Christmas Thoughts

As I was thinking of writing this, my mind turned to the recent election and how different this Christmas season will be to that of four years ago. Four years ago, I was determined to visit Washington DC before Trump entered the White House and Mattie, who had particularly wanted a cold Christmas that year, joined me. I remember with fondness our few days there, including our first glimpse of the capitol the first evening and the huge, lit Christmas tree before it; my sipping gluhwein whilst watching Mattie skating in the falling snow on the rink by the National Gallery, visiting the marvellous museums and seeing the helicopters taking off and landing in the grounds of the White House as we walked towards the Lincoln monument – I am forever glad that the White House was not occupied by the new president at the time.

This Christmas, of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its impact on all of our lives, often tragically, will be very much on our minds. I am sure that many of us have been thinking of the future in ways that we might not have done so before.
In the US, we may also look back on the year as the worst yet for climate change, with all the wild fires on the west coast and the spate of hurricanes along the Gulf. My thoughts often turn to the tiny towns of Cameron and Creole in Louisiana that Mike and I visited on our road trip last November: both were struck by the hurricanes this summer, they were in fact hit twice.

Cameron wouldn’t normally have been a place where we’d want to spend the night (the former fishing village having once been destroyed by a hurricane and with an oil installation right on the shore and the faint smell of petroleum as we drove up) but it was already dusk when we arrived, and looking at the map there didn’t appear to be any other prospect of accommodation for miles. I remember how we were greeted at the bright orange motel by three sweet little kittens and how the Indian motel owner’s father, a spry, trim man in his seventies, liked to chat and told us he practised yoga every day. I remember the spectacular sunset on the way to the ramshackle restaurant in nearby Creole as we drove along fields of cotton tinged with pink.

And now my thoughts turn to a place closer to home, Corpus Christi, Texas, and in particular to Mustang Island State Park with its pristine stretch of sand. I used to look out at the sea there and see only brown pelicans and other shore birds flying over but now due to an overturned regulation (one of many) of the Trump years the view is blotted by several offshore rigs.

Unfortunately we will also look back on 2020 as the year the Republican party attempted to overthrow the election – almost as incredible to me as the election of Trump in 2016.

But with our new president soon to take office we can only be more confident of a better future. And this Christmas I will still enjoy some of the simpler things that I did four years ago: I will read my favourite short story – Nabokov’s Christmas – from an anthology of short fiction that my mother sent me during our first Christmas in San Antonio, and I’ll listen to Renee Fleming’s Christmas in New York CD. There will of course by the Christmas tree to decorate with all the baubles that bring back so many memories. And on Christmas Eve there will be a walk in one of our lovely parks with our dog Leia in tow (and Mattie, who has been living with us again since the start of the pandemic, will no doubt enjoy dressing Leia in her new coat with little reindeer antlers if the cold weather we are currently experiencing keeps up). And we will eat Mexican tamales that evening and watch a Christmas movie on TV. And who knows, later we may look back on the coming new year of 2021 as one of the best ever.

Wishful Thinking?

So often since emigrating, eight years ago, I wished: If only America had gone through a process, as Germany did, of acknowledging and processing its ugly past. The history of slavery here is so often ignored – some schools barely skim the surface, some private schools not at all. When Mattie started high school (only four years ago) a statue of the commander of the confederate states army, Robert E Lee, stood in the school lobby and two of his portraits hung in the school office. Those items, as well as the few statues that then existed in San Antonio parks, have gone, but the issue of removing confederate monuments elsewhere in the US, despite the memories of slavery they invoke, can be highly controversial. Below is an article by the poet Caroline Randall Williams, which first appeared in the New York Times in June, and which left a big impact on me. Perhaps under a new presidency my wish will be become a reality and one day her article will be read and discussed by every high school student, hopefully leading to a greater understanding.

You want a Confederate monument? My body is a Confederate monument

NASHVILLE — I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.
If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.
Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.
According to the rule of hypodescent (the social and legal practice of assigning a genetically mixed-race person to the race with less social power) I am the daughter of two black people, the granddaughter of four black people, the great-granddaughter of eight black people. Go back one more generation and it gets less straightforward, and more sinister. As far as family history has always told, and as modern DNA testing has allowed me to confirm, I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help.
It is an extraordinary truth of my life that I am biologically more than half white, and yet I have no white people in my genealogy in living memory. No. Voluntary. Whiteness. I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual. White Southern men — my ancestors — took what they wanted from women they did not love, over whom they had extraordinary power, and then failed to claim their children.
What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past. My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?
You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.

