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.

Memories of Washington DC

When I was at the doctor’s surgery recently, I saw a young woman wearing a black veil that sparkled with diamond-like sequins. She had a baby in her arms and a small toddler by her side, and I commented how sweet the baby was and she gave me a big smile. As she kept looking round at me, I asked her where she was from. At this she motioned to a young man standing at the reception desk who approached and in good English explained that they were from Afghanistan, that he had been an interpreter for the US army and that they had only been in the US a month. I welcomed them to San Antonio and wished them good luck.

I often think of that young Afghani couple, especially given the recent turn American immigration policy has taken. Not long after that encounter, Mattie and I were in Washington DC for a few days, between Christmas and the New Year: I had wanted to experience the city before Obama left, and Mattie (unlike Mike!) wanted a cold Christmas – and cold it certainly was.

Now that Trump is in power and I hear some pronouncement coming out of a senator’s or congressman’s mouth in Washington, I think back to our first evening there when we walked around the Capitol after dark. It was all lit up, there was hardly a soul around and it looked particularly beautiful viewed through the bare branches of the surrounding trees. I remember how we turned a corner and much to our delight saw a huge Christmas tree filled with green and blue lights. It was on a lawn facing the Mall that is dotted with monuments and Smithsonian museums, all of them free. I remember how splendid the Capitol was inside, too, not least the murals in the Senate chambers that were painted by a pupil of Raphael.

Now, when I see Trump in the Oval Office signing one of his executive orders, I think back to the National Christmas Tree outside the White House with its hundreds of white lights, the little children excitedly watching the clockwork trains running around it, and the 50 smaller Christmas trees encircling it, each representing a State. And I remember the drone of military helicopters landing on and leaving the White House lawn, seeing them fly to and from the Pentagon, the tourists pointing and taking photos.

When Trump recently nominated a new Judge to the Supreme Court, I remember how silent and majestic that building was, too, by night, and the glorious ‘beaux arts’ Library of Congress next door with another huge Christmas tree in its lobby, and its gorgeous reading room. I recall wandering down streets in the Capitol historic district lined with 18th and 19th century houses, the indoor food market, the small park with its famous statue of Lincoln and the freed slave, the bookshops and funky little restaurants and cafés.

When Trump sends out an incendiary tweet, I compare that to President Lincoln and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature’. I think of the tree-lined path that leads peacefully from the Washington Monument down to the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial (Mattie remembered the scene from ‘Forrest Gump’ that was filmed near there!) And I recall our watching Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Ford Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated, and the tiny museum in its basement where we saw the actual gun and bullet. During the performance I often looked up at the box where Lincoln had sat and I wondered what he would think of his country right now.

When Trump this week gathered together a few black sympathisers, I recalled my visit to the new Smithsonian African American museum on the Mall (whilst Mattie was visiting the Natural History Museum). My disappointment on learning that only ticket holders were allowed in – and then my delight when a Pennsylvania couple immediately approached and offered me, a total stranger, a spare. I remember the joyfulness and the chatter on the top two floors of the museum that showcased sport, music and the arts. And the intensity and silence in the basement where inscriptions and exhibits documenting slavery were carefully studied. (I was quite surprised that only 10% – if that – of visitors on that packed day were white.)

I recall the conversations I had with people there, in the museums and on the streets. The Botanical Gardens and the poinsettia displays. The open-air ice rink by the National Gallery where I would drink a gluhwein whilst watching Mattie skate. Seeing the snow come down, ever so lightly, on our last day.