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.

Enchanted Rock

We must have had perfect weather conditions (not too cold a winter, plenty of rain in spring) in advance of this wildflower season because the colours are just Glorious now. I have never before seen such a variety; even the local parks are sprinkled with flowers they’d don’t usually sport and yesterday, I had to concentrate hard to keep my eye on the road as I drove up Interstate 10, headed toward Enchanted Rock State Park: the central median and side verges of this Interstate are currently carpeted with swathes of bluebonnets, scarlet paintbrush, golden coreopsis, white-flowered milkweed, winecups – and violet, pink and lemon wildflowers the names of which I am not yet acquainted.

Whenever I visit Enchanted Rock – a huge dome of pink rock in the centre of the Hill Country – I always think back to the first time Mattie, Mike and I visited it just a few months after Mattie and I emigrated from the UK. Then we were in the midst of a house renovation, Mattie was about to start Middle School and I recall still feeling somewhat bewildered by the whole experience, so our hike that day for me was a breath of fresh air and, well, enchanting. Yesterday, I followed a trail (about 2.5 miles) around Enchanted Rock so that I was able to view it from all angles; the wildflowers were blooming, as well as dark-red flowers of small cactuses growing out of rocks and a plant called ‘blue curls’, which is similar to and in the same family as the lovely soft-blue caryopteris shrub that used to flower in autumn in my old garden back in Lewes. The scenery during parts of the trail was quite sparse – cacti, yuccas, splendid muhly grasses, old wizened live oaks – whilst other stretches were covered in golden wildflowers and small ponds were beginning to fill with pale-green sedum. At times I heard the soft scrunch of my footfall where the pathway was covered in tiny pieces of pink rock crystal; I picked up a larger piece to take home.

I ate a small picnic lunch on a group of high rocks overlooking the Hill Country and then continued my walk, now encountering large chimney-shaped boulders that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Just feet above my head vultures soared in a sky that earlier had been cloudy but now was that lovely shade of mid-blue I always associate with south Texas. (The only other wildlife I spotted were lark sparrows, cardinals and a black Hill Country squirrel.)

On my way back to San Antonio, I stopped by the small German town of Comfort where I purchased Dahlberg daisy plants from a small livestock & garden shop and enjoyed an excellent coffee and cake in a local café. Mike (who had been working that day) had just picked up Mattie from school on my return.
‘What’s that?’ Mattie asked, immediately having spotted the rock crystal on the kitchen counter.
‘It’s enchanted,’ I replied.
‘Can I have it?’
‘Yes of course! You can make a wish to it every single day.’
‘No, you can only make one wish,’ she declared.
‘OK Mattie,’ I said, with a smile.

Armadillos, Bobcats And Other Firsts

This week, whilst walking in a local park, an armadillo scuttled across the path in front of me. It was the first armadillo I have seen in Texas and I followed it for a while as it wandered through the grass and frogfruit (a Texas native groundcover that has suddenly sprung up in this warmer weather). Continuing on my walk, it occurred to me that I have experienced a series of especial wildlife ‘firsts’ lately. Only a couple of months ago I spotted a bobcat at Mitchell Lake, which is just a few miles south of San Antonio and noted for its migratory birds and ducks. The bobcat came out from behind a bush, strolled up to the lake and sat gazing out for a minute or so. I hardly dared to take a breath! Then he turned, spotted me and dashed back into the bush.

Around the same time, in the greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens where I volunteer once a week, I had my first sighting of a Monarch butterfly chrysalis which was suspended from one of the plants. Yesterday evening I was reminded of that chrysalis whilst watching a program about the annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies from Mexico, via Texas, to Canada and back. Since only the fourth generation makes the journey from Canada to Mexico, I deduced that it must be that emergent butterfly’s great-grandchild which, hopefully, will arrive safely in Mexico this fall.

Mike, Mattie and I have just returned from our own trip to Mexico, albeit with the help of an airplane, a fine hotel and our guidebook. We stayed six blissful days in Huatulco, an as yet little developed beach resort on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. As soon as we spotted the tall palapa roofs of the airport, we knew it would be lovely. Even the dawn chorus screech of chacalacas in the trees outside our hotel window was thrilling (though Mike took a different view) and I loved watching the orioles, Mexican jays and great kiskadees swoop from palm to palm. After lounging on the beach or by the pool until mid-afternoon we would often take a short taxi drive to the small and quite charming town of Crucecita where, from the second-floor open shutters of our favourite restaurant, we could look down onto the little square, or Zocalo: no matter where you are in Mexico there always seems to be a balloon or ice-cream vendor going by, children playing in a fountain and couples strolling along the pathways of the Zocalo.