And here I’m called to say that there is much about the South that is precious to me. I do my best teaching and writing here. There is, however, a peculiar model of Southern pride that must now, at long last, be reckoned with.
This is not an ignorant pride but a defiant one. It is a pride that says, “Our history is rich, our causes are justified, our ancestors lie beyond reproach.” It is a pining for greatness, if you will, a wish again for a certain kind of American memory. A monument-worthy memory.
But here’s the thing: Our ancestors don’t deserve your unconditional pride. Yes, I am proud of every one of my black ancestors who survived slavery. They earned that pride, by any decent person’s reckoning. But I am not proud of the white ancestors whom I know, by virtue of my very existence, to be bad actors.
Among the apologists for the Southern cause and for its monuments, there are those who dismiss the hardships of the past. They imagine a world of benevolent masters, and speak with misty eyes of gentility and honor and the land. They deny plantation rape, or explain it away, or question the degree of frequency with which it occurred.
To those people it is my privilege to say, I am proof. I am proof that whatever else the South might have been, or might believe itself to be, it was and is a space whose prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life.
The dream version of the Old South never existed. Any manufactured monument to that time in that place tells half a truth at best. The ideas and ideals it purports to honor are not real. To those who have embraced these delusions: Now is the time to re-examine your position.
Either you have been blind to a truth that my body’s story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed, and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate.

Either way, I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.

You want a Confederate monument? My body is a Confederate monument

Lexicon for a Pandemic

For this blog, I am copying in an article from the New Yorker (by Jay Martel) which has given me a lot of laughs:

Maskhole: An individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective—e.g., below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.
Face naked: The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public. For example, “Pence went all face naked to the Mayo Clinic.”
Body mullet: What most people wear on Zoom calls: a nice top and, below the waist, underwear or less. (“Business up top, party down below.”)
The NOVID-19: The nineteen minutes after a too-close interaction with a maskless stranger during which you experience a thickness in your throat and a certainty that you’re dying. This sometimes lasts longer if frantic hand washing, antiseptic gargling, and estate planning are not readily available.
Overdistancing: When the guy in front of you in line has a metric understanding of the six in six feet, allowing twenty feet to open up between him and the next person in line, which then allows others to interpret that next person as the end of the line and to cut in front of you.
Domino distancing: When the person behind you in line stands too close, causing you to crowd the person in front of you, and on and on until everyone dies.
Emotional distancing: Deciding that now really isn’t the time to make big decisions about a relationship or, for that matter, to have a conversation about it.
Covideo: A short video featuring a quarantined individual’s child doing something adorable and/or profane, the public sharing of which falls somewhere between cute and a cry for help.
Stockholm syndrome: The assumption that everyone would be just fine without any government restrictions.
Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday: Days of the week.
Parenting: The ability to figure out why the PlayStation isn’t working with the Wi-Fi.
Body Zoom-morphia: Finding your own image on a group video call so unappealing that you are unable to focus on anything else.
Quorumtine: The minimum number of family members necessary to decide what to watch on TV.
Pan-demic: A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.
COVID-30: Formerly COVID-15; the amount of weight gained by an average adult during quarantine. Sometimes related to a pan-demic.
Helter shelter: That moment in the quarantine day when everything seems dirty and chaotic and you feel like saying, Helter shelter“Fuck it, let’s go outside. I don’t care if we die and a bunch of other people do, too.”
Flattening the curve: Trying to fit into your jeans after three months of sweatpants. (See COVID-30.)
Germophobe: Formerly, crazy people (e.g., Howard Hughes); now everyone except crazy people.
Going viral: No longer used.

It Feels Like March

I was interested to note that I wrote my last blog on the last day of February this year. Like many things during the pandemic there has been a lull. Soon after writing that blog, when the country shut down, I remember how scary things felt, with so little known about the virus and constantly conflicting messaging from the White House; one didn’t know where things might end up. The only saving grace here in Texas was that numbers were very small and one hoped, naively as it turned out, that this state might not be impacted too much at all. Now, three months later, Texas is a hotspot, suffering almost the highest daily infection rates in the country, and the Governor, who had decided that early May was the time to open up (but with no enforced wearing of face masks or social distancing), is closing things down again, and again, things feels scary.

