Summer Evenings in Corpus Christi

Mattie has just returned from a ten-day holiday in San Francisco where she stayed with Mike’s daughter, her husband and two little ones. It was 15 year-old Mattie’s first independent trip away and she loved it! When Mike and I picked Mattie up from Austin airport earlier this week, she was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with ‘California’ emblazoned on the front and a pair of swish new sunglasses. The intrepid traveller immediately announced that she would like to go back and work in California for a while after she finishes High School, so hopefully, this will encourage her to spend a little more time on her studies and less on her social life when she embarks on her sophomore year next month.

Whilst Mattie was in San Francisco, Mike and I spent some time ‘camping out’ at our new holiday house in Corpus Christi whilst Victor, our Hispanic carpenter and jack-of-all trades, was on a two-week break. It was nice to have the house to ourselves and together come to a few decisions, especially regarding how to build the new patio which is rather ugly and full of cracks. In somewhat better condition is a long driveway which we had at first thought about reducing in size until Mike suggested a small sail boat would fit very nicely there. Mention of sailing takes me back twenty years to the time I took lessons in a dinghy on Piddinghoe Lake, near Lewes in the UK – cold winds, sore hands and jumping into icy water to practise capsize drill immediately spring to mind. I have a feeling that sailing on the Gulf coast will be a more pleasant affair.

During our stay in Corpus Christi, we also celebrated Mike’s birthday (July 3rd), having dinner at an excellent restaurant, Liberty Hall, on nearby Mustang Island. The restaurant’s reputable chef specializes in seafood and I have to say my Brazilian stew was once of the best meals I’ve tasted in a long time; Mike was similarly delighted with his Caribbean-style grilled drum. Afterwards, we took a stroll on the beach but the wind was unusually strong and several tents belonging to holiday-makers who had come down to celebrate July 4th, lay broken on the sand. So we drove back to Corpus Christi and had a drink on the small wooden patio of a weatherbeaten fishing pier/café near Oso (‘Bear’) Bay, not far from our new home. It was lovely sitting there, looking out over the sea to the twinkling lights of Bay Bridge to the west and Mustang Island to the south.

Whilst cycling along Oso Bay last month I saw a dolphin leaping in and out of the water. It was the first time I had seen a dolphin in this particular stretch and I stood for a while watching it, entranced (though the several fly fishermen standing only feet away from it seemed totally unphased). My favourite time for cycling along Oso Bay is in the early evening when the laughing gulls and terns come flying back from wherever they have been during the day. Watching them, I imagine loved ones and friends, both over here and on the other side of the world, settling down, too, or already fast asleep.

Mother’s Day

Whilst browsing through some old magazine articles that I had written about Mattie’s adoption and our early years together, I came across one on the theme of Mother’s Day.

It had never occurred to me prior to Mattie coming into my home that Mother’s Day might be a difficult day for an adopted child. On our first Mother’s Day Mattie was only four and I remember she was quite grumpy but I couldn’t understand why (surely, she couldn’t be missing her birth mother?)

On Mother’s Day five years later, Mattie’s lovely former foster mother, whom she had looked on as a mother, was in hospital terminally ill. Mattie and I were sitting side by side in church that day as the young vicar reminded the congregation that Mother’s Day was a sad day for many. I felt the tears run down my cheek and fetching a hankie from my bag looked sideways at Mattie: she had that firm mouth she always has when trying to be brave.

Unlike the UK, Mother’s Day in the US is on the second Sunday in May and Mattie seems to have enjoyed the day more as she has got older. There was a tradition of Mike taking her out shopping to buy a card and a gift and afterwards taking us to a restaurant with a big enough patio to take the crowd.

But this year, 15 year-old Mattie showed little interest in Mother’s Day and as she has been quite a difficult teenager of late, I was sure, when I woke up on Mother’s Day, she wouldn’t even mention it.
‘I won’t mind,’ I had told Mike the previous evening.
‘I think you will!’ he replied.
As I was making my morning coffee on Sunday morning, I heard a noise on the stairs and Mattie came running into the kitchen and gave me a big hug. ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy,’ she cried out.

Later the three of us went for a late breakfast at Sol Luna, one of our favourite Mexican restaurants. There were plenty of babies, as well as dressed-up mums, seated on the patio, and dads and granddads, too, carrying small bouquets of flowers. Service was slow, the female wait staff having been given the day off, which I thought rather sweet. There was a pleasant drone of happy chatter and Mattie seemed very happy. The three of us hadn’t chatted together so happily in a while and as we came out of the restaurant I remarked to Mike, ‘It’s the best Mother’s Day I’d ever had!’

