Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” Continue reading

Class Acts

Some came here as immigrants. Others were born into the newly-arrived families or grew up among later generations, listening to their elders tell mysterious and compelling tales of those early, shadow-riven years.

A tangled knot of humanity, my family uprooted themselves from England’s Staffordshire hills, fled Ireland’s sweet, green County called Down and sailed away from Baltic seaports, searching for a better life, a richer life, a life more suited to an increase in well-being and independence.

Arriving in Virginia, Philadelphia or New York, they worked their way north, west and south by wagon and by boat. A handful paused in Ohio. Others followed the rivers to Kentucky and Tennessee. 

A few sought true adventurer, like my Great-great-grandfather David. He panned for gold in the Colorado Rockies, fought the Civil War from Vicksburg to the Rio Grande and then returned to Iowa, where he took a sweet girl named Annie as his bride and persuaded her back to Texas. They camped here on the prairie, just to the east of a rail town called Melissa, until the lure of familiarity and visions of deep, loamy soils enticed them back to Iowa, to family and to farm. Continue reading

Purple Cows on Parade

It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner.  Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.

Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”

On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives.  “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!”  We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel. Continue reading

The Joys of Imperfection

It started with the left arm.  There was a dropped stitch, a slight irregularity in the smooth, sweet rhythm of the yarn.  The sweater-in-process, lovely and green, the color of wild asparagus, lay in pieces across the dining room table – its back, two arms and cabled front the eventual shape of loving, hand-knit warmth.

Still, that dropped stitch was causing consternation. Halfway up one sleeve,  it would have nestled into the bend of an elbow, barely detectable and probably unseen to even a well-trained eye until it began to pull apart.  But the knitter – proficient, quick, given to knitting argyles and Arans in darkened movie theatres – spotted it and felt it looming like an accusation.  “I’ll just unravel that sleeve and do it over,” she said. “It’ll take a little more time than picking up the stitch but after all – we want it to be perfect.”

With the sleeve unraveled and the yarn gently re-wound, she began to knit again. This time there were no dropped stitches, no errors, but a more subtle issue soon emerged. Intent on re-doing the sleeve perfectly, she may have been a little tense. While she knit, the tension worked its way through her hands, down the needles and into the yarn, making the stitches in the repaired sleeve noticeably tighter.  On a completed sweater the separation of the sleeves might have negated the difference in appearance. Side-by-side on the dining table, the variation was obvious. “Humph,” said the knitter, who had plenty of time and a tendency toward obsession. “I’ll just do that sleeve again.” Continue reading

Doorways to the Past

A recent lazy-afternoon stroll through Galveston left me marveling over the heaps and piles of merchandise that overflow the shelves of souvenir shops along Seawall Boulevard and the Strand. 

The souvenir business is interesting, and if my afternoon browse is any indication, it hasn’t changed much over the decades.  Asked about her top products, the proprietess of one shop acknowledged that tee shirts, coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, risqué shot glasses, refrigerator magnets and beach towels are her most dependable sellers.  “They move a lot faster than my candles and iPod covers,” she said. “People like the high-end stuff, but once you get home you can’t tell the difference between the soap you bought here and soap you’d buy at Dillards. People want to prove they’ve been on The Island, not in a Houston department store. If you put “Galveston” on it, it’ll sell – that’s the name of the game.”

Shops do carry quality items that reflect Galveston’s life – there are books filled with Island history, chronicles of storms, photographs and tropical art – but most souvenirs are, to put it charitably, generic. They could be sold anywhere. There’s nothing unique about a Galveston kite or Galveston Koozie apart from the name.  If you purchase a tee shirt emblazoned with the phrase Genuine Galveston Souvenir Tee Shirt it comes with a guarantee you’ll someday meet someone wearing a Genuine (Pick Your City) Souvenir Tee Shirt . 

Even the sand dollars, sundials and lightning whelks filling the baskets by the cash registers are identical to those found in shops from Port Isabel to Key West. Shelling on Texas beaches is erratic at best, and no retailer would dare depend on local sources to stock the shelves. So, Wholesale-SeaShells-R-Us steps in, ready and able to supply the souvenir needs of an entire city. Continue reading