One hates to mention some personal positives of a quiet few months, when so many in the country are suffering terribly. The bright side on the horizon is that the deep underlying issues in this country – gross economic equality, racism and millions still without healthcare – have been brought fully to the fore, and that a complete change in governance following the election in November will, at last, begin to address them.

The weather here in San Antonio has been quite lovely during June. Generally, the hottest times of the year are from noon to six pm during July, August and the first half of September, but with the recent improvements Mike has made to the back yard it will be more pleasant to sit outside. In the front yard, Mike, with the help of Mattie’s boyfriend, has removed the St Augustine grass and we are in the process of replacing it with pea gravel. A lot of greenery/vegetation in the yard still remains due to the two large beds of Asian ivy ground cover out there, as well as a large flower bed around the huge live oak and several smaller trees we planted. But the grass – a non-native variety popular in San Antonio in the 1960s when housing began to spring up in the wealthier north of the city – only looks nice in summer with a ton of water on it and the right amount of shade.

Shade here means light dappled shade whereas back in the UK, for me at least, it meant deep shade. Consequently, when first planting up the yard, it took me a while to work out why some new plants were expiring after only a few months when they were in spots with hardly any sun at all! Now, after some gardening mishaps, I feel pleased with the appearance of both front and back yards (though I say it myself). Nearly every plant growing is a native Texas one, apart from the odd zinnia or two and a soft peach David Austin rose, which actually was grown in Tyler in east Texas. I remember my surprise on finding out that David Austin roses, based in Wolverhampton where my family lived for many years, had a subsidiary here in Texas. Not all David Austin Roses are available here, of course, only those suitable for the various north American climates. We have a Texas native rose, a light crimson in colour, growing alongside the peach one. There are in fact many varieties of Texas roses, most of which are very hardy, and they grow beautifully in shade – dappled shade, of course!

Even Crazier Times Than Usual

America is even crazier than usual! Now there is not just the daily spewing out of tweets from the Whitehouse, we have hysteria from the pundits regarding the Democratic presidential primaries, and Coronavirus has begun to infect the country.

A good antidote to all the craziness is to escape to our house in Corpus Christi. There we have no TV or internet, only the sound of birdsong or a dog barking in the next garden, and the main decisions of the day tend to be whether to go to Starbucks for a coffee, where to take the dog for a walk and which restaurant we might like to eat in that evening.

Another antidote is to lose oneself in a book. I have been lucky to read three terrific books lately and each has taken me (blissfully) into a completely different world.

In the first book, “My Antonia” by Willa Cather, I found myself in mid-19th century Nebraska, a time when the first immigrants began arriving in that part of the country, and in this case a Bohemian family who befriended an orphan called Jimmy. The second was the magical “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, an author I had never read before but whose writing reminded me of Latin American authors. And the third book, Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” about Louisiana politics in the 1930s, Mike gave me years ago but for some reason I had never read it and I was surprised how apt it still is today. I loved reading these books but “My Antonia” is closest to my heart. During the first year or two of my own immigration I sometimes wondered, on seeing my German Apfelwein jugs on our library shelf, or visiting one of the German towns in the nearby Hill Country, how it was for those early settlers and whether they ever felt homesick. “My Antonia” answers these questions most poignantly.

Another antidote to all this craziness is to take our dog Leia out for a walk. I am surprised at how many new walks we have discovered together since she first came to live with us last May. One or two are even in our immediate vicinity. Not long ago, one chilly early morning, she and I discovered a beautiful, wooded limestone creek behind a new housing estate and the light was so clear the empty creek shone a bright white. As we stumbled along it I saw something move and suddenly about eight deer sprang over the creek and then disappeared out of sight. Just beyond the creek a track led to a railway line and yet more deer. Only freight trains run along that particular track now. The freight trains all tend to be covered with graffiti as well as the American flag. In the poorer parts of town, on the south side, the trains run right up close to the houses and the orange trees in the front yards, without even a barrier in between. Once I saw a freight train trundling by one of the historic missions and the driver got up and waved out of the window at me.

To Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and Back

At the start of our nine-day road trip, we said goodbye to Texas at the oil refinery town of Port Arthur. The view of the intra-coastal waterway was stunning from the Rainbow Bridge, the tallest in Texas, which Mike said was like driving up the side of a barn. Soon, we were skirting Louisiana’s sandy beaches. Golden rod filled the roadside and hawks and egrets the blue November skies. Out at sea an offshore rig loomed.

At the Calcasieu River, I asked a fisherwoman with a wide smiley face how often the ferry ran. In her southern Louisiana drawl she explained, “There is no schedule, they go by Louisiana time.” Several formations of brown pelicans in V formation had flown over by the time the small, rusting ferry turned up. As it was getting dark when we arrived in the tiny oil refinery town of Cameron on the other side, we decided to spend the night there.

At the only accommodation in Cameron, a bright orange motel, we were greeted by three kittens, a faint smell of gasoline and the Indian owner, who told us we could get dinner in the town of Creole, just over a mile away (it turned out to be five). Though the meal in the ramshackle restaurant was uneventful, the sunset on the way was spectacular – huge criss-cross shapes of deep orange with gunpowder-grey clouds – and I enjoyed the magazine on the table that commemorated the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival and was filled with drawings of duck and deer hunts by local children and recipes like Speckled Trout in Shrimp Sauce and Cajun Black Bottoms.

Setting off the next morning, the motel owner’s father, a spry, trim man in his late seventies, noted the bicycle rack on the back of our car and told us he cycled, too, and that he practised yoga every day. How incongruous the distinguished-looking gentleman seemed in this tiny oil town that had been largely destroyed by hurricanes Rita and Ike. We then drove for miles along marshland with moorhen swimming amongst the rushes. There were rice and sugar plantations, and in the sky above pelicans and egrets and the occasional pink wings of a roseate spoonbill. Houses were built on very high stilts or manmade mounds. An above-ground cemetery contained all shapes and sizes of concrete tombs. Then just as Mike was commenting on the number of young dead raccoons on the road, a huge black pig came out of the rushes straight for our car. I gasped as Mike quickly swerved out of the pig’s way but it kept coming towards us, forcing us into the opposite lane – luckily the road was empty and we missed it by inches.

Inland later, majestic cypress trees floated surreally in a pea-grey bog; the knobbly-knee roots were taller, and spikier, than those I’d seen in Texas. And then blue mistflower and yellow sneezeweed dotted the wayside as we drove eastwards, past the town of White Castle with its sumptuous plantation mansion, Nottoway, on the banks of the Mississippi, and Donaldsville with its perfectly preserved, deserted downtown and gorgeous old department store, like a film set from the 1950s. Only a street away black families sat outside their tiny clapboard houses.

It was dusk when we arrived in the parish of Plaquemines (Creole for persimmon), a narrow peninsular through which the last 70 miles of the Mississippi runs. As we drove down it we could see, above the levee, the tops of ships floating by. After driving for a while with no sign of accommodation, a gas station employee told us he thought there was one about ten miles further south. Luckily he was right, though it was set so far back from the road and was dark due to an electricity fault that we very nearly missed it.

The next morning, we had a walk around the grounds of Woodland plantation house, which is now a B&B but was once a bootlegger haven during prohibition. A doctor exiting the house told us there was a conference on the opioid crisis taking place inside. Out the back, near a sign alerting visitors to Gators and Snakes, two alligators dozed. The rest of the peninsular was dotted with small communities, ubiquitous Dollar Stores, above-ground graves, Terry’s Oysters shop, the remains of Fort Jackson, and fishing boats in various states of disrepair. Leafless chinaberry trees were full of clusters of ochre berries and there also banana trees, date palms and a satsuma orchard where we stopped to buy a bag. Tiny Venice, the southernmost point of the peninsular, turned out to be a popular fishing spot and marina with many fishing cabins. From almost leafless trees came the cries of cormorants and pelicans. Behind them loomed the oil refineries. As Craw Gator’s Bar and Grill unfortunately was not yet open we drove back up the peninsular to where we could catch a car ferry to cross the Mississippi. On it we got chatting to a smartly dressed African American gentleman in an orange patterned tie and brown suit who turned out to be the parish’s prison chaplain. He said he crossed the river to get there every day. It was from him we learned that most of the residents of Plaquemines never returned after Katrina.

