Noel, the good days
    Southwest Missouri has always been a sentimental vacationing grounds for the Downing family.  I guess it is because in the early nineteenth century my great grandparents and earlier generations of Downings lived in the area.  My great grandfather was a circuit minister who traveled the area by horseback preaching in various small congregations, eventually building a small country church just outside Noel, Missouri.  Noel in later years, due to its scenic location and the picturesque Elk River meandering through the town, became a vacationing spot for many, until the main highway was rerouted around the city, and the tourist industry vanished.  Around 100 years ago, my grandparents moved for an undisclosed reason to Western Oklahoma, near Mangum, Granite, and Altus, Oklahoma, where they were able to operate a farm and help feed their fifteen children.  My dad was the fourteenth child born to the family and the first (I think) born in Oklahoma, but he always stayed aware of his roots in Southwestern Missouri. 
    When I was around seven years of age, my dad decided to go back to Noel, Missouri, to retrace his ancestry, thus beginning a long Downing tradition.  We were able to locate the grave of his grandfather (my great grandfather, the preacher) and several other early ancestors.  Much to his delight, he found cousins he had lost track of and met people in stores who actually remembered his father and grandfather.  For the better part of 30 years, a couple of weeks per year were spent in Noel, Missouri.  It was heaven on earth for us kids (read my blog “Paradise Revisited…Noel, Missouri.”)  It was heaven enough that Noel, Missouri, was where Shirley and I spent our honeymoon.
    To fast forward to the present, my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Leroy, have lived in Grove, Oklahoma for several years.  Grove is only twenty miles or so from Noel, but it’s a different world.  Where Noel is gifted with the Ozark hills, Grove is relatively flat farm land…not nearly as scenic as Noel, but a more bustling community situated on the banks of the Lake of the Cherokees.  Kathy and Leroy have yearned for a little more breathing space for gardening and whatever and a few months ago purchased a five-acre plot of land in Anderson, Missouri.  Situated about ten miles north of Noel, Anderson, like Noel, is not far from Elk River and benefits from the Ozark hills ambience.  Although the property was a little neglected when they moved in, it is now a showplace of neatness and organization thanks to their hard work and meticulousness.
    Shirley and I, along with my two other sisters, Mary and Judy, made our annual trek to visit our distant relatives in June, and learned that when Kathy and Leroy say they are “away from it all,” they really mean it.  Had we not had an up to date GPS, we probably would still be looking for their home.  As we approached Anderson from the east on Missouri 76, we turned right onto a narrow asphalt road which quickly became a dirt (actually, mostly rock) road which in a couple of miles and a couple of turns became what appeared to be a single lane rocky driveway.  My GPS said keep going, so we did, and in a half mile or so, in the midst of rocky, wooded, and overgrown terrain we came upon a plot of ground that was neatly mowed, trimmed, and accentuated with bordered trees, a garden, and a neat home.  “Knowing Leroy and Kathy, this has got to be the place,” we said, and we were right.
     For the next few days, to be totally honest, we did very little except visit, eat, drink coffee, hit antique stores, and hibernate, so this little essay is not about all the wild things we did on our visit.  In fact, I am sure that if anyone under the age of 50 reads this, he or she will instantly think, “These poor people have no lives!  They didn’t do anything exciting, active, or fun!”   Au contraire, my hyperactive friend.
     One of the first things that Leroy built after moving onto the property was an approximately 50’x15’ porch attached to the home facing the evening sun (sunsets, you know) and overlooking a majority of the property.  Although approximately half the property has not been cleared yet, what is cleared is beautifully maintained with an abundance of deer, rabbits, and other creatures which we saw only occasionally.  What strikes you first upon sitting in the comfortable porch furniture and looking over the landscape is the total lack of any sound of civilization.  The noisiest sounds come from the hummingbirds which dine at the several bird feeders Kathy has placed along the porch’s edge. The other birds sort of chime in when the urge hits them, but if there is no breeze blowing, bird noises are the ONLY sounds to be heard.  The nearest neighbor is down the road and completely out of sight; yet when a neighbor kid hollers, he/she can be faintly heard from Kathy and Leroy’s porch.  Well, we did hear one more sound...occasionally off in the distance we would hear the braying sound of an upset mule.
