You could drop me anywhere in Texas, and, without having to be told, I think I could tell instinctively that I was there. Despite being a large and diverse state, it has a presence so distinct that I could recognize it immediately, even if I’d have arrived blindfolded. No matter how much I try to deny my heritage by living thousands of miles away, Texas courses through my veins. It resonates with something fundamental in my being.
This was my thinking when my plane arrived from New York City for my first visit home after living nearly a year in The Big Apple. I’d spent an uncomfortable ride aboard a plane full of douche-bag indie bands heading to Austin for SXSW, bragging that their song was number five in Israel, and acting as if they were arriving to fanfare on par with the Beatles.
In the airport terminal, there was country western music playing, the smell of BBQ, and pot bellied men wearing camouflaged baseball caps. The culture shock was great enough that my first instinct was to turn around and get on the first plane back to New York City.
I saw my parents before they saw me waiting downstairs by the baggage claim. In the time since I’d last seen them they seem to have aged considerably. Both were grayer, more stooped, more frail looking. I took a deep breath and then walked down the stairs to greet them.
My mother hugged me. My father stood back with a disapproving once over at my clothes, but was remarkably restrained, because he didn’t actually say anything. I loaded my bags into my mother’s new, black car, and we began the long drive home.
Miles passed with brown, winter fields, wind-mills, the rusting tin of old barns, grazing cattle in green pastures, scrubby, leafless trees. The absence of people, and skyscrapers, and taxi cabs and concrete was disconcerting.
My parents asked me what I wanted for dinner. I said, “Anything but pizza.” So of course we ate at a Pizza Hut. They asked a few questions about New York and my flight, but mostly they talked and I listened. Since high school I’ve felt so guarded around my family that I find it impossible to have a natural conversation with them.
I listened without really paying attention to what was being said, just hearing southern drawls, picking out the “y’alls” the “fixin’ to’s” the “do whats?” New Yorkers have an entirely different syntax, different words and ways of speaking, so clipped and aggressive, that my parent’s Lone Star vernacular seemed like a foreign language.
My parent’s house is newly remodeled with hardwood floors, and a rustic elegance that seems incongruent with my father’s hunting trophies and my mother’s paperback romance novels.
That first night I fell asleep in my teenage bedroom and couldn’t get over how quiet it was, how dark. Without the light pollution of the city, the sky was full of stars, and the country air seemed so clean and fresh. The night was so still that when a train rumbled past in the distance, or a neighbor’s dog barked, it startled me awake.
The next morning we drove to College Station, early, because my mother had an appointment with a specialist to remove some cancerous growths off of her face and arm.
“It won’t take long,” she assures me. “He just zaps them off.”
It didn’t take long. Before I knew it we were shopping and having lunch at an Olive Garden. “I just love their breadsticks.” My mother says. I agree that they are good. “Tonight’s my night to spend with Maw Maw.” She tells me, over bread sticks, never ending salad, and eggplant parmesan.
My grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and now my mother and her five sisters are taking turns spending the night with her. They set out her pills for the following day in little plastic cups beside the times she’s supposed to take them. They make her meals. But they can’t spend every waking moment with her, and for the hours when she is alone, she calls my mom, or aunts, sometimes fifty times a day asking what day it is, or when she’s supposed to take a pill, or saying that she lost her hearing aid.
“She’s driving me crazy.” My mom says.
My grandmother’s house is the same, except she no longer has a bath. Now she has a shower with a rail and a chair so that she doesn’t fall.
“Come in she says,” when we come through the back door. “Don’t get too close hon, I have a cold.” She says.
“No she doesn’t.” My mom says to me.
We sit in my grandmother’s living room, and I think to myself that she doesn’t seem as bad as my mother has made out.
“Where are you living now?” She asks me.
“New York City.” I say, loudly because even with her hearing aid she has trouble hearing.
“Oh me oh my!” She says, shaking her head with a look that says jet planes and skyscrapers are too horrible to think of.
A few minutes pass and she asks again, “Where are you living now?”
And when I answer again, “New York City,” she has the same shocked and horrified expression. Over the next hour she asks maybe three or four more times, and each time she is just as genuinely surprised as she was the time before.
One night during my visit, my mom and dad and I drove to Madisonville, TX to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant with my aunt and uncle, my cousin Clint and his wife and their two small children.
Taking a cue from my uncle, aunt, and cousin I order a margarita with dinner. We live in a dry county, and as far as I know, my mother has never even tasted an alcoholic beverage. Neither of my parents drink, and this is the first time I ever had a drink in front of them. Because I don’t really drink all that much, myself, I’m tipsy fairly quickly, and I begin regaling them with stories from the big city.
Real Mexican food made by real Mexicans is a treat as I’ve become accustomed to Mexican food in New York being made by Chinese people who serve it alongside General Tso’s chicken, and who have no idea what an enchilada actually is.
The food is amazing, and the conversation is the first “real” one that I’ve had in years, even if I omit large chunks from my history that I imagine my family might not feel so comfortable with.