Easter in Corpus

Mike and I spent Easter Sunday at our recently purchased ‘holiday’ home in Corpus Christi. The house is situated just 3 minutes’ walk from the water; in fact, when you come out onto the front lawn and look left, you can see the bay and palm trees.

Inside the house, strangely enough, I am reminded of an English cottage. Perhaps it is simply due to the wainscotting on the walls, but each time I enter it, I feel as though I am stepping into an episode of ‘The Railway Children’. At the moment, we spend most of our spare time there clearing up – the house was full of dog hair and the pungent smell of mothballs when we first took it over. We have also been busy in the front and back yards cutting down dead or dying shrubs and trees, and I enjoy planning what might replace them. We have already planted a frangipane, a Texas ebony and a bottlebrush tree. However, these are tiny, in 1-gallon pots and Mike is somewhat leery of them. ‘How long will that take to get to full size?’ is his common refrain.

One of the first tasks on our list is to treat the front lawn which has a greyish, dead-looking spot; Mr Gonzales, the elderly plumber who replaced the old drain pipes before we took possesion, is certain that scrub-worm is the cause of it. All it needs, he told Michael, is to put a few holes in the earth and fill them with soap powder and water it well. (At this point I am reminded of one of my favourite books, ‘Stones from Ybarra’, written in the 1960s by a young American couple who inherited and did up a house in northern Mexico. I came across this book by chance in a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio and only then learned that Mike had read it years earlier. So when we first viewed the Corpus Christi house and I spotted ‘Stones from Ybarra’ on a bookshelf, I thought it a good omen.)

The house will need some renovation, including a new kitchen and the conversion of the office, which was formerly a garage, into a master bedroom and bathroom. Apart from that and the myriad small things that always needs to be done in a newly acquired home, it needs a thorough lick of paint. Most of the floors are covered in Saltillo tile except two of the bedrooms, one of which Mattie has claimed as hers.

Outside the kitchen, we will replace the cracked concrete patio with Mexican brick and its overhead metal cover with something more aesthetic. The back yard is quite extensive and at the back of the kitchen is a narrow, shaded strip which contains a couple of tall palm trees, a pile of terracotta shards and broken bird boxes. (There was a dead squirrel here, too, but this thankfully has since been removed by an opossum, perhaps, or a hawk.) There is the constant sound of birdsong in the garden and the occasional drilling of a woodpecker. Some of the birds I have seen in the trees I shall have to look up in my bird book.

Corpus Christi seems to be a friendly town and some neighbours have already popped round to say hello. Opposite lives the head of the art department at the local university (his wife, a working artist, commutes from Georgia at the moment.) Next to them live an elderly couple who built their house back in the 1950s. The wife’s immediate comment regarding the people from whom we purchased the house was ‘They were far too liberal for us,’ and within ten minutes she had regaled me with a potted history of not only them but almost everyone in the street… In the house to our right, Mario and his family have already offered to help out in case we need anything doing whilst we are not around. We haven’t met the people on the other side of the house but two dead-looking limbs of their Arizona ash tree hover threateningly over our side of the yard.

Corpus Christi has two fairly large beaches situated a couple of miles further east and dotted along the coast are a number of tiny parks, too. One of these, Poelnish Park, is close to the house and sports the tiniest of beaches (our ‘local beach’ I call it) and I intend to take a swim there one day. I pass by Poelnish Park each time I cycle, to the occasional sound of a helicopter hovering in the sky above, towards the naval coastal station about two miles east. Much of the ride is along a long narrow spit, on one side of which is Corpus Christi Bay and on the other some wetlands. Herons, pelicans, terns and many other shorebirds abound and at this time of year the grass verges are sprinkled with pink, lemon and blue wildflowers. On Easter Sunday, there was no traffic and apart from a few fishermen (and the birds of course) it was empty and silent, quite blissful in fact. I stopped cycling more than once to gaze at the city of Corpus Christi across the bay and the long bridge that crosses from it to the barrier island. Those of you who have read ‘Dear Mummy, Welcome’ might recall that Mike took me to Corpus Christi for a couple of days just before I adopted Mattie. At that time we had even considered living here. We definitely made the right decision to settle in San Antonio, but looking across the bay, it occurred to me that we have, in a sense, ended up here after all.

