People in small towns are inherently nosy. Ask anyone who has lived in a one and they will tell you the same. I should know. I was one of them.
After living the big-city life for over fifteen years, this aspect of my persona has changed. Oh, I’m still friendly with my neighbors and say “hey” when I pass, but that’s about it. In the grocery store, it’s a get-in-get-out mentality. There are no gossip sessions in the frozen food section like when I grew up. No, city life has made me a bit detached from the people and places around me. After all, a friendly wave and smile equals suspicious behavior in places with seven-figure populations. The bright lights and urban sprawl have desensitized me from my small-town roots, and I’m not entirely happy about it.
I lived my late teen years in Brenham, Texas. It’s situated an hour northwest of Houston, an hour and a half southeast of Austin, and a million light years away from any sort of hustle or bustle. It’s known for bluebonnets, Blinn College, and of course, Blue Bell Ice Cream. Just up the road from Brenham is Washington-on-the-Brazos, where Texas became an independent nation. Washington County is picturesque and perfect, but I hadn’t really been back in fifteen or so years.
Lately I’d felt the need to free myself from Houston’s strangle hold. The heat was stifling. The traffic was murderous. The monotony was absolute torture. I had to get out, even if it was just for the day. I woke up ridiculously early for a Saturday morning and was out the door, sufficiently caffeinated, by 7:30. My wheels were headed in a northeasterly direction.
I was headed home.
There were lots of changes along Highway 290. Big box stores, an outlet mall, restaurants, and bars littered both sides of the highway. I didn’t have to stop at all in Prairie View; the highway whisked me over that old traffic light. As my car reached further and further away from the urban grip, I started to see fields of green. Grass! And there were actual cows grazing, too. I saw ornate gates with giant Texas flags signaling the entrances to ranches. I noticed homesteads, modest and grandiose, scattered throughout the countryside. With every snake in the road I remembered what I loved about this place.
I stopped in Chappell Hill, a speck on the map and a short distance from Brenham. It’s a town of charm, character, and history, yet one would never know without heading north on Farm to Market Road 1155. Shortly up that road lies the heart of the Chappell Hill community. I stopped for kolaches at Chappell Hill Bakery. A high school friend’s family owns the place, and I recalled it being housed in an Exxon station. I hoped the shine of the new building didn’t take away from the goodness I remembered.
I stopped at an antique store across the highway from the bakery. A locked door greeted me, but much to my surprise, a man welcomed me in with a smile. That just doesn’t happen in the city. I found a million things I wanted. Old steamer trunks, books, Depression glass, and old furniture filled the dusty shop. But there was nothing I absolutely needed, so I continued on my way to Brenham.
It all looked vaguely familiar, but completely foreign. I meandered through streets looking at names that rang a bell. I was astonished that I could forget where the house was. I could imagine it and everything around. I remembered that the house, over a century old, stood on a corner. It was a bluish-green color with a white picket fence around the backyard. Steps led up to the front porch where a swing was suspended from the ceiling. The house was near Blinn College and far too close to very active train tracks.
Parks that I used to visit, tennis courts that I played on, and old, stately homes that I once admired crossed my path. And as I wandered through Brenham’s historical neighborhoods, I finally stumbled upon Blinn. One right turn and a track crossing brought me home.
There it was.
I parked on the side street next to my former home. Despite temperatures in the 90s, I sat in my car and admired it. The house was now a greenish-white color, but it still had the picket fence surrounding the backyard. Grass was replaced with a bounty of plants in the front and back. I knew that the person who lived there loved the house as much as my family and I did. When I couldn’t stand the heat anymore, I got out of the car with my camera and headed to the front sidewalk.
The swing was gone and replaced with a patio set. There used to be two front doors right next to one another; now there was one. The house was originally built by a father for his two daughters. He wanted them to have their own living space, but still be in the same house. One side, the one we lived in, was decidedly larger than the other. My parents rented out the smaller side. Sometime in the last fifteen years it was converted to a single-family home. I wondered what other changes were made.
I walked up the wooden steps just like I had millions of times before and rang the doorbell. I stepped off the porch as not to alarm the person inside. After all, I was a stranger holding a camera. Much to my surprise, a lady, probably in her mid-to-late 50s opened the door.
“Hi. My name is Leah, and my family bought this house in 1991. I haven’t seen the place in a decade and a half. I just wanted to stop by and take some pictures to send my family. I don’t mean to bother you.”
I’d practiced that line in the car, and surprisingly, she asked me to come in.
I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that someone would invite a total stranger holding a camera into her home. Had I been in the city too long? Had it made me jaded? I didn’t wait for a change of heart. I followed her through the front door, but was not prepared for the emotion that I felt.
The minute I saw the fifteen foot tall ceilings and the arched entrance to the dining room, I burst into tears. I’m not a crier, and I think this outward display shocked her as much as it did me. The look on the owner’s face was priceless. It was like, “Why did I let this crazy person in my home?” She grabbed for a box of Klenex and brought me a tissue.
“I’m so sorry. My mom died a few years ago, and she loved this house,” I blubbered while wiping my tears.
A look of relief and then understanding came over her face. She and her husband had lived in the house for a decade, but it was the owner before them that made all the structural changes. As she showed me around, I tried my best to remember exactly how the house was situated when we lived there. A closet was now a laundry room. A kitchen was now a bathroom. A back door was now a window. There were lots and lots of changes. The crown molding and beautiful oak floors remained, but everything else was glossed over with new cabinets, tile, and wallpaper, all of which were courtesy of the owner before her.
Before I left, I showed her a feature of the front door lock. She’d lived there for ten years and didn’t know a thing about it. This didn’t surprise me. I imagine those walls held a lot of surprises and secrets. After all, it’s been over a century since that father built the house for his two daughters.
I bid adieu to my former home for the second time.
Who says you can’t go home again?