TEXAS. I can't help but be aware of the myths, sometimes the stereotypes, that most people of this world conjure up when they hear the word Texas. That is because People are always asking me where I am from, and then sharing what they imagine that place to be: a desert, with cowboys, and the Alamo, flat, and BIG.
I tend to dispel those myths, although I'm not sure why, as it always leads to disappointment. For many years, "my Texas" has been Houston -- and like big cities everywhere, it is cosmopolitan and full of immigrants who bring their food, language and culture; inevitably, the "native" culture gets watered down quite a bit. Also, Houston is semi-tropical and less than an hour from the coast. It is green all year round, and heavily forested in places. The density of population and all that green make it look and feel really different from "mythic" Texas. (Although its massively sprawling size and wide highways might make a non-Texan dispute that claim.)
Here's the truth, though. As soon as you drive out of the cities, Texas looks a lot like the myths. Although the land varies -- and can range from mountains to true desert to prairie -- it is mostly big, flat, empty and dominated by the vast sky. There are lots of small towns, most of them none too prosperous, lots of cows, and fields -- some of them green, but a lot more brown and dusty.
It is not a landscape that comforts me, and I don't find much beauty in it, either. And yet, and yet -- when I am in other places, I long for that wide-open feeling. I will never forget visiting Spain, after a long wet year in England, when I was in my early 20s. When I got off the train, and saw that huge blue sky, I remember thinking: This feels like home.
My feelings about Texas can be characterized by the word "ambivalence."
My accent is a strange one, difficult to pinpoint or typecast. I still carry traces of my Texas roots -- in the way that a "t" sound becomes something softer, more like a "d;" "a" is more like "ah;" and I still sometimes say "ya'll," although less and less as my years in England mount up. I could never pass as English, but Texans don't recognize me either. (They ask me where I'm from, too, at least if I'm in a small town.)
In the past year, it has struck me that my exile from Texas might be a permanent one. For years, we moved back and forth between Texas and England; but my husband has tired of that rolling stone kind of life. America, the land of opportunity that once beckoned to him, no longer appeals. He prefers English humour, English radio, English beer, English countryside. We are in the process of selling our house in Houston right now, and so we continue to cut our ties there. Although my recent visit to Texas was mostly pleasure, there was also that particular business to attend to.
Perhaps this explains why I became obsessed with the family history during my annual trip to my parent's home in central Texas. I spent hours going through old family albums, taking notes from my father's study on our genealogy, inspecting old census records on Ancestory.com, and cajoling my parents into taking me on sentimental journey fact-finding road trips.
Our family is pretty typical of a certain kind of American migration. In a twenty year span before and after the Civil War, (which ended in 1865), all of the various branches of my family tree migrated from various Southern states (Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina) to Texas. All of my great-grandparents were born in Texas, bar one, and most of my great-great grandparents. too. This might not sound like much to brag about, but you have to put it into a certain historical perspective and remember that Texas wasn't even a state until 1845. Even more importantly, there was no air conditioning. I'm not being funny; forget the oil boom of the 20s and 30s, the population of Texas didn't really begin to expand until air conditioning came to our punishingly hot state. Summer temperatures go from May to October, but the temperature can shoot up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in any month of the year. Before the 1960s, you had to be tough as a boot to live in Texas.
All of my family settled in a swathe of central Texas that spans the north-south artery of Interstate 35. From the tiny town of The Grove (officially a "ghost town" now) to the big city of Ft. Worth, you can cover the entire territory in two hours of driving. Believe me, that's nothing on the Texas map. For a hundred years, everyone mostly stayed up -- barring the inevitable dislocations of World War II, when my farm-boy grandfathers went to war. And yet none of my parents' four grandchildren were born in Texas. Neither of their children live there now.
Starting with the old Cox cemetary, which is only 30 miles from my parents' home, my father and I spent a long day driving from one family graveyard to the next. I was on a fact-finding mission, but I also had some emotional need to match the photographs with a place that I could see and make sense of.
I wanted to see the farm that my grandfather grew up on in the small town of Cranfills Gap. I had seen it once, when I was a small child, but it wasn't a place that my grandfather ever wanted to revisit. My grandfather was born in 1920, and his parents divorced when he was five years old. His sisters went with their mother to the more properous side of the family; my grandfather was handed over to his widowed grandmother on his father's side. He had to help work the farm, and it was a hard, lonely life. My father took down an oral account of my grandfather's life before he died, and among many other poignant facts, he shared that he was the only non-Norwegian boy in the local Mustang school. A neighbor, Mr. Knutson, loaned him a horse to ride to school. He ran away to join the Army when he was 16.