At the end of our beach trip, prior to our return to San Antonio, we spent a couple of days in Mexico City of which I again had no preconceptions. Luckily, it had rained just before our arrival and the sky was blue and there was no sign of smog. After dumping our bags in a hotel we had booked in the historical zone, we headed for the Zocalo and as soon as I saw it I knew I would love the city! This square must be fifty times bigger than the one in Crucecita. It is bordered by a huge cathedral, the National Palace, a fine arcade of shops, the ancient Aztec ruins of the Templo Mayor and the Gran Hotel de Mexico with its wonderful Tiffany stained-glass ceiling. After two days in the historical zone looking at other colonial buildings, Diego Riviera murals and dining at handsomely tiled restaurants that reminded me of Spain, we still had only covered half the area. Mattie, who had spent much of the holiday thus far taking pictures with a new camera (bought with Christmas money from former Lewes neighbour, Jo), was particularly riveted by a Cartier Bresson exhibition in the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts. Turning to me, she announced, ‘If you always took me to exhibitions like this, I’d always be willing to go!’ So I wondered whether this was not only a first for her, but a life-changing event?

Mariachi Bands, Chacalacas and Tarzan

The travel section of Sunday’s New York Times listed Texas as the second most visited place in the US and this, I am told, is because of San Antonio’s River Walk. Lined with tall cypresses, live oaks and smaller, exotic trees and blossoming foliage, you can stroll along the shops and patio restaurants as far as the museum district to the north, take a ride on one of the little tourist boats, or cycle to the Espada Mission in the south.
Three other Missions, all dating back to the 1700s, lie on or close to the San Antonio river and one of them, San José, holds a Mariarchi mass each Sunday. Shortly before Christmas, Mike and I attended the mass for the first time; I assumed it would be a touristy event and we were both pleasantly surprised to find the packed church mostly filled with parishioners. The service was bi-lingual, and to the side of the altar a Mariachi band accompanied the small choir that sang out so joyfully. It was very simple, and very sweet. Mike grinned afterwards that his former Methodist Sunday school teacher would have probably turned in her grave if she could have seen him there.

On Christmas Day, after we had opened gifts and enjoyed an early lunch of Tamales (a Mexican Christmas specialty given to us by our good neighbour, John Gonzales), Mike, Mattie and I went for a stroll in the downtown section of the River Walk. We saw Christmas lights that stretched from tree to tree and were lucky to get the last available table in an outdoors-heated Italian patio restaurant that we all like.

On Boxing Day, we drove at a leisurely pace to the southernmost tip of Padre Island, a 70 or so mile spit which, at its southern end, is accessible via the Queen Isabella causeway. The untouched, dune-lined beaches of Padre Island are almost empty at this time of year, save for seagulls, pelicans and other shorebirds. After shell-hunting, a picnic and a drive along the beach, Mike took Mattie for a swim in the hotel pool whilst I took out my binoculars and went for a stroll in the birding centre, opposite. Built on wetlands, all sorts of migrating ducks bobbed about on the water, blue and green herons and other waders stalked the rushes, and dozy alligators lounged (unfortunately I did not manage to get a glimpse of their babies). I was also thrilled to see a dozen or so roseate spoonbills having a nap, whilst out in the bay American white pelicans flapped. On the other side of the bay, brown pelicans flock around the tiny town of Port Isabel. This tiny, charming town which sports an old lighthouse used as a lookout post during the Civil War, had been an exclusive seaside resort during the last century – its excellent historical museum displays photos of yacht club members playing water polo.

The following day it drizzled when we left the Island, headed for the Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande River. I had read in my Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine that the newly built border fence, separating the US from Mexico, cuts right through this sanctuary and indeed, we had to drive through a hole, literally, in order to reach the original plantation house which now serves as a visitor center. Although raining by now, I had a quick trot around a small forest (according to a guide, the first Tarzan film was filmed there) of original sabal palms that once had flourished for 90 square miles along the Rio Grande River. Close by, the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch, and at Boca Chica (‘Little Mouth’), the southernmost part of the Texas coast, a Silicon Valley tech giant has recently been given permission to build a rocket launch pad there. Mattie’s recollection of Boca Chica is that it is the only place in the world where she has pee’d in the rain.

On the final day of our trip, we drove further westwards along the Rio Grande River. Apart from the border fence that appeared here and there, I found the area quite charming: large oranges and grapefruit (the ruby red variety) grew on trees, fields were planted with sugar cane, broccoli, spinach and cotton, and in the middle of a ploughed field or two sat a brightly-festooned Mexican cemetery. We also spotted an unusual old brick church which, a historical marker informed us, had had its wooden steeple blown away in a snow storm during the last century. Small Mexican shops and restaurants dotted the route, too, as well as advertisements for a Curandero, or traditional native healer. Later turning inland, we headed for the gorgeous Estero Llano Grande State Park, built on wetlands and part of the World Birding Center. Already at its entrance green jays, chacalacas and red-winged blackbirds flocked around the feeders. Lunch was in a rather smart restaurant in the nearby prosperous town of McAllen – ‘The best meal I’ve had on our trip,’ said Mike, now rather tired of the coast’s staple of fried seafood. (The restaurant owner’s family has loaned many of its handsome artefacts, dating from the Mexican and Civil wars, to the new Briscoe Western Museum on San Antonio’s River Walk.)