We soon crossed into the state of Mississippi and found ourselves driving along the coastal road that runs by the lovely beaches and elegant coastal towns – towns like Bay St Louis, Cape Christian and Long Beach that look over nearly white sands dotted with herons and terns and, out at sea, a string of barrier islands. Empty lots interspersed with beautiful southern homes were a reminder of the hurricanes that had swept through this area, too. The only blight on the horizon was a large casino further down the coast. In the town of Biloxi we visited Beauvoir, the final residence of Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy during the Civil War. (Mike was sure that the female guide, who was dressed in period dress, had a fake southern accent!) I had also wanted to see the Biloxi visitors’ centre, which was portrayed in my old Smithsonian guide book as an unusual Victorian cottage with ornamental woodwork, but it had been swept away by Katrina. We were told that by the lady at the new visitors’ centre. This was located opposite the beach where ‘wade ins’ by local African Americans took place in the 1960s, protesting racial segregation of the beaches.

The beaches ended as we crossed the border into Alabama. Mike had particularly wanted to show me Bellingrath Gardens which were designed in the 1930s by wealthy Walter Bellingrath, the first Coca-Cola bottler in the south, and his wife. The gardens reminded me a little of Sheffield Gardens in Sussex, except here the azaleas were 30-foot trees and the enormous camellias bore hundreds of buds. Nearby, the small town of Bayou La Batre was where Forrest Gump opened the fictional Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory. The town looked poor, as did much of the area. In contrast, the city of Mobile, once the capital of French territory, reminded me a bit of New Orleans with its exterior decorative ironwork, catholic churches, neighbourhoods full of antebellum mansions, and the jazz band that burst into sudden melody at a downtown pavement café.

We took to the interstate and drove northwards, crossing rivers and thickly forested areas as far as the eye could see, finally turning off on the road that would lead us to Monroeville, Harper Lee’s home town. This was lined alternately with pine forests and cotton fields which were being harvested and all the way tufts of cotton spotted the roadside. According to the motel owner in Monroeville, AJ’s was the best place for dinner. As we sat in the simple but convivial restaurant, Mike joked at the contrast to the elegant steakhouse in Mobile where we had dined the previous night. Here, a buffet consisted of spaghetti bolognaise, fried catfish, macaroni cheese, carrots, creamed corn, cabbage and cornbread. Prints of Tuscan landscapes hung on the walls and a photo of a rocket launch hung by the cash till. But mainly, I was struck by all the families and friends, black and white, sitting and chatting harmoniously together – so unlike the period depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The courthouse that featured so dramatically in the novel was in the centre of the town square. Opposite it, the only place open for breakfast was the Sweet Tooth Café, which only sold cakes, enormous ones freshly baked by the cash till assistant’s husband. “This is a good town,” she told me, proudly, and as we chatted she cut me a square of Georgia cake which I hadn’t heard of before. It was full of chopped pecans and vanilla, and delicious.

The courtroom (now a museum) had a gorgeous tin-pressed roof, church pews for seats and a tiny balcony which was the only place back in the old days where blacks could sit. Press cuttings and photos were of both Harper Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote, who spent his summers there. The small, busy post office opposite the courthouse had a mural on one wall of a harvest scene, dating back to the 1930s New Deal era.

More cotton fields, pine forests, clapboard houses, trailer homes and whitewashed Baptist churches of all shapes and sizes lined the route to Montgomery. Trucks drove by laden with long, skinny pine trunks that used to be made into newsprint and now were made into pulp. Long vanished towns like Snow Hill which still appeared on the map had not a brick left to show for them.
Arriving in Montgomery we had just enough time to visit the new Memorial for Peace and Justice before it closed. Built on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were once imprisoned, the outdoors sculpture consisted of 800 suspended steel blocks, each representing a county in the US where African Americans had been lynched. As Mike and I walked around, I noticed that the sky had become spotted with small pink clouds and the occasional swirl of blackbirds.

That evening the hotel café was noisy with the chatter of many African American families; most of the women wore striking African fabrics and elaborate hairstyles. Directly opposite the hotel was the elegant train station where thousands of slaves used to be trafficked. Now a visitor centre, a freight train was trundling through the next morning as Mike and I collected information. We had a peaceful stroll around the capitol, the old confederacy white house and the church where Martin Luther King used to preach. There was also a Rosa Parkes museum, and at the greyhound station another commemorated the freedom riders.

