Nonny’s House

When you’re ten years old you go where you’re told. You report for duty to places not of your choosing. Sure, you can have a little positive input, “C’mon Dad can we can we can we?!” But the rule of thumb is to keep negative feedback to yourself; at least it was like that for me.

There may not have been a lot of choice, but that was usually OK, you didn’t have to plan, or buy gas, or take time off from work or rearrange things in your schedule. Just grab a few things (some fortunate days it was my Big Wheel) and get in the car with the big people and go.   Time moves so slowly for a kid who has no decision-making worries that he just deals with it and truly lives in the moment.

In the “Between Point A and Point B” of life, anything in the middle is just space filler, I mean, it sure was like that for me. And that’s how it was that I never learned how to get to Nonny’s house.

Nonny was my stepmom Norma’s mom; that fact and the fact that she made wonderful homemade noodles were about the only things I knew about her. I instinctively liked her, I just stayed away from her; she was the ruler of her house by the lake and that was a little intimidating.

We always went out on a Sunday, piling into Norma’s silver Cutlass Supreme and quickly getting onto the highway. I didn’t know the name of the highway leaving Tulsa that led to the long road that led to the smaller road and then the dirt road to Nonny’s house; but why should I? I didn’t care, I was ten years old. I didn’t even know what direction it was, hey I knew no one would ask me to find it on a map.

We would drive for some undetermined amount of time, I never knew how long it was, but however long, the anticipation was usually excruciating because we knew Nonny was cooking something up for us. I knew we would get off the highway and turn right, many times we headed up this long road while I lay back in the back seat and counted telephone poles on the right side of the road. Usually we had an 8-Track playing in the Cutlass’ tape player. Usually that tape was “Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975,” seeing those years on the slip case always seemed like such a long time ago because it was already 1978.

We kids (there were 3 of us in the back seat) lobbied for “Kiss Alive II” but were continually downvoted for the Eagles or Elvis’ “Moody Blue.” So I contented myself counting telephone poles while singing along with songs whose lyrics I myself was years away from living, or even fully understanding, like “Lyin’ Eyes” or “Already Gone.”

Then all of a sudden we would just be there, I mean, I often noted the turn onto the smaller road as well as the sign that greeted us, “Whispering Hills,” but the whole process remained a blissful mystery. I just knew I was in a different part of Oklahoma.

I liked the lake house because it was a different house than where I lived and it was near a lake, really close actually, to Lake Keystone. I took the time to learn the name of that lake but never learned even what street Nonny’s house was on. I was ten; hey, nobody was going to quiz me on it.

Usually Nonny’s husband, a quiet and austere man everyone called Papa, opened the door for us. And usually Norma’s brother Ronny and his wife Valinda were there too. They apparently lived near my house some undetermined distance away back in Tulsa but beat us to Nonny’s so consistently that I sometimes thought they just never went back home.

Me and my Big Wheel at Nonny's

Me and my Big Wheel at Nonny’s

I liked the lake when it was warm out because my dad would put on his corny cutoff jeans and we would get in Ronny’s boat and take it out, while the bigger kids water-skied.   I’d swim in the lake but I didn’t want to water-ski, contemplating all the ways I could get hurt kind of ruined it for me. I usually just sat in the boat and dreamed, pretending I was listening to the adult’s eternally boring conversations, what sounded like a mishmash of workplace gossip; building construction stories and newspaper headline sound bites. Playing along as a listener kept me insulated from the peer pressure that sometimes bore down on me to water-ski. “C’mon Billy don’t be such a pussy.”

Back on dry land everybody took to the motorcycles, or as my Dad called it “motor-sickles.” He was the only one who said it like that; I never knew why he adopted that affectation. It embarrassed me but nobody else seemed to care.

The only bike that was not too big for me was a little Honda 50, which I really loved riding around. I wished I could go faster, but not so much that I would ever get on one of the Suziki 150s that the big kids and adults rode. When they’d speed up ahead of me I’d call for them to let me catch up and they’d just laugh. I never really got lost though because I would have never found my way back. Though the streets of course had names I never noted them, why did I have to do that when I could just follow the motorcycles back?  I wasn’t the navigator, I was a ten year old.

Ronny and Valinda had a son that I considered a little nutzo, his name was Darren. He worshiped Evel Knievel and tried hard to adopt his hero’s lifestyle on his Honda 3-wheeler, a vehicle that was really a lot more dangerous than any of us knew at the time. He built little homemade ramps and tried to jump the 3-wheeler. One time he crashed and broke his jaw. He didn’t cry then but he would if you ever tried to take him away from his 3-wheeler. I never asked to ride it, usually I just tried to avoid him.

For I was there at the lake house for the food, and the food was great. When we got tired of riding bikes, sometimes running out of gas, we’d go back and finally eat dinner.

This was the time I would kind of buzz around Nonny, as she was finishing dinner. I would try to help, for that interested me more than water-skis or big bikes. Looking up and around I would try to grab her attention but she usually had nothing for me to do except sample those thick bumpy homemade noodles that she specialized in.

We had an adult table and a kid’s table. The adults served themselves first and when the last one was done we could have at it. Thank goodness there was always a lot left. I knew the food was good but I honestly couldn’t tell you about it, except for the noodles, we even used to say in a sing-songy voice, “Even poodles love Nonny’s noodles,” but we never let the dog Bubbles have any anyway.