Tea towels

Yesterday morning, two letters from Homeland Security arrived in the post, announcing Mattie’s and my permanent residency. We have enjoyed temporary green cards for a couple of years now but these will be the real thing. The cards, so the letters informed us, will arrive within 60 days and as Mike, Mattie and I stood together in the kitchen, we discussed how long the process had taken to get to this point. Mattie suggested four years but I thought it closer to five, given the fact that Mike had initiated the process almost a year before we left the UK. In the same post as the Homeland Security letters was a parcel from my mother: along with two books that she thought I might like came a tea towel, which made me smile.

When Mattie and I first arrived in the US, I at first found it difficult to find the type of tea towel (ie, made of linen) that we have in the UK. Here, they tend to be more like the kitchen towels you use to wipe your hands with. So having mentioned this both to my sister, Molly, and my mother, a steady stream of tea towels has crossed the Atlantic ever since.

The first of our tea towel collection was given to us by friends Chris and Richard at a neighbours’ farewell party shortly before we left Lewes. It is a handsome tea towel that depicts images of Lewes, like the Castle (just down from our old home on the High Street), St Anne’s Church (where Mattie loved to see the nativity play each Christmas), and cobbled Keere Street, down which I walked Mattie each week day, first to nursery and then to primary school.

Eight months after our departure, during our first Christmas in San Antonio, included in sister Molly’s gift package were two turquoise-and-white check tea towels from a favourite shop in Lewes. And for my birthday that August, two pretty, pale blue, pink and red ones – depicting various types of teapots, cups and saucers, and trays of cakes – arrived. These invoke memories of the tea parties that Mattie and I often hosted for close friends and neighbours at our old house on the High Street; I remember putting out the best china, making egg & cress sandwiches and that Mattie loved to decorate the fairy cakes. Tea would usually be served in the kitchen, which overlooked the garden and you could see the south downs in the distance.

On our second Christmas in San Antonio, Mum included in her gift package two tea towels from Charleston (former home and gathering point of members of the Bloomsbury Group). These depicted a traditional Charleston print of birds and flowers, which invoke memories of my first visit to Charleston, soon after it opened to the public back in the late 1980s – I had just moved to Lewes around that time and the period is very dear to me and one I am currently writing about in my first book of fiction.

For Christmas 2014, Mandy sent me a coral-coloured tea towel of flowers and doves, and from Mum two tea towels depicting garden vegetables arrived in the mail. Then this Christmas, Mum sent a tea towel printed with a 2016 calendar surrounded by rather splendid red blooms. We have had a bit of a tough start to 2016, what with Mattie experiencing some teenager ups and downs, but our lives are now moving into full swing again, we are experiencing beautiful winter weather and the plants on my Victorian potting table (from Ludlow, England) are beginning to bloom. So I expect that in future years, when I bring out this particular tea towel to dry the dishes, these are the memories it will surely bring forth.

Now with a full drawer of tea towels, I had wondered whether to tell Mum that there was no need to send any more. Instead I told her how much I loved them, which were my favourite designs and which dried the crockery best. So I should not have been surprised when the latest tea towel arrived this week. ‘Dig For Victory’, a well-know British wartime slogan from World War II, is written in bold black letters on a dark lemon background and it features a garden trug full of veggies, the sort of trug that you see in many a shop in Sussex. This tea towel brings back memories of the time when my back garden in Lewes had been re-designed and I would plant up the raised vegetable bed and make trips to local nurseries hunting unusual plants. And the wartime message has a grit to it which I find particularly apt at this time of struggling at times with a teenager! So after I have washed this latest addition, it will join all the other tea towels in the kitchen drawer, taking their turn to be used in our south Texas home, and all of them bringing a smile to my lips.

Family Get-togethers

Whilst walking in the park recently, I heard a rustling noise in the scrub and saw something scurry away. I hurried along the pathway and then saw, through a gap in the bushes, the long, narrow face of a coyote looking at me, his pale face harmonising well with the wintry colours of the landscape. By wintry, I mean that the shrubs that line the park’s pathways and that in summer are full of tiny white blossom, are now bare and their tangled mass of thin branches appear a fawnish haze in the bright morning sun. Also at this time of year, the prickly pear cactuses take on a softer, blue-green hue.

Not long ago we all celebrated Thanksgiving and this year it was with Mike’s youngest daughter, her husband and two little ones who had come to stay with us for a few days. On the special day itself we eschewed the traditional turkey and Mike cooked beef fajitas over charcoal of mesquite; we ate them with wheat and corn tortillas, several delicious types of salsa, black beans, guacamole and salad, followed by fruit pie and a chocolate-pumpkin cake. Little Teddy, Mike’s six year-old grandson, helped me make the guacamole and he was rather concerned at first that I had put too much lime juice into it. I hadn’t but I did add more serrano chili pepper than I had intended, making it rather hot; consequently, poor Teddy had to drink copious amounts of water in between demolishing large dollops of the bright-green mush on blue-corn tortilla chips.