US 281 took us back to San Antonio (about four hours’ drive north). On the way, I was mesmerized by all the peregrine falcons, red and white tailed hawks, and merlins (I think) that looked down haughtily from the telephone posts. In the back of the car, our little bird, Mattie, was mesmerized by her Ipod…

Three Thanksgivings

During Thanksgiving week, Mike, Mattie and I spent a few days in Louisiana. We stayed in Lafayette, in the heart of the Cajun country, about 130 miles west of New Orleans. At this time of year, Louisiana, with its pine and cypress lined bayous, sports lovely fall colour.

A day or two before we departed for Louisiana, I had been walking in a local park and noted how unusually warm and humid it was for late November. I also noted the lack of birdsong. Then, all of a sudden, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, a great gust of wind came up and leaves, like golden snowflakes, began to fall. Within seconds, or so it seemed to me, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and a raindrop or two fell. Quickening my pace, two white-tailed deer scooted into the bushes and a red-shouldered hawk swooped past, its gingery-red plumage recalling maple trees in fall.

There is, as far as I am aware, only one spot in Texas where one can enjoy maple trees and the reds and russets of their fall colours. Lost Maples State Park is situated 80 miles, or 1½ hours’ drive west of San Antonio along almost empty roads, cypress lined rivers and soft green meadows (it has rained a fair amount recently). One day whilst Mike was working, I visited the park for the first time and delighted in its autumn colours, craggy limestone bluffs and a three-mile hilltop hike.

In contrast to Lost Maples, the fall colours in Louisiana are shades of orange and apricot, and just as lovely. As a school girl, I vaguely remember our history teacher, Dr Tucker, telling us about the European colonisation of the US, but I had forgotten that the word ‘Cajun’ is a derivation of ‘Arcadian’ and that the Arcadians had been expelled by the British in the 1750s, partly for being Catholic and partly for fear they would side against them in the French and Indian war. Several thousand Arcadians came to this part of Louisiana (others were forcibly resettled in New England, Maryland and Virginia) and today the names of the first settlers appear on many business and shop fronts in Lafayette. During this visit I quickly learned that French – both Cajun and Creole versions – are still spoken in Louisiana; we heard Cajun French in the French bakery, around the corner to our hotel, where delicious beignets (French doughnuts), croissants and strong coffee made a fitting start to our first day. And later, that afternoon, we much enjoyed Cajun musicians speaking Cajun and Creole French between ancient folk tunes performed on the accordion, fiddle and guitar.

South of Lafayette, along the Bayou Teche, we next visited several small towns whose main streets are lined with a mix of antebellum homes – including the odd splendid plantation manor house – Creole cottages and late 19th century dwellings in the Queen Anne style. Despite it being Thanksgiving Day the sugar cane was being harvested and an old sugar processing plant billowed plumes of white vapour into the blue sky. Earlier in the day, we had visited Avery Island, famous for the production of Mclhenny’s tabasco sauce. Sadly, the factory was closed but we were still delighted by the island (named after the aviary McIlhenny built to save the snowy egret from extinction). Louisiana bald cypress trees and huge southern live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, grow around the bayous and there are holly and blossoming camellia groves, too. During warmer months, alligators are active in the bayous and far more birds would have been in evidence – all I spotted were a few snowy egrets, a blue heron, waders with long orange beaks and a red-headed turkey vulture hogging the chimney of McIlhenny’s old house.

With most restaurants closed for Thanksgiving Day, Mike, Mattie and I had enjoyed our special meal the evening before, in a smart restaurant called Jolie. We savoured a fine potato soup, shrimp grits and redfish, followed by beignets (of course) topped with hot chocolate sauce; all was washed down with some excellent pinot noir, local beer and delicious coffee.

‘I’ve had three Thanksgivings in America, haven’t I?’ Mattie asked over dinner and we recalled that her first Thanksgiving had been in Galveston, the second in Port Aransas and now the third in Louisiana. Wearing a serious expression, she then said, ‘I think of all the places we’ve visited in America, San Antonio is the only place I want to live…At the age I am now.’

Ten Birthdays

In the entrance hall of Macey’s middle school are two framed photographs that often catch my eye. The first is of the school when it was first built, in the early 1970s. It then was surrounded by fields, palm trees dotted the grounds, there was hardly a car on the street outside, and only two brightly-coloured, classic American cars stood in the school car park. These days, those fields have become low-rise apartment blocks, live oaks and mountain laurels have replaced the palms, the road heaves with traffic and the multitude of cars in the car park look mostly no different to those you would see on European roads.

