More Important than Air

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Above: The old school bus making its way to Arizona.

When my mom was a child in the late 1940s, her sister developed breathing problems. Doctors advised the young family to relocate to the U.S. Southwest where the dry climate would help her recover.

Unwilling to permanently leave their Ohio farm, my grandfather shuttered the house and invented a temporary solution. He tore out the seats of an old school bus, tossed in some mattresses, a card table, and his family, and drove them to Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, Arizona. Parked on an isolated patch of public land, this was their home for a year.

My mom remembers only bits and pieces of their days in the desert. She recalls quietude and little to do. She and her sister straddled low tree limbs and pretended to ride them like horses. My grandmother had sewn pretty pink curtains – replete with festive pompom trim – to make the cavernous bus homier. And my mom's only "toy" was a small porcelain cat which now lives in a dark corner of her china hutch; today, Kitty's ears look more like those of a field mouse than a cat, worn blunt and bald of paint after mom's year of idle play under the cottonwoods.

They returned to the farm the following year and discretely parked the old school bus behind the chicken coop. My mom and her sister used it as a clubhouse until the thistles and spiders – and the lure of cute boys and high school dances – took over. Eventually, one of those cute boys married my mom, and they built a house on the next lot over from the farm. By the time I discovered the old bus in the 70s, thick vines had cloaked it, and it hummed with unseen bees nests. My brother and I were forbidden from trying to board, so we could only pine through the dusty windows and wonder what relics lay buried inside.

Decades later, doctors advised my parents to make the same move to a dry climate to help temper the effects of my dad's lung disease. But asked to leave, he couldn't walk away from the house in the woods, the creek that roiled around it, the leaning barn with that old bus run through with tree trunks and weeds. My mom still lives in that house, the heavy horizon a sea of corn writhing and breathing its humid silk and spider's webs. For these men who I loved and lost, the call of home was more important than air.

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