We then drove back west, through Selma, where we crossed over the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, scene of the 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery. During a brief drive around Selma’s downtown I was slightly shocked by the state of decay of this once wealthy cotton town, which had also built ships during the Civil War and boasts more historic antebellum mansions than New Orleans.

Back in Mississippi, in Jackson, we visited Eudora Welty’s home, a 1920s Tudor revival house that would not have looked out of place in Worthing. It was a contented house, barely altered from the days when the writer was still alive, with thousands of books still in their original piles and her favourite paintings on the walls. Outside, purple Mexican bush sage and tall, pink coneflowers brightened a wintry, undulating back garden sheltered by tall camellia shrubs.

Further south, the streets of the lovely town of Natchez on the Mississippi were lined with elegant antebellum houses and mansions, old banks and stores. But it was chilly, a cold front was coming in, and in the yard of one mansion precious shrubs were covered in red-and-white checked cloth. Mike and I were the only ones on the tour of a Longwood, a huge, octagonally-shaped mansion with a red onion dome and white Moorish columns and arches that stood on the edge of town. The original owners, wealthy plantation growers who lost their fortune during the Civil War, lived in the basement with their family heirlooms as it was the only part finished, the remaining five floors remaining forever a shell, containing only the odd dusty trunk. At the open windows live oaks dripped with Spanish moss.

Back over the border in Louisiana, piney bogs led all the way back to Texas. The leaves, which had been green the day we began our trip, were now orange, peach and gold.

Thoughts of Sussex, from Texas

I knew I was in England when I saw a swan gliding along a stream. And gladioli growing up against a whitewashed cottage wall. And when I saw the Hampton Waterworks, built in 1852, I thought, You don’t see architecture like that in Texas.

From my sister’s hilltop house in Lewes I saw the familiar swell of the Downs, and below me the church steeple and the higgledy-piggledy rooftops. We walked the dogs on hills full of wild thyme, and blackberries waiting to be picked.

Pots of old English roses sat on the lawn before my mother’s cosy flat in Worthing. The plane tree in the centre of it was quite glorious though my mother insisted it needed pruning. “Its bark looks like army camouflage,” I commented. She looked up out of the window and chuckled, “So it does,” then asked if I’d like another cup of tea.

Seagulls flew over the bowls club during the local championships. My mother, no longer able to play, sat contentedly on a bench, commenting on each player’s move. “They’ll have to be careful of the wind,” she said, pointing to a fluttering Union Jack.

Crabapples lay on the pavement of the avenue that led down to the beach. The trees lining both sides were already turning orange and brown.

“I don’t know what sort of colour to call it,” Mum said, as we looked out at the sea. “It’s a sort of pearly green,” I suggested, and recalled a similar conversation with my late father a couple of years earlier; after some thought, he decided on greenish-grey.

Later that week, the sky, which had been a constant blue, was to turn violet following a rainfall. Climbing up to the site of an iron age hill fort, I saw a field full of what looked like yellow sneezeweed that grew in Texas. On top of the mound a dozen wild horses grazed.

Into my shopping basket in Marks & Spencer went bakewell tarts, pikelets, egg custards, smoked mackerel, watercress and a bunch of blue and mauve stocks – all things you don’t see in San Antonio. Nor the lamb roast served at the Rose & Crown Pub on Sunday, or fish and chips from the local chippie, curries like those served in the local Indian, an English breakfast cooked by Mum.

At Midhurst we saw Tudor ruins and a restored walled garden with an orchard of different varieties of cooking apple trees. “That’s something you can’t get in Texas,” I said to Mum: “Cooking apples.”

At Horsham a row of houses dated back to 1616 – just three years, I mused, before the first slaves came to America. In the ancient church built in 1247, I lit a candle for Dad.

The next day, a red fox appeared in my mother’s garden. “I’ve only seen a grey one in our garden in Texas,” I said.

A New Adoptee

One of my earlier blogs was about my walks around the neighbourhood circuit each morning, after I had walked Mattie to school. I mentioned the conversations I would have with passers-by who were eager for a chat and how I’d hear about such disparate subjects such as a prize hen having been snatched by a hawk, how someone dealt with their ‘critter’ problems, a forthcoming operation, a wish for rain. When Mattie began walking on her own to school I did different walks then, exploring city parks, greenways and state parks. I loved these walks, but I missed seeing the neighbours, too.

