Highways and Alleyways

Let me tell you a little about the neighbourhood where we live. Colonial Hills is situated a few miles north-west of Downtown, San Antonio and most of the houses were built in the 1960s, so it is called a mid-century neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood is ‘in transition’ – the original owners have either passed on or moved away and their old houses are being renovated (or ‘remodeled’ as they say here) by younger incumbents.

A small dry creek marks the south end of Colonial Hills, about half a mile from our house. Only when it rains hard does this creek fill up; it is usually dry again within days. I am sure there must be some interesting wildlife at the creek though all I have seen are the flattened remains of a bull frog. The creek is at its prettiest in spring and summer when it fills with wildflowers and obscures the litter that is sometimes thrown carelessly into it. To the south of the creek is a freeway that leads to Downtown San Antonio – reachable within 15 minutes by car or an hour by the bus that stops close to our home. Just to the west runs the Interstate 10 which will take you as far as Santa Monica in the west and Jackson, Florida in the east.

Our house is rare in this neighbourhood because it is has two stories. Its peachy-beige brick looks very pretty in the evening sun. Our front garden (or ‘yard’ as they say here) contains two great live oak trees that stretch over the wide boulevard-like street. On the other side of the street, deer visit our neighbours’ front yards from time to time; these white-tailed deer live near a pond which is also enjoyed by skunks, opossum and a coyote or two.

Each morning, it is common to see neighbours doing their regular circuit of Colonial Hills – about 1½ miles in the round; one can take a longer walk by including the alleyways between the back yards. Unlike the front yards, which tend to be uniformly manicured, the back yards reveal far more about the people who live here. I can see swimming pools in their yards, swing chairs, tree houses, bird boxes, basketball stands, barbecue grills, slides, beach towels flung over lawn chairs, chickens, a goat or two, and a birdcage which contains what turned out to be a stuffed parakeet – I spent a minute or two studying it before realising that it was artificial. The back yards also contain an interesting variety of dog life. When walking by I get yapped at by numerous Chihuahuas, a couple of lazy-looking Labradors, a world-weary Alsation, not to mention an assortment of mongrels, most of them rescued from the nearby dog home. The dogs bark so loudly when I walk by that I must surely be the most interesting event of their day. (In those back yards that carry a ‘Beware the Dog’ sign I have never seen a sign of dog life at all…)

If I am the main source of excitement for the back yard dog population then in late summer the ripe fig and pomegranates growing on neighbours’ trees are the main source of excitement for me (we have recently planted our own trees and I am pleased to see that they both are bearing fruit). Some back yards sport banana trees, too, but these only fruit after a mild winter (last winter was so cold here that our own banana trees froze completely back). Another common fruit tree in this neighbourhood is the Loquat (or ‘Japanese plum’) tree which has a rather lush, tropical look and bears apricot-like fruit around May. I also enjoy the blossoming foliage that lines the alleyways: clear blue Plumbago, deep yellow Esperanza, orange-scarlet Pride of Barbados – not to mention the pink and lemon blossoms that adorn the cholla and pricky pear cactuses. It should all look a mess but somehow it works. The trees and the power lines above the alleys are also worth viewing, for the squirrels doing their trapeze acts, as well as a large variety of noisy birdlife – the ubiquitous grackle, white-tailed doves, wrens, woodpeckers, scarlet cardinals, mocking birds, blue jays, and the occasional vulture – a neighbour’s prize hen was recently plucked out of its hutch by one…

Back In The USA

Shortly after our return from the UK, whilst Mike was finalising our year-end taxes, I drove to Garner State Park, north-west of San Antonio. Mike, Mattie and I discovered the park in January – we had arrived late that day, having first visited the home of John Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president, for whom the park is named, and we only had time for a short walk along the Frio river just before sundown. The Frio is blue-green and gorgeously lined with huge cypresses, their roots almost as majestic as the trees themselves, and in the late afternoon they were filled with black vultures.