Just before Thanksgiving, Mattie and I travelled to far west Texas for a few days. En route we first visited the wild underground caves at Kickapoo Caverns State Park, in the middle of nowhere. Not only were the caves fascinating but a real workout too as we climbed up and down rocks whilst hanging onto our flashlights. Our tour group consisted primarily of boy scouts and looking back, I was probably the oldest one there. It was interesting to see inscriptions, dating from the 1880s on some of the huge stalactites and other formations, which had been engraved by soldiers out on daytrips from nearby Fort Clark.

The following morning, after spending the night at Comstock, a tiny ‘one motel, one restaurant’ town just this side of the Rio Grande river (I would call it a village but they don’t say that here), we later joined a tour with another group of boy scouts to see the rock art of prehistoric Indians at nearby Seminole Canyon State Park (The boy scouts’ leader, it turned out, was none other than Michael’s dentist from back home in San Antonio). After a picnic lunch, Mattie and I travelled two hours to our final destination of the Gage Hotel in another tiny town, Marathon. Whilst Mattie skyped a friend on her ipod, I cycled the mile or so to Iron Mountain Ranch. Scores of quail in the fields scattered here and there as I rode by, a jackrabbit bounded through the scrub and several handsome horses and a large bull looked on as I approached the ranch gates. I was surrounded on all sides by mountain and hill ranges, the sky was a cloudless clear blue and there was complete silence. It was idyllic.

During the next two days, Mattie and I enjoyed hikes in Big Bend National Park and also a few hours’ pottering around nearby Alpine and Marfa. I had an excellent margarita and Mattie a ginger ale in the bar of Marfa’s historic Paisano hotel; the film ‘Giant’, starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean runs for 24 hours non-stop in the hotel lobby – the cast stayed at the hotel when the film was shot on location nearby. It was dusk when we later drove back towards Marathon. There was a huge, full moon in the violet sky and we thrilled at the sight of a family of javelinas crossing the wide, empty road.

Generals and Cardinals

Recently, I attended a parents’ breakfast meeting at the Robert E Lee High School that Mattie now attends. Only a few mums and dads attended, the 7am start time probably putting many off; I have to admit, I had been partly lured by the promise of a light breakfast which consisted of delicious (and anything but light) pastries and cake, a large plate of fruit and copious amounts of steaming coffee. The meeting had been called by the head of the school district mainly to introduce, and gain support for, a new bond issue that will result in improvements for a number of schools in this part of San Antonio. During a subsequent Q&A session, an African American parent seated behind me enquired as to the latest status regarding the school’s name.

When, more than three years ago, Mattie and I arrived in San Antonio, I knew little of the American Civil War though I did know that Robert E Lee (of whom there is a rather handsome large statue outside her school) was a revered general of the Confederacy, which stood for the right to own slaves, the use of which formed the economic backbone of the south’s economy at the time. But after the recent Charleston church mass shooting, many African Americans, and others, too, have become more sensitive to the names of certain public buildings in the southern states.

At the breakfast meeting, the African American parent articulated his views for several minutes but the other parents remained silent on the issue; it was like the elephant in the room. The head of school district’s final response was that opinions swing both ways and until there exists sufficient support for a formal vote, the school’s name remains. As only a small percentage of African Americans lives in San Antonio (much larger populations live in the north and east of Texas) I imagine that a vote, at least in the near future, is unlikely, though I like to think that Robert E Lee (decent man as he was in many ways), were he to rise from his grave today, would say, ‘Time to move on.’

After the meeting ended, I drove to Guadalupe River State Park, about 40 minutes’ drive north-east of San Antonio. The beautiful cypress-lined river that runs through the park is again deep enough to swim in since the May floods, and after a short hike I took a picnic and book, cushion and blanket to the river bank and spent a lovely couple of hours swimming and reading, the silence only punctuated by bird song and the buzzing of royal blue dragonflies. A pair of majestic, black-headed vultures looked down haughtily from a tall tree and tiny grey fish swam at the river’s edge.

On the northern side of the river, beyond a handsome limestone bluff, stands an old farmstead with a rusting tin roof that once belonged to early German settlers. What a marvellous location for a house, I thought, though of course the new immigrants would have had to contend with the Comanches and Apaches that roamed the area and used this very river. My previous visit to the state park had been in winter when most of the trees were bare and there was a stunning flash of scarlet every now and then as northern cardinals swooped amongst the trees.

