Some have asked if Lip Reader is based on a true story. My answer is complicated, so it will take a series of posts here to explain.
A few weeks ago, I drove with my friend, Tina, for a Lip Reader book signing held on the campus of the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) in Chickasha, Oklahoma. This medium-size Southwest Oklahoma town, about an hour from Oklahoma City, is the inspiration for Chickapaw, also known as "Chickentown" in Lip Reader.
Little Paw, where the fictional Bebop family lives, is based on the real-life rural community of Washita, about a half-hour's drive from Chickasha. Washita is where most of my dad's family, the Bartletts, lived for half a century. I hadn't been to Washita, nor seen Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett, in 15 years.
I was 20 years old the last time I visited this tiny town that resembles the fictional Little Paw in every way. My grandparents' tiny wood-frame house, twenty-five minutes out of Chickasha, had once been a roadside diner in the '20s and '30s. A bedroom wing had been added to make the structure more domesticized and able to hold any grandchild who visited.
Early on, I learned that some of Washita's other former businesses were transformed into functional living spaces...
The town's one-room post office had housed a transient or two...
A brown-brick former bank building showed off a swingset and burning trash barrel in its front yard....
By the Christmas of 1994 when I drove over from Chickasha where I attended USAO, Grandma and Grandma Bartlett's makeshift home with the screened in porch and squeaky front door sat like an aging yet determined relative. The iron potbelly stove wafted warm and smoky in the middle of the living room. The kitchen's linoleum floor sunk a little lower but still held its salmon pink color....
Grandma Bartlett set up a cheap end table in the home's front window that held a two-feet-tall artificial tree. A box filled with ornamental odds and ends lay next to the table.
"You'ns go on now and dec'rate it." She waved her soft, strong arms at me and another cousin. "I's gonna' get supper fixed."
While Grandma lifted pans of biscuits in and out of the oven, my cousin and I untangled and dusted off decorations we'd seen before. A ball of multicolored lights, once unraveled, flickered and shone when we turned them on. Yarn loops barely held onto their glass bulbs or cookie-cutter ornaments. Each artificial branch received some token of handmade memory.
"Thought about skippin' the tree this year," Grandma hollared from the kitchen. "But since you'ns come to visit..."
So that's what the tabletop tree was: A reward for leaving campus on the weekend when I had homework and friends waiting in Chickasha. A reward for driving the inconveniently bumpy, hilly roads to Washita. A reward for not blinking so I wouldn't miss the turnoff to Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett's gravel driveway. A reward for simply going back.
Why didn't I visit Washita after that Christmas?
Story Continued Here:
The Trip to Little Paw - Part Two