On my more recent trip, I arrived early to do some hiking. From the top of the high bluff, on which most of the park is built, the views of the surrounding Hill Country are breathtaking. I sat on a rock now and then and enjoyed the silence whilst watching vultures glide in the sky. The hillside was studded with bright green cedars, stubby Texas grasses and the purple blossom of mountain laurel. After three hours or so of hiking I descended to the river and ate a picnic I had brought with me. Around me, black Hill Country squirrels scampered up and down the trees, and black-crested titmice (so named for the black tuft on their heads) flew in and about the lower branches. Before returning to San Antonio, I checked out the parks’ buildings. During the great depression of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps – a body made up of young unemployed men – built the nation’s state parks under the supervision of architects and supervisors. The rustic-style buildings at Garner include an outside dance floor, pavilion, refectory and keeper’s lodge, all handsomely hand cut from limestone taken from the park itself. My journey home took me through three small towns originally settled in the mid-1800s by immigrants from Alsace; one of them, Castroville, sports a French restaurant and bakery. A railroad runs alongside these towns and now and then freight trains trundle through. In the 1800s, stagecoaches would have stopped at the towns and reportedly once carried supplies for confederate soldiers fighting in the civil war. I drove on and a nearby historical marker recorded a small battle between Texas rangers and Comanches in which all the Comanches were killed but only one ranger wounded. Roadside verges contained whole swaths of wildflowers – bluebonnets, golden coreopsis and pink evening primrose.

Last weekend, Mattie and I returned to Garner Park for an overnight stay. On our way, we saw cows grazing in fields spiked with white prickly poppies, and red and yellow Indian Blanket and dark lemon Coreopsis now dotted the roadside verges. We spent the night in one of the park’s screened shelters, close to the Frio now lined with blue blossoming sages. These small shelters have a table and enough room to lay sleeping mats. We barbecued sausages that evening and slept well in our shelter. The next morning Mattie was thrilled to see a humming bird and a titmouse flying outside the wooden door. Rust-coloured wrens flew in and out of the trees around us. During the day, Mattie made friends on the campsite and swam in the river whilst I did some hiking. On one of the hillsides a prickly pear cactus was already in blossom – lemon tinged with pink. The sky was a deep cloudless blue and the surrounding stony countryside reminded me a little of Provence.

Our First Trip Back

It is Thursday, February 27th and Mattie and I are back in the UK, headed towards our old home town. My brother-in-law, Tom, has picked us up from the airport and as we approach Lewes he asks, ‘Do you want to go through the town centre or via the bypass?’ ‘Through the town centre,’ Mattie and I reply in unison and soon we are driving past the Georgian terraced townhouse where we once had lived.

I often had wondered how I might feel on seeing the old house. Surprisingly, I seemed to feel nothing, though I did feel a little sad to see the greengrocer’s, up the road, newly boarded up. ‘How did you feel on seeing the house?’ I later asked Mattie. ‘Nothing’, she said. Perhaps our exhaustion after a long night flight, the drizzle and the greyness of the day contributed to our apparent non-reaction. Lewes seemed smaller than in my memory and when we got out of the car at Tom and Molly’s home, located on a hill overlooking the town, it felt cold, too. We both began to feel much better after a hot shower and change of clothes and later, when we walked into town, the drizzle had stopped and a glimmer of sun cast a warm glow over the town’s higgledy-piggledy chimneypots, tiled rooftops and Harvey’s brewery out of which a cheery plume of steam rose. After a light lunch in Le Magasin café – which had been a newsagent’s in my time – we strolled up the high street. I noted that the furniture-cum-coffee shop, which had hosted the launch of my book Dear Mummy, Welcome, was now an expensive-looking boutique, causing me to wonder about the former owners, a lovely couple, who had helped make that book launch such a memorable event. Walking on, yet more shops seemed to have been turned into expensive curio shops, and a notice on the toyshop that Mattie once had loved announced its imminent closure. Later we popped in on my old friend and neighbour, Christine, in her cosy terraced cottage and afterwards I saw Caroline who lives in the old coach house around the corner. I enjoyed being back in houses once so familiar to me. Mattie had left early in order to meet her cousin Mei after school. I hoped their reunion would go well…

That evening, it was lovely to see my sister who had just returned home from work. Strange, but it seemed like five minutes, not two years, since we had last been together. Over supper of chicken pie, with chocolate pudding for dessert, we all caught up: Tom was now a newly graduated teacher, their eldest daughter was applying for university, and a boisterous mongrel and several cats had joined the fold. Mattie and her cousin, Mei, seemed to get on as famously as they always had, give or take the odd scrap…

At the weekend, Mattie’s birth sister, Jay, came to Lewes for the afternoon and for the first time I was struck by the likeness of the two siblings; even Jay’s dark brown hair had the same hint of red in it. Jay was pleased when I remarked on it, saying, ‘No-one ever told me that before.’ After lunch at Pizza Express Mattie took Jay to meet Molly and family up on the hill.

