Branson, Missouri—I’m eating bacon and eggs in the hotel dining room. I’ve been on the road two weeks, and have another week to go.
I’m not visiting Branson, I’m only passing through. I don’t care for this glittery town.
There is a woman next to me. She is frail, early eighties, and she’s from Oklahoma. Her name is Miss Carol and she’s all alone.
“I’m in town for a few days,” says Miss Carol. “I’m celebrating my sixtieth wedding anniversary. Gonna go see the riverboat dinner show.”
Before I can congratulate her on the anniversary I notice she has no husband.
“He died,” she explains. “Two years ago.”
Miss Carol and her husband were going to celebrate their big day here, they’d planned on this for years, but cancer doesn’t care about riverboats.
“We loved Branson,” says Miss Carol. “So much that we woulda moved here.”
Well, I don’t exactly love Branson. This town is what Disney World would look like if Bill and Gloria Gaither called the shots.
I once loved this town when I was a boy. My mother took us here during the months after my father’s funeral to help us forget bad things. Back then, it was our kind of town.
Branson, you’ll note, is not suited for the sophisticated traveler who rolls their “R’s” and wears a turtleneck. Branson is for those who cried when Dale Earnhardt passed.
In this town, anyone who owns a guitar and a can of hairspray has their own show.
You have gospel shows, bluegrass shows, country-pop shows, country-rap shows, country-synchronized-swimming shows, and former Brady Bunch cast member, Barry Williams, singing the complete oratorio works of George Frideric Handel.
Miss Carol goes on: “We took our kids here a lot. Alby loved the riverboat dinner cruise. This was his favorite place.”
And as it happens, I haven’t visited this place in a long time. Not since the trip Mama took us on. On that trip, I saw some of my heroes take the stage. Namely: The Oak Ridge Boys.
Today, the Boys are still touring even though they’re a little long in the tooth. I saw them in Dothan two years ago. They had silver hair and older faces.
When they sang “Elvira” the audience came unglued. The woman sitting next to me—a sweet grandmother from Luverne—threw her bra at William Lee Golden.
Here in Branson, I also saw Mel Tillis, Charlie Pride, John Conlee, Andy Williams, and I met a Dolly Parton impersonator. I remember when Dolly tried to give me a hug. My mother intervened by slapping my head and praying in tongues.
Miss Carol asks what I’m doing in Branson. I tell her my wife and I are only passing through.
“Oh,” she says. “You should do the riverboat. The baked Alaska alone is worth it.”
Yeah. Not really my scene.
I ask Miss Carol what she’s planning to do today.
“Me? Going to Table Rock Lake, maybe gonna eat somewhere. I dunno. Whatever I think Alby woulda wanted.”
And it kills me that’s she’s alone today.
She goes on to tell me her husband was a janitor for a school. He was a tenor in the church choir. He played guitar and liked bluegrass. He wrote songs. He raised a family.
He was somebody who never made the papers, but he was a beautiful man. And he left behind a beautiful wife.
We are interrupted by voices. Lots of them.
People come walking through the hotel lobby, wearing matching blue T-shirts, heading straight for Miss Carol.
She stands. They all embrace. The children call her “Grandma” and give her a blue T-shirt.
“ HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, GRANDMA,” says one child. “ARE YOU READY FOR THE LAKE?”
Miss Carol was born ready.
Before we part ways, Miss Carol says, “Hug your wife and enjoy every moment. Life goes by too fast.”
Her family takes her away, and I’m glad she has them today.
It’s early, still. I’d better hurry if I want to get good seats for the riverboat dinner show.