Signs of Fall

The other day in our front yard two tall, lime green stems appeared out of the ground. At first I was unsure as to what these plants were. Then, soon after, vivid scarlet spikes appeared on top and I recalled the handful of Oxblood Lily bulbs that a lady at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens had given me a while ago. This particular variety, known as Hill Country Red, sports blooms the colour of a matador’s cape. Originating in Argentina, they were introduced to this state by a German Texan at the start of the last century.

Lilies aside, there is another sign that fall is here: Mattie has commenced her first year of high school! After successfully auditioning for a major in creative writing, she is attending what is known here as a magnet school, for children gifted in the arts.

On the first morning of her new school, Mattie came into my study early, whilst I was editing my second book, and said, ‘Mummy, I feel nervous.’ After some words of reassurance, I said, ‘That’s what you said on your first day of ‘big school’ when you were four…Do you want me to read you that bit in Dear Mummy, Welcome?’ Mattie nodded yes and Mike joined us as I read out the respective page. For a moment I felt as though we were back in my old study in Sussex, with its view of the Downs and our cat chasing the tom next door.

Ten years later, at her high school in Texas, Mattie seems to be having a ball, making new friends, receiving lots of invitations – oh, and doing some homework in between. It was both touching and amusing, the other day, to see Mike check over a piece of creative writing homework – actually, a rather beautiful piece, in which she writes to her late foster mother – and I thought of all those times Mike similarly helped me.

I look back very fondly on the ten weeks of Mattie’s summer holidays: Taking her and her friend, Destiny, camping in the Hill Country. Then dropping Mattie off each day for her 2-week black & white photography course at art school; Mike’s brother had sent her a beautiful old Canon SLR for the course and she took it, along with several reels of b/w film, on our subsequent road trip a deux to Far West Texas. (I have just taken the films to be developed and we can’t wait to see the results). Later in the holidays, Mike, Mattie and I travelled to New Mexico – as charming and evocative a place as ever.

On our return to Texas, we had just enough time to clean and tidy up before my sister, Molly, brother-in-law, Tom, and nieces, Mei and Poppy came to stay. We all missed them when they left and I think of them often, particularly our wonderful day at the coast on my birthday; swimming in the river at Gruene, a little German town in the Hill country; eating on our patio before a late swim in the pool; our farewell dinner, serenaded by Mariachi singers, on the patio of La Margarita restaurant in the Mexican quarter. What we all loved, too, was the fact that although Mattie and Mei had not seen each other (other than on Skype) for a year, they hit it off immediately and they appeared to be just as close as since the first day they met at nursery school when they lifted each other up like two little Sumo wrestlers. Then Mei was only three, and much shorter than Mattie; now the athletic 13 year-old tops her older cousin by four inches at least…

The White Place

Recently, in the basement shop of San Antonio Central Library, I bought for $5 a beautiful, oversized hardback book containing 100 or so colour plates of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings (a few plates had been torn out). Both the paintings and the accompanying text by the artist I found inspiring. So during a road trip that Mike, Mattie and I made to New Mexico, when I learned that the artist’s old house was open to the public, I was most interested.

‘It’ll take just over an hour to get to Abiquiu from Taos, if you take the cross-country route,’ the lady on the other end of the telephone advised. ‘Can you make it by 1pm?’
‘I’m sure we can’, I replied, glancing at my watch: we had well over 2 hours to get there.
Mike, who unfortunately had some urgent business to attend to that day was unable to join me and Mattie. He kindly filled the coolbox with ice and I did a quick check of our picnic goodies and then we were off. We drove out of town the wrong way but my mistake did allow us a glimpse of the Ranchos de Taos church, plates of which I recalled from my gorgeous book. We turned around and then drove west on scenic Highway 64 to the Rio Grande gorge, traversing the river via a rather splendid bridge. Mattie was now napping so I parked and left her for a few minutes whilst I took a photo. I felt a little dizzy gazing into the depths.