On Sunday, my sister and I took the girls to the church we had once attended. The first thing I noted was that all the pews had been replaced by chairs. Disappointingly, I hardly recognised a soul and even felt a little out of place – until after the service the vicar came and hugged me. After church, Mandy drove us over the Downs to Ovingdean (at the time covered in a dense sea fog) where we were to have Sunday lunch with friends Gillian and Donald in their cosy, converted barn. We arrived early so first we had a walk along the seafront during which Mei smilingly reminded me of the times I had often taken her and Mattie to the beach and had barbecued sausages. ‘Yes and you even used to ask me in winter if were having sausages,’ I laughed. During Sunday lunch – Gillian had cooked a delicious roast followed by fruit crumble – I reminded Mattie, who insisted on wearing a peaked cap emblazoned with the word ‘Geek’, that Donald used to play nursery rhymes on the piano for her and Gillian had sung lullabies. After lunch, we watched a short video of their recent trip to Canada and Donald reminded me that in 1992 I had brought over an album of my photos of Peru to show them. ‘My goodness, you have a good memory!’ I laughed.

The next day I made a trip, alone, to the National Gallery in London whilst our old next-door neighbours, Jo and Ann, took Mattie to an animal sanctuary that her foster mother Jenny (she sadly died several months before we emigrated) had often taken her to as a child. Mattie had rarely asked to go back to that sanctuary and it struck me that she must have had Jenny in mind. Later, Jo and Ann cooked a chicken supper for Mattie and me, followed by strawberries and meringues – this meal had become something of a tradition over the years.

Next day we journeyed to Worthing, where we spent a lovely few days with my parents’, enjoying Mum’s cooking and, for me, many a good walk on the Downs at Cissbury Ring; thankfully, it was not too muddy. Mum and Dad were in the process of moving and I was relieved to get a look inside the flat they planned to move to whilst there. We also met up with my brother, David, as well as my eldest brother, Nick, and his wife who live just outside Chichester. Nick took Mattie and me for a lovely walk around the yacht harbour, during which we saw a black swan. Nick, who has been a GP for most of his life, told me how anxious he felt about his imminent retirement. We later enjoyed a cosy supper – roast pork with salad and a choice of several yummy desserts – at Nick and Melanie’s home in Birdham.

Back in Worthing, Mattie and I met up with my youngest sister, Caryl, and her little son, and Mattie stayed on to spend the night with them whilst I returned to Lewes. Interesting that the moment I stepped off the train, for the first time since our return I felt at home – even though in the narrow street that led back to Molly’s, what had once been an Indian restaurant now had become a wine bar, and another new shop had opened that advertised 50 different types of tea. That evening, Molly and I dined with several mutual friends at a vegetarian ‘pop up’ (a new word to me) – a sort of supper club, situated near a duck pond close to where I had first lived in Lewes. I recalled, with some amusement, that the ‘pop up’ was located in what had once been Ron’s, a grocery shop where I often bought cornflakes and kindling. I wondered what had happened to Ron, the grocer with the raucous laugh, who had been part of the Lewes landscape for years before closing shop. At the Lamb Inn where we all had gone for an after-supper drink, I was surprised to bump into a former running friend from my pre-adoption days. It struck me how my life had changed…

On our last Sunday in the UK, whilst Mattie amused herself with Mei, I enjoyed a glorious sunny day and walked over the Downs to the village of Firle to meet friends down from London. (Mattie and I had done a similar walk early in the week when it was damp and that day there had been a log fire burning in the pub fireplace.) I always loved Firle and I remember a photo I had taken of my parents, outside Firle church, shortly after I moved to Lewes in the 80s. They looked very young in those days and whilst writing this blog I realise that they were the same age then, that I am now. A strange thought.

