San Pedro Springs Park

There are several state parks and state natural areas not far from San Antonio, some of which are simply gorgeous. The city itself sports a number of parks and one of them, in sight of Downtown, is, I think, rather special.

San Pedro Springs Park is not only the oldest park in Texas but almost the oldest municipal park in the United States. The springs and surrounding area were designated as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729, but the earliest recorded inhabitants were the Payaya Indians, who referred to their village as Yanaguana and are known to have practised ritual ceremonies here.

Due to all the spring water flowing underground, the trees in this park are huge, especially the live oaks; I have rarely seen such thick trunks and long, sprawling limbs in other parks here. Some of the limbs have dropped to the ground making the trees look sculptural – dinosaur trees, I call them. A creek runs through the park and there is also a small spring-fed pond where a night heron occasionally lounges. A bandstand with a rather handsome dome sits before a small library and a popular theatre, all three built in the late 1920s.

For many, the highlight of the park is its huge swimming pool, which is free to the public and open every summer to coincide with school holidays. There are about 30 such pools in San Antonio but this one is gorgeously lined with tall, overhanging cypress trees so that you can lie coolly in heat that might touch a hundred degrees on an off during the hottest part of summer. The pool has been rebuilt twice since it first opened in 1922 and is still spring fed. The water temperature is perfect, not too warm, and it was lovely to see and hear hordes of children having fun when I went there the other day during some construction work at our house. All children under 18 are allowed a free meal as part of the San Antonio summer meals program, thus ensuring that the many who receive free meals at school do not go undernourished during the summer months; San Pedro Springs Pool is only one of many locations where such a service is provided. It was touching to see the kids lining up at the counter and I thought of all those currently stuck at the border or already separated from their parents.

The park is surrounded by a small block of attractive south-western style buildings that house a lawyer or two, and many small, some not so small, houses that mostly belong to poorer folk. But like similar neighbourhoods in San Antonio – now Texas’ fastest growing city – already there are signs of the area becoming gentrified, like the nearby flower shop and a small restaurant with tables outside that advertises organic meals.

Our Refugee Friends

I was waiting with Mattie in the doctor’s surgery the other day. We were the only ones there except for a couple in their early thirties, or so they looked, who had a baby carrier by their side. I strained to get a look at the baby, a cute little girl with a pink dress and patterned socks that looked like she was wearing little shoes, and Mattie laughed, saying, ‘You love looking at babies!’ ‘She’s cute,’ I said to the mother, who nodded and then brought the baby carrier closer to us so that we could see the baby clearly. ‘She’s got beautiful eyes,’ said Mattie. They were almost black and sparkling. I asked how old the baby was and the husband replied, ‘4 months.’ We began to chat and I asked him where they were from but he appeared to flinch and then he quietly responded, ‘Africa’. ‘Where in Africa,’ I asked, curiously, and he replied ‘Eritrea’ and thus began a conversation as to how they migrated to America (7 years ago) as refugees and about Eritrea and its problems. Mattie and I filled them in on our own immigration background. ‘You’ve been here longer than us,’ I smiled at the couple. The husband then proudly showed us photos of their country. They hadn’t been back since emigrating, he said, due to the political situation there. He later added that many Eritreans, himself included, still speak some Italian. Mattie asked him what religion the country was and he told us it was Christian.

(Later I looked up Eritrea on the internet and discovered that it has one of the worst human rights record in the world and the least press freedom. It had once been ruled by the Italians and was called Italian Eritrea but following their ousting, Ethiopia annexed the country, leading to a long drawn out armed struggle until Eritreans finally regained their independence.)

