Friends in other parts of the country ask how I can bear to live in a place with such a high risk of tornadoes and I totally get where they are coming from. The destruction that took place in Moore, Oklahoma yesterday is truly overwhelming and the scenes of distraught parents waiting to hear whether their children are alive or dead will stay with us all for a very long time.
But I grew up in California which has its own set of natural disasters to contend with. Earthquakes immediately come to mind but mountain mudslides and wildfires fueled by Santa Ana winds are equally terrifying. In fact, as a kid it was the fear of fire which haunted my dreams, not earthquakes.
And then there’s New Orleans, the city we visit as often as possible and hope to retire to someday, with its history of devastating hurricanes. I’m not sure what it says about me that my three favorite states are notoriously rife with potential disaster, especially since I’m truly not much of a thrill-seeker. Perhaps, like others who live in these places, I see beyond the risks.
I’ve loved Oklahoma ever since the memorable trip I took here as a child. My mom and aunt loaded four kids in an overstuffed station wagon and headed East from California for a sixteen day trip to visit relatives in Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee. If you’ve wondered how I could have taken a road trip to New Orleans with my friend, Roz, or my more recent adventure by myself without a second thought, this might be a clue. I come from a long line of independent women with a penchant for travel.
During that trip so many years ago, I distinctly recall being charmed by the “y’all come back now” friendliness of the people here in Oklahoma. And I don’t just mean the relatives we visited. Store clerks, waitresses and gas station attendants (yes, I’m that old) all gave us the same farewell and this child who was already enamored with Southern literature immediately felt at home in the sultry, green land of slow-talking folks who seemed obsessed with feeding us.
Other family visits over the years did nothing to alter my love for Oklahoma so I was more than happy to move here immediately following my high school graduation. How that all came about is a story for another day but suffice it to say I took to Oklahoma like a tick takes to a hound dog. Sure, there was a bit of culture shock as I adjusted to the (very much) slower pace, tried to decipher terms like “bar ditch” and learned that there are very few foods which cannot be fried. At least I was already used to drinking iced tea sweet enough to make your teeth hurt.
I moved to a town with an honest-to-goodness Main Street and not one, but three old fashioned soda fountains, shop keepers who let my mom bring home clothes for a very sick daughter to try on, teenagers for whom Friday and Saturday nights consisted of cruising Main in the family sedan, and so many other little things which made me feel as though I had been transported back to a much simpler time and place.
I’ve now lived here close to 33 years and in every sense of the word, Oklahoma is home. Yes, we have our problems. Poverty, obesity, racism and a tendency to elect some very embarrassing folks to public office are a few of the issues which plague our state. And of course, we experience weather extremes which can test the mettle of the most resilient folks I know. Unfortunately these are the things which make the national news.
Oklahoma may have crazy weather and politicians but it is so much more than tornadoes and Inhofe. It’s red dirt and blue skies, a forefinger lifted from the steering wheel as you pass on a two lane road, unlocked doors, overalls and tractors, sweet tea, fried green tomatoes and ranch dressing, beans and cornbread, biscuits and gravy, watching storms from a lawn chair, Gary England and severe weather drinking games, June bugs and cicadas, men who still hold doors for ladies and call them “ma’am”, family and faith and neighbors who take care of one another.
Hopefully, amidst the heartbreaking story of loss which is dominating the news, the rest of the world will get a tiny glimpse of who Oklahomans really are. Within minutes after the tornado hit, people were out searching for their neighbors, comforting the grief-stricken, organizing blood drives, collecting donations, taking in lost pets, and opening their homes to those who had lost theirs.
I couldn’t bear to watch very much of the search and rescue footage last night but my aching heart was encouraged by what I saw in my Facebook newsfeed. One by one, many of my Oklahoma friends changed their profile picture to some version of this:
The calm between storms:
If you’d like to help with the relief effort, please consider a donation to the Red Cross. We will be taking up a collection during our Happyland Music Fest this weekend to send to the tornado victims.