It was late on a Friday night, just after a Houston Astros baseball game and fireworks display. The crowd was a bit down because the hometown team had lost. Everyone was anxious to get home, and Houston’s congested streets weren’t cooperating. After waiting for what seemed to be forever we turned out of our parking garage needing to navigate instantly across four lanes of wall to wall cars. It became apparent soon enough that such a maneuver wasn’t going to happen. We were stuck and had to go in a direction that was the exact opposite of what we needed. Luckily I knew exactly what to do because the baseball park is located in the eastern end of downtown Houston, an area that I have known for all of my life.
My grandmother once lived only minutes away from where we were in a tiny house just off of Navigation. I had traversed these streets in the backseat of my mother’s car hundreds of times as she regaled me with the stories of her young life and the places that had been so much a part of her history. For most of my childhood this area had been rundown and a bit foreboding. There were often women of the night walking the littered streets or drunken men sipping brew out of bottles hidden in brown paper bags. The old train station was still there back then and Mama often boasted that she had taken a trip all the way to San Diego to visit a friend just after she graduated from high school. That had seemed a rather bold and daring thing to do, and I was proud of my mom’s adventurous spirit. I loved hearing about her youth and the history of east Houston where she had lived with her seven brothers and sisters. It had always been difficult for me to envision what that section of town had actually once been like because it seemed so abandoned and dreary by the time that I was going there.
Today Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, stands where the train station once dominated the area. In 1912, My grandfather rented a room in a long gone boarding house not far from the stadium before my grandmother arrived from Slovakia. Eventually he purchased a small parcel of land and built a home for his family just to the east of downtown. He had a variety of jobs before settling down at the Houston Packing Company located on Navigation making his commute from home a short one. A service station now stands where there were once pens filled with livestock waiting to be slaughtered.
On the night when we were forced by the traffic to head in the direction of my family’s old homestead I assured my husband that I knew exactly where I was going. Soon enough I was overcome with joy as the aroma of roasting coffee beans filled my nostrils. For the entirety of my childhood I had inhaled that delicious smell on Friday nights when we routinely went to visit my grandmother. It was always so lovely.
The whiff of coffee literally transported me back to a time when I ran and played with my cousins while our parents played penny ante poker as though they were in a Las Vegas competition vying for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In my mind’s eye I could once again see my grandmother padding across the worn wooden floors of her home in her bare feet carrying enameled cups of steaming hot coffee in her hands to offer her guests, including us children. She always smiled beatifically as she offered the brew filled with heaping mounds of sugar and milk. I thought of her saintly face and that sweet smile of satisfaction that she flashed when we sipped on the liquid without complaint. She always kept a big pot of the weak honey colored coffee on her stove, ready for any guests who arrived.
Grandma was ever a loving and generous hostess, and to me she was so beautiful with her blue eyes and her hair arranged in a long black pigtail that trailed down her back. She was not quite five feet tall and as round as Mrs. Santa Claus. She wore faded cotton dresses that she washed by hand and hung out to dry on a clothesline just outside of her back door. The only modern appliances that she owned were her refrigerator, a radio, a record player and a television which she never really watched. The T.V. was there mainly for entertaining two of her sons who still lived with her. She had been born in the nineteenth century and she remained very much a representative of a pre-modern era. Hers was a very simple life. She asked for little and used even less than she was given.
I never got to talk with my grandmother. She did not speak English and I did not speak Slovak. We communicated with facial expressions and hand signals. She called everyone either “pretty boy” or “pretty girl.” It was calming being with her, but I always wondered what she was thinking and what her own history had been. It would have been nice to know how she met my grandfather and what gave her the courage to follow him all the way to a new country, far away from her family and friends. According to one of my aunts she had once spoken enough English to work outside of the home but as her children were born she became more and more tied to her home and lost her ability to speak the words that were foreign to her. Oddly enough most of her children knew only enough Slovak to have the most basic interactions with her. My grandfather had insisted that they speak only English even at home so that they would be fully assimilated into American culture. Perhaps because of his rule not a single one of them had even a slight accent and few would realize that they had grown up with a mother who was unable to speak their tongue.
My husband and I relived my childhood days as we drove through the east Houston streets. I retold my history as we drove along. I gleefully pointed out Eastwood Park where my mother had once danced to the cheers of friends who admired her fancy footwork. I pointed out the building where we had often purchased groceries at Weingarten’s and the spot where we stopped for ice cream on the way home from our Friday night visits. We meandered over to Harrisburg where the new Metro line runs. There I witnessed gentrification efforts inside what had once been little shops where my mother purchased my school shoes and dresses for Sunday church. The Sears store where I first sat on Santa’s lap is gone, replaced by a gaudy strip mall without the elegance of the old department store. We flew past Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and I pointed to a venerable old structure that had at one time been a hospital. So much had changed and yet I felt that I was in familiar territory.
Our journey through my past was a serendipitous little gift for a brief moment in time. It cheered me to return to a place where I had not been for such a long time. My memories of being there will always be so pleasant and filled with so much love and belonging. My grandmother’s house is still is still there, crowded by businesses and industries that make it seem out of place. The new owners have cared for it, preserving its uniqueness. I think they would be quite surprised by the stories they would hear if those walls could talk. I wish that I might share with them how special it always was. Perhaps they already know.