Monday, January 17, 2022

Galveston in December

Everywhere we look, this season, we encounter scenes of a traditional family holiday. A Hallmark card holiday.

All those attempts to sell you things by tugging on heartstrings tuned to a memory, or a dream—I wonder how much of the distress some experience at this time of year could be erased if we could avoid those reminders. (No doubt we have enough personal reminders, anyway.)

Christmas in our house has been a shrinking festival for some years. This may be a hazard of time’s passage when the grandchildren are far away. It is also a hazard of families fragmented by divorce, no matter how long ago that may have occurred. Of families that may blend on paper, but don’t gel.

Over the past thirty or so years, LH and I faced down this emotional barrage by fleeing. We didn’t go far—just to Galveston Island, out on the west end.

Most years the weather there was chilly, with few people enjoying it. Our visit, with its elements of escape, became part of our holiday tradition, a necessary part.

This year I have come alone, except for Rosie, my dog. I don’t really feel so alone, however, because the Gulf is still here, rolling waves toward me. The beach is still here. It’s not deserted this year, but sparsely populated by people and dogs. The weather is warm, lovely, so far. Asks for a light sweater in the morning. It will become colder, soon.

The peace that comes from proximity to large bodies of salt water has not changed.

Hale isn’t here in a form I can see and touch, but he is here, nonetheless. While I type, he is sitting just out of sight on the deck watching a convocation of seagulls at water’s edge with his binoculars. It’s funny, how clearly I feel his presence.

Before sunrise this morning, Rosie and I walked along the sand waiting for the sun to emerge from behind dawn’s cloud bank. And I brought with me Hale’s words about Galveston sunrises, how special they are. I did see one or two with him, but I was usually still asleep while he waited for the happening in the company of our current Labrador.

Because of Rosie, today I was wide awake, toasting this morning’s performance with a cup of coffee while she kept close watch on two Great Pyrenees a hundred yards away. They were stately, controlled, no doubt a great disappointment to her, the perennially hopeful pup.

Being alone in a much loved place when the spouse is no longer alive brings an elasticity to time.

I, suspended in the present moment, can see him walking along the sand sometime in the 1990’s, looking for the intact sand dollar he never found. His binoculars are swinging from one hand.

I can see him, younger still, teaching my son to fly a kite on the constant Gulf breeze.

Walking on the damp sand, I feel his hand in mine, always, across the decades, as our stride falls into synchrony. Such synchrony.

I recently came across a section of his food memoir, Supper Time, that recounted our improbable courtship. He told it, also, in his recently published retirement journal--two tellings of the event.

And it is a gift for me, now, to read these stories, written years apart, where sequence and chronology vary, but the inner truth glows and burns, unaffected. This is one of the lessons a writer learns from reading, from experience, and Hale knew it down to the bone. There is truth, and it lies next to the heart. Everything else is ribbons and shiny paper. 

Published December 31, 2021 in the Fayette County Record

  

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Holidays Loom

As the holidays approach, many of us have children and grandchildren scattered across the continent, if not further afield. In my case, New York, Africa and Dickinson, Texas.

My husband and I were accustomed to being a family of two. It might not have been what we wanted for Christmas, but it was okay. Leon had begun to find travel difficult, and the two of us had created our own traditions, unrelated to flying anywhere.

This year, however, I am a family of one, although I hear frequently from my son and son-in-law.

Small surprise, therefore, that—for me—the holidays loom on the calendar inscribed with a large question mark.

Thanksgiving is the first. Giving thanks for all our blessings—I have so many. The health of my offspring. My life with Hale. Surviving the pandemic year and its isolation. My new book which sold well and his, which sold better. I’m thankful for this column, and for the companionship of my dog. And for this little place where Hale and I lived together for so long.

Most of all, I’m thankful for friends. When one loses a spouse, one begins a long process of discovery. We discover grief, of course; and many things we didn’t know we knew about our husband, so that he continues to live for us in surprising ways. And we discover we have more friends than we realized. Good friends who open their hearts and their doors to us for the most difficult of these holidays.

Much of the time, though, we are on our own. He is no longer there for us to love; he is no longer there to look at us with the love in his face that we found as bright as sunlight, and more constant.

We are alone.

The other night, after midnight, I choked on a piece of soft cheese. I’d spoken to the dog as I was swallowing, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Furious coughing opened a passageway, but it was hours before I felt the crisis had passed.

The main aftereffect, so far, has been a heightened sense of vulnerability. Living in the country is rife with potential for accidents. Our yard is pocked with armadillo excavations. Hale fell several times those past couple of years, but I was here to call for help. If I fell, no one would know. Could I get up?

My friends have urged me to wear an alert button, and I have applied for one. Mindfulness will also help. Paying more attention to things like eating and walking than I am accustomed to.

