From the crest of the hill two buildings came into view. On the left-hand side, there was an old gas station with a message painted on its roof that read: Howdy Folks, Welcome to Cow Town.
Then, on the right, a sturdy brick building sat surrounded by thick walls, with an arch above the gates bearing the sign: Home of the Good Shepherd. My mother pointed it out each time we rode by, referring to it as the convent.
The gas station was not slick or modern. It was a clapboard building with a screen door, perpetually loose and hanging by a crooked hinge. The only pump out front, a large round device, looked out of place and not gas station-like at all. When I think of the building now, I remember that it was a grey weathered wood that had been beaten by the seasons and had not seen a coat of fresh paint in years.
By the time I was ten years old, Denver was stretching its gangly legs into the plains, and the plains became suburbs. The once solitary buildings that had sat in the middle of those open spaces were now surrounded by commerce and tract homes. I don’t know when the gas station came down. I was probably a teenager by then. It didn’t make much of an impact except for the fact that I missed the sign on its roof: Howdy Folks, Welcome to Cow Town.
The convent is still a ghostly memory. Before my husband and I moved to Oregon, I drove by where it used to stand. The building holds a piece of family history, a story that I never forgot, so when it was gone, I mourned its passing as if it were an old friend.
I didn’t want to forget what it looked like and what it meant in the scheme of things. Seeing a hotel in its place made my heart ache for the sometimes-difficult truth of life that everything changes and ends.
My mother told me a story of being a little girl, and her family falling upon hard times; farmers who had hit a snag, a father too involved with Jack Daniel’s and a lack of money to support three daughters. She recounted the memories of her parents fighting, doors slamming, bottles breaking and the confusion of it all.
She and her sisters were packed up and taken to the Home of the Good Shepherd, where they lived for several months until the family got back on its feet. It is a homesick story of missing her parents, a sense of being adrift in the unknown.
Oh, if I could have changed those difficult times for her and taken her pain, I would. But the other part of her story is that there was a swing set at the convent and she loved to swing, pumping her legs as hard as she could to get higher and higher into the air until she could see over the convent walls out onto the land that butted against the Rocky Mountains, hoping to catch a glimpse of another world.
Longing and discontent would become familiar themes throughout her life. At night, she said, a train whistle would sound in the distance and she would lie in bed imagining where it could take her.
The Past Defines Us
Sometimes there are things that we don’t even notice are gone. And other times, we see the translucent outline of what once was, because of the history it embodies, because of the story it keeps alive in us. The past informs who we are.
At the crest of the hill, there is no longer anything remarkable. The convent and the gas station are long gone. I have tucked them into a memory in my heart where I hold onto the vision of the little girl who managed to soar so high on the swings that she caught the vision of hope and dreams beyond the convent walls.
Memories of places can hold powerful emotions for us. What places do you remember from when you were little that are no longer there or are now something else? Please share your thoughts and feelings in the comments.