Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why I Live Here - Texas

I’m a Native Texan and usually when you hear people say that around here, it’s a statement of pride. I, however, have a much more complicated relationship with my home state. Texas is too vast and diverse a place to really write one article about living in the state. Truly, you would need an entire series of articles and even then I’m not sure you could do Texas justice. I choose to live in Dallas, more specifically a northern suburb of Dallas, not because I grew up here, but because I grew up in rural East Texas. I love the suburb that I’ve lived in for sixteen years because it’s close enough to where I grew up to feel like home, but not so close that it suffers from the small town issues I felt I needed to get away from. I have, however, made peace with it and have come to appreciate that a lot of who I am today is because I grew up in place I did not enjoy. For me, finding out who I am, came from seeing, for the first half of my life, who I did not want to be.

East Texas is not all bad and once I set the scene for why I knew from an early age I could never spend my life there, I will let you know a few of the things I experienced growing up that I do have a great deal of sadness my own children will never experience.

For all the progress blacks have made in this country, my hometown was still segregated when, the day after graduation, I packed my car and left in May of 1985. 1985? Segregation? Yes … it’s not a typo. While it’s true the schools and town were not “officially” segregated, for all practical purposes they were. White kids and black kids did not play together on the playground, sit by each other in the cafeteria, or live in the same neighborhoods. The “N” word was freely spoken in my house and in my mother and step-father’s circle of friends and our extended family. It was spoken among the white kids at school and used to describe that certain part of town where the majority of the black families lived. There were two neighborhoods in my town of 10,000 souls that were nicer than the one in which my family lived. No black families lived in those two neighborhoods or mine. There were “black” churches and “white” churches, although only the “black” churches were described according to race. It was well understood that white girls did not date black boys and I vividly remember with great sadness the one mixed race child in my high school. I still wonder if she knew, surely she must have, that neither the white kids or the black kids liked her because, as everyone said, “She thinks she’s white.” Of course, no one minded at all, when black students excelled on the playing field and took my high school football team to the district playoffs my sophomore year.

Lest you come away thinking it was just the racial divide that precipitated my escape, there was much more. “Yankees,” meaning anyone who was from a state further north than Oklahoma, were not welcome. My grandfather’s sister, poor Aunt Eunice, was forever designated the family “Yankee” because she married my Uncle George and he was from Omaha. This was much more a stain on the family than her brother, J.W.’s, suicide. George was always spoken of with contempt, but J.W.’s suicide more as just a matter of fact. That disturbs me just a bit. Education was also viewed with suspicion. While the bright kids were expected to go to college and my own family did indeed encourage this, too much education earned you the label of “weirdo.” Aunt Eunice and Uncle George’s son earned a PhD when I was in middle school. My mother welcomed this news with something to the effect of “I always knew he was a little weird.” Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I found it hysterical as well as ironic that the most educated person in our family’s Y chromosome was contributed by a “Yankee.”

OK, so there is the Reader’s Digest version of why I left East Texas for Dallas and its suburbs. Here are the positive things about growing up there that are bittersweet. Bitter because the experiences are tinged with the claustrophobia of my small town, sweet because these memories are the bright spots of my youth and the parts of my childhood I freely share with my children.

1) I know what grass burrs and bull nettles are. To this day I think twice before walking across my manicured and weed-free suburban lawn without flip flops for fear of getting a grass burr stuck in the bottom of my foot. I also know that if I were to ever get stung by a bull nettle again, there are two things readily available that will make the stinging stop. One is household bleach and the other is pee (yes, as in urine and preferably my own). I’m quite confident I am the only person in my eleven story office building that possess this information.

2) I’ve had the experience of holding a Horny Toad in my hand. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. My grandfather’s house, in which my mother and I lived after she and my father divorced, had a huge back yard. Contained in this backyard was quite the population of Texas Horned Frogs (which happens to be the Texas Christian University mascot). I’m not sure I would hold a frog today, but I held many a Horny Toad during my preschool years. And while I’m afraid of spiders and wasps, I’m not afraid of the similarly looking Granddaddy Long Legs and Dirt Dobbers. Dirt Dobbers are black and don’t have stingers and Granddaddy Long Legs don’t bite. I also know that if you pull most of the legs off a Granddaddy Long Leg it will walk in a circle. (I’m not particularly proud that I know that, but PETA wasn’t really active in my hometown.)