    One evening, in the depths of our relaxation (or stupor, the youngsters may assert), we noticed a spider busily building a web on one of the porch’s posts.  It became fascinating to watch this little creature spinning string after string of webbing to create his trap for some poor, unsuspecting gnat or insect.  All the evening hours as we visited, Mr. Spider worked feverishly, never resting, and as we retired for the night, he was still working frantically.  The next morning, believe it or not, we checked on him, and his web was complete, and he was resting comfortably (probably from exhaustion), no doubt satisfied with his night’s work.  I could not help but comment how that little spider was indicative of the instinct that is in every creature to survive.  A great majority of the youngsters of today with their electronic gadgetry and tendency to panic if they are not “connected” are missing out on the lessons of the world around them, and their negligence will be their loss.  But I digress.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-electronic. We travel by GPS and I have a dash cam in my car, and while we were visiting I was frustrated with limited phone service and dutifully packed my tablet…and in my heart thanked Kathy and Leroy for having good internet access through their cable modem.  However, I found out after a couple of days, the fact that I didn’t know what was happening around the world every five minutes seemed less stressful, and the fact that I was missing phone calls…mildly concerning but not a reason for panic.  Truth be told, it was a good place to lower your blood pressure.
    Not being one to rest on his laurels, Leroy put in a garden (see photo below) which was still in its embryonic stage, but we still enjoyed lettuce, strawberries, and whatever else.  In a few weeks all their friends and neighbors will be avoiding Leroy and Kathy because they will be flooding them with surplus vegetables and fruits.   Wish we lived next door.
    The weather turned hot, and the early evening sun made sitting on the porch a little warmer than desired, but about sunset, the western sky would turn aflame with a palette of colors.  The cool of the evening would see us drifting back to the porch, coffee in hand, to enjoy another evening of camaraderie and remembrance.  In time darkness would set in, and the sky would become “a thousand points of light,” as some famous politician once said.  The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they ain’t bad in Southwestern Missouri.  We would visit and talk until bedtime, and then the next morning the cycle would begin again when, by the time 6:00 a.m. rolled around, coffee was already on and the birds were a-twittering.
    Just as an aside, my sister, Mary, is a cat lover (choke.)  No, more than that…she seeks out cats to pet them, coddle them, feed them.  Well, Kathy and Leroy have this old tom cat which I’m sure thought he had died and gone to heaven when Mary came along.  Mary latched onto him, snuck him food, held him, caressed him to the point that his purr sounded like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at idle.  In gratitude, the old cat would bring Mary an occasional dead (or barely alive) mouse to share with her.  No doubt the cat was disappointed with Mary’s response, but continued to bring mice to the porch to share with whoever desired a fresh entree.  If there were no takers (and there weren’t) he would eat them himself.  But we had our chance.
   The only downside to the whole trip was when we took our annual pilgrimage to Noel.  Because of the memories there, anytime I am in driving range I have to go back and at least drive through the little village and reminisce of days gone by.  Regrettably, the Noel of my youth is gone.  Our government has deemed it a good place to transplant refugee Somalians, so now on the streets of Noel, one can see women shrouded in yards of cloth, and it is possible to eat at a “genuine African cuisine” restaurant.  Years ago Tyson Foods (the chicken people) built large chicken processing plants in Noel and began importing many people whose citizenships were in question, and so now the home town, relaxed, Americana of Noel is gone.  Sad.  But the memories of yesteryear still remain as fresh as ever. 
    It is probably good that we headed back to Houston when we did.  Kathy had told us we could stay as long as we wished, and I was drifting toward seriously considering the proposal.  I decided, however, not to mess up a good thing and remembered the axiom…” Leave before they want you to go… not after they want you to go.”   We said our goodbyes and made our promises to visit again next year.  All in all, a trip almost devoid of activity…but crammed with loads of relaxation.  Isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to be?
Leroy and Kathy Boatright
The Porch
The Garden