They say life often turns full circle and here I am, several years later, back on the neighbourhood circuit – but with Mattie’s dog, Leia, this time. She is a cute, joyful two year-old, very pretty and very much a puppy. We think she has a bit of sausage dog in her (sausage dogs and corgis seem to be popular here), terrier, and maybe Chihuahua as she has ears that will point upwards when alerted, like a Mexican free tailed bat. As Mattie was moving to a new apartment that didn’t allow dogs, I discussed the possibility with Mike of our having Leia, and though he is not a big fan of dogs he did agree to this one. Our house is also so designed that she can be kept from the main part of it (which suits us both). Leia therefore has come to stay. She has one bed in my study where she spends the night, and where I often spend much of the day writing, and another outside on the patio from where she can watch the ‘world’ go by (and where she is currently curled up as I speak).

I have been walking Leia around the neighbourhood circuit for a couple of weeks now, just as I used to do alone several years ago. Together we explore the alleyways where the vegetation and plants are the same, but some of the older dogs that used to bark at me as I went by previously, have of course passed on and younger ones now bark at Leia instead. We have the occasional look at the creek, too, that divides our neighbourhood from the next, and whilst Leia sniffs around it I identify plants – Mexican oregano, kidneywood and zexmenia – that I was unable to do back then. And I’m back chatting to the neighbours we meet. Some I hadn’t seen in ages and some I haven’t met before. Naturally, our conversations differ greatly from those during young Mattie’s school days. Now we introduce our dogs, check how old they are, see if they want to be friends, or did I happen know about the Doberman that escaped the other day? and so forth.

Yesterday Mike and I were browsing a bookshop next to the restaurant where we’d just enjoyed a meal and I even found myself picking up a book entitled ‘How To Make Your Dog Happy.’ Needless to say, that elicited a groan from Mike.

A Tree of Life in San Antonio and Paradise in Poteet

The Tree of Life is finally up! I mean the enormous, steel-framed tree of life festooned with at least two hundred pots built by members of the community, including myself, that now stands a stone’s throw from the Espada Mission, south of the city by the river.

The assembly of the steel frame had been greatly delayed due to Hurricane Harvey which flooded parts of Houston from where the steel was to come. I’d almost forgotten about it until early April, when I was walking near the Mission and Whoa, there it was. It looked just as impressive from a distance as close up. I spotted my pot immediately as it was on the bottom rung and, unlike most of the pots, unglazed, so it stuck out. It was quite a feeling, looking up at my pot, wondering how long it would be there. ‘Until a hailstorm hits it,’ Mike joked. He and friends visiting from Berlin came to see it more recently. Sadly, we’ll not be around for the beatification ceremony as we’ll be in Mexico.

Around the same time, I was driving southwards towards the small town of Poteet, known for its strawberry festival, and it struck me that the wildflowers had not only come out earlier this year but that there was a greater profusion of them. Waysides were splattered with bluebonnets, scarlet paintbrush, yellow sneezeweed daisies, white prickly poppies, soft pink evening primrose, as well as magenta and pale-mauve ones I didn’t recognize… it was hard to keep my eyes on the road. Beyond the waysides lay modest dwellings and the odd small ranch and every inch of their yards was covered with flowers, too, with an occasional old plough and other rusting farming implements peeping out. I gazed in wonderment at one yard thick with bluebonnets in which a white horse grazed. In another, a sign in Spanish advertised goat’s milk for sale. As I drove further south, meadows on both sides of the road were completely carpeted with red, blue, yellow and white and there were huisache trees, too, showing off their dark gold blossom, and Texas redbuds (Judas trees) sprouting purplish-pink flowers. It was like paradise! Well, not quite. When I got out of the car to eat a sandwich I had to step around myriad sandy anthills to be able to reach a log on which to sit. And just outside Poteet, I saw a caracara perched on top of a dead adult deer.