But the result is a confirmation of time’s passage, the very snake we try to avoid stepping on as the year draws to a close. All those holiday events to which we were once invited kept such thoughts at a respectful distance. Being a generation younger than one’s spouse helped me maintain the illusion of youth far longer than might have been true otherwise.

Now the reality has arrived, and although friends—and distant relatives—certainly help, we are on our own in learning to manage our lives. That’s how it is, at the end of a day, or a year. We are alone, but not necessarily lonely within the constellation of ourselves, of our teeming mind, reflecting on our history of activities and good works, our memories of love in all its varied truth.

We have time ahead of us, right where it has always been. Years, months, days—one day at a time, unrolling. We are alive.

It is, we realize, a beginning. 

Festival Time

 

I’d been planning the trip all summer. Wanting to see how Czhilispiel, in Flatonia, had changed since my last visit, in 1981. The short answer is—it was bigger. More chili, more contests and other events: 5-k runs, BBQ contests, 3 stages of live music, parade, carnival, etc., and all of it so intricately organized. Even the big locomotive chugged past as scenic and colorful as anyone could hope for. Maybe there were two trains. Seemed to take a long time to pass.

Inside the large tent, behind the Czhili Stage, toe-tapping country and polka music propelled several couples across the dance floor at three in the afternoon. The judges, chosen now by random drawing, were hard at work nearby, inside an cordoned off enclosure.

My friend Lynne and I sat on a bench while she sipped a beer, and I remembered the last time I came to the festival.

It was the first overnight road trip I took with Leon Hale, the Houston Post columnist who was serving as one of the contest judges. Many of the festivals in the area, at the time, salted their judging pool with media people from Houston. Hale was a frequent choice, since his work then focused on the people and activities of rural Texas.

While he ate chili with the other judges, I poked around among the stalls, enjoying the smells and hi-jinks, and the music. Back then, as dusk approached, the street was illuminated with strings of colored lights, lending a festive note.

Hale had invited me with the promise of “dancing in the streets, beer-can smashing contests, suds-guzzling competition. Sort of a Smalltown, Texas, Mardi Gras.”  

I never saw any beer-can smashing or suds-guzzling, at least in contest format. But after the awards were handed out, Hale and I did, indeed, dance on the asphalt street under those colorful lights, and I felt a glamor settle upon us. Like a benediction, almost, to be welcomed into a previously unfamiliar community that has gathered to have fun for a good cause.

We were brand new as a couple, then, and we had no idea of what lay ahead, of how well we would come to know each other, how long we would live together, and whether we would be happy.

That night, however, we had a wonderful time.

 Last Saturday afternoon, it was very hot outside the Czhili Tent, except in the shade. Lynne and I walked among the chili cooks, each with their own enclave, but we had left it a little too late. Only one booth, claiming a “Cajun” influence, offered us a taste. “This isn’t what we turned in,” the man said, in a welcoming New Orleans accent. A friendly blond woman stood next to him.

“We’ve combined our entries into this pot,” he said. “She’s the real cook,” he added. “I add this and that.”

“He tweaks it,” she said. “Lots of tweaking.”

Whatever their teamwork consisted of, Lynne and I agreed--it was excellent chili. I don’t think I’ve ever had better, anywhere.

Celebrations like Czhilispiel and Round Top’s OktoBierFest are among the most appealing features of our county, an opportunity we have to show off our special individuality while having a whole lot of fun.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Perspective on Wheels


In late August I took off on a road trip, alone, across Texas. People kept telling me it was a brave thing to do. Maybe it was. But it was a necessary thing.

I may have been running away. From paperwork, new responsibilities, old tasks that never got done during my husband’s illness, and before.

But it felt like running toward.

I was following in the tracks of my husband, Leon Hale, visiting the little towns where he grew up nearly a century ago. Towns like Stephenville, Hamlin, Gordon, Glen Rose and Eastland, among others. All of them are scattered not far from I-20 between Abilene and Fort Worth.

After some sleuthing, I found places I recognized from his writing. The barn where Hale’s cousin C.T. dropped an overripe cantaloupe on the head of an adult relative and Leon got blamed. The tank where Leon felt the sins of the saved nibbling at his toes. A cousin of his showed me Grandma Hale’s house where the family sheltered during the Great Depression when there was no place else to go.

Almost everyone he wrote about and knew find shelter now in the area’s graveyards, so my visit had to be largely an act of the imagination.

Even a few hours with one of Hale’s old girlfriends, from the time before he knew me, blended imagination with memory. Solid detail is hard to come by after forty-plus years.

What was I trying to accomplish?