Cranfills Gap is still a small farming community; I don't think it has changed much since the 1930s when my grandfather lived there. I suppose that the price of agricultural commodities is affected by all sorts of larger world factors that touch upon that tiny town, but it seemed like a timeless landscape when we drove through it. The land is pocked by cedar, and it looks hard and scrubby. There was something heavy and suffocating about the atmosphere there, but perhaps it was just the sky -- choked with dust that day. There was a crazy-making wind, too.
I had been reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, late into the night before, and a description of the gray sky as the "onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world" kept running through my mind.
Cranfills Gap feels terribly remote. It is at least 20 miles away from the county seat of Meridian, and that town only has a population of 1500. There is a large county courthouse that dominates the town, and not much else. These are the features of a small Texas town: the church, the filling station, the saloon, the Dairy Queen.
The Lutheran church is one of the few establishments to be found in Cranfills Gap. I think that people need God, or even more so the sense of community, when they are in the middle of nowhere. Every small town has a church -- or even several churches. The church which is pictured above has always fascinated me because it just stands alone in the empty landscape. It is about 20 minutes from where my parents live, and when I see it, I know that we are getting close to "home."
This courthouse is a typically ornate example. It dominates the square of a town whose fortunes have declined, along with the cotton industry, for decades now. One of my great-grandfathers used to have a cafe in the square, but we couldn't pinpoint the exact spot. My father and I spent hours poring over records -- looking for information on the Grizzle and Page families who were his mother's relations. We found the Death Certificate for my great-great grandfather, Jasper Simeon Grizzle, but it was mostly uninformative. "Not known" was the disappointing response to most of the questions that we wanted answered. Texas did not start recording deaths until 1903 -- which gives you a sense of how recently it was a wild, lawless sort of place.
This is where we did eat dinner that day
When in Texas . . .
You need to eat chicken fried steak with cream gravy
onion rings are a nice embellishment,
but mashed potatoes are more typical
The Koffee Kup is one of those restaurants where the waitress calls you "Hon" and keeps the coffee pot constantly circulating. After this highly caloric meal, which I almost never ate when I actually lived in Texas, my father and I sampled the pie: coconut cream and chocolate, both with meringue about six inches high. When I took out my camera, to take a picture of my dinner, it made the other patrons indulgently amused. I could tell that they thought I was a visitor to that place, which I suppose that I was, and you could see the pleased "Only in Texas" expression on their faces.
When I was a child, you could find a Dairy Queen in every small town -- and in many cases, it was the only game in town. My mother grew up in a small town in central Texas called Gatesville. It is one of the few small towns that has grown in size, mostly because it has a growth industry in the form of prisons. It has the largest women's prison in Texas -- a fact that I find extremely symbolic because small towns do feel like prisons to me.
Although it has been renovated, my mother spent a large portion of her teenage leisure hours at this Dairy Queen. Despite my crack about the prison thing, it is a friendly place -- and a group of elderly women were playing bridge in a private room when we arrived there. As my mother and I ate lunch -- and I had the steak finger basket, by the way -- she reminisced about how she and her friends used to pile in a car and go to the DQ for Cokes. Apparently, you could get a driver's license at age 14 back then. (Having a 14 year old myself, this bit of trivia horrified me.) However, out in the country, it is still not uncommon for little kids to learn how to drive the family pick-up truck and every 16 year old thinks a car is their natural birthright.
There is a song by Nanci Griffith, the chorus of which is: Texas back in '69 was drive-in movies and dashboard lights. Apparently, that was true of '55 as well. Larry McMurtry's Archer City was not the only small Texas town to have a drive-in "picture show."
It is in my teenage daughter's nature to criticize everything I do at the moment, but she was particularly exasperated by my interest in delving into my Texas past. "You are obsessed," she kept saying to me. At 14, she cannot imagine why I would be interested in anything "old" -- and she really cannot grasp why I think that understanding where I came from provides some key to understanding who I am now.
Even if I never live in Texas again, I am keenly aware that the prairie, the sky, the small town is a part of me -- ambivalence or not. And of course, as long as my parents are still there, it is still, and will always be, home.
And really, this is a love letter to both of my parents . . . but especially to my mother, for Mother's Day.