They say you can't go home again.
I know the saying has some deep, metaphorical meaning, but I've never quite understood it.
Christmas morning found me sitting with my daughter on a plane winging its way toward snowy Oklahoma. The anticipation of spending Christmas in a winter wonderland was tempered by the anxiety of knowing I had absolutely no experience driving in snow. That anxiety was compounded by the growing excitement of being able to surprise my mother and other family members.
No one knew we were coming home.
Landing safely at the Tulsa airport, we gathered our bags and jumped into the SUV I had enough foresight to rent a few days earlier. My snow-driving phobia melted as quickly as an early morning thaw and I sent heaven-bound thanks when we found the roads to be wet, but clear of snow and ice.
The surrounding countryside, magnificent in its white splendor, was simply beautiful.
My heart beat a little faster as we neared Mom's house and then pulled into her driveway.
My son Ryan and his family had driven in from Denver and he led the way, our feet making crunching noises through the snow. We walked into the house to find Mom standing in the kitchen. She turned as she heard us come in, her face first registering confusion and then surprise. Then, her face crumpled and tears flowed as she gathered me into her arms.
Who says you can't go home again?
Mom's house was instantly filled with chaos and pandemonium.
We spent the day laughing and hugging, talking and watching each other open gifts. My granddaughter Haylee toddled around the room. My heart melted when she reached her arms toward me. I gathered her up, planting kisses on her chubby cheeks.
With so many unexpected visitors, Mom fretted about having enough food to feed everyone. But just like a biblical tale, the food prepared seemed to be never-ending and everyone left the table with full bellies.
Just after Christmas, I piled my mother and daughter into the rented SUV and headed out to visit family. Two days on the road took us to the panhandle of Oklahoma and then north to Andover, Kan.
Finally heading back home to Mom's, I granted her wish of taking the back roads home, avoiding the boring drive along the turnpike.
"It takes a little longer, but we can see the countryside and then stop in some little town to get a bite to eat," she said.
The flatlands of Kansas soon gave way to the gently rolling hillsides of Oklahoma. The snow was nothing but a memory and we passed through towns that were sometimes little more than a bump in the road. Farms sporting red barns with silos and stark, weathered gray prairie houses, abandoned long ago, dotted the roadsides.
"There you go, Melissa," Mom said teasingly. "A nice little fixer-upper."
"I don't think so, Grandma," Melissa replied while rolling her eyes.
I slowed the car down as we approached another small town: Burden, Kan. Cowley County. Population 560.
A small sign on the edge of town proudly proclaimed they were regional football champs in 1987.
I spotted a simple sign outside a sandstone building reading "Cafe."
"What do you think, Mom?" I asked.
"Well, it can't be too bad. Look at all the pick-up trucks in the parking lot. I'll bet all the good-old boys eat there. Let's give it a try."
I pulled into the muddy parking lot and we walked in. The surroundings were clean and modest. Heads turned as we entered, locals taking note of the arrival of strangers. The waitress came promptly to take our order and looked surprised when I asked her which item on the menu was her favorite.
"Me? Well, we make a pretty good chicken fry."
Chicken fried steak, comfort food at its best. I had died and gone to heaven.
As we ate, I kept watch as a large table next to us began to fill. I soon realized the cafe served as the community gathering spot. Nearly a dozen people wandered in and sat down, laughing and joking with each other. The men wore cowboy hats and well-worn baseball caps. They ate dinner and discussed planting crops of corn and wheat, truck repairs, turnips and the dangers of automobile hoods flying off while driving. We eventually began to strike up a conversation with those seated at the table.
"Where are you from?" one man asked. I later learned his name was Bill Gates and he laughingly tried to link his name with Microsoft.
When we replied that we were from California, he replied solemnly, "Oh, I'm sorry." This remark, of course, provoked quite a laugh from his tablemates. But as the conversation wore on, we learned about the nature of the community - small, agriculturally based and inhabited with people who seemed to truly care about one another. It reminded me a lot of Lodi.
The family-owned "160 Cafe" was named after Highway 160 on which it sits and I was reluctant to leave. I felt so at home, I wanted to stay a little longer. Talk a little longer. Eat more chicken fry. But we had many miles ahead of us.
Rising to leave, we were wished a safe journey as we headed for the car. I sighed as we pulled away, reluctant to leave, happy to go home.
Who says you can't go home again? Not me. I can't wait to return.
Theresa Larson is the Lodi News-Sentinel's administration manager. She is married and the mother of five children. Her column appears the first and third Wednesday of the month. She can be contacted at 125 N. Church St., (209) 369-2761 or via e-mail.