Half a mile beyond the gorge bridge, we turned south and drove along a long, empty road until I spotted the river again in the distance and I made a slight detour to get a different view of it. The Rio Grande was even more beautiful here than at the gorge bridge, and void of tourists, too. With a glance at the time I hopped back in the car and a little later we were heading south-west along one of those roads that on the map looks as though you’ll only be on it for a few minutes but which goes on forever and I began to feel a little anxious, wondering if I had missed some turnoff along the way. At this point Mattie awoke and reminded me that we had to get to Abiquiu by 1pm, as though I wasn’t aware of it! Eventually, we approached another junction, I checked my map and yes, we were on the right road but, I calculated, we had about another half-hour to go and it was now 12.30pm. The landscape had become gently lovely: I recall pink and cream rocks punctuated with dark green shrubs. ‘Did Georgia O’Keefe ever come along this route?’ I wondered aloud to Mattie who then joyously spotted a sign for the New Inn at Abiquiu. We turned at the next junction and roared up the road a mile or two until the inn and the booking office came into view. It was a minute before 1pm. There we were asked to leave our cameras and bags in a locker before we were bundled, along with half a dozen other visitors, into a minibus and immediately left for the old village of Abiquiu, located a mile or so up a nearby hill. The driver (the grandson of Georgia O’Keefe’s former gardener) brought the minibus to a halt outside a long adobe wall which, we were told, formed the boundary of the artist’s property. (It was only on coming to visit New Mexico that I understood why O’Keefe so often painted adobe walls: their colours, shadows and curves made me instinctively want to reach out and stroke them.)

When Georgia O’Keefe bought the house in 1945, Abiquiu village consisted mainly of shepherd and farming families and she was viewed as an outsider. After the house was renovated she spent more and more time there, often entertaining friends and visiting artists. She was forced to leave the house, due to ill health, in 1984 and since then it had been largely untouched. Through a ‘window’ or, rather, a hole in an adobe wall, we peered into her living room. Sadly inaccessible due to the fragile state of its mud floor, the room was minimalist in décor yet looked cosy and comfortable; its beige, brown and grey colours imitated the large, smooth pebbles that had once been collected by the artist and arranged around the room. ‘There’s your book!’ Mattie exclaimed suddenly and there, leaning against a mid-century armchair, was a copy of the book that I had purchased in the library sale. ‘That was Georgia O’Keefe’s own copy,’ the guide said. I looked closer: it was almost identical to mine except that the sky on ‘her’ front cover appeared to be cobalt blue whereas on mine it is turquoise.

Mattie was writing notes in her little journal as we entered the open portion of the house by way of a courtyard. There was a well, an ancient juniper tree and, near the doorway, a skull of an elk with antlers, suspended on a wall: was that the same skull that appeared on the front cover of my book, I wondered? Mattie found it amusing to hear that O’Keefe’s gardener had written his initials on the elk’s antlers, the well and other structures. When I later asked Mattie what her main impression was of the visit, she answered, ‘The way the gardener left his mark by putting his initials on everything.’
We then entered an ancient, restored pueblo cooking room, which in turn led into a ‘modern’ kitchen where the artist, we heard, loved to cook. I imagined her standing there at the stove in her customary long, black dress. The kitchen still contained all her spice jars, food packets and electrical gadgets from the 1980s and even some of her original potted succulents. A kitchen table and chairs stood before a large window that gave out onto pinkish-red hills and cottonwood trees.

On exiting the kitchen we crossed another courtyard to a separate structure that housed O’Keefe’s studio and adjoining bedroom. Both rooms were painted white, unlike the rest of the house which was a soft mud-brown. I imagined the artist painting under the fluorescent studio lights to the strains of her favourite Monteverdi and Bach. On a shelf lay a couple of hand-rolled pots that she created in her later years when failing eyesight made painting difficult. A row of small, thick notebooks that contained her painting notes covered the top of a wide cupboard next to a large window which looked out onto the Chama River valley. Mattie turned to me and said, ‘The view would inspire anyone to be creative!’ I was thrilled that she seemed so invigorated. For me, the experience was magical. The guide then passed around a selection of O’Keefe prints; one, The White Place, depicted a pale rock formation in soft hues. ‘The White Place is not far from here, you can get details of its location from the booking office,’ the guide informed us. On exiting the house, we were told to help ourselves to apricots and apples that had fallen from nearby trees.

‘I must go back and take photos,’ I told Mattie later as we got in our car. We drove up the hill and although Georgia O’Keefe’s house was now out of bounds to us we had a closer look at the empty village square, including the building that once had been Bode’s, the grocery shop that the artist had patronized, and at the top of the small hill stood an ancient church with three large crosses planted in its grounds. We gathered some fallen apricots for our picnic and then followed the directions to the White Place. We followed an unpaved road along the Chama river, handsomely lined with cottonwoods and then turned east and the terrain became more and more uneven and I began to wonder, again, if we were on the right tracks when, out of the blue, a set of white limestone rocks appeared before us. ‘What a wonderful place for a picnic,’ I exclaimed. We stopped and laid out our picnic blanket, quite alone in this wilderness. Later, as Mattie wrote in her journal, I went for a short stroll, all the while imagining the artist wandering around the area, looking for a favourite painting spot. (Back in San Antonio I checked my book and was pleased to see that it contained a plate of the area: The White Place In Shadow.)