I later reminded Mattie of a similar encounter we’d had with an Afghani couple in the same doctor’s surgery a year earlier. I recalled the Afghani mother’s black, flowing costume sparkling with silver sequins and Mattie reminded me that her baby had green eyes. As I had with the Afghani couple, I felt the same level of discomfort now during our conversation with the Eritreans, given Trump and his allies’ opposition to legal as well as illegal immigration and his disparaging comments about the countries from whence came non-white refugees. When it was our turn to see the doctor, I wished the Eritrean couple good luck and said I was glad they had been able to come here as refugees and they both beamed at me. Their story gave me a warm feeling and Mattie said it did her, too. ‘They were able to come here and have their first baby,’ she said, and I thought of all the refugees in countries like Syria who will not have the same luck.

Letter Home

Corpus Christi, 11 March 2018

Dear Mum and Dad,

Thought I’d drop you a note. Can hear Mike mowing. I’ve just done some weeding. Yet more plants went in this weekend – mainly seedlings transferred from San Antonio. Mike thinks we’ll have a jungle here soon. The grapefruit tree blossom has a delightful fragrance that wafts over as you pass by. I discovered a myrtle tree I thought had died (it was a new tree that I’d put in a difficult spot). Unexpectedly it has sprouted and is a foot tall. It will be a light purple blossom. I hope it’s not too near the pomegranate tree we transferred from San Antonio as it was in too shady a spot there. When I’m done and (hopefully) the gardens front and back blossom as they should do, I think I could write a book!

I’ve been trying out my new binoculars. There are lots of starlings around, doves and the odd great kiskadee which I’ve only seen on the Mexican border. These birds are medium-size, have a lemon belly, and a white head with what I think of as a lone ranger mask around its eyes. They have a lovely call.

It’s very humid today but lovely temperature (80s). We saw a wild turkey on the way here, so pretty, and more wildflowers are out.

Well, must go. Lots of love to you both.


Valentine’s Day 2018

This Valentine’s Day morning, it struck me that 13 Valentine’s Days ago I first saw a photograph of Mattie!

Even without having seen a photo of the little four year-old, I had already made my decision to meet her, with a view to adoption, but for some reason her social worker had failed to put her photo in the post (those of you who have read Dear Mummy, Welcome might remember this). I haven’t read my book since it was published in 2011, fearing it might perhaps be too emotional, but I remember exactly how I felt the moment I saw that large, brown paper envelope on the hallway carpet, and thinking that in only a matter of seconds I would see the face of my future daughter, a face I would know for the rest of my life. And how thrilled I was when I saw her! That adorable little face with the big, brown eyes, the mop of dark hair, the cheeky smile, the flowery dress. I remember placing the three photos of her around my kitchen and as I cooked a meal I couldn’t stop looking round and beaming at her.

Unfortunately for many, this Valentine’s Day will be a day they wished had never happened. I am talking of course about the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When I think back, it must have been happening as Mike and I were eating our Valentine’s meal in our favourite Italian restaurant. It was a cold day and there was a fire in the grate and I had commented to Mike that several of the women seated at tables around us wore tops with hearts on them. When later we arrived home and learned of the high school shooting, it was sickening to hear the usual prayers and condolences and ‘now is not the time to talk about guns’, etc. I forecast to Mike that after two days of news reporting this mass shooting would disappear off the radar, as usual.

Luckily, I was wrong and almost two weeks on, the High School shooting still finds itself in the headlines. Finally, the National Rifle Association and all those hypocritical congressmen who have been their lackeys for so long, might possibly have met their match in the brave, articulate, passionate high school student survivors and their families.

I woke up this Valentine’s Day thinking of my joy on first seeing Mattie’s photograph on a Valentine’s Day 13 years ago. I cannot but wonder how many times the parents of the slain children must have looked back on this Valentine’s Day morning, the morning they last saw their sons or daughters alive.

Let It Snow!

Mattie called us around seven o’clock a few days ago and exclaimed, ‘Look out of the window, it’s snowing!’ Mike and I rushed to look out and lo and behold large, fluffy flakes were falling rapidly over our patio and pool and soon it was a winter wonderland: our house was covered in at least an inch of snow.

