1d230bcc4636998c02292d3ef09b2982I’ll never forget the feeling of disappointment that Texans felt when Alaska became a state. The home of the Alamo known as the Lone Star state had reigned as the largest in the nation, a distinction that it not so secretly enjoyed, only to be toppled by a faraway newcomer. Suddenly our second place status stole some of our bragging rights and mostly silenced our boasts about the enormity of our home. Still, anyone who has ever travelled from El Paso to Orange not only understands the daunting distance of such a drive but has seen the dramatic changes in the landscape that lie along the highway. Texas is a place of incredible diversity and describing it in a few words is almost impossible.

I’ve been as far west and as far east as one might go in Texas. I’ve seen the plains of the north and the deserts of the south. I’ve observed the people in both small towns and large cities. I’ve come to realize that there is no one size fits all representation of the diversity of my state which in some ways is a microcosm of the world at large. I would be hard pressed to choose one place or area that might serve as the essence of all that is Texan.

The hill country around San Antonio and Austin certainly might be the heart of Texas. Those cities after all are fairly close to being at the center of the state and as the home of the Alamo and the capitol they can lay claim to historical and political importance. Both places also lie a rather lovely area of the state with majestic vistas and an old west feel. They are in the part of the state that most closely complies with the imagery of Texas and Texans that most outsiders have when they conjure thoughts of this far more complex place. Certainly the progressives, intellectuals and artisans of Austin are a great deal different from the refinery workers of the blue collar town of Port Arthur, but they both call themselves Texans. 

I suspect that if I were to ask citizens in all of the other forty nine states to name one Texas city, they most often would mention Dallas. If I were to require them to describe Dallas they might speak of wealthy cattle and oil barons living on ranches with names like South Fork. Television has a way of fixing ideas in our mind that often wander far from actual reality. The real Dallas is a modern metropolitan wonder with congested freeways, skyscrapers and malls filled with everyday people who look and act little differently than their counterparts in Los Angeles.

The Gulf Coast of Texas is yet another area unlike the stereotypical visions of the state. It is a place of worldwide commerce, meandering bayous, rapidly changing weather and an amalgam of cultures and cuisine. It is a magnet for beach bums and innovators alike. It has evolved over time from a strange mix of ideas that created a kind of crazy quilt that can’t be easily defined. It is friendly and welcoming and generally nonjudgemental, a place where it seems possible to accomplish the impossible and where rocket scientists dream big alongside welders.

Then there is the far west of Texas that is home to miles and miles of farms and ranches that stretch so far into the distance that they appear to be endless. It is a lonely place of wide open spaces, an area where one might find solace in getting away from the rat race of the modern world. It is wild and requires toughness to withstand. Out west humans compete with the harshness of nature under a sky perennially filled with stars. It is one of the last outposts of a way of life that pioneered the expansion of the United States. It is mankind in competition with the elements and in tune with the wonders of the earth. It is a place of both harmony and dissonance, verdant farms and drought ridden ghost towns. It is a place of peacefulness and one that requires toughness and determination to survive. 

Texas is a grand state of unimaginable size and diversity and each March with the regularity of the clock it bursts alive with the colors of wildflowers, most notably the bluebonnets. Near Chappell Hill and Brenham the lovely indigo colored blooms create beautiful carpets in fields and along the sides of the roads. The people of Houston drive from the business of the city to enjoy the sight of the lovely buds that seem to embody all that is best about Texas. I wonder if there is any other state in which its citizens are so taken by the annual flowering of the countryside. For those of us in Texas venturing forth to observe the bluebonnets in all of their glory is a pilgrimage that must not be missed in the spring.

The small towns that host the visitors fire up their pits and roast briskets and sausages that have a distinctly Texas flavor. They offer blueberry pies and fruit kolaches for the hungry travelers, made from recipes handed down from one generation of Texans to another. In a beloved creamery there is ice cream unlike any that is made in other parts of the world. It melts sweetly on the tongue and says, “I am in Texas,” in a sensory way that must be experienced to understand. There are crafts and antiques to view along with Mother Nature’s finery. It is a festival of Texas culture that warms the heart and brings out smiles on even the grumpiest faces. It is a not to be missed tradition.

I’m a Texan through and through, but I am only one variety of the remarkable citizens of our state. Our ancestors came here from the world over, all hoping for an opportunity to live better lives than in the places from whence they came. Many dreams have been realized here and even today Texas is growing in population by leaps and bounds simply because even the commonest person has a chance to succeed with just a bit of imagination and a willingness to work hard.

Texas still has relatively inexpensive land and a variety of jobs. It lives up to its name as a welcoming place. Its monicker comes from the Spanish word “tejas” which means “friend.” We do our best to be an inviting host and we don’t mind at all if someone decides that they would like to tarry long enough to make our state a home. My husband’s kin came from Georgia and England. Mine were from Virginia, Kentucky and Slovakia. We embrace neighbors from Mexico, South America, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, Nigeria, and all across the globe. Texas is a regular United Nations  with a distinctly open and friendly nature. It is a one of a kind creation of many minds and ways of living. It is a place quick to shout, “Howdy!” It is my home.

