When Mom visited us last week, we tooled around town. No really, we tooled around town, on the outskirts, north, east, and west. This is surprisingly easy, because two streets this way or that, and suddenly one finds oneself in a wheat field. Or at least, we thought it was wheat. It’s been a while since my farm girl of a mother saw wheat up close, but then there she was, clambering out of the car and her head down near the ground, surveying and investigating. She could have been Jessica Fletcher scouring a crime scene.
As she was looking at the bright green whateveritwas, a man in a pickup truck drove by us on the dusty road. He managed to keep a tall western hat on his head, and he gave me the man nod as I waited for my parent to finish checking out the foliage. I nodded in return, but I’m not really sure why. What is the man nod supposed to mean? That I’m not here to pillage your town? That I’m in agreement on giving the most masculine salutation afforded by social expectations? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, even as I acknowledge that rolling down our windows to high five wouldn’t have made any more sense. But still, I nodded back at him.
She got back in her seat and announced to the two of us that in fact, it was wheat.
“I just didn’t remember it looking like grass,” she said, almost as if she really wanted to check the earth one last time, like running back into the house to make sure the oven is really, really, super turned off. We rumbled back along this road I’d never traveled, kicking up red dust behind us. We could have been a Mars rover, for all the wheat fields knew, although they were probably more certain than I was of where they came from.
We dead-ended at a T intersection, the car idling, bored, while I tried to figure out if Walla Walla was to our left or our right.
I picked right, making a guess. At noon the sun wasn’t going to give me any indication of where I headed. Where were my so familiar DC streets with their quadrant markers?
It should be noted that DC was once a small town in the midst of farms, fields, and livestock. Pierre L’Enfant liked it because of its intersection of two large waterways, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. In that way it wasn’t very unlike what Walla Walla is now, I suppose. But certain things—population density of the East Coast, cheapness of land at the time, intentional urban planning by L’Enfant and Masons—helped DC metamorphosize into the large metropolis that it now is. Those things don’t really exist for the Wheat Farming Town that Could, even as it was the site of incorporation for the State of Washington, and its original capitol. Now Walla Walla is only big compared to Dixie, Washington, which has only a single school, and Milton-Freewater in Oregon, best known for the frog statues that run along its main thoroughfare.
So Walla Walla doesn’t need quadrants.
We drove past a farm with several head of cattle, and I saw one cow nudging its face on the still body of a calf. The baby was indeed lying at an awkward angle.
“Oh no,” I said, “I think that calf died.”
Mom looked through my side window. She nodded.
“That’s so sad!”
“Well, maybe he’s just resting,” she said, patting me on my knee.
“No, really?” We’d passed them now so I couldn’t keep looking back.
“I mean, I’ve never seen a calf rest like that, but sure, maybe.”
My mother was mothering her nearly 40-year-old child who really didn’t live in the if-I-don’t-know-for-certain-it-might-not-be-real world anymore. But it was nice, for a minute, to pretend that I was still that gullible.