Although snow is not unusual in far west and far north Texas, I believe the last time it snowed like this here in San Antonio was 30 years ago. More surprising was the fact that it snowed on the Gulf Coast, too – the last time it snowed in Corpus Christi, I was told, was 1947. ‘Was your daughter excited about the snow?’ I asked our workman, Roberto. ‘Oh yes!’ he grinned, ‘I told her to go out and play in it!’ In fact, most of the schools in Corpus Christi were closed that day anyway – I think more out of shock than due to hazardous conditions on the roads.

The snow there soon disappeared and freezing temperatures must have been short-lived judging by the blossoming oleanders, jatrophas and frangipanis in the front gardens, but I did wonder how the birds reacted to the snow. I took a walk along Oso Bay Sunday morning after Mike and I had enjoyed a rather large breakfast in a nearby Mexican restaurant. I saw roseate spoonbills, white ibises and a blue heron merrily paddling together and thought, Shorebirds at least are colour blind in this complicated country.

On the bay is a little bar/restaurant called Oso Grill where Mike and I like to listen to live music (in a previous blog I mentioned that most of its fishing pier had been destroyed in the recent hurricane.) On this weekend, still pretty chilly, I doubted there were would any music but Mike said, ‘You never know,’ and after we had enjoyed a meal downtown, we turned up to see a small gathering of people and a country singer belting out old country songs. Usually the singer or band performs on the outside deck and you can enjoy looking at the moon and stars while they play but at this time of year the deck is closed off and owner Mario had a large gas grill blasting out heat. ‘I don’t think the regulators would be too happy to see that,’ Mike grinned, in a whispered aside.

Besides the music, Mike and I are always amused by the place which might best be described as electic/eccentric, filled as it is with pieces of seafaring and fishing paraphanelia, car and cinema seats, traffic lights, a stuffed owl and the odd Christmas decoration. The star of the show, I always think, is the parrot that perches in a large, open cage by the cash till and who sometimes chatters away and sings as the music plays. Mario’s wife often has the parrot on her shoulder as she cooks burgers and fried shrimp in a small kitchen near the ‘stage’ but on this particular evening she emerged as a cheer went up amongst the small crowd. I looked over and saw Mario arriving with a small man the size of a jockey but with a big smile on his face who reminded me of a small Mick Jagger (without the lips). The country singer soon left the ‘stage’ and lent this man his guitar who played to tumultuous applause and when he later signed the country singer’s guitar I said in a low tone to Mike, ‘Perhaps he’s famous.’ Then someone belted out, ‘Johnny Rodriguez!’ and Mike looked amazed: ‘I would never have recognized him’ he said.

Johnny Rodriguez, it turned out, was a famous Latin American country singer in the 1970s and 80s. In his career he released 26 albums, was honoured by three US presidents: Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush and George W Bush, and played at the latter’s inaugural ball. At the Oso Grill that wintry evening, Johnny Rodriguez’ voice might not have been what it was in his earlier career but it was such a sweet evening and you could have heard a pin drop as he played. As each of us went home later, I think we all felt touched by a little bit of magic.

Tree of Life (Arbol de la Vida)

These last few weeks I have become involved in a community public art project under the direction of artist Margarita Cabrera. San Antonio residents of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, have been encouraged to build a ceramic piece depicting their own story in San Antonio. Each piece will be fired and then suspended on a large steel ‘tree’ on the San Antonio river bank, not far from Espada Mission. The resulting large-scale sculpture, an enormous tree of life, will celebrate the World Heritage site of the Espada mission and bring focus to the natural and cultural environment that surrounds it.

