My hometown changed in the twenty-five years I was away. The grocery store where I got my first job burned down. We can’t drop by the Tastee Freeze anymore on hot summer days to have chocolate-dipped soft ice cream cones delivered to the car. The post office is no longer squeezed into a narrow space between the Milky Way market and the A&A Bar in the old brick buildings on Central Avenue.
But keep driving another block south and everything is remarkably the same. A dentist still wields his drill in the cinder block office on the corner of Central and through street, though the name on the sign has changed. Kitty-corner across the street, the Presbyterian church looks exactly as it did when my sister got married there. And if you go another block, take a right at the yield sign and a left into the alley, you’ll end up at my Grandma’s house.
My grandparents lived on the ranch we now call home. The families of all four of their kids eventually settled within ten miles east and west, an average of an hour’s drive from town. The local country school ran only through the eighth grade. High school meant meeting the bus at seven-fifteen in the morning and climbing off again at five in evening. For most of us, home was at least twenty minutes down gravel roads from the bus stop. So in 1969, my widowed grandmother moved into town and the house that became known as Hoyt’s Hotel.
Nine grandkids spent their weeknights in that house for some or all of their high school years, along with a rotating assortment of their friends. We posed with prom dates in front of her fireplace and in caps and gowns in her back yard. When she learned that my older male cousins were hanging around at the A&A to play pool, she bought a table and told them to bring all their friends along home.
Everyone was welcome at Eva’s house. No one left hungry. School kids weren't the only overnight guests. Basketball games, dinner at the Elks Lodge, any occasion that kept aunts, uncles and neighbors in town late into the evening meant spending the night at Grandma’s. My cousin Bobby would sometimes eyeball the crowd at dinner, then get up and go immediately to bed so he didn’t have to sleep on the couch.
For twenty years, no visit to town was complete without a stop at Grandma’s. Heaven forbid she find out you’d passed through without dropping in, especially if you were going somewhere interesting. She kept the overnight bag behind the door in her bedroom packed with a nightgown and clean underwear, just in case.
Heading to Billings for the weekend? “I’ll come with you,” she’d say, and beat you out to the car with suitcase in hand. Since she was great fun to travel with and always insisted on chipping in for meals and gas, you rarely heard a complaint. Truth is, there may have been a time or two when I swung by Grandma’s on my way out of town specifically because my wallet was a little thin.
I was living in South Dakota when she died, and when the house was sold. I hadn’t really spent any time in my hometown since, until we moved back last year. Now I find that I’ve never really had a chance to get used to her being gone. When I stop in front of the dental office and look down the street past the Presbyterian church, I can’t quite believe that if I turned right at the yield sign and left at the alley, she wouldn’t be there.
So my apologies to whoever owns that house on the last block of First Street now. I’m sure your friends and family told you the blue paint looks nice, and the patio doors off the kitchen are a great improvement. You probably love that big new garage. But in my mind, Hoyt’s Hotel will always be pink. There will always be a blue ceramic cat on the shelf in the dining room, a pool table in the rec room, Schwan’s corn dogs and burritos in the freezer for hungry teenagers.
And a green overnight bag packed and ready behind the bedroom door…just in case.