One day my mom and I drive out to the old place where we lived until I was in high school. I was surprised to see that the old, windy dirt road has now been partially paved. We drove onward after the pavement ended, past mobile homes, cattle guards, beside barbed wire fences and slowly passed the old homestead.
It was completely overgrown with brush, the driveway barely a trail, and no hint of my mother’s old, immaculately landscaped lawns and flower beds. My entire childhood, the place that I’d grown up in, had been erased. Was overgrown with weeds and left in ruins. We turned around and drove back home, and all my mother said was, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come.”
Carlos calls me from California where he’s spending the week because his own grandmother is dying. I wonder what it would be like to bring him to Iola. To introduce him to my family. They would probably like him if they knew him. He’s ridiculously charming.
But instead I edit him out of my life out of habit. The pictures I show them of New York City are all of buildings, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center. When my aunt tells me I should get a dog so I’m not so alone in the city, I don’t correct her, because I know my mother would be horrified by my honesty.
Downtown Iola, the town where I grew up, has become a ghost town. All of the old buildings are boarded up, or torn down. There’s hardly anything left of main street. Driving past the Iola Missionary Baptist Church there is a marquis that says, “Pastor out of town. Come hear some good preaching.”
“Isn’t that an insult?” My mother asks.
She and my aunt and I take my grandmother to the cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave. We drive down a single lane dirt road to Lake Grove Cemetery. My aunt and mother point out houses as we drive past and talk about who lives there now and who used to live there, and whose wife ran off with who, and who is crazy, or crippled, or sleeping with a black man.
At the cemetery my mother takes the Valentine’s roses from my grandfather’s grave and replaces them with Easter lilies.
“This is where I want to be buried.” She says, nodding to a plot not far from my grandfather. My grandmother is looking at her own headstone, which has already been engraved beside my grandfather’s.
“Look at this.” She says, upset and pointing to her tombstone. “They were too cheap to finish it.”
“What are you talking about, mama?” My mom asks.
“Why doesn’t mine have my date of death on it?”
My mother closes her eyes and pinches her nose before answering, “Because you’re not dead yet, mama.”
My grandmother mutters to herself about people being cheap, and seems to exist entirely in a world of her own.
“You know she burned all of her checks.” My aunt says to my mother as we’re walking back to my aunt’s truck. My grandmother has taken to throwing things away, or burning old papers for no reason.
“She needs full time care.” My mother says, but there is no consensus among the daughters on how this should be handled.
On the drive back to her home, my grandmother perfectly recalls walking down this dirt road when she was a child, the school she went to, and the names of her old classmates.
In the afternoons my mom and aunt drive to a gas station ten miles away and buy fountain drinks and scratch off lottery tickets. I sit up front beside her round dog who has to have daily insulin shots for his diabetes.
“You shouldn’t waste your money on those things,” I tell my mom. But the statistical improbability of winning doesn’t deter her. “Somebody has got to win,” she says and shrugs. So they scratch off their tickets with quarters, and give me one to scratch off too. My mother wins $4 and feels vindicated despite having spent $10 on tickets. “See?” She says.
Days pass with drives to town for lunch with family, or to have prescriptions filled for my grandmother or father. At another gas station another cousin tells us from behind the counter that another aunt has been diagnosed with cancer, but she doesn’t want anyone to know.
“She looks good.” My mom says of my cousin when we leave. “She’s lost some weight.”
I look out windows…of my mother’s car, of my childhood bedroom. In our backyard my mom puts flowers on the spot where she buried my cat who died this year. There is a little cat statue made of cement with his collar around it’s neck.
I get an e-mail from my cousin Clint. He Googled me, he said, because he realized that we grew up together, but he feels like he doesn’t even know me as an adult. He stumbled upon articles I wrote for the Huffington Post and blog entries and stayed up reading them, teary eyed. He feels terrible that my mom wasn’t more accepting, but he wants me to know that my mother loves me, and that the younger generation is accepting. “What is normal anyway?” He asks. I appreciate it, though inwardly I’m cringing and wondering why I never thought of writing under a pseudonym.
On the day I leave to go back to the city my mom and I have breakfast with my grandmother.
“When do you have to go back, hon?” She asks.
“Today, Maw Maw.” I say.
“So soon?” She asks, dismayed.
“Why don’t you just stay here?” My mom says. “You can break your lease. People do all the time.”
“What would I do here?” I ask.
“You can get a job somewhere.”
I don’t say anything. The truth is, I needed this week in the country. The stillness. The space. The quiet. The clean, country air. Mornings with biscuits. Family. All of it felt so good. I didn’t want to go back to the city, the noise and the filth, and all the people.
But I have a life in New York City. In Texas I only have the past. Disjointed. Eroded and rusty. Everything turning gray and faded around the edges.
“When do you have to go back, hon?” My grandmother asks again.
“Today, Maw Maw.” I answer.
“So soon?” She says. Surprised every time.