I have mentioned in previous blogs my joy of walking and cycling in the area around the Espada Mission. It is the smallest of the four Missions and my favourite. I have sometimes sat on a bench under the shade of a live oak tree, wishing a sick, or troubled, loved one well, or inside the tiny church where there is the faint chanting of monks singing and candles burning, a place of peace. So I was thrilled to take part in this project and also to work with Margarita whose work I have seen not only in local galleries but in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Yesterday, I put the final touches to my own ceramic piece. It is a pot about 22 inches tall and 15 inches wide which I have been making it as part of a small group in Artpace, a contemporary art gallery that also hosts resident artists from Texas and around the world. All the ceramic pieces are being made out of local clay which is quarried just a few miles away. The clay is dark brownish-red and there are tiny bits of Saltillo tile grit mixed into it which makes it a little difficult to handle – quite unlike the very malleable clay I was used to during my school years. Normally this clay is used to build sewage pipes and it was chosen because of its ability to be fired at extremely high temperatures. The enormous kilns that will be used to fire the pieces are on the same site where the clay is quarried.

On the outside of my pot I have applied sculptures of objects that I notice and love during my cycle rides. These include the prickly pear cactus, a century plant, a small house or casita, lily pad, pecan nut, date palm and turtle. There is also a bell and a candle representing the Espada Mission, and an airplane depicting the journey Mattie and I took to emigrate here, as well as visits back. There is, too, a heart (Mattie’s signature theme in her own art creations) and a rosebud to represent the country, and people, we left behind.

The pot itself represents the pots that are lovingly tended outside the Espada Mission. When there, I always glance over at the magnificent leaves and blooms, and to see which new plants they might have added since my previous visit.

The ceramic pieces are on target for their completion but due to Hurricane Harvey, the delivery of steel for the tree itself has been delayed. Things happen.

An Unwelcome Guest and a Warm Welcome

Mike and I first heard of Hurricane Harvey four days before it was due to hit the Gulf coast. The following morning, he came rushing into my study to tell me it was headed directly for Corpus Christi where our summer house is situated. Thereafter, life itself seemed like a hurricane: scrambling for the insurance documents, checking the hurricane website and weather channel every five minutes, getting our Corpus Christi workman Roberto to go by and put plywood over the vulnerable doors and windows, wondering what might get flooded or destroyed – and all the while I was constantly imagining that monster out there on the seas, slowly approaching. Just before landfall, Harvey’s direction changed slightly and instead hit the Gulf coast just north of Corpus Christi – and apart from a power outage and some ancient fences and fishing piers destroyed the town was largely unscathed. A huge sigh of relief for us was of course unfortunate for others: the inhabitants of Port Aransas on the barrier island, and Rockport, two much loved seaside towns where Mike and I would go for lunch on occasion, suffered a devastating blow. Both of these towns depend heavily on tourism; last I read, some of the businesses hope to be open in time for spring break next March, others might take a couple of years.

After the storm, and having checked that the summer house was OK, I went for a swim in the sea whilst Mike mended a fence. The little shell beach, just a short walk away, looked much the same except that I soon found out the rocks had been tossed around so that I no longer was certain of the place where I could walk in without getting my feet scratched; the water was colder and the current, unusually, was flowing out of the bay. A little further along, parts of the causeway leading to the naval station in Oso Bay was full of sand and debris but the little ramshackle restaurant we like to go to at weekends to hear music was open, its neon beer-bottle sign shining defiantly.

San Antonio was barely impacted by Hurricane Harvey, save for some strong winds, a couple of days of gentle soaking rains and more than a thousand evacuees from the vulnerable coastal areas. As I swam in our pool and gazed up at the clouds swirling around, it was hard to believe what was happening elsewhere. The weekend after the storm, Mike and I went to the opening of the new adobe studio of MujerArtes, a women’s art cooperative on the poorer west side of San Antonio. This cooperative features hand-made clay objects – pots, replicas of houses, trees of life – reflecting scenes from the women’s own lives and childhoods. Some of the artisans are very talented. On this opening weekend their crafts were proudly displayed in the new adobe building that replicates those that were commonly built in San Antonio in the 1700 and 1800s, complete with dirt floor cured with linseed oil and beeswax. The hope is that this will be the first of many such structures. Whilst there, Mike and I talked to an older man wearing a cowboy hat who mentioned that his father had built their family home in Mexico by making his own adobe bricks from mud and straw. But when work became scarce and his family decided to move across the border, his father was forced to disassemble the house as it was on someone else’s land and sell the bricks to finance the move. This man went on to tell us that as an adult he joined the military, later working in intelligence, and that during the 1980s he was stationed for several years in England where he watched the first ever drone fly.