Mattie’s and my hectic schedule continued and the next morning we went up to London to see a friend, and later the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Strolling through Covent Garden, I showed Mattie the tiny office in Great Queen Street where in my twenties I had worked for a small advertising firm. Mattie took some photos of the Royal Opera House where, shortly after I adopted her, we had seen a ballet. Mattie didn’t remember the ballet; she was only four at the time. Before the show we met my friend Ruth for lunch at the Boulevard Brasserie, chosen partly to celebrate her recent purchase of an old farmhouse near Bordeaux. Ruth had recently been through the mill health-wise and I was above all pleased to see her looking so well.

The next day, Mattie and I walked along the River Ouse en route to The Blacksmith’s Arms to meet two old colleagues from those Covent Garden days. The pub had once been a drinking pub frequented by locals and walkers and run by an elderly gent with a twinkle in his eye. Now it is run by two middle-aged women and is noted for its cuisine; no-one appears to stand around the bar any more. My friends, who had never met Mattie, each gave her a little gift before she walked the short stretch back to Lewes to do some shopping. After catching up over a delicious steak and kidney pudding and treacle pudding, we three also went into Lewes for a stroll around Grange Gardens, prettily covered in daffodils and grape hyacinths. (During my trip back to the UK I was always struck by the spring flowers, so different to those in San Antonio.) I pointed out to my friends the Elizabethan building that had once housed Mattie’s nursery and the mulberry tree that she had liked to climb before it was cordoned off.

At the end of that same afternoon, Mattie and I were invited by Tim, a theatre designer and now owner of our old house, for a cuppa and to look around – Mattie had particularly wanted to see her old bedroom. The house looked very much as we had known it except that the handsome Victorian garden wall between ‘our’ house and the neighbouring one had recently fallen down (I felt relieved not to have the bother of it). Mattie’s old bedroom, it turned out, was now Tim’s studio, complete with drawing tables and maquettes. She amused him now and then by exclaiming, ‘Oh that’s my old paint mark!’ or ‘That’s my nail varnish stain!’

Time was running out fast and during the last few days I took Mattie and Mei into Brighton, allowing them some time on their own to go shopping whilst I met my sister, Caryl, for a drink in The Lanes. That evening, Mum, Dad and my brother, David, came round to Tom and Molly’s for supper. Mum brought a large, fluffy Victoria Sponge for dessert and afterwards Mei and Mattie sang a duet based on Your Song by Elton John.

On our last day in Lewes, Mattie and I popped in to see our former optometrist, Julian. He had always offered Mattie a chocolate ‘eyeball’ taken from a large glass jar at the end of each visit and had always stressed that she take just one. I laughingly recalled that Mattie’s fist was usually full of chocolates each time she left the shop. Grave-faced, Julian now informed Mattie that he had been unable to obtain chocolate ‘eyeballs’ for some time now. Afterwards, Mattie went window shopping and I made my way to The Brewer’s Arms, an old pub on the High Street where Mike (during his visits to Lewes) and I had been known to share a steak sandwich on a gloomy day. Unlike most others, the pub had hardly changed and I felt I was in the Lewes of old as I read the paper and reflected on my years in the town. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting more of my old neighbours: Alexandra, now well into her eighties, looked so much frailer than two years ago but Tony and Tere who had formerly lived opposite to Mattie and me, looked just the same as ever; they were in the midst of renovating their idyllic new cottage at the foot of Lewes Castle.

Our last evening, sadly, arrived. As a treat, Molly and I took the girls to Prezzo’s, an Italian restaurant where in the past we had often dined (the pasta arriabiata and the sticky toffee pudding tasted just as good as I remembered). Molly recalled that it was in a branch of Prezzo’s, in Eastbourne, that we had celebrated, the day I was approved by the Adoption Panel. ‘How do feel about Mattie leaving?’ I asked Mei at the end of the meal. ‘Mixed emotions,’ she said, and added, ‘I feel a bit empty.’ Mattie, in response to the same question, shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. Molly then mentioned that her family hoped to visit us some time in 2015. We look forward to it.

