My first night in Norman was my homecoming, and I didn’t even realize it. I stared at the ceiling in my Walker Tower dorm in the fall of 2015, thinking about my future at the University of Oklahoma. Right before I slipped out of consciousness, I realized I was continuing a family tradition started by my grandparents, through my uncle and mother, and now to me.
School was a break from the busy lifestyle of Houston. Norman was a reprieve from the scattered, traffic-laden suburbia I knew. I felt at home in Norman.
The University of Oklahoma felt like home because it was home.
Throughout my childhood, my grandparents lived at 4 Vickrey St. in Healdton, Oklahoma. The town boasts a population of 2,718, a fantastic Pizza Hut and the title of OU women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale’s hometown.
Holidays throughout my childhood are scattered with memories of what felt like the longest drive ever made by man, starting in Richmond, outside of Houston, past the Sam Houston statue near Huntsville, the Coors waterfall in Dallas and even past the homeplace of The Texas Ranger in Wilson, finally arriving in Healdton.
The drive to Healdton was a cure to worry, no matter my age. As concrete turned to grass, my thoughts shifted from the breakneck speed of Houston to the conscientious pace of Oklahoma. Time was slower and well intentioned. Freeways turned to two-lane highways. Stress and anxiety from a cramped schedule fell away. The drive only allowed you to think about what mattered.
I would think about my grandparents on those 10 hour drives. On the other side of the trip were the two most loving people I knew, Neen and PaBill, and if I was lucky, other family members visiting as well. Staying with Neen and PaBill meant a glorious deceleration in life. Instead of school, I could sit next to my grandmother and grandfather on the porch, watching absolutely nothing. When the brisk Oklahoman wind blew, I would run across the street to Anthis Park to play in leaf piles I would never see the likes of again. The orange leaves were a taste of fall, a break from the summer and winter cycle of the Gulf Coast. My brother and cousins would soon follow, with footballs in hand. I ran around the park catching passes from my older cousins, with my only goal to see as much of my breath as I possibly could. We would stay until the Oklahoma sunset called us back across the street for dinner.
Oftentimes, we visited my great-grandfather Papa, who was a century older than me. The drive to the Veterans Center wasn’t long. Papa lived in a cramped room with another veteran, who had his will tattooed to his back. Papa didn’t have room for many personal belongings, but he did have a mini-fridge. When we went, he smiled, joked and listened. He had an aura of kindness you can only gain through time. I looked forward to the trips the Veterans Center, no matter how dingy the sheets were or how much the fluorescent lights flickered. Papa always had a story and a hug. I knew he was special and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. When the time came to say goodbye, the mini Coca-Cola’s he slipped me from his mini-fridge made the drive back a little easier.
These semi-annual trips to Healdton were some of the highlights of my childhood. I don’t think I ever made a field goal, threw a perfect spiral or finished a bottle of Coca-Cola. But that didn’t matter. I was home, I just didn’t realize it.
I completed only one college application. I wasn’t pressured to pick Oklahoma. I didn’t come to Oklahoma with grand expectations. I just found myself here. It was a fit. When my mom and dad loaded up the car after I moved into my dorm, there wasn’t a single tear shed. My mom said she wasn’t worried about me for a second. Oklahoma, she knew, would look after me.
Over my freshman year, I studied, attended most of my classes, made some friends and went to a few football games. As the year ended, I looked forward to the summer. Not for the break from classes, but for the trip back to Richmond. My mind needed that reset came every time I drove through the backroads of Oklahoma, eventually making a stop back in Healdton.
As an upperclassman, I lived off campus. I explored Norman and drove around the state, beyond the student bubble in Norman. I became involved in a church that wasn’t a student ministry. I met people who taught me about their community and state. I looked past the Campus Corner bars and spent time at local dives. I listened. I saw Oklahoma from an Oklahoman’s perspective. I learned what defines Oklahoma.
Oklahoma isn’t defined by polls or demographics. It certainly is not defined by perception. Instead, Oklahoma is defined by the people and how they change you. Oklahomans will slow down at a moment’s notice to talk and get to know you. They’ll tell you what they’re going through and who they know who could help you with your problems. They’ll be friendly and welcoming. They’ll donate money and buy shirts when a hurricane floods your state. They’ll help you, live life alongside you and work to earn an honest day’s living, regardless of the circumstances they’ve been dealt. They do this over and over again, sincerely.
And over time, you start doing the same and Oklahoma becomes your home.
Last year, I drove to Healdton for the day. I drove past horses, small one-block towns and stop signs hanging by a single nail. I stopped by Anthis Park, remembered what it was and couldn’t believe I didn’t get a concussion or five. I went back to the Bulldogs’ home field and kicked that field goal. The Pizza Hut buffet was as reliable as ever. I drove through the city and parked on Main Street.
I saw a different Healdton. I sat there in my car, reluctant to drive away, devastated at what Healdton wasn’t. Main Street wasn’t quaint, it was empty. The pumpjack next to the baseball field wasn’t cool, it was dangerous. The steel pyramid in the park wasn’t tall, it was precarious. I couldn’t drive away. Every other living family member had moved out of the state. My visits were my family’s last connection to Healdton. I was our last tether to Oklahoma. I realized I won’t ever play catch with my cousins at Anthis Park ever again. My grandparents’ former house has a new hideous, oversized fire hydrant desecrating the front yard where the bird bath used to sit. Homes feet from Main Street are dilapidated. The town holds my memories, but it’s not what I want it to be. Tears in my eyes, I drove away, past the worn Sherri Coale sign, back to Norman.
From my visits to Healdton as a toddler to my years in Norman as a college student, this state molded me into the person I am. Every summer for the last four years, I looked forward to driving up past the casino, taking back roads through Healdton to visit my grandparents’ graves and reminiscing. Then I would get to Norman and Oklahoma City. These places developed me into a different person.
Last month, I drove up for the last time as an undergraduate. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months or years. Yet, I dread each day that passes. Not because of the looming responsibilities of the world after college, but the potential goodbye to what was and is my home. The thought is terrifying and depressing, and it has become much more real. There are a ton of factors pushing me back to Texas, and realistically, I probably should go. My family is back in Houston, and the legal market there is much more attractive to an aspiring lawyer. But, I’m the last of my family still living in Oklahoma. Leaving feels like closing a door on my family’s past here. It feels like closing a door on giving back to Oklahoma what it gave to me. I don’t want to close that door. Oklahoma is home.