A Porch of My Own

A Porch of My Own

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Some Gave All

The streetlights lit up the new subdivision in Southwest Houston, keeping the dark away enough that we could see each other's faces as we talked. We were hanging out by his car at the end of the driveway. We kept our voices low, though it was late and everyone in the house was asleep and there were no neighbors out.

It was 1967 and I was 17 years old. He was a few months younger than me. He was good looking, his blond hair hanging in his eyes, his face movie star handsome, his eyes kind, his laugh easy. In the slang of the day he'd be described as a "dreamboat".

I loved him fiercely and I trusted him. Trusted him with my secrets, trusted him to never ridicule my thoughts and feelings. Trusted him to tell me the truth, trusted him to treat me as an equal.

He was my cousin Tommy and he was my best friend.

He had come to live with us my senior year in high school. His family was going to move from Louisiana to Houston but not until later that year. He was having some problems there and needed a new start, a new school, new friends. He found all that. And I found a friend, a brother, a confidant.

Throughout our senior year he and his friend Johnny took my friend Beverly and I to all the teen clubs that sprang up in Houston during the late 60s, the most memorable when we saw Paul Revere and the Raiders at La Maison. We made trips to Surfside Beach near Angleton, staying until dark and heading home happy and sunburnt. We hung out at the Chuckwagon, a neighborhood burger drive-in where all the high school kids congregated in the afternoons.

He'd come home with Johnny Rivers' single 45s, saying "come listen to this, Sue." We'd play them all afternoon, listening over and over again to Mountain of Love, Secret Agent Man, and Johnny's version of Midnight Special and Suzie Q. Dancing in the living room, memorizing the words to the songs.

He spent all his other spare time taking his car apart and putting it back together, parts spread all over the driveway, arms and clothes covered with grease. Getting it running smoothly so we could all go out again on Saturday night!

I can't say my high school years were happy. There was a lot of stuff going on in the family, I was a girl without a lot of self-esteem, afraid to apply myself though the education part of school was easy for me, all the usual teenage angst. The Vietnam War was in full swing and I was just beginning to get an interest in what was going on in politics and the world. Looking back, all these times with my cousin are the times that stand out, the good times we had and the closeness we had. My brothers were either too old or two young to be my buddy. Tommy was just right and we had the bond of siblings.
Then everything changed. I got married the summer after I graduated. A year later I was a working mom and had no time for anything outside that except for the occasional family gathering. Time passed and Tommy joined the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam.

Around noon on a February day in 1970, I was feeding my baby son John, my second child, lunch when the phone rang. It was my mom. She needed a ride to Aunt Margie's house. Two Marines were there and wanted someone to come be with her before they told her their news. Which, of course, we all knew by their presence. Tommy was dead.
A two week long wait began as we waited for his body to come home. I still see him in the casket, the open area over his face sealed with glass because the bodies were frozen for the trip home and they were fragile. His Marine dress uniform making him look older than his 20 years, his sister Brenda sleeping on the floor by his casket the night before the funeral, not wanting to leave him alone.

But that's not the way I see him most of the time. Most of the time in my memories of him, we are by his car at the end of the driveway. The neighborhood asleep, our voices low and quiet. His hair hanging in his face, his words that years later come back to me and guide me. "Do what you want because YOU want to do it, not because someone else wants you to. You make the decisions for your life, darlin'. It's your life, don't let anyone tell you different."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Around The Campfire

Though the sky was mostly cloudy, there was a break in the clouds where the half moon and Jupiter could be seen. Except for a couple of stars that make up Cancer, the crab, these were the only ones we could see. The kids and I had a campfire going and a cool front had come in earlier that caused Sarah and I to grab a long sleeve shirt before we headed outside. 

The moon was so bright the live oaks in the yard threw out shadows. Even with only a half moon, we could see the yard fence and gate, the trunks of the oaks, the cabin and bunkhouse, and the firewood stacked nearby. 

The chuck-will's-widows called out their name, answering each other on all sides of us. We roasted some marshmallows and made s'mores, although most of the kids like the roasting better than the eating! Bixby was too little and the firepit is too big for his roasting wire to reach into the fire. So I went to the garden shed and cut a long piece of heavy wire for him, making a loop at the end for a handle.  

He'd had a busy day being a ranch hand - feeding the longhorns, checking on the garden, painting some birdhouses, checking out the deer blind, doing some target practice with his suction tipped plastic ammo, and just generally doing things a kid does in the country.  

As the day wound down the kids went inside to clean up for bed and I was alone at the fire. If you haven't ever sat by a campfire in the quiet of the country, away from people, away from a campground, away from neighbors, it's hard to explain the magic of it. The only sound was the chuck-will's-widows calling all around, each one answering the other as the calls circled their way around me. Though it had grown darker, the shadows of the oaks still lay on the ground and I could still see the trees in the yard. There weren't any of the noisy katydids or cicadas that often drive a person crazy during the warmer months. 