3) I’ve eaten warm watermelon while sitting in the patch in which the watermelon was grown. I could have never dreamed of a day when there would be watermelons without seeds or that they could cost more than five whole dollars.

4) I have an Uncle Buck (he owned the watermelon patch). His real name isn’t Buck and he is missing a finger and has always had false teeth and somehow all of that seemed quite normal to me as child. I had an Uncle Wood and that was his real name. He could wiggle his ears. You don’t see that much anymore, OK not at all. I called my grandfather “Granddaddy” and he called me “Baby Doll” until the day, when I was twenty-nine, that he died.

5) I had a Nannie. No, not the type of Nannie my professional friends hire to help with their childcare. She was my great-grandmother who stepped in to love and care for me and fill an emptiness that was left when my grandmother (her daughter) died the year I turned four. Actually, we called her “Big Nannie.” There was another “Nannie” in the family (it was Uncle Buck’s wife, Minnie) and because Big Nannie was older, she got stuck with the “Big” designation. She always bought me underwear for Christmas and I never minded. I can still see her in the backyard of her house ringing the neck of a real live (but soon to be not) chicken. She would then pluck all the feathers and fry it in a cast iron skillet for Sunday dinner.

We would have cornbread crumbled into our sweet tea to go with it. I would love to see the faces of my business associates if one day over lunch, I took a piece of cornbread and crumbled it into my tea glass. She taught me to shell purple hull peas and we watched “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show” every Saturday night snuggled up in her recliner, while my mother dated looking for me a stepfather.

6) I understand the phrase “Happy as a Pig in the Sunshine.” I’ve seen lots of happy pigs and every one of them was laying in the sun at the time. I understand the phrase “That will hare lip the Governor.” Although, as I child, this always conjured up for me a disturbing mental picture of the actual Texas Governor who had been suddenly and inextricably stricken with a cleft palate.

7) I know how to crochet, cross stitch, and twirl a baton. These skills don’t come in handy much in my life today, but you never can tell when the need may arise. I’m considering teaching my seven year old daughter to crochet. For all my efforts to the contrary, she seems to have inherited the gene responsible for cooking, music, and arts and crafts.

8) I had my first kiss while skating backwards under the disco ball at the local roller rink when I was thirteen.

9) I prefer open casket funerals. I know how cold and hard an embalmed dead body is and that you can apply, remove, and then reapply make up to it. I think its perfectly natural and healthy for people to be allowed to kiss a dead body goodbye. I firmly believe this helps with closure. I’ve never once been to an open casket funeral outside of East Texas, but have left explicit instructions with my husband and my best friends that if the need arises, I want everyone who took the time to come to my funeral to have the opportunity to see me dead. I also do not want any happy “Celebration of Life” thing going on at my funeral. I want an old fashioned, open casket, wailing and carrying on, funeral. If someone faints, I’ll consider that a bonus. I want to look down and know these people will miss me and are actually sad I’m gone. If I see balloons in my favorite color being released, I will not be pleased. I want Amazing Grace sang afterward at a graveside service where everyone takes a flower from the top of my casket to press in between the pages of their Bible.

10) I love vanilla coke. Not the kind you can now by at the supermarket, but the kind only Dairy Queen can make.

So, I live in Dallas because Texas is home, warts and all. I have occasionally worried about raising my children here. I’ve worried that they won’t grow up to be tolerant, open-minded and kind. I’ve worried they will grow up to be Republicans. Occasionally, however, I get reassurance in this area from them. Last year for my son’s tenth birthday, I agreed to allow him to invite as many children as he liked to his party. This meant that for the first time, there would be children attending a party I was hosting that I had never met. It was a great party at an old fashioned roller rink and we had about thirty children there. While driving home after the party, I turned and looked at my son and said, “I didn’t know Andrew was black.” He looked at me, tilted his head ever so slightly to the left, as if contemplating some new information, and after a few seconds said, “So?”

Touché my little Native Texan. Touché.

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