Early next morning we were up at six and soon heading our way to Heathrow where we just had time for a quick hug with Molly and Mei before Mattie and I caught the flight back to San Antonio. We both felt sad at leaving family and friends behind, but at the same time a little excited at the thought of going home …

Getting Packed

Mattie and I are going back to the UK for a visit in a few days. ‘The thought of going back feels surreal,’ she said today, as we ate the barbecue that Mike had prepared. ‘Whenever I think about it, life in the UK going on as usual without me there seems surreal, too,’ I replied.
Mattie has now entered my study, where I am writing this blog, wearing her swimming suit – I had suggested that during our trip, she might want to go swimming with her cousin Mei, and Mattie wanted to ensure that it was still a good fit. Not only is Mattie’s cousin high on her priority list of people to see, but her birth sister as well. It was only when Mattie said she wanted to see her sister as soon as possible after our arrival that I realised how strong that bond still is.
We are both excited about going back to England. Our holiday of two and a half weeks will certainly be a trip down memory lane. The two guys who bought my old house have invited us in to see it. Mattie particularly wants to see her old bedroom, in the attic. I am interested in how the house ‘feels’. How will it feel to be in the kitchen, or up in my old bedroom, looking out over the Downs? I have many good memories of my time there and a few not so good, too. I do know that the handsome old brick wall separating my old house and the neighbouring one recently collapsed. Now that is something I am glad to have avoided.
‘You’ll probably find everything seems very small,’ my elderly father said to me on the ‘phone when he first heard we were coming over, and I remembered a friend of mine once comparing Lewes to Enid Blyton’s Toy Town. I do know that things are never the same when one returns after a long time away. Several neighbours in the high street, where I lived, have since moved – to nursing homes, other towns, or downsized. My parents, too, are in the process of moving within Worthing, having decided that they no longer wish to look after a house with a large front and back garden at the foot of the Downs. It feels like the end of an era when one’s parents indicate their preference for a ground-floor flat in the town centre rather than the detached houses that they have lived in for most of their lives. During our stay with them, I shall therefore ensure that I walk up to Cissbury Ring as often as I can, for of all the Downland walks I have experienced in my life, that one tops the lot. I just hope it won’t be too muddy after the recent rains. Dare I even look at the weather chart before I go?

A Happy New Wrist

Yesterday, I went for a check-up to the Orthopaedic Institute and was thrilled to hear the surgeon announce that the bone in my wrist had completely healed and I no longer needed a splint. Hooray! Afterwards, to celebrate the good news, Mike took me to the steakhouse next door to the Institute. Neither of us are big steak eaters but for a while now I had had it in mind to celebrate the big day by cutting through a steak with my ‘new’ wrist.

Today, I have also been doing a little light pruning in the garden. Happily, most of our plants have survived the recent severe cold spell that hit Texas along with the rest of the US – some plants such as the native cherry sage even blooming merrily throughout. Taking a tentative walk around our garden, I was relieved to see green shoots on the fig tree and that the latest addition to the fold, the desert willow (a gift from my mother) was in good shape, despite my planting it only a couple of weeks before the first onset of frost. Our neighbour’s garden on the other side of the road, however, which, instead of a conventional grass lawn, sports a dense mass of what are called spider plants back in the UK, is almost completely black. I actually find this contrasts better against the tall clump of bamboo and the deep green sago palms than the original lime green, though I do not think our neighbour, Margie, would appreciate the comment. I imagine that come springtime there will be an army of little spiders re-emerging in the sun.

Whilst I was out pruning, Mike was busy cleaning the pool and heaving loads of ash leaves into paper sacks for collection by the local council. Most winters, the ash trees in the back garden retain a great deal of their leaves, but this year the garden and pool were practically drowned by them. Looking at the newly cleaned pool, I anticipated my first swim this year which, weather permitting, will be around mid-March.