It was as if there was no one else in the world except me and the night birds. It's easy to imagine the country as it was 100 years ago and sometimes you think about the people that have called this place home over time. It many ways it hasn't changed that much out here where we are.

A few weeks ago Natalie and Zac and three of their friends came out for the weekend and we got a campfire going. The big kids do the same things the little ones do; they just don't need as much help. They've been doing it for years now and no one ever gets tired of it. We had spent the day at Fredericksburg and Luckenbach then and wrapped it up with brisket in town and some washer pitching in the back yard here. That night I left the kids alone by the fire as the evening wore on.

I don't sit out by a fire at night as often as I did when Rick was here. He could sit there all night. And we didn't have a fire as often once we built the cabin. One of the few downsides to building it. 

When the kids come they always want to have a fire and it gets me back out there. I need to make an effort to do more campfire sitting. Just me, the night sounds and shadows, and the stars. And memories. They seem to rise from the burning logs along with the smoke. And they're all good ones. Sometimes the good ones are the hardest to bear but I can't imagine the kind of life I would have lived that didn't include them.

I hope you get to spend some time by a campfire this summer. Make an effort. Find a place where you can be away from neighbors and city lights, a place where it's dark enough for the moon to make shadows of the trees and the night birds to call out to each other. Make some memories, some good ones. 

Like these, other times, other fires -

This picture of Rick and Sarah is probably the first fire we had out here. They are sitting where the cabin sidewalk is now. Some of the stones making up this first firepit are still there, too embedded in the ground to be moved by hand. They are part of the landscaping.

Sarah and I by the campfire in 1990.

Rick and Zac during hunting season in 2005. In his hunting album Rick captioned this one "End of the day. A campfire, whiskey, and good conversation." That about sums it up. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Up on the Caprock, Me and My Baby Ride

I ran across a song posted on Facebook this week by Terry Allen, a Texas singer songwriter that Rick and I love. We saw him a couple of times at the Mucky Duck pub in Houston. He has a deep understanding of the subtleties of the world and his songs tell stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes terribly sad, often irreverent, and sometimes taking a critical look at the way we look at heroes and violence in the world.

But his real songwriting talent, at least as far as I'm concerned, is taking an ordinary moment, an ordinary life, and making you stop and look at it and see the magic of ordinary things. This particular song, Flatland Boogie, was about a fella and his love driving fast across the Texas high plains as the moon lights up the caliche on the long straight road they travel down.

That song brought back memories of a vacation Rickie, Sarah, and I took about 30 years ago. It was our first trip to the Santa Fe/Taos area and we stopped at Palo Duro Canyon on the way there. Driving across the endless plains in Rick's Bronco; Sarah just 5 years old, standing up in the back seat singing cowboy songs with us as we wondered whether we would ever get over the plains.

Though we didn't go to the Four Corners area that trip, we learned about the Anasazi, the indigenous people that lived in the Four Corners area thousands of years ago. And about the mystery of where they went and what happened to them. One thing I read later that has always stuck with me was a statement attributed to the Hopi. "The Anasazi didn't disappear, we are the Anasazi."

Rick and I would have been married 35 years today. He's not here and yet he is. I still refer to the Rockin' RS as "our" place; I still say "we" when talking about things that are being done here. Though things have changed somewhat with the addition you can still tell this is his cabin when you walk in. I still call the garden Rick's garden, not mine. The leather cap he left on the truck dashboard is still there, all shrunken and twisted from the hot sun; his boots are still by the back door.

It's not that I've kept things as a shrine. It's that he is so embedded in this place that his presence is still felt. You would have to burn the whole place down, trees, vegetation, and all to remove him. Even then, he would be here. Because like the Anasazi live on in the Hopi, he lives on in me and the kids. Rick didn't disappear, we are Rick.

We do the things he used to do, we tell his stories, we teach the kids the things he knew. We remember him.

The grief still overwhelms me a lot of times, especially at night when it's quiet and I'm not busy. I'll be almost asleep and the pain will hit me like a punch in the chest and it's clear why it's called a broken heart. I wish I could say it's easier, to give hope to any of you going through the same thing. All I can say is it becomes more familiar and, along with carrying Rickie with me always, I carry the grief always. I'll be carrying them when I breathe my last.

Happy anniversary, Rickie. I wish we were riding up on the Caprock one more time.

"And yet she could feel the pain becoming a part of her, finding its indelible groove but never vanishing. Time goes by, she wrote, days spill on, routines, appointments, diversions, some fun, a trip, somebody sick, on and on, times goes and grief finds a niche, a place, and settles in and goes along, too, included in everything. 'I'm here', says Grief. 'Never mind me, just go about your business.' " David Kushner, Alligator Candy

Flatland Boogie