Wise Fools

64-yearbookThe school year of 1963-1964 began typically enough for the Class of 1966. We were sophomores, the “wise fools” as the strict Latin translation proclaims. We entered our second year of study with confidence, perhaps not fully understanding how much we did not yet know. It was a year of change and those of us from the female side of the student body were excited about the new uniforms that appeared to be a tiny bit more fashionable than the dull brown pencil skirts that we had worn as freshmen. We arrived all decked out in our brown and white plaid pleated skirts, white blouses, and dark brown blazers. At least for a time we were glad for the opportunity to wear something different.

The Carmelite Fathers were celebrating their one hundredth year of service in America and it seemed fitting that we would rechristen our yearbook with the name, Zelo, alluding to the motto of the Order of Carmelites, Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum, “With Zeal I have been zealous.” We returned for our second year believing that we had the whole high school experience figured out. Gone were the fears that we might be unable to meet the demands of our teachers. We had formed strong friendships and alliances with one another and we felt ready for anything that might come our way.

We were admittedly a bit less interested in academics than in the social aspects of school but that is rather typical of sophomores. Our teenage years were in full bloom with many preparing to earn driver’s licenses and make the grand leap into more independent lifestyles. We tackled the logic and proofs of Geometry with Mr. Maroney and became ever more proficient in Latin with Sister Wanda. Father Donald led us through the fundamentals of Biology and taught us how to dissect a living breathing frog and keep its heart beating even as we opened its body for observations. I have long suspected that my ultimate reluctance to pursue a career in medicine began inside the Biology lab when I was certain that I was going to faint from the stench of formaldehyde and the sight of that tiny heart fighting for a survival that was doomed.

Once again I had an English class with Father Shane and just as with the previous year it would be the highlight of my day. My biggest surprise came from Speech and Debate. I was then as timid as a little mouse but I somehow discovered the bold nature of my personality when Mrs. Lamping taught us how to use not just our words, but also our voices to communicate with strength and determination. I soared under her direction and soon found myself competing in debates with my partner, Claudia. We would never find the momentum to have a consistently winning season but I would learn so much about people and my interests would begin to take form.

Our handsome and beloved President Kennedy was proving his own mettle in national affairs and becoming ever more popular. He had faced down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and gained the respect of even his detractors. He was coming to Texas in the fall of our sophomore year with a short stop in Houston before traveling to Dallas. It was November and I had turned fifteen years old only days before. I remember sitting in English class when Sister Margit came to the door to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. She was always such a jokester that I at first thought that she had gone a bit too far with one of her impish pranks but the look on her ashen face told me that she was not attempting to fool us. Along with my classmates I felt as though someone had just punched me in the stomach. I remember sitting silently for hours waiting for the school day to end and wondering if the world as I had known it would ever be the same. This terrible day would become the defining moment of our sophomore year of high school, a turning point when everything that we had ever known seemed to suddenly change. I suppose that we all grew up just a bit on that day and lost the unfettered innocence that had once been ours.

We eventually carried on just as the country did. We relied on the rituals and routines of school to occupy our minds and our time. The newspaper and yearbook staffs preserved our memories, the sports teams represented us in combats with rival schools. I kept my membership in the Medical Careers Club even though I was beginning to doubt that I was suited for a life in medicine. I religiously attended the Saturday night dances where I enjoyed meeting up with my friends and watching the couples sway on the dance floor. My teachers and my classmates were feeling more and more like family and I found great comfort in being with them day after day.

It officially snowed in February and our teachers allowed us to run outdoors to catch snowflakes on our tongues. It was a rather pathetic but typical version of Houston snowfall but it got us temporarily out of our classes. Our basketball team celebrated its one hundredth victory that same month and I learned that the round ball was my favorite sport. There were spiritual retreats and Bunny Hops and more and more of my classmates driving to school for the very first time.

In the spring we had our annual fundraising drive. Each of us had to sell a case of World’s Finest Chocolate, a feat that was rather difficult given that most of the people in the neighborhood had children with their own cases of candy to sell. This meant that we had to use our salesmanship skills with strangers. My cousin, Ingrid, and I became a team, traveling with our moms to any place where we thought that potential customers might lurk. Our favorite spots were bowling alleys, ice houses, and trailer parks. We were thrown out of many establishments in our quest to sell our wares but usually not before we had managed to deplete our inventory just a bit more. Somehow we always managed to meet our quotas but it was difficult work. Mostly though it taught me that people are generous souls who are inclined to help even when they have little to give.

We ended our sophomore year far more knowledgeable and ready to become role models as upperclassmen. Many of us had moved up in the ranks of the various organizations and had made names for ourselves in academics and sports. We were halfway through our journey through high school but were yet to realize just how quickly time flies. We were anxious to move on and to be at the top of the pecking order. We had earned our places as school leaders and we felt more than ready to conquer the world.

A Day in November

i282600889619600203._szw1280h1280_I have often visited Dallas. I’ve been to weddings, parties, and on shopping excursions to that city to the North of my home. Each of my daughters even resided there for a time. Never once have I been inclined to explore a location in the Big D for which it is quite possibly the most famous, the site of President John Kennedy’s assassination. After well over fifty years of avoidance I finally decided this week that it was time for me to make a pilgrimage to that terrible place. Thus Mike and I reserved tickets this past Monday for the one o’clock tour of the old Texas School Book Depository. Continue reading “A Day in November”