When the beloved dies, the spouse can be left almost dizzy with the changed perspective that results. I’ve mentioned before that death alters the lens through which we view ourselves. I wept for the first few months over all my oversights and omissions, rendered suddenly and horribly visible to me.

As the realization arrived that none of those could be changed, I began to wonder who this dear man had been before I knew him. Hale had a whole life, and then some, before he met me at the age of sixty.

He wrote about it in several books, as well as in the column, but the boy and man depicted in those writings are seen through his own eyes.

I wanted to view him through the eyes of other people who had loved him.

I suspect that forming a true picture of someone from the recollections of friends is difficult, even when most of the people you need to talk to are alive, as his closest friends are not.

Also, there’s a danger in the process. Truth is the enemy of fantasy. Don’t most of us, happily married, find our happiness in a recipe that mixes reality, acceptance, and compromise with large quantities of love?

My happiness came from being near him every day and the mutual surprise of living together—his fresh observations, often funny, always interesting. He made sure I was happy by never saying or doing anything that upset me. Imagine that. If he could see it would hurt my feelings, he didn’t say or do it. It is the Hale Way, written about in his memoir, Paper Hero.

I never realized he was employing it with me, although I largely responded in kind.

Now I wonder what else I might have missed about him in this happy, easy way of living.

I think that’s why I hit the road this summer, and why I hope to do more of it over the next few months.

Maybe I’m looking for perspective, and peace. Or maybe I’m just hoping to keep the connection with him alive, as long as possible.

(Published on Friday, September 24, 2021 in the Fayette County Record)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Are Cows the New Chickens

 

“I love cows.”

I heard this from several women during my recent trip to Connecticut. They were not referring to steak.

These were women from the East Coast, whose acquaintance with cattle is restricted to observation, either from a footpath, fenced off, or an automobile’s window. Some of them are the people who became enamored in recent years of keeping hens in the city.

In this case, they’re mainly referring to dairy cows, I think, which comprise most of the animals I saw.

Which were very few in number, as a matter of fact.

I think I was a little homesick during that month I was away. I was visiting in Washington, CT, and staying about twenty-five minutes away in Litchfield. I’ve written before about the narrow twisty roads and forested terrain.

I had two routes I could use between the locations. The meandering route took me up a hill on a curvy and rutted gravel road, past pastures and farms for a few miles.

In one of the pastures, I saw four cows. It was a fairly good-sized field, but the cows were standing quite close together. I’ve seen cows grouped like that around here, so I didn’t think a whole lot about it the first time. I was awfully glad to see them, though. Up until I did, I hadn’t seen an animal anywhere around there that wasn’t a dog.

Not even many birds, although I think they were there, staying quiet.

Seeing the cows was a small touch of home, I guess.

The second time I saw them, they were grouped the same way, as though they were tied together. Surely not, I thought. I could see no rope or halter. And why would anyone do that? (I should point out here, although it’s obvious, that I know nothing about the cattle business. And my usual consultant on bovine matters is not around anymore.)

But I began to make a point of checking every day. I looked forward to my daily visit. Sometimes I would stop and murmur at them through the window.

Some days the cows were grazing at a gentle distance from each other. The weather was generally mild and the grass was plentiful, as it is here and for the same reason. Rain.

Finding comfort in cattle began for me as a result of the serious drought here a few years ago. As the landscape around us went sere and sorrowful, the cows disappeared. Their absence seemed to intensify the pain the countryside was enduring. Living things, us among them, were under attack, that’s how it felt.

When the rains came and the cattle came back, I felt relief. And even now, driving back roads from Round Top to our place, I feel an ease when I see a herd grazing peacefully, or standing shoulder deep in a tank, or even huddled under a tree for shade.

Toward the end of my Connecticut visit, in the evening, I found three of the cows bedded down in the grass, two of them nose to tail, very close, the bigger one on her side. I’d never seen that before. The fourth one was standing over them in a protective manner.

The next morning, when I drove by, four cows were grazing, and right alongside the darker one stood a tiny calf.

You have no idea how the sight lifted my spirits.

Late Migrations

 

I’m spending some time this month visiting family out of state, the first time I’ve seen them since Thanksgiving, 2019. Grandchildren are involved.

They live, part time, in a rural area outside New York City. It is a heavily wooded landscape with steep and twisty narrow roads over which people hurtle at thunderous speeds approaching 45 mph, tops. Thirty seems fast.

Sometimes a van or truck comes toward me on a curve, dragging a trailer that veers into my lane. Nowhere for me to go except up the sheer cliff to my right. Hair-raising is too tame a word.

This is a household of busy people. Both parents work at intense jobs involving hours of pressured Zoom calls and desk work that doesn’t stop at five p.m. Nobody reads books, anymore. I can’t see that they read anything other than material related to their jobs, except a story to the children at bedtime, perhaps.