The fact that we were both working in the garden meant that the sun was finally shining today! ‘This is how winters are supposed to be in south Texas,’ Mike said. He comments on the weather more than any English person I know. Chilly mornings and evenings, but daytime temperatures in the low 70s with blue sky and a light breeze is what he meant. And after such a relatively long period of cloud and cold it was with a feeling of surprise that I realised that spring is round the corner. In my former garden in Sussex, it was the buds on the Judas trees that had the same effect.

Christmas Thoughts

I received a joyful email the other day: a fellow adopter, in her 40s, wrote that she had read my book Dear Mummy, Welcome a couple of years ago during the adoptive process and now she is the proud mum of a teething ten-month year-old on her third reading: I just felt compelled to write to you to say how absolutely wonderful your book has been for me as a single adopter…it has become something of a bible during all the different stages…

Whenever I learn that my book has been of help I get a huge sense of satisfaction, and I was particularly appreciative of this email because it arrived whilst I was recuperating from an operation to mend a broken wrist (I slipped on a concrete jetty whilst we were enjoying a few days at Thanksgiving on the Gulf coast). What a boost the email was! I even decided that day to make scones, prompting a friend here to recall her great-grandmother who lost an arm in a train accident and continued rolling out pie crust dough.

Mike told me that there can be advantages to a change in circumstances and he cited the example of Robert Louis Stephenson who, if not for his melancholia associated with consumption, would never have written Treasure Island. I don’t expect to write a blockbuster but I have, I think, benefited from an enforced period of relaxation, allowing all those books that had piled up over the months to be read. And during a period of cold weather here – often only in the 30s during the day – it has felt deliciously cosy lying on the bed with the sun streaming in through the patio doors.

The house became even cosier yesterday after Mike and Mattie fetched the Christmas tree, a lovely tall bushy one which, as Mattie keeps reminding us both, was her choice. But the proud 13 year-old no longer, it seems, has the same sense of excitement at dressing it, leaving me to do the bulk. This I found to be an additional therapy for so many of the baubles have a history behind them. Hanging them up I thought of the person, or event, that had brought each one to us: that little chimneysweep from Mattie’s former foster mother (now sadly deceased); the set of Victorian cats from a neighbour in Sussex; the little cowboy boot that Mike gave to Mattie during her first Christmas in Texas; the pink ‘sugar mouse’ she made long ago from flour and water; the painted tin animal shapes from Mexico; the grey knitted mouse that my youngest sister Caryl made for me over 40 years ago; and the little decorated wooden spoon from my other sister, Molly… The only thing missing was something to go on top and after hunting through Mattie’s memory box I found the golden-curled cardboard fairy that the two of us had made for her junior school Christmas tree when she was eight. Now that sets off another train of thoughts …

Saturday Stuff

On Saturday everyone in the family got up early – Mike had agreed to take Mattie to a charity run on the other side of town whilst I awaited a phone call from BBC Radio Sussex: Danny Pike wanted to interview me for a programme they were running as part of National Adoption Week. One of the objectives of the programme was to quash misinformation about eligibility for adoption, including age limits. I cast my mind back and recalled that I was 47 when Mattie first moved in with me, and although she has now just turned 13 – we celebrated this birthday with my parents who were recently here visiting – I often see the big dark eyes of that little four-year-old I first met outside the foster parents’ farm cottage.

Mum and Dad seemed to have really enjoyed their visit here, mosquitoes aside. We, too, enjoyed having them and it was very sad saying goodbye at the airport last Monday afternoon. ‘We miss the warm weather’, both told me when I rang them after their return home. Our next visitors will be Mike’s daughter, Courtney, and her two small children, in early December. We saw Courtney, briefly, in Austin recently; she was there with her husband whose film was showing as part of the Austin Film Festival. With any luck, we should still be enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s by the time she and her children visit us.

I had mentioned the weather to Danny Pike on his radio programme when he asked me about the differences between Sussex and San Antonio. I also told him that I missed the Downs when we first emigrated, ‘though San Antonio is beautiful in other ways.’ I thought of my words when I went out on a bicycle ride following the interview. I was travelling along one of the many greenways that the city has built alongside its creeks when a brown and white mottled hawk swooped down in front of me. The bird flew in front of my bike for a second or two before disappearing. I looked up but there was no trace of it, though a little later I spotted about a dozen vultures circling above the creek. I stopped cycling to watch them and was then thrilled to see thirty or so more fly out of the live oaks and mesquites to join them. It was utterly peaceful watching them fly against a perfectly blue sky, with only the sweet sound of the nearby mocking birds and cardinals breaking the silence.

