Saturday, February 17, 2007

This old house

Colmesneil -- In the spring of 1955, a man named Woodrow Davis married a woman named Mildred Landrum, though no one called her Mildred. They called her Red.

The name hasn’t been self-explanatory in many years. Red's hair is nearly the color of milk glass. The freckles that once marched across her smooth, white skin have faded. But in my mind’s eye I easily see a head full of wavy, rebelliously red hair.

The day Red married Woodrow, she became the mother of three children: 14-year-old Jerrie, 12-year-old Jimmy and seven-year-old Brenda. Woodrow’s first wife had died five years earlier, when Brenda, my mother, was 13 months old.

Before the wedding, people asked Red if she was worried about inheriting three children. She told them she wasn’t.

When Red was around 19 years old, she had surgery. When she woke up from the anesthesia, the doctor sat at the end of her bed and said, “Now, you know, you’ll never have children.”

She loved children. The news was devastating. So when people asked Red if she was worried about becoming a mother to three children, the answer was easy: No. She was glad. Though the transition wasn't always easy.

Red had grown up in a sawmill town, Woodrow a few miles down the road in Mt. Carmel. They dated some in high school. He took her dancing. Then they drifted apart the way teenagers do.

When he was about 18, Woodrow met a girl in Ebenezer community, about nine miles down the road. Her name was Sadie Ruth Ellis. They fell in love, married and had children.

“You never met a better woman,” Red will say of Sadie Ruth. Everyone knew each other in the Deep Pineywoods of East Texas, when Sunday night dances were a dime and even that wasn't easy to come by.

Five years following Sadie Ruth’s sudden death, Red’s sister set her up on a date with Woodrow. He took her dancing. They both loved to dance.

“She was good,” laughs Woodrow. “I could hardly get a dance with her because everyone else wanted to.”

“Your Pappaw was a good dancer too,” she says with a serious nod.

After they were married about two years, Woodrow bought some land in Colmesneil and paid $7,000 to have a little wood-framed house built on it. But before the house could be built, the land had to be cleared.

There is a reason this part of Texas is called The Big Thicket. Red and Woodrow and Jimmy used a cross-cut saw, an ax, a shovel and a hoe to cut back a matted tangle of briars, chop down trees and dig out stumps. They tamed Mother Nature and eventually moved into the little white house on Highway 69.

Oftentimes after school, Jimmy and Brenda would sit at the table with Red and talk about their day. While they talked, Jimmy might drink a half-gallon of milk, courtesy of their dairy cow. The day they switched to store-bought milk, said Red, Jimmy quit drinking milk.

Over the years, Red and Woodrow expanded the house by taking in part of the front porch, adding on rooms, expanding the kitchen. Red’s azaleas climbed a pipe-framed tower in the side yard, and in the spring they still burst into a glory of color. Until recently, every summer Woodrow’s butterbean vines crawled so high up bamboo poles, an eight-foot ladder was required for harvesting. Once, a passing photographer spotted him in the garden, and a few months later Woodrow appeared in Texas Highways, perched atop the ladder, smiling from under the brim of his baseball cap with an outstrechted hand snapping off a butterbean. That picture hung in the kitchen, in a homemade frame, for years.

The picture isn’t there tonight. It’s in a box. The dining room table on which many an amazing meal was served isn’t here either. Nor are the chairs. Or the curio cabinet. The sofa is gone from the living room. The twin beds where my parents sleep during visits have been moved. There are a few chairs left, along with the TV, and a dropleaf table for meals from a depleted refrigerator. The master bed remains so Mammaw and Pappaw can spend a few more nights here while things are set up just a few miles away, in the comfortable little trailerhome behind Uncle Jimmy’s house and, nextdoor, Aunt Jerrie’s house. The double bed where I always sleep remains as well, perhaps because they knew I was coming.

I would have slept on the floor.

It’s not that there aren’t other homes here in Colmesneil where I’m welcome. Being a Davis in these parts means kinship in an enormous clan. But I would happily throw a pillow down in the living room and lay under an orange-yellow-and-brown crocheted afghan to be in this house one more night.
When I was very young, we came here on a visit. My memory of this particular visit begins with the house being full of people. Most of the people were relatives, but I didn’t know all their names. Several of them were crying, including my mother. So I backed into the utility room (“the freezer room,” Mammaw calls it) and started to cry myself.

That’s when Aunt Jerrie spotted me, my beautiful Aunt Jerrie. She was loud like my mom, like all the Davises. She laughed loud and talked loud and smiled a lot. But not this time. This time she was soft, and I felt better as soon as she spotted me.