Later that afternoon, colours of white, cream and pink rock changed to deep red and ochre as we left the White Place and moved north, headed for Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe had owned another small house and studio. ‘She spent fifty summers here,’ announced the guide who greeted us on arrival. We didn’t have time for a tour of Ghost Ranch and it was a lot more touristy than Abiquiu, but we did get a glimpse of the surrounding red and purple cliffs and in the small gift shop I purchased a card called Cottonwoods Near Abiquiu that recalled our picnic drive. ‘There’s a thunderstorm on the way,’ the guide then announced, looking upwards. The sky had become dark purple, streaked with lightening so Mattie and I hurriedly took to the road again. We just missed the storm as we continued northwards to Highway 64. Soon we had climbed to over 9,000 feet and the high meadows were full of wildflowers, including tall, floppy orange daisies that I hadn’t seen before, and I was particularly struck by some huge craggy rocks emerging through the mist that recalled a Caspar David Friedrich painting. As we began our descent, Taos soon came into view and Mattie rang Mike to let him know we would be back soon for dinner. Mike told us to be careful, as it had been raining hard in Taos all afternoon. As we entered the damp town, we were thrilled to see a double rainbow in the sky…

Far West Texas and Big Bend

Last week, Mattie and I made our first road trip alone, travelling to the remote wilds of Far West Texas. After a 300 mile journey along Highway 90, during which we made several photo stops and picnicked at Lake Amistad on the Mexican border, we arrived late afternoon at our destination: the Gage Hotel in Marathon.

A tiny town, Marathon today boasts little more than a grocer shop, a couple of churches and a library. It is so-named because one of its founders likened the surrounding area to the plains around Marathon in Greece. The hotel itself was built in 1927 by Alfred S. Gage, a wealthy local rancher, who wanted a comfortable lodging place to return to after he became a business leader in San Antonio. I had booked a room for three nights and for the next three mornings – after excellent coffee, homemade scones and Spanish omelette – Mattie and I drove through empty, rugged and quite beautiful scenery for 70 miles to the northern entrance gate of Big Bend National Park.

The other-worldly Big Bend, which covers over 800,000 acres of Far West Texas, is so-called because it lies on a big bend of the Rio Grande river that divides the US and Mexico. Built in 1944, it is the least visited National Park in the US because of its remoteness (the nearest airport is over 200 miles away). In its time the area has been home to early Chisos Indians, Comanches, Spanish and Mexican settlers and Anglo ranchers. Now just a few of the Park’s rangers live there.

Big Bend is famous for its spectacular geology, more than 1200 plant species (including some 60 cactus species) and wildlife – we spotted jack rabbits, quail and roadrunners though we missed the black bears and mountain lions! But just as thrilling for me were the pinkish-mauve and dark blue Texas sage bushes, desert and mountain wildflowers of every colour, shocking-pink cactus blossom and tall cream yucca plumes. On our first visit, at the start of a hike through Mexican pine, oak and juniper in the Chisos mountain range, Mattie was thrilled to spot a tarantula before it scooted into a hole. The views at the end of our long climb were breathtaking and we rewarded ourselves that evening with dinner at the Gage Hotel restaurant: I ate two locally caught quail on a bed of polenta and Mattie a roasted red pepper pizza. We shared a chocolate pudding.

As well as its cuisine, the Gage is noted for its cocktails and I very much enjoyed a Paloma – a mix of tequila, freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice, Topo Chico (a Mexican sparkling water) and a dash of lime. Mattie, for tradition’s sake, had a Shirley Temple: ginger ale or sprite mixed with grenadine and a cocktail cherry – she recalled drinking her first Shirley Temple at the age of 6, the last time she, Mike and I were in this part of the world.

Mattie’s other memory of that earlier visit was of standing on the banks of the Rio Grande and watching a horseman come trotting over the river from the Mexican village of Boquillas. My memory is of her anxiously clutching her teddy bear as the rider approached a nearby rock where some handmade wire scorpions lay, gathered the few dollars left behind by tourists and trotted back across the river. At that time, I was unaware that this crossing point had once been a popular tourist stop but was closed by the Federal Government after September 11th. . The crossing point re-opened about a year ago and so, on the second day of our trip, Mattie and I were thrilled to be ferried across the river by rowing boat and then ride a mile or so by donkey into the village.