On a whim, I followed a sign to a cemetery. At the end of an unpaved, dusty road I found myself before a small, makeshift graveyard on the edge of a field. The stone gravestones, some obviously hewn by hand, were festooned with artificial flowers, plastic toys, glass baubles, artificial Christmas trees in old tomato or fruit cans painted gold, plastic Santa Clauses and reindeer and tinsel. It was garishly lovely. Alongside the field stretched a meadow of paintbrush and then one of bluebonnets. Caramel and cream cows peered at me over a wire fence as I now bent to study the gravestones. Some of the inscriptions were hand-painted or hand-carved. All were in Spanish. “The creator of the cemetery” lay underneath one according to its inscription. He had been born in 1865 and originated from Parras de la Fuente, Mexico. Walking back to my car I glanced southwards and caught a glimpse of the concrete strawberry on top of Poteet’s water tower.

The Polley Plantation at Sutherland Springs

Last summer, as I was driving past the library of a small town north of San Antonio, I spotted a stand of books for sale. Amongst them was a landscape-sized catalogue of watercolour plates of San Antonio and its environs in the 1850s – rare visual representations by a female artist of antebellum Texas. The watercolours had been displayed in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth 30 years previously.

In 1852, the artist, Sarah Ann Hardinge, had travelled from Boston to San Antonio by stagecoach to redeem land left to her in a will. During her four years in Texas she painted local scenes and also wrote a memoir. Of her arrival in San Antonio she wrote, ‘after travelling all night in stage coach. I could hear the Wildcats as we crossed the dark dismal prairie and wood.’

Browsing through the lovely paintings, I was particularly struck by the one of the Polley Plantation in Sutherland Springs, Sarah’s last residence before returning to Boston, and which was described by the catalogue’s editor as ‘one of the most important surviving plantation homes in Texas’. With money short and her land proving difficult to sell, Sarah lived there for a year in exchange for teaching the Polleys’ children and running the Sunday school.

I hadn’t heard of Sutherland Springs, only 30 miles east from San Antonio, before the tragic mass shooting in its Baptist church in 2017. I checked the internet and the plantation house not only still stood but was being restored. One spring-like day in January I decided to go and see it for myself. On the way I saw fields of black-and-white cattle, ancient pumpjacks beavering away and the odd swathe of magenta penstemon, early for the time of year. It was a fascinating journey: a few miles north of Sutherland Springs, in the small town of La Vernia, I saw an original drugstore (now a very dusty museum), an old Lutheran wooden church (which initially held services only in German) and a cemetery containing the remains of Prussian and Irish pioneers (the only other visitor was a grazing longhorn). I then took to the backroads and along the way saw an old wooden school constructed by emancipated slaves, a ‘bug catcher’ (mechanical harvester) invented by Pat Higgins the ‘Grass Seed King’, and the Linne oil field, once the most extensive oilfield in the area. From here I could see the two-storey Polley mansion just a short distance away. It was set just off the narrow road and surrounded by pastures. As I drove up, it looked fully restored and very lovely, with six porch columns and made from stone that had been quarried from nearby Cibolo creek.

Getting out of my car, I first had a look at the Polley cemetery on the other side of the road. Fronted by an overhead metal sign and surrounded by low iron railings, it contained about a dozen graves. The oldest belonged to a Revolutionary War veteran and the last to a World War II veteran. It was a peaceful little place. I crossed back to the house. A group of goats grazed under a live oak on one side. On the other stood a large restored cistern. At the back was the sole surviving slave cabin – there had been several more in Sarah’s painting. She wrote in her memoir:

Instead of door bells stands a little black belle … ready to notify their master or mistress of the approach of visitors – it would seem very odd to me now to sit down at any table at the North and not see a black boy or girl behind almost every chair.’

By all accounts the Polleys, who had come to Texas from New York, were good to their slaves and generous to the community. Whilst staying at the mansion, Sarah was especially afraid of The Indian threat which reached its peak in 1856:

Great fear this year of the Comanches and Lipans – parson Mr Geelittle son killed by them while driving home…Neighbours coming in from their log homes to our two story stone house for protection – Slaves brought in & horses within enclosure. Knife, guns, spikes, stones & scalded water all in readiness, case of need…

I got back in the car and drove a mile up the road to Sutherland Springs, a village by English standards, and quite poor looking in places. The white wooden Baptist church was much smaller than I imagined. It was difficult to imagine that horrific scene inside. A much larger church was being erected to replace it.