The second photograph is entitled ‘The Hansen Quads’ and this one I find particularly interesting because it features four identical, blond, curly haired sisters who attended school there in the mid-1980s. In those days, the majority of pupils would have been white. Nowadays, the majority, like the City of San Antonio itself, is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

I thought back to that photograph of the Hansen quads on Monday, when I attended the school’s band concert. I looked around the audience and was struck, not for the first time, by the number of enrapt, little brown-skinned brothers and sisters, all beautifully behaved, and the expressions of their proud parents as their older children performed. I also observed several white and Hispanic children, chatting and laughing together during the intervals, and I wished I could have frozen that moment of obvious harmony in time, so that none of the children would ever be confronted by racism.

As another proud parent, I watched Macey, with her flute, during the performance of Star Spangled Banner, and I have to say that tears came to my eyes as I thought of her having just celebrated her 14th birthday – her 10th with me. I then noticed her feet tapping to the beat, and I recalled that minutes before the concert, Madam had informed me that she had no black dress shoes to wear. ‘Why don’t you think in advance?’ I had admonished her, ‘I could have picked you up a pair today! ‘I’ll wear my navy Converse,’ she said, ‘They’ll be OK.’ I then shifted my gaze to all the other tapping feet and noted that only one other child was wearing Converse.

During the subsequent playing of America The Beautiful, it was the band director’s, Mr Rios’, shoes that interested me. At last year’s performance, this hugely popular, and recently promoted, music teacher came up to me, as I sat on the front row, and joked that he did not have any black shoes and consequently had had to borrow a pair. I recall chuckling to myself as he then shuffled, in his huge shoes, to the rostrum. This year, happily, Mr Rios was wearing shiny black, brand new loafers – and they fitted him to a tee…

Jelly Cats And Pink Bear

Hard to believe that Mattie has been back in school for more than a month!

The start of a new school year has never been the easiest of time for Mattie but I get the feeling this time round, entering 8th grade, that she has settled a little better that in previous years. One reason for my thinking thus was the difference in Mattie’s reaction to the new 6th graders. Last year, she had arrived home on her first day and, with a look of disgust on her face, said, ‘Mummy, the new sixth graders are so small – one of them only comes up to here!’ (she had pointed to her waist). This year, Mattie arrived home and said, ‘Mum, those new sixth graders are so cute!’

Last week a bug was doing the rounds of the local schools and one morning the school nurse rang to say that Mattie was feeling a little queasy and needed to be picked up. As soon as Mike brought her home she promptly fetched her favourite throw and pillow from her bedroom, along with several cuddly toys, and settled down very happily on the sofa to watch morning TV. I did not think Mattie seemed particularly unwell but I nevertheless made her a hot water bottle which is something of a tradition at such times. Later that day, I sat near her on the sofa as she picked up each cuddly toy (all of them ‘jelly cats’) and reminded me who had given her each one. The oldest was a pale-grey cat given to her by my brother, Lloyd, shortly after her adoption. The second oldest, a buttermilk-coloured rabbit, had come from Mike. Then came a shaggy rabbit from her Aunty Molly and Mattie reminded me that Molly had bought her cousin Mei an identical one. The fourth ‘jelly cat’ was a fluffy fawn-coloured rabbit from her Aunty Caryl – ‘This one has especially soft pads,’ Mattie said, fingering the rabbit’s feet. We then came to the last ‘jelly cat’, a pale-brown rabbit. I scratched my head for a moment until Mattie began to grin and I then remembered buying her this cuddly toy in Oregon, during our recent road trip. ‘I bought it because you forgot to bring a cuddly toy along,’ I said. It was the first time she had failed to do so and I had been surprised.

Mike, who had been listening to our conversation, smiled and said, ‘So are you going to take all your cuddly toys to college with you later on?’ Mattie promptly replied, ‘No, only Pink Bear, he will always be my favourite.’ Mike had bought Pink Bear during our first Christmas visit to Texas when Mattie was five. Whilst the two reminisced, I thought of the English homework that Mattie had been assigned to read and answer questions on earlier that week. Entitled The Middle School Conundrum it pointed out that although adolescents in middle school (ages 11-14 here) sometimes act like 15 year-olds, underneath they are are much like the 9 and 10 year-olds who have not long left elementary school behind; and because teachers do not always pay heed to how emotionally close the middle schooler is to the elementary schooler, they miss the chance to teach the whole person – the child who is leaving childhood behind as well as the young adult looking to be more independent.

The paper, combined with the picture before me of Mattie, lying on the sofa with her hot water bottle and surrounded by her cuddly toys, seemed to me to be a reminder to we parents, too…