Later in the day, we picked up Mattie from her charity run and in the afternoon Mike made a barbecue to which we invited Brooklyn, a girl of Mattie’s age who recently moved into the neighbourhood from Tennessee. Mike cooked beefburgers (or hamburgers as they are called here) and I made pinto beans, guacamole and salsa. It struck me, as we were eating by the poolside, that we were all newcomers to San Antonio – Mike moved here from north Texas, then Mattie and I came over, and now Brooklyn. I later thought how well she and Mattie seemed to be getting along as they enjoyed a long game of monopoly though Mattie seemed particularly pleased to be winning. Fingers crossed, their friendship will continue…

Healthcare and Kitchens

On Friday the Homes @ Gardens Editor of the San Antonio Express came to interview me for her Sunday column entitled ‘Cooks and Cocinas’ (Cooks and Kitchens). The timing was good for I would anyway have had to give the kitchen a good clean in advance of my parents’ imminent visit to San Antonio! The editor and I were soon chatting about all sorts of things for it turned out that she had adopted two children herself; one is now the same age as Mattie. She asked me if I had faced resistance in the adoption process because I was single and I replied that my sister, a health visitor at the time, had greatly helped my cause. When I then explained what a health visitor was, she responded, ‘How terrific!’

I had the same response from a neighbour who recently gave birth to a baby boy and who said she would love a health visitor – if only. Her husband added that the delivery of their baby, which entailed a short stay in a local hospital, had cost them several thousand dollars. As self-employed lawyers, I imagine they will be checking out their options on the new healthcare exchanges under the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare as it is more widely known. Mike and I will be doing the same for me and Mattie.

It has been a revelation to hear via the radio and TV of the millions of Americans who have thus far been excluded from health insurance either due to prohibitive costs or because insurance companies have refused those with pre-existing conditions. Some of the examples I have heard on the TV and radio have been pitiful. One hopes that if the Democrats get back a Senate majority in the mid-term elections and/or Obama’s successor is equally progressive, then Bills will also be passed to ensure equal pay for women (!) and to raise the minimum wage.

My parents arrive tonight and apart from the fact that we have just noticed water coming through our hallway ceiling (a plumber is on his way!) we are greatly looking forward to their visit. Mike has been doing some DIY around the house these past few weeks, including painting the stucco on the back of the house; as usual his work is immaculate. Happily, my parents will be here for Mattie’s birthday. She has already decided that we are to eat at Paesano’s Italian restaurant and for dessert I am to order an ice cream cake from Brindle’s, her favourite ice cream parlour. Hard to believe she will be a teenager in less than three weeks …

The Last Day of Summer?

September 1st was not only Labor Day in the US but officially the last day of summer. So tell that to the weather! In San Antonio, since the start of August, we have been experiencing temperatures that frequently touch on the 100s – though the mornings have just started to be cooler, there is a fresher smell in the air and distinctly more cloud cover during the day.

We enjoyed a respite from the heat during a recent holiday in San Francisco, visiting Mike’s daughter and family who live in the mural-covered Mission district. This is a largely Hispanic area that reminds me of a mixture of Southtown San Antonio and New York. I had forgotten, since my first stay in San Francisco thirty years ago, how lush a place it is – lemon and peppercorn trees laden with fruit, shocking pink passionvines with saucer-size blooms and an abundance of shrubs and flowers of every shape and colour. What I had not forgotten was how chilly the city can be, especially in the mornings when low lying mist can take a while to clear. On the plane back to Texas, Mike, Mattie and I all at various times muttered how we welcomed the summer heat of San Antonio!

