I hadn’t meant to linger, but when Hazel caught me just outside the post office doors, there was nothing for it but to say good morning and fold up the to-do list. Like everyone in town, I knew the truth Hazel freely confessed. She came to the post office as much for the socializing as for stamps, and when she bumped into you, she expected to be humored.
That day, it was my turn. We covered her loss at the weekly domino party (“they cheated”), the small size of her figs (“not near enough rain”) and the relative merits of oilcloth versus paper table coverings at a picnic. She’d just begun dissecting the virtues and faults of her grand-daughter’s new boyfriend (“polite enough, but not much use on a tractor”) when a fellow I recognized but didn’t know by name parked his truck and ambled up the sidewalk.
Hazel fairly beamed. “Harlan!” she said. “Why aren’t you out with them cows?” Harlan just grinned. “Now, why would I be spendin’ time with a bunch of old cows when I can come here and spend time with you?” Turning my direction, Harlan touched the brim of his hat with a finger. “Mornin’, ma’am.”
Hazel always remembered her manners. “Have you met this young lady?” “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Harlan said. “I sure haven’t. We’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook yet. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” The introductions made, we proceeded to shake hands, right then and there.
A pleasant “howdy” and a firm handshake are as much a part of Texas as bluebonnets and longhorns. There’s the hat-tipping “howdy” of respect, the friendly, fingers-still-attached-to-the-steering-wheel waved “howdy” and the bellowed-with-pleasure from the porch “howdy” when unexpected company arrives. The ladies, more genteel, sometimes content themselves with a “how do”, but the intent is the same – a gracious, welcoming acceptance of friend and stranger alike.
Handshakes are a little more formal, but they’re just as friendly. Introduced to someone you’ve only seen coming and going at the school? It’s time to shake hands. Invited to join a table of folks at lunchtime? Handshakes all around. Handshakes never are out of place, whether you’ve run into an acquaintance on the street, come into the feed store for alfalfa or are taking leave of your doctor.
In Texas, more business deals than you might imagine still are sealed with a handshake. In a world where a person’s word is their bond, a handshake is all that’s needed to signify that promises made will be promises kept.
As I grew accustomed to seeing agreements reached with no more than a handshake, I took up the practice myself, slowly accepting the gesture as a natural part of life and giving it little thought. Then, I bumped into those stone cabins in Oklahoma. Just outside Coalgate, they might have been built as housing for miners or railroad workers. It’s possible they were vacation cabins for the nearby lake, or an early version of a motel. Today, they seem to be providing affordable housing in an area where there’s not much housing to be had.
Whatever their provenance or present use, they were delightful. The smallest cabin, set apart just slightly from the others, clearly wasn’t ready for move-in. It had some advantages – a good roof to counterbalance the missing windows and some great vines twining over the stone walls – but I found its appealing aura of comfort and welcome focused in the carving above the door. It was a handshake, after all – a perfect representation of all I’d come to experience as “home”.
Completely entranced, I couldn’t help expressing my feelings about the little cabin once I’d come home.
Above the battered door, a carved stone lintel betokened human presence: friendship and welcome, affection, familial bonds. Beautiful and unexpected, it brought tears to my eyes and unexpected longing to my heart. I wanted that cabin.
Granted, it might not be the best place to live, with a highway running only fifty feet from the front door. Certainly it lacked a few amenities – window glass and a floor, just for starters. But the roof looked good and the thick, compacted vines running along the sides and back of the place would help keep the stones in place as the mortar crumbled away. Walking around the building, I pondered.
No, I thought, not a home. But maybe a fine place to write. Under the spell of those clasped hands I imagined table and chairs, a coffee pot. In the silence I dreamed the burble of vine-wrens and the soughing of tires on pavement. Sniffing the air, I caught not merely the dust and dessication of early autumn drought but the fragrance of leather-bound books purchased at farm sales, and the scent of fresh-mown hay.
In the days that followed, I imagined myself to death about my discovery. I imagined what it would take to fix the windows. I imagined where I would cook. I imagined where I’d plant the tomatoes and which flowers I’d choose. Eventually, I found myself imagining Dixie Rose prowling the place in terror, or taking off down the road. At that point, reason took over and shooed imagination out the door. In the end it was just as well, because I never could have imagined what came next.
While I was traveling north through Oklahoma, a blogging friend named June was living the good life, ranching on the Texas plains. Her blog was filled with things I enjoy: cattle, the daily routines of rural life, the beauty of the natural world around her. In Texas terms, we’d “howdied” – exchanged blog visits, commented back and forth and generally enjoyed reading about the similarities and differences in our lives – even though we’d never met.
Through the worst of last year’s drought, as she grieved over her dying trees and struggled to keep the herd healthy, I watched cattle leave, watched new cattle arrive and watched the rhythms of ranch life bend to the forces of nature. In the process, my admiration for the remarkable people we call farmers and ranchers grew substantially.
I learned a good bit about June through those months, including the fact that she likes to paint. One day, an email arrived. She’d enjoyed my post about the trip through Oklahoma, and was herself quite taken with the cabin. She wondered if I’d mind sending along a larger version of the photo, so she could paint it. The thought of someone painting from one of my photos was delightful, and I sent it along with pleasure.
Time passed, and I forgot about June’s project until another email arrived. Would I mind very much, she wondered, if she were to take the “For Rent” sign out of the painting? That caught my attention. Of course I didn’t mind, but in an email, I expressed my curiosity. Why should it make a difference to me whether the sign remained in the painting?
The answer was simple. Since I couldn’t move into the cabin, the cabin was moving in with me. Having said I wanted that cabin, I was to have it. June intended to send me the completed painting. Astonished as I was, I couldn’t help laughing at this latest example of an old Texas truth. As we like to say, “what goes around, comes around”. In this case, my experience of the cabin, expressed in words and photographs, was coming back around, transformed into canvas and paint by another Texas artist.
Now, the painting is here, hanging in a place of honor. Eventually, wood from an old, cherished Texas barn will become its frame. Then, since I still have the phone number from the “For Rent” sign, I’ll send a photo of the painting and a copy of my blog entries to the owner of the cabin, and the circle will be complete.
Looking at the painting now, I have to smile. June and I have howdied, but we ain’t shook yet – that day has yet to come. But in my road trip with its photos and words, in her painting and her canvas, in the giving and receiving, art and life have howdied and shook. Those clasped hands above the door say as much, and I’ll never doubt them.
No, ma’am. Nossir. Not once.