Paty, one of the Mujerartes women at the gathering whom I have got to know a little, came to the US as a young graphic arts graduate and she designed the external and internal murals of the new adobe studio. Her work is quite lovely. During this current political climate, neither Paty nor the veteran’s family would be wanted in the US. And yet it is estimated a quarter of the people who helped re-construct New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were ‘illegals’. So the question now is, who will help re-construct the devastation caused by Harvey?

Time by the Sea

I have not long returned from a trip to England. I normally go in the fall but this year I went earlier in order to see my ailing father who is suffering from an asbestos-related disease. I wanted to see him while he is still Dad.

In early July, when I knocked on the bright front door of my parents’ little seaside flat in Worthing, it was my father who came to answer it for my mother was briefly out. Although he had lost weight, I was relieved to see that Dad looked pretty well, better than I had thought he would look, and he was chirpy. I made him a cup of tea and for an hour we chatted together like old times.

During my July stay, I would often take Dad for a drive to the sea. He liked me to park near a small village called Ferring from where we could look out at the shingle beach, the waves, the clouds, the seagulls flying by. During our first trip, a rather smart looking gull with a brown head sat on the nearby grass, occasionally flying away, but always coming back to the same spot. At one point as we sat and chatted, I turned and looked to the north and the South Downs. Somewhere up there amongst the trees was Cissbury Ring, the ancient hill fort that my father and I had sometimes walked around together. Earlier that morning it had been an effort for him to walk to the garden gate.

‘Look at that colour,’ Dad suddenly exclaimed. The sun had just popped through a cloud and the sea had taken on a pearly hue. ‘What colour would you call it?’ I asked, and he pondered for a few moments before calling it a ‘type of greenish-grey’. I then pointed out a yacht in the far distance and we tried to work out which coastal town it was nearing. Later, he remarked on the fact that the yacht had disappeared. ‘Oh yes. so it has,’ I replied.

Back in San Antonio I often think back to that first trip to the sea and our little exchanges. They are particularly precious to me because subsequently my father was not feeling so well; he hardly seemed to have the breath to speak. Thankfully, a procedure carried out in hospital, just before I left, helped him.

This weekend Michael and I will be looking plenty at the sea in Corpus Christi. The tiny bay where I like to swim is covered with crushed oyster shells, not shingle. Here the gulls have black heads rather than brown, I see plump silver fish plopping in and out of the water, a brown pelican swooping down to catch one, terns soaring by. And, if I’m ever so lucky, a dolphin.

Sweet Tweets

After a grotesque week of a FBI director being sacked and yet more Trump twitter rants, it is delightful to hear the sweet tweets of cardinals and scissor-tailed flycatchers as I cycle in the vicinity of Espada Mission. This Mission (one of five in San Antonio) is my favourite for its simplicity. It is, I also suspect, the least visited; I can eat my sandwich on a bench under an old oak in almost solitary splendour and gaze at the small adobe building with its ancient bell, or the many pots of flowering plants on the surrounding lawn. On this particular occasion as I sit under the shady tree, I also think of my father who is ailing.

As I then get on my bike and cross the nearby San Antonio river, I hear the sound of a goods train on its way to Brownsville on the Mexican border. Here, Queen Anne’s lace and sunflowers line the river bank, turtles bask on rocks, herons fish. On the other side of the river, I forego the newer cycle path and instead follow an old route that runs slightly inland and crosses through a number of fields. A great white heron and two large, plump ducks stand on the edge of an irrigation ditch, quite undeterred by my presence as I stop and gaze. The land around here is full of these irrigation ditches which are fed by a nearby acequia (acqueduct) built by Franciscan monks and American Indians in the early 18th century.