We sat around the little table and talked about “The Man from Atlantis” and school while the adults talked about Three Mile Island and the Sooners. I always looked over at Nonny, fascinated by her.

She seemed ancient, she had really high cheekbones like the pictures of Indians I always saw at school. Her eyes would wrinkle up when she smiled and she had a really thick Okie accent. Conversationally she seemed to kind of run the show, even in silence.  Her hair was almost all gray. She was a mystery.

We kids would eat very fast and go upstairs, the attic was filled with toys after all. I loved the collection of Hot Wheels that was up there, pushing them around pretending they were some of my heroes from the Tulsa Speedway.

And then before I knew it, we’d have to go. This was of course never my choice, nobody ever asked me “Are you ready to leave?” But I didn’t care, I was ten years old and didn’t have to drive back all tired.   Times like that it was nice being toted around.

The drive back usually seemed a lot longer because it was dark and if possible the route was even more of a mystery. I usually noticed the Whispering Hills sign as we turned right onto the bigger road. It had a light on it and looked different at night. You could still make out the blue and white hills drawn on them and the cartoon wind coming out of the “W.”  I always marveled at how it seemed I hadn’t seen the sign for so long when it had really been just a few hours.

Then some other Sunday, usually the very next one, we’d do it all over again.

Little did I know only one year later I would be living in California, in the very same building depicted in the Eagles album that came after “Greatest Hits,” called “Hotel California.” Norma loved this album and prominently placed it by the living room stereo. Looking back, it seemed like so much had happened in that next year 1978 going to 1979 and it’s weird to think about that because now I can nowadays run into someone I hadn’t seen in two years and it would feel almost like yesterday.

After I moved I never went back to Nonny’s house. I talked to her a few times but not too much because I just never really did. You know how that goes. I still never knew her actual name.

Nonny died in July of 2011. Her name was Eula Mae Shipman. Eula, I would have never guessed that. She was a weaver and a seamstress and her daughter and grand kids and even great-grand kids really missed her when she was gone.

Nonny, just a few years after I knew her.

Nonny, just a few years after I knew her.

Knowing this much I decided to test the mystery of Nonny’s house, would it ruin my memories to find out where it was? Thanks to the Internet I knew I could fill in all the blanks and find out.

Lake Keystone isn’t really a lake at all, it’s an engorgement of the Arkansas River formed by the building of the Keystone Dam in 1968 (likely to protect Tulsa in the event of a flood). Since Lake Keystone was only ten years old in 1978 that meant it was as much a kid as I was! That explained why Nonny’s house looked so new; Howard “Papa” Shipman bought this brand new lakefront property in the late ‘60’s and built the house where I spent so many Sundays. Pretty smart move.

When they built the dam they flooded 3 towns, including most of Prue, Oklahoma, which was the name of the town where Nonny’s house was. So those kids were water skiing over old abandoned buildings and streets and maybe even graveyards at the bottom of that lake. No wonder I never wanted to water-ski, that’s creepy! Since I didn’t know any street names I had to turn to my old friend Google Maps to find this place.

I zoomed in and out from above, there are several houses near the lake, it could have been any of them. I found a few old 1970’s photos my dad had sent me, one of them showed a view out back and also a curved little pathway leading out of the back of the house. Zoom, fade, zoom fade; I thought I found it but I couldn’t be sure. I went down to Google street view, dragging the Yellowman (as my sister calls it) to a likely spot. I just couldn’t be sure.

So I drove the virtual road again going back to the Sand Springs Expressway (oh that’s what it’s called), looking for a likely exit. I knew it was a right turn.

The camera view showed telephone poles on the right side of a road called West 209th, getting warmer….. I could feel it.  I kept going, “click…lurch,” it was truly plodding work. Finally there was a turnout on the left side and what did I see? A sign that said Whispering Hills! The sign was smaller and not as nice as it was in the ‘70’s but I was almost at my goal, I could feel it. Another satellite view and then presto, found the curved path out back. Drop down to street view and eureka! Nailed it! The house is either at 2971 or 1935 Miller Dr (depending on what part of the Google view you click) in Prue, OK. The house looked the same as I remembered, there was a real estate sign up front, the Google-mobile must have passed by not long after Nonny died.

Nonny's house

Nonny’s house

I looked around a bit, it was weird.  All the shrubbery around there seemed huge and wild when I was on my Honda 50, now it looked a bit stumpy.  But I was littler then of course.  They paved Nonny’s street too, I noticed, but only up until the next block.  There were a lot more houses than I remembered.  It was weird putting street names to all these dips and turns.  West Tina Trail and Dotson Drive, weird.

The next thing I did was click “get directions” and I wound my way back to my Dad and Norma’s house in Sand Springs, a suburb of Tulsa. Hey, I may have been ten years old but I knew my own address!

Google says it’s a 27 minute drive depending on traffic but I’ll tell you it sure felt longer back in 1978.  During my 2 hours of research I learned about the lake, the town, the house, even a little history; it was all great. It didn’t ruin me memories at all, it just reinforced them and gave them more context. In an odd way it even made me feel I knew Eula Mae a little better. Having finally taken the time to find out about her world, I just wished she was still there to smile her crinkly eyes at the news.

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