In the southeast corner of Arizona, only six miles west of the New Mexico border, you might be fortunate enough to happen upon a sleepy little desert town named Duncan, idling away its years along the banks of the Gila river. I’ve been in 46 states and several foreign countries, but Duncan is one of my favorite places in the whole world.
I don’t remember the first time I was in Duncan. My father used to go there before I was born to preach in a tiny little church with only 8 rows of short pews on each side of the center aisle. The church was once pastored by a blind man I’ve known only as Brother Cooper who lived next door in a house made of rocks and surrounded by cactus.
In one of my mother’s photo albums, there’s a picture of me when I was less than two years old sitting bareback atop Brother Cooper’s horse, held in place by our friend, Valadee Crotts.
My favorite place in Duncan is a tiny oasis centered around the swing that hangs on the front porch of Margie and Valadee Crotts’ home. Margie, better known as Granny, with Valadee as the work-horse, has created there, in the middle of that desert, a veritable Garden of Eden.
At any time of year, you can sit on the front-porch swing, passing the time in the shade, and I promise you, the birds will be singing, and some form of flower, if not hundreds, will be blooming all around. I believe nature comes to Granny’s front porch to find a haven from what ails it.
There’s an old iron swing set in the shade of the tree in the front yard, and a picnic table. In the back, there’s a pecan tree which seems to never cease dropping its hard fruit for whoever may come along in need of a snack.
Granny keeps a rock garden there in the back, as well, garnished with rusting old antique hand tools, colored-glass artifacts, and grinding stones. Occasionally, you may find a lamb or two at their mother’s side in the corrals at the far edge of the yard, and in the spring, a vegetable garden growing strong in defiance of the environment.
If you can stay over until breakfast in one of the many side rooms of the house, added over the years to accomodate a growing family and weary travelers, Valadee will be obliged, under Granny’s direction, to stir up some biscuits and fried eggs while you warm yourself by the woodstove in the front room. Bibles on the shelves there by Granny’s chair are worn out from over use and dripping with years of immersion in fervent prayers.
The front porch swing is the best, though. Whether you have a few minutes, or several hours, you’ll be refreshed, as you sway back and forth, by a cool breeze blowing through the wind chimes and the sounds of the birds singing along.
Duncan’s cemetery rests in the rocky soil on the plateau to the south of town, overlooking the Gila river valley. If you have a chance to drive up the hill, take the left turn into that hallowed ground and look around among the headstones for the name Arthur “Papa” Pratt, my father.
Papa, who would have been 107 on February 8th, was laid there in May 1995, on a day when the wind blew hard from the rush of the angels’ wings joining us to mourn. The last time I saw Papa’s face was at the end of the center aisle in that little church with half of the casket lid propped open for our viewing.
As I cried my way through the last few chapters of Khaleid Hosseini’s brilliant novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, last Saturday afternoon, I had an overwhelming longing for Duncan, and for Papa. Were it not for Renee’s wisdom and a hundred other obligations, like miniature ropes across the chest of Gulliver, curtailing his travels, I would have packed up immediately and headed for that spot and the refuge of the memories, and cried myself into oblivion.
I’ll do that soon enough. Meanwhile, I’ll find comfort in the memories, and the hugs of my babies, dreaming of a creaky front-porch swing and Papa’s headstone inscribed with these words: “God gave him great love. He gave it to us.”
If you happen through Duncan before me, do yourself a favor: Stop in to see Granny and Valadee . . . and Papa. And tell them I sent you. You’ll be glad you did.