A little further along I see a group of female labourers dressed in bright colours, hoeing a field of maize and I have an immediate flashback to a trip to south-west China some years ago when I witnessed similar scenes. I continue to cycle along the old road, lined with mesquites, palms and huge pecan trees, until I arrive at Mission San Juan. Here I cross back over the river and a little off the beaten track I find the old Espada dam built on Six-Mile Creek. A small park surrounds the dam and nearby a photographer is taking photos of a newly wedded couple. As I walk my bike along the creek I am thrilled to see a male wood duck with its red eyes and green head on a small island in the middle of the water. On the other side of the creek I see the San Juan cemetery. Next to that, though hidden by trees, is Stinson Airfield. The airfield was opened in 1915 by three young siblings of the Stinson family and was used to train pilots during the first and second world wars. Now it offers helicopter tours.

I follow the cycle path back along the San Antonio River towards my starting point. On the way I make a short diversion over a bridge where hundreds of purple martins swoop and dive, then through a field stuffed with Indian Blanket wildflowers, to the aforementioned acequia that feeds all the irrigation ditches. This old limestone structure is the only remaining Spanish acqueduct in the US.

Just before I return to the grounds of the Espada Mission, I follow a road lined with tall sabal palms and dotted with tiny houses with tin roofs. In one of the gardens there is a large nativity scene surrounded by light bulbs. Other gardens are filled with enormous Weber cactuses and century plants. There is a field of black cows and ginger goats. A stray dog comes up and barks at my bike. Birds tweet.

Simple and Sweet During Unsettling Times

My father has been unwell lately and we are awaiting the results of tests carried out. We are all keeping our fingers crossed tightly that it is not as dire as it looks. I have called him several times and during a recent conversation, he mentioned that my eldest brother, Greg, had taken him to look at the sea. ‘It’s comforting’, Dad said, a simple comment that touched me. Later on, as always, he wanted to know all about our life over here and I said that Mike and I had just spent a day in Austin at the film festival. Immediately he asked, ‘Is that cowboy country?’ ‘No I replied,’ with a smile, for he has always had a great interest in American history, especially the cowboys and Indians period. I have often sent him books on this subject.

My father’s other favourite subject is the renovation of our house in Corpus Christi, which I pray he and Mum will still be able to visit one day. I described a recent trip there, and in particular all the birds that flock to the area during migration. At Oso Bay near the house, I told him, I had seen two great blue herons each with a plump silver fish, about a foot long, in their beaks, and close by a fisherman wearing an old battered straw hat in the water, plying his rod.

Dad has always been keen on birds himself and when I was in India on holiday many years ago I brought him back a red lacquer box with all sorts of colourful birds on its sides. It has been there, near his bedside, whenever I’ve returned home.

Whilst I was observing the herons, I looked up at the grassy bank and saw that it was covered in pink evening primrose and Indian Blanket, set against a perfectly blue sky. ‘Mum will love to hear that,’ my father commented, and I told him that whole swathes of bluebonnets, scarlet Indian Paintbrush, golden daisies and other wildflowers now line the verges of the interstate running south of San Antonio all the way to Corpus Christi.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Dad if he had started reading the latest book I had sent him, a novel about an aging soldier from the American Civil war who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her own people. ‘No, not yet,’ my father replied, ‘But I’ve had a look through it.’ I remembered Mum saying he hadn’t felt up to reading lately and I cannot begin to imagine what a bewildering time it must be for her, too, her own life held in suspension as we await the test results.

Mike told me that when his own father had been very ill, he remembered his mother holding his father’s hand and reminding him of the evenings they would sit on the upstairs balcony of their farmhouse to watch the cattle grazing nearby.
‘It was so sweet,’ Mike said.
‘Sweet, and simple, and it cost nothing,’ I replied.