“What’s wrong, baby?” she said, putting her hands under my arms and lifting me onto the freezer.

“Why is everybody crying?” I asked.

“Well, baby …” Her voice cracked. She gathered herself. “They’re just sad because Grandma died, and they loved her very much. But they’ll be OK. They just need to be sad for a little while.”

That moment on the freezer, in this house, I started to learn about life’s transiency. The lesson continues tonight.

Growing up, I spent at least a week every summer in Colmesneil, staying primarily at Mammaw and Pappaw’s house. My cousin Alex and I were inseperable as kids, and when we weren’t at Lake Tejas or at his parents’ house down the road, we were running in and out of Mammaw and Pappaw’s.

Mammaw would let us fill two bowls with Doritos, and we would lay in the living room floor, pulling out a chip at a time and comparing to see whose was covered with the most cheese. Then we’d argue about it. We stood out at the end of the driveway, and when the big rigs roared by, we’d pump our fists up and down so the drivers would blow their horns. When they did, we’d shout and jump for joy. We tromped through the woods in back of the barn where we’d imagine lurking hobos who’d hopped from passing trains. We created elaborate booby traps for the hobos, who somehow always evaded capture.

Most my memories in and around the house are loud ones. The Davises are a vocal bunch. I love how often our extended family gathered in the sitting area off the kitchen and laughed and argued about who had done what with whom, and just how long have they been crazy anyway?

I love that my own children have run through this house and played on the same swinging see-saw Alex and I enjoyed (even though it can pinch the bejeebers outta your leg). This is a wonderful place. And today, I swear, was the first day I consciously noticed the paint peeling on the garage in back. Today is the first day I realized just how many of the surrounding oak trees were felled by Hurricane Rita.

Red and Woodrow – my mammaw and pappaw – have lived here for 50 years, welcoming children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He is 89. She will be in August. The fact that they’re still able to do for themselves is a blessing, even if an inordinate amount of grunting is required.

I do not equate losing this house with losing them. Wherever they are, I’ll go there and be glad to be with them.

A house is a house. But it isn’t just a house. This house has a familiar, comfortable smell comprised of old things, years of great cooking and abundant grandparent love.

I thank God I still have the grandparent love. But I know when I leave here tomorrow, I’ll never experience the smell again.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Fat Tuesday tales

Last weekend we made our annual pilgrimage to Shreveport to spend Mardi Gras with good friends. I've never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but from the stories I've heard, the Shreveport version is decidedly more family friendly.

Oh, sure, there are the girls dressed like a Cosmo cover in 40-degree weather, warmed only by Budweiser and a burning desire to attract members of the male species more intent on goose-pimply cleavage than evidence of a brain. Not that I notice these girls from under my wool socks, tights, jeans, undershirt, sweater, parka, hat and gloves.

The parade route runs along the river, and the city divides the river bank up into narrow lots, which are divvied out by lottery. By mid-afternoon the street is closed, and the undulating route transforms into miles' worth of gumbo, grilling, music and laughter. Kids run about making new friends when not begging for cotton candy, gaudy hats and 50-cent light wands being hawked for $10.

Last year, a God-sent lady from one of the nearby lots walked over to our group to say she thought a little boy from our collection had wandered down the street and was in the hands of a police officer. Just as I was opening my mouth to say all of ours were accounted for, thank-you-very-much, I realized Connor -- who I knew was RIGHT THERE eating the hotdog I had just handed him -- was, well, not there.

I walked at least a block through a mass of humanity before I spotted my 3-year-old in the hands of the officer. He was perfectly calm, having happily followed a cart full of flashing lights.

This year -- thank you, Jesus -- all children remained accounted for. Aside from eating his cotton candy with black mittens and walking down the street insistent on balancing a stuffed chicken on his head, Connor was pretty mild-mannered.

Madeline on the other hand was feeling particularly flamboyantant. She fell in love with Kelly's Mardi Gras mask and after asking 5 to the infinite power number of times for her own, which wasn't possible at the time, Kelly allowed Madeline to wear it to the parade. (The whole reason for gathering is to get there several hours before the parade arrives.) I thought she'd get tired of wearing it, but that didn't happen for the first several hours.

Then, as evening arrived, Madeline took it into her head that she and Carl (Gene and Kelly's son) needed to tango. About a month ago, while flipping stations, I had watched 10 minutes of a dance competition on PBS -- I'm pretty sure I'll dance like that in heaven; the rest of you can amble politely in choir robes -- and apparently Madeline had paid close attention.

