The last Saturday in June at First United Methodist Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, my family celebrated at a memorial for my dear daughter Kathryn, who passed away last August in Austin. It was a perfect service made so by loving arms this church has wrapped around my family since 2003 when we first entered its doors below the iconic silver downtown steeple steps away from Sam Walton’s first five-and-dime store on the old town square. I’ve now laid to rest two daughters and my wife in this sanctuary.
Afterward, family and out-of-town friends were served lunch in the fellowship hall by church volunteers — a reminder that, though abutting the Midwest and surrounded by everything vibrantly au courant ladled over us by Alice Walton’s magnificent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our village is still rooted in the American South.
A few days prior an email delivered recent colonoscopy results. Scant few polyps had been whisked away to a lab. Verdict: I’m healthier than I deserve to be. Perhaps I’ll live as long as my Papa Talley, who was with us just short of his 100th birthday. My namesake, the father of five, outlived two daughters and his wife last century. My story is exactly the same in the current one.
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My sisters and their husbands came up from homeland Louisiana for the service. They had not visited since Crystal Bridges opened, so “New Bentonville” awaited — rather like being away from Waco for a decade or so, then returning to see the Magnolia effect. Thursday night we gathered at The Hive bar at the sleek and chic 21c hotel for drinks, chicken liver mousse and house-made pimento cheese with bacon jam — tidbits representing the new “high South” cuisine movement up in these hills. The Bentonville Film Festival was in its fullness. The place was abuzz with hip, arty types, perfect for people watching. Imagine if Baylor Homecoming were a film festival instead of a football weekend and you were in the lobby of Waco’s Hotel Indigo. That’s the vibe. We wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see the festival’s founder, actress Geena Davis, or frequent visitor Drew Barrymore pass by.
Friday, sisters- and brothers-in-law had the complete Crystal Bridges museum experience including a tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright house that’s been reconstructed in the museum forest, having been relocated from repeated flooding in New Jersey.
Saturday night we dined at Fred’s Hickory Inn, a venerable 1970s contrast to newer food purveyors in town. By chance we sat adjacent to the large bay window where “Mr. Sam” sometimes held lunchtime court with his vice presidents — merchant knights of the round table. The evening seemed like dining with an old friend.
After dinner, lightning bugs signaled in the shrubs by Fred’s signature log cabin and smokehouse. We bid our goodbyes; the family headed south the next morning. A sense of completion came about me.
The next weekend was the Fourth of July.
On Independence Day morning wispy, nacre-colored clouds appeared then dissipated as the sun inched above Mount Sequoyah overlooking Fayetteville, the Razorback college town. Minutes later my hotel room facing directly eastward was ablaze in light. Two granddaughters, sleeping angels along for my adventure, were in the sunlit bed. It was not yet 7.
The night before, our window view was fireworks popping up from neighborhoods in the mountain woods. Backyard celebrants were undeterred by inflationary firecracker prices.
The story of how I found myself in a Fayetteville hotel, the Graduate, only thirty minutes south of my Bentonville home began decades ago. Like many tales in Northwest Arkansas, it involves Walmart.
The Graduate chain ran a flash sale last month: 30 bucks a night for July reservations. So, I booked one night with the hopes of staying in Room 1013, which turned out the case.
That specific room last century, when the property was a Hilton, was where I stayed for work routinely on my own and with my late wife Linda and the kids multiple times for days on end. We lived in Spring down in Harris County then. While I was up in Bentonville doing my Walmart supplier shelf plan project each July, the family tagged along, shopped the Fayetteville farmers market and befriended the shopkeepers around the old post office square years before we moved up here.
Similar to Fred’s among few local restaurants back then, the Hilton was one of only two full-service hotels in Northwest Arkansas in yesteryear. Packing up in Texas those summers, Linda told neighbors it was “summer camp time at the Hilton” for the Talley kids. The front desk always readied 1013, an atypically large corner room.
I’d often thought about booking that room current-day whether it was the Radisson, the Cosmopolitan, the Chancellor or now the Graduate during its progressive change of hands. The flash sale turned whimsy into affordable reality.
Some say looking back is unhealthy. If in melancholy, yes. But I find nostalgia, melancholy’s prettier sister, often beneficial.
Surely there’s no harm in enjoying such moments on the 10th floor of a hotel: granddaughters in the same room by the same window where their late mother and aunts slept when they were the same age, racing one another down the hall to be first to push the elevator button and swimming in the same indoor/outdoor pool. Memories, especially those relived through grandchildren, are life affirming.
I wonder if my Papa Talley, quietly humming old Methodist hymns in his rocking chair on the farmhouse front porch, found similar nostalgic solace.
His retired traveling salesman grandson has no front porch nor rocking chair. A redecorated hotel room in a familiar city will suffice.
Ted Talley is a retired consumer products salesman who writes occasional op-ed pieces in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is a 1972 Baylor University journalism graduate.