Friday, July 1, 2011
Out of the Past
The two inches of rain was a hot topic even before I landed. My seat-mate told me. Central Texas is in a deep drought. A drought is a big thing in a town of cattle ranchers and farmers. Mother and George collect me at the airport and talk with relief about the rain marveling at the resiliency of the grass. Sure ‘nough, the broad fields between the Austin airport and Smithville are the pale green of hope.
The talk of rain like everything else is familiar. My head rattles with distant dialogue. “We sure need rain.” “Will have to start feedin’ early this year unless we get rain soon.” My grandmother knew rain was coming by the smell of the air. My granddad would put a newly killed rattlesnake on the fence to bring the rain. Now, rolling thunder makes me nostalgic.
Like the grass, my roots are in Smithville. For years I couldn’t wait to leave; now I look forward to coming back. There’s a comfortable familiarity with it. I return to see Mother and George (my honorary step-dad). This is my excuse. It’s only later that I realize I come here for the grounding, to know the familiarity of three generations on my mother’s side who made Smithville their home. I feel connected here, more so than ever before. Maybe it’s because my life feels so disconnected otherwise – weekdays in DC and a quick visit to Annapolis on the weekends. It's like floating in a sea of uncertainty.
In Smithville, I’m recognized as being “from around here” which means I get special treatment. At the Post Office, Edward patiently helps me mail a box then smiles and waves as I leave. I hear, “It’s great to see you again!” This is because he remembers me from high school.
Memories return at each corner and with each spreading oak tree. Oh, it has changed for sure. Smithville has a feeling now of making-do. That started with the highway by-pass. It took away the Austin to Houston traffic that used to go through the middle of town. From the highway interchange all that’s visible of Smithville is the one-runway airport (which my dad helped start), and Smith’s Supply. Smith’s Supply sprawls next to the overpass with piles of culvert pipes of various sizes, rolled cyclone fencing, posts and PVC pipe.
Smithville is mostly left to the locals and the residents of neighboring towns, like Rosanky, Kovar and Cistern. For me, that’s just fine. The streets are in an orderly grid with familiar names– Burleson, Gresham, Olive, Hudgins. Tall sycamores, pecans and magnolias shade the streets, and crepe myrtles sprout tassels of pink blooms. But, the grand matrons are the live oak trees with trunks too big to reach around and limbs that canopy an entire yard. I love these trees. I remember them as a kid. They are still there. Still growing. Still making me stop and stare in awe.
Every morning, before the heavy heat sets in, I walk through town. The air is fresh. Dark clouds tease with a ghostly mist that doesn’t even leave a whisper of moisture on the ground. In its heyday, Smithville was a major railroad town. Walking, I hear the sounds of Smithville’s past. A train whistles as it comes through the yard, “Whoooon.” The wheels click on the rails and cars clank together like a giant slinky.
There are two main roads in Smithville – Main Street and the old highway. Our traffic signal hangs where they intersect. Memories line both streets. On Main Street, antique stores like “Out of the Past” alternate with “For Rent” signs. It’s quiet except for the bustle of recollections. Ken’s Pharmacy where my grandmother worked used to be here. My sister and I would walk in, get a hug, and wave to Ken – or Mr. Blaschke, as we knew him. In the back we sat on chrome bar stools at the soda fountain and Elizabeth made chocolate milk shakes for us.
Farther down Main Street was Mikeska’s barbeque. My granddad took me there. We entered through swinging, screen doors to smells of mesquite and the warmth of barbeque pits that had been cooking since the early morning hours. Our barbeque brisket was served on brown paper, and, yes, my granddad ate his with his pocket knife. I still have that knife. Oh – and there was sawdust on the floor.
Mikeska's has been gone for years. Now we go to Zimmerhanzel’s. It has a real door and I’m okay with the plastic fork and knife. Everyone in town lines up for their barbeque. I watch for people I know. They spot me first and I struggle to put this new face with the high school face in my mind. Lunch comes early here. The old ladies are the first. They finishing as we arrived at 11:30AM. Next are the working men – road crews, farm and ranch hands – whose day starts early. When lunch is in full swing, you share tables. Our table’s conversation centered on the rain. “How’re you?” “Awrite.” “How much rain you git?” “Inch and eight tenths.” “My grass greened up.” “My grass had to come up from the roots.”
Billy Davis’ Texaco is on the highway near Zimmerhanzel's. As a girl, Mother and I went to Billy Davis’ to fill up our big Pontiac. We’d sing, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star. The big, bright, Texaco star!” Mother and Billy played a game where Mother would look at the gas gauge and guess how many gallons it would take to fill it up. She was right EVERY TIME.
I thought she was the smartest mom ever. In hindsight, I think I was being duped. (It's not nice to fool a little girl, Mother!) Billy is still there so we stop by to say hello. The Texaco is mostly a hang out for George and his buddies who pass time gossiping on a bench. They probably wouldn’t agree about the gossiping part, but they are.
On the other end of the highway is the Donut Shop in a red tin building and the washateria in a silver tin building.
Both have pick up trucks parked out front. Tacos and tamales are sold from a pink school bus next to a chartreuse shaved ice stand. There is, of course, a Dairy Queen that, when I was young was where we went after church on Sunday nights.
I love the wooden houses in artfully chosen colors. The wide-blade carpet grass is lush and thick –due to attentive watering. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed, except the paint. The most noticeable difference is the large corner property with a delicate, old farm house that was once a stage coach stop. The new owner repainted it pink and green. Not pale, soft, subtle colors. Bright, vibrant, can’t-believe-your-eyes pink and green.
I come out of the past when Mother and George tell me about the people. Some have died, others are sick, and all are older. Mother’s friends who have been in my life for my whole life are here. We interrupt Jeannette baking zucchini-pineapple bread. Tuffy jumps best he can with his four-inch long dachshund legs, but he soon lies quietly in the floor with a chew bone. He chews until one end is left, then he wants a new bone. Chew bone ends fill his basket. Joyce tells us about her twin great-grand daughters while we admire her garden. Silky with her sleek grey hair, even at 90+, meets us at the door. We visit sitting in a rocking chair that belonged to her grandmother.
George takes me on a ride through his pastures. It’s a pastime in Smithville – riding around, looking at the cows, and assessing the water level of ponds (Tanks as they are known here). Bouncing along the rutted, dirt road in the truck takes me back and I'm riding in my granddad's 1946 green, Chevy pickup with the wood-slat sides. George gets out of the truck to open his wide, aluminum gate. It swings open smoothly with one easy push. Not like the gates at my granddad’s pastures. They were made of barbed wire and a post. When I was old enough, he let me open the gate. I had to be strong enough to lean against the post and loosen it enough to pull it out of the wire loops at the top and bottom. I walked it to the ditch, tromping through the grasses to avoid prickly bull nettle and cow pies.
The film industry discovered Smithville. There was a hubbub in town when Hope Floats (Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick, Jr.) was filmed here. My dad was a parishioner in the church scene. Most recently, Smithville was the set for the Tree of Life (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn). I think this is just dandy. The streets are preserved on film and not just in my memory. There may be a drought in Central Texas and the tanks in Smithville may be low, but I’m floating in a lifetime of memories.