So she and and a more-than-game Carl clenched hands and began to march up and down the street, swiveling their upturned chins so dramatically a Bobble-head doll would fear whiplash. It was classic, and when I wasn't laughing I was thinking how lovely it is she's still so free just to be.

She wants to tango. So she tangos. Never mind that she's not sure how. Never mind several hundred people are walking by.

A girl must dance.

A boy must balance a chicken on his head.

And all is well.


Friday, February 09, 2007

This rains got my √Čire up

It's been raining quite a bit the past several months, and that's put me in mind of Ireland. They call it the Emerald Isle because it's so green. It's so green because it rains. A lot. Actually, it mists a lot. Flat-out rain isn't a constant.

That's what it's been doing around East Texas for several days: drizzling enough to curl my hair so that every day it looks as though I just got a haircut. A very bad haircut ... with the piece de resistance being a double spritz of overpriced Mega Frizz.

It's not just the rain that has me thinking of our time abroad, though. I've been reading Madeline a chapter a night of "The Secret Garden." (We adore it.) The book is set in York, and a number of the characters have a broad Yorkshire accent. For the sake of performance integrity -- and the need to distinguish between characters -- I must, of course, employ different dialects. The problem is that I don't have a wide repertoire. In fact, the only accent I can feign with better-than-nauseating results is a sort of Gaelic mish-mash.

I can also hold my own as a Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, which was always fun in college. When JT and I got bored, we'd go through Wal-Mart and speak only in high-frequency Munchkin speak. That was after we'd gone to Chevron and charged off-brand Doritos, 2 cans of tunafish and a 2-liter of Coke to her dad's gas card. But I digress.

When Roy and I lived in Dublin, two of our flatmates were college students from County Galway. They were lovely (LOOHV-ley) girls, a fascinating mix of modern and traditional, unthinkingly sprinkling their everyday speech with thee's and ye's. ("Do ye mean to say ye didna know black puddin' was blood sausage? I bet that surprised thee.") It was like having a conversation with a King James Bible, only hip and funny.

I learned a lot from our talks in the teeny-tiny "kitchen/eating area" we shared on the first floor. Among which was the certainty that having a bathroom off a teen-tiny kitchen you share with three other people, with a door that's two inches shy of meeting the floor is not desirable.

For love of mercy, just finish your freakin' tea and bickies and go!

I have a couple of stories worth sharing, like the time Roy unintentionally insulted the Lord Mayor and the time I assaulted a man. But they'll have to wait until we get back from Mardi Gras. We're off to spend a family-friendly weekend in Loueeesiana.

Ye be good.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Can't I just carry the big stick?

My dad used to say to me, "Do as I say, not as I do." Fortunately, he's the kind of man where often doing as he did was the right thing. But he'll admit he has a temper. And -- sigh -- I have to admit the same. I find myself having to apologize to my kids every now and again, almost always because I've lost my temper.

The thing is, I didn't KNOW I had such a temper until I had kids. People warn that you can't truly prepare for parenting, but you can at least anticipate certain things such as sleepless nights and coming into contact with more poop than a dairy farmer.

I did not, however, anticipate the times when just one more thing crawls. all. over. me. leading to bellowing and snorting and frantic hand-waving. It's ridiculous. I usually realize it's ridiculous in the midst of the snorting and deflate like a Whoopee cushion. Cue the apology.

This is something I've really been working on the last several months. God used Madeline to grab my attention on this when, in the course of a bedtime discussion, she commented quite calmly, "No, Mom, you don't yell at us all the time. ... Just most the time."

Hello, Conviction. Yes, just take that batt you've got there in your hand and beat me with it. Thanks.

OK. I wasn't yelling at my kids MOST of the time. In fact -- as she protests like Lady Macbeth -- I don't yell as much as I "raise my voice." (There is a distinction. Yes, there is.) As it happens, I have a strong, somewhat deep voice that always got me called out in school no matter who else was talking (Janet and Lori). In any case, Madeline's perception is what mattered. And, clearly, I was hollering/raising my voice too much.

These days I try, when I feel the pressure rising, to just get quiet. To speak very low. (Have you seen Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"? I mean the tone; not the evil.) This tactic doesn't necessarily diffuse the situation, but it does seem to keep it from ratcheting things up.

A number of times recently, as I've tucked Madeline into bed, I've thanked God for the time she and I spent together that day: time with a minimum of head-butting or wailing. That's not because Madeline has changed. That's because I'm changing. And just this week I had one of the best days I've had with Connor in a long time. He was less mercurial. Part of that is the fact that he's maturing. Part of that is the fact that I'm maturing.

Remarkably, striving to be a better parent is making me a better person.