlooking the site of the bombing, on the day his mother died four years ago, Colton held little Harlan. The infant’s tiny, new face nuzzled against his chest, and we both cried.
In the car on the way home, the twisted oaks looked frozen in the movements of an ancient dance, and Colton and I talked about the stories we would tell this newborn child.
Abbie Moore is from St. Louis, MO, but is slowly beginning to call Oklahoma home—learning Meme’s stories and appreciating 80-mph speed limits. Send her an email at email@example.com.