Today, I finally made good on a promise I made to myself a few years ago.
My father’s family is from Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It’s a town of a little over 3,000 people and the county seat. The grand Osage County courthouse sits atop a hill, overlooking the rest of town. It’s also the home of the Osage Indian tribal government and serves as the gateway to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. It’s had ups and downs over the years and is still holding on to life; in fact, over the last few years quite a few downtown businesses have seen re-development and rejuvenation. Ree Drummond, known as the Pioneer Woman thanks to a cooking blog and countless national television appearances, lives there and is in the process of constructing a restaurant there, too.
My uncle has owned the Hometown Appliance store for over 20 years. Right next door to him is a little nondescript cafe called “Sally’s”. I knew that Sally herself was getting up in years, and Uncle Jody has raved about her tamales as long as I could remember…so I promised myself I would make the effort and get up there when she was open so I could experience this small town fixture for myself. Well, as I said at the beginning, I did that today. It was amazing!
Sally Carrol isn’t just “getting up in years.” She’s 98! She bought the restaurant back in 1949, the same year that West Germany was established and Sands of Iwo Jima was released in theaters. She comes in each morning at 6:00 AM to get everything ready; she never learned how to drive, so she gets a lift from family or friends. Her kids have retired, but she’s still going strong. She loves what she does, and that was evident when I walked into the cafe and was greeted with her warm smile.
Looking around at the interior really brought home the age of the establishment. Most of the pictures were faded, the paint was peeling in places, and the whole place had a well-worn aesthetic. It endeared me immediately. We ordered our burgers and sat at the old fashioned lunch counter while Sally chatted on about various things. I took the opportunity to wander the small space, looking at the faded memorabilia that filled the walls and shelves. There was an old newspaper article from 1997, extolling the virtues of Sally’s coffee…and when I turned around, the same old urn was sitting there. It had been there when Sally started working there in ’44 (before she bought it) and for all we know it was there when the cafe opened in 1922.
It was an amazing thing to see this woman, more than THREE TIMES my age, working the griddle, smiling, and carrying on. I sat at the counter, listening to her stories and drinking my glass-bottle Coke, and was reminded of my own grandmother. Something in the way she spoke…even now, when I picture Sally in my mind, it’s mixed with a mental image of my Grandma Gail. It’s a comfort, really. Pawhuska is full of memories for me, both joyous and heartbreaking. It’s nice to feel some of those meld together.
The burger was good; the company was better. It was nice to not only meet and visit with Sally, but to spend a little time with my uncle. I have spent far too little time with my family since my father passed away, and I feel guilty about that. Sometimes, Jody will say or do something that feels like it came straight from Dad. It’s a reminder that the bond of family is strong, and not something to be cast aside or ignored. Today’s visit, a mix of old and new, was welcome and needed. There was a time, not that long ago, when every Christmas was spent in Pawhuska.