You might imagine how strange this seems to me.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which my life is entwined with books until I arrived here. The member of the family I knew best when he was young had been a voracious reader. He read Lonesome Dove when he was ten. (Yes, I allowed it.) Since then he has read widely and deeply in literature, until the advent of children.

I wonder if that isn’t a factor for many people. Time for thought and reflection about who you are and why you are alive is replaced by family needs. And, of course, electronic screens with their myriad surprises.

The house where this family lives is surrounded by a forest of tall trees, mixed hardwoods and conifer, with a ferny understory (and no doubt legions of lovely ticks). The ticks appear to have significantly limited outdoor roaming in such places as a way for kids to learn and test themselves as individuals. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a loss worth mourning.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl, who lives in Tennessee and writes about Southern matters—nature and people—for the New York Times.

In this book, she has interwoven short essays about her family with observations of the natural creatures who live around her, in her backyard, basically.

She grew up in Alabama, barefoot and free to explore her natural surroundings with her brother. Intense, compressed memories of these places and the creatures, situations and close calls she encountered, form what I think of as the leaves and branches of this book. The trunk would be memories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother. And some of her own life’s journey.

Most of all she renders “place” as something of prime importance in a person’s life. Often, we tend to forget that. Urban dwellers in particular disregard it. They do not have roots where they live for the most part, and the longing for roots somewhere steals into them gradually as the years fly along.

Those of us who have planted ourselves in Fayette and surrounding counties will resonate deeply to the substance in Late Migrations. Those of us who have lived here always, or who began here, will find a lot of home and memory in these words.

Fellow feeling is more accessible, I think, through the written word than through any other medium of expression. And I find it is one of the best ways we have to diminish loneliness.

One warning. When you encounter the essay titled “Howl,” about an old dog, prepare to cry.

 

Round Top Evolves

 

Authenticity. We hear the word a lot lately. People, emerging from the isolation and confusion of the last fourteen months of virtual meetings and social interactions, seem to be out looking for real experiences. Authentic experiences.

What does that mean?

A series of damaging storms, like we’ve been having lately, would certainly qualify as real. No one questions the authenticity of a major weather event when the wind and rain are buffeting their residence.

Authenticity, however, is something more than merely real. It’s a quality of character. Places can have it. People can have it. But both only in relation to something else, maybe their own past.

I’m thinking about what makes an authentic Round Top experience.

A friend once walked into a cafĂ© on the Square where all the customers sitting around were talking in German—and they switched to English because they recognized my friend and her husband as Houstonians. Fifty-some years ago that was authentic Round Top.

Shopping at Mercantile today is authentically Round Top, and so is attending a concert at Festival Hill or a performance by the Black Cat Choir.

Does it take time for authenticity to develop?

Or does it have more to do with inborn qualities? For instance, is it actually the absence of pretense?

I have a long and mixed relationship with pretense. I grew up in a city, in a striver’s social world where a surprising number of people hewed to the principle of “fake it till you make it.” By the time I came along, the ones who succeeded in previous generations formed a solid phalanx against the newcomers. In one more generation, who could tell the difference?

Where in the social trajectory did pretense stop and authenticity begin?

So here we are in Round Top and Winedale, where Houstonians Hazel Ledbetter, Ima Hogg and Faith Bybee changed things. They had a vision of authenticity that involved importing and/or restoring nineteenth century buildings. Was what resulted authentic anything? Authentically altered, perhaps.

Yet what they left behind formed the identity of the Round Top area for decades—at least with outsiders. And outsiders came, drawn by this imagined authenticity and its visual appeal.

They’re still coming. More dilapidated old houses are being brought in for renovation into appealing commercial property--more shops, restaurants and hotels geared toward visitors.

Do we have any alternative? We said goodbye fifty years ago to the—yes—authenticity that would allow a protective historic designation like Fayetteville’s.

So here we are, a work-in-progress.

Maybe that just makes us Texan. Not in the way of advertising—cowboy hats and ostrich boots. We’re more likely to wear work boots and baseball caps. But Texan by the fact that we are adjusting to constant change and finding what is most enduring within it.

Round Top remains a place where, as Leon Hale described in the Houston Post, mockingbirds mimic scissortails from the tops of trees on the Square. That was in 1980, but the Square, itself, still has the trees; still has a public restroom like it did then, plus the tables and benches needed to enjoy the respite they provide. The names on the shops have changed, but the early buildings are still present.

The Square is maintained by the DYD Club, whose guiding force is the little girl, now nearly my age, whose family owned the building Hazel Ledbetter bought in the 1960’s. Once it was Schwarz’s. You will know it as Lulu’s. DYD means Do Your Duty. It relies on the support of volunteers, folks. And maybe that’s the most authentically Round Top thing of all.