We arrived in Texas on March 31, just after the azaleas peaked, and left at the end of April . . . when the roses were blooming.
The yellow rose of Texas aside, I don’t really associate roses with Texas. But that’s my own bias, rooted in the fact that I didn’t really fall in love with them until I moved to England. Actually, there are plenty of roses in Texas – even if stereotypes are more likely to conjure up tumbleweeds.
One afternoon, when the children were at the Museum of Natural Science, I sort of “stumbled” upon the extensive rose gardens which flank the Houston Garden Center. (I was looking for a parking space, and the Garden Center is across the street from the Museum.) Surely, in more than ten years of living in Houston, I had managed to see the roses in bloom; but if I did, then I don’t recall it. Was I always too busy? Always driving around in my car, always pinned down to a schedule? In many ways, Houston is not a place where it is easy to stop and smell the roses.
Unlike the pastel multi-petalled English roses in my garden, these roses were bold and brash hybrid teas. These are not subtle roses; the blooms are huge, and the colours are vivid and richly saturated. One golden yellow rose was named Strike It Rich – appropriate for a state whose fortunes were transformed by the discovery of “black gold.” Houston is not really a subtle town. Hermann Park may be a green oasis in its center, but the city is ringed by miles of vast motorways and the cars are all huge. You can’t help but notice that the place is fiercely devoted to consumerism. The first thing we do when we get to Houston is eat Mexican food. The second thing? Go shopping.
My annual trip to Texas is a touchstone for me. I reconnect to my Texas roots -- family and friends, tastes and twang. Roses are different in Texas; I can't help wonder if I am, too. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many ways that “you can’t go home again,” and that remains true. Still, we try, and every visit is devoted to doing as many of the old things and visiting as many of the old places as possible.
At my parents’ house, in the country, there are certain rituals: fishing, playing in the creek, having a cook-out in the fire circle, going for long cedar-scented walks, playing chicken foot dominoes and visiting the drive-thru Sonic for slushes. My children still love these rituals, and still insist on them . . . but for the first time, perhaps, my mother and I were aware of the shadow of change on the horizon. Even my youngest daughter, who loves to be outside – and enjoyed many happy hours creating a habitat for the turtle she fished out of the creek – also spent hours checking in on Facebook. Growing up is the nature of things; but in some nostalgic way, I want our visits to Texas to always stay the same. Ironic, really, as Texas doesn’t stand still – not even for its homesick expatriates.
Two years ago, I wrote this: Houston is always, always changing. As my friend Laura said, (borrowing from that genius Joni Mitchell), "they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." If Houston is about anything, it is about the future. It is about constant construction and the need to widen yet another freeway. Every year, new places spring up while others are torn down. Yes, I know this happens everywhere . . . but in Houston it seems to happen in double-time. In the past year or two, Upper Kirby, where I used to play tennis, has been turned into a block of high-rises.
Speaking of parking lots, one of my favourite haunts – the Buffalo Grille on Bissonnet – is being torn down because the new HEB grocery store wants to exercise their parking lot rights. (Houston is famous for its lack of zoning laws, but apparently there are a few caveats.) I have been eating pancakes and BLT sandwiches at the Buffalo Grille since I was a student at Rice University, and so have many other people – but no; apparently this beloved institution has to find a new place to live.
Another Houston institution which is closing its doors is the old Five and Dime Store in West University Village. I doubt that there are many Inner-Loopers who haven’t visited this venerable place, but there is no denying that some of its stock seemed to be as old and dusty as the store itself. It was a place that, in the words of Nanci Griffith, made a person want to fill up her suitcase with unnecessary plastic objects. The children and I took one last turn around those old checkerboard linoleum floors and couldn’t resist buying a few unnecessary things: a puzzle, some sewing elastic, a plastic pool toy and a wooden yo-yo – the really good old-fashioned kind. The place is still brimful of junk and treasures; apparently, when the store closes its doors in June, any left-over stock will be offered to the old dime store in Fredericksburg. At least in Texas, that store will be the very last of its kind.
Childhood can’t last forever, whether it’s your own – or your children’s. My oldest daughter’s friends have all started driving now and everyone is talking about college.
Maybe it is because we were there for nearly a month, unexpectedly grounded by the volcano in Iceland, but for the first time we left Texas without looking back. For the first time since we’ve been going back to Texas, I drove to the airport without the children crying and carrying on. My oldest daughter tuned the satellite radio to BBC’s Radio 1; she couldn’t wait to fly home and be reunited with her English friends.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. I keep telling myself that.