Although it was sad to see the old village bars and other adobe buildings that had gone to ruin since September 11th, it was also heartening to learn that Boquillas is experiencing something of a rebirth and around 50 people live there now. After passing through Mexican passport control (inside an old trailer) Mattie and I walked around the village with its bright-yellow stone church, tiny bright-pink school, old adobe ruins and small gift shops and restaurants where we stopped for a drink. Mules grazed outside villagers’ houses and occasionally a man on horseback trotted through the village. After buying a few souvenirs – including, of course, handmade wire scorpions – we heaved ourselves onto our ever patient mules and headed back to the river. On the other side, a roadrunner crossed our path; normally quite skittish, this one very kindly stopped for a photo. After snapping away, I turned and looked back at Boquillas, splendidly located against the backdrop of the massive Sierra del Carmen, and I felt as though I had left another world.

On our third and final day in the National Park, we drove along the Ross Maxwell scenic trail, stopping for photo shoots, a picnic and short hikes to remains of old adobe ranches. We ended up at the awe-inspiring Santa Elena canyon. Due to all the rain we have experienced recently in Texas, we had to wade through a small creek almost 3 feet deep in water to the canyon, cameras held high in one hand and clutching each other with the other. We then climbed steep stone steps to the canyon trail which we followed until its vast walls met the Rio Grande. Tiny (from our viewpoint) canoes in the river below lent a splash of bright colour to the magnificent scene.

Later that afternoon, we drove along the at times hair-raising, unpaved Old Maverick Trail which finally brought us to the Park’s west exit. ‘Let’s give each other a high 5’ said Mattie at the end of the day. She looked radiant and it struck me that being in this wonderful wilderness for a few days had done us both much good.

Dinner that night was in the Gage Hotel bar where a large white buffalo head on the wall peered over us. Two young men in cowboy hats and wearing silver belt buckles entered the bar, ordered their drinks and then sat in complete silence at the next table. I turned and took a peek at them: both cowboys were immersed in their iPhones, a reminder that we were in the real world once again…

A Cardinal In A Fig Tree

I was counting the figs on our fig tree, the other day, when I spotted a northern cardinal sitting in a tiny nest. The fig tree is only three years old and just a little taller than me, so I was surprised that the bird should choose such a low spot. The plumage of the female cardinal (in contrast to the bright-scarlet male) is a soft fawny-apricot, and they have a rather handsome orange beak. Occasionally, Mike and I will take a cautious peek at the one in our fig tree: sometimes all you can see is the scarlet tip of her tail; other times she is gone and we might see her in the loquat tree, at the bottom of the garden, being fed tidbits by her male. The eggs, by the way, are white with blue and brown spots.

Our own little bird had her last day at middle school last week and it was, so I heard, quite an emotional time for one and all. Happily, Mattie’s new high school, which will commence in late August, is only a little further away so I am sure that she, like many of the ex-middle schoolers, will pop in from time to time to see their favourite former teachers. Mattie’s last band concert was in fact the very evening I arrived back from a recent stay in Worthing to see my parents and Mattie, Mike and I had to make a quick dash from Austin airport to be there to watch marvellous Mr Rios, the band director, conduct the 8th grade musicians for the last time.

I seemed to have timed the weather right for my trip to the UK: Mike said it rained the whole time I was away. In Worthing, in contrast, it had rained up until my visit but didn’t begin to rain again until the day of my departure. It was lovely to see my parents, especially my mother, who had been poorly, but she was already making a good recovery around the time I arrived home. I also was pleased to see my parents living so cosily in their new flat, which is located closed to the town centre, beach, a charming old bowls club and excellent local shops. Inbetween outings to places like Chichester and Littlehampton (as well as a two-day sojourn I made to Lewes, staying with my sister, Molly, and family) I enjoyed many an invigorating walk along Worthing’s windswept shingle seafront, which is dotted with tiny villages, seaside cafes and beach huts.

There were three different types of cuisine that I hoped to enjoy whilst back home: roast lamb, fish & chips and a curry. I devoured a very delicious lamb roast at a lovely little pub near the village of Storrington which I visited with my parents (in fact, we went there twice). The excellent fish & chips we consumed at a local seaside café – the weather was so warm that day that we could eat around a table on the beach and the fish was particularly fresh; I have fond memories of washing it down with a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. Although there is an excellent Indian restaurant near my parents’ flat, we didn’t have time, in the end, to fit in a curry. Indeed, my stay was all too short and it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, outside their flat early in the morning, the taxi driver waiting. I had to smile to myself, during my flight, when the British Airways air steward came and asked me which lunch selection I would like and I ate, what turned out to be, a surprisingly good chicken tikka masala.