The foliage in this city can be just as stunning as San Francisco. The mainstay of the south Texas garden is, or should be, the drought-tolerant Texas native plant. I say ‘should be’ because only recently have native plants and xeriscape landscaping come into favour here. Indeed, a charming old South Texas gardening book that I found in a second-hand bookshop sports a picture of daffodils on its dust cover! I have to profess a real admiration for the native shrubs and perennials that take such a battering from the summer heat and later, the odd days of freezing temperatures in winter. With the help of a gardening book that Mattie and Mike bought me for Mother’s Day and some advice from the Botanical Garden where I volunteer on a weekly basis, I have very much enjoyed planting out our garden. The latest native plant to go in is called ‘chocolate soldiers’ which has lovely brownish green floppy leaves and tall violet spikes. I have planted it close to a lime coloured squid agave and a bluish-green twist leaf yucca in the bed under the ash trees outside my study (there are currently a couple of squirrels scampering around it). On the other side of the garden (or ‘yard’ as they say here), in the bed that runs the length of the swimming pool, I have planted a variety of Texas sages (blue, white, cyclamen, coral and scarlet), Mexican marigolds, milkweed, some prickly pear cactus and grasses, amongst others. Many of these plants are dormant during this hottest part of summer and the colours of the foliage therefore less intense than in San Francisco. Two days after our return, Mattie, togged up in new school clothes and smart new trainers, started Grade 7 at her middle school and Mike and I took the opportunity of some time to ourselves to see the new, and very enjoyable, Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. Some of the scenes were shot close to the area where we had stayed in San Francisco. And the chilly air-conditioned cinema reminded me of those cloudy mornings of our holiday!

Childhood Pastimes

We recently travelled to Missouri to visit Mike’s brother and sister-in-law. On the morning of our departure, we were somewhat bleary-eyed having hosted a neighbourhood drinks party the night before, but soon we were packed and headed in the direction of east Texas and Arkansas. We spent the night in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a spa town once frequented by convalescents, baseball players and gangsters alike. The main street comprises an elegant collection of bathhouses that sit directly over the springs. The town was once called the Baden-Baden of the US and interestingly, what I saw of Arkansas, with its tall pine forests and lakes, did indeed remind me of Germany.

The next day we reached Springfield, Missouri, an area once inhabited by the Kickapoo Indian tribe. Much of our time was spent visiting places that Mike and his brother had frequented as children – springs, creeks, a trout farm and the hillside spa town of Eureka Springs. We also drove through Fair Play, where the two boys had grown up and where their father, the local doctor, had kept cows. Though the town is now somewhat neglected, most of its inhabitants having either long passed away or moved on, it was not difficult to imagine the Huckleberry Finn type of childhood that one would have experienced in a place where everything – church, school, hamburger joint, bank, general store, hardware store – were situated within yards of each other.

Later that week we moved on to Kansas City, Missouri, a large elegant city famous for its jazz and cuisine, including Kansas City-style barbecue. The main purpose of our visit was to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where we not only saw several paintings of Mike’s favourite painter, the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, but also an exhibition of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo. Later that day, Mike was keen to try Arthur Bryant’s legendary barbecue joint and although he was somewhat disappointed, not least with the quality of the barbecue sauce, I have to say that when we left the place all of our plates looked as though licked clean.

The following morning we crossed the Missouri River into Kansas and drove alongside miles of golden wheat fields followed by soft green prairie land dotted with black Angus cattle. Several hours later and we were in Oklahoma, formerly known as Indian Territory; part of our journey was on the so-called Trail of Tears, referring to the forceful removal in 1838 of thousands of native Americans from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Apart from the occasional oil jack, the flat landscape was quite bland and when we later drove into Texas, everything immediately looked more cared for. We spent the last night of our trip in Fort Worth, Mike’s former home, and where, until four years ago, Mattie and I spent many summer and Christmas holidays. It was a thrill to be back, not least for the wonderful restaurants and world-class museums, which put Fort Worth firmly on the map as the cultural centre of Texas. Mattie particularly enjoyed re-visiting the old stockyards area where twice a day a cattle drive is re-enacted through the streets, and I remembered her, as a five year-old, attempting to ride the mechanical bull, just down from the rodeo building. After a delicous meal at the El Salvadorean restaurant, Gloria’s, we headed home. The only downside of our trip was the traffic on the I35 headed south but a forced detour onto some side roads led to our buying some local cantaloupe melons from the back of a truck. A sweet end to a sweet trip.