In preparation for my year long journey into the history of Slaton, I had to speak with someone who was there at the beginning. Not necessarily the beginning of Slaton, but of the 1900’s.
Onie Baxley, although one of Slaton’s newest residents (moving to the town in 1997), she is still one of our wisest. After celebrating her 101st birthday this past weekend, I picked up my pen and pencil and raced to the Slaton Care Center to hear her story, in her words.
Baxley’s story is that of death, heartache and, every so often, glimpses of hope that moved people forward in a black and white world.
“I was born June 19th, 1909,” she said, sipping from a cup filled with Dr. Pepper she gripped in her right hand while staring out at the courtyard of the Slaton Care Center. “Do you like my watch?” She asked, lifting her small wrist as if it were weighted down by dumbbells, showing me the watch given to her from a grandchild who joined her in celebration of her 101st.
“It’s beautiful,” I yelled into her ear. Throughout the years, her hearing has slowly slipped away. I felt awful having to yell at her, but it was the only way we could correspond.
We sat together, just her and me, a smile as big as the moon crept across her face.
“You’re a nice young man,” she said. My cold, harsh demeanor as an objective reporter melted away. My shoulders relaxed. She continued smiling.
“Thanks,” I yelled again.
Onie pointed to a place next to her bed. I followed her small shaky finger and my eyes landed on a blue photo album. I reached over and grabbed it from the desk propped neatly against her bed, as if reading her mind, she says, “Yes.”
Passing the photo album to her, she reached out and I helped her place her glass of Dr. Pepper onto a table in front of her.
Surrounding us, I noticed all of the pictures of family throughout the past years. “Let me help you,” I yelled, taking the cup she struggled to place on the table. She opened the album when her hand became free.
“This is my mom,” she said, smiling. There is a worn photo of a woman in a beautiful blue dress. The regal woman looked out of the photo that was placed firmly in the album that sat on her lap. “I was born June 19th, 1909,” she said, continuing her story in her soft voice. No yelling. “My mother died a few weeks later. My dad told me that they were visiting my oldest sister, Lola, to see her first baby. They got ready to go home. She started riding in a buggy and she died in my dad’s arm on the way to their home.”
I stared at the picture, trying my hardest to remember the image of the young woman who brought Mrs. Baxley into this world. I looked to see that Onie was doing the same.
Onie continued to tell me about stories when she was young; stories of growing up on a farm in a small west Texas town. Stories that involved horses, wolves, and her 11 siblings that helped raise Onie after her mother had died. In my head, however, I tried to remember the woman from the picture that, even more than 100 years later, continues to help Onie find sleep in a new century. A mother she never knew but begins her story, 100 years in the making, with.
“It was nice to meet you,” she said after telling me her stories. “You’re a really nice young man,” the same smile spreads across her face. For a moment, I smiled back as the hot summer sun raged from the window.
I leaned down and yelled, “Thanks for telling me your story,” into her ear as if shouting into a canyon hoping to hear an echo.
“In life,” she said as if now reading my mind. “There’s a lot of heartache, but you just…” She trailed off and stared out the window once more. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My mind just isn’t what it used to be.”