Looking Towards Hathersage
I pause in my daily walk along the edge of the English town I live in and gaze across a soon-to-be-developed meadow and on towards the hills of Derbyshire and the Peak District. Those hills, often dark with rain, are pale blue today.
That very blue reminds me of the color of the Texas hills, for I have just returned from my home state of Texas where I toured my adult daughter, Thekla, an American who left when she was three.
Thekla had asked if I’d go with her during her university holiday. She said, “I’m American but I know nothing about living there.”
Having traveled there twice the year before due to bereavement, I was tired, but I agreed to show her some sights and visit some family. And we’d get out of the winter weather, enjoy some warm sunny days, eat some Mexican food and speak a little Spanish. Besides she’d be a big help. Travelling alone is tough.
Landing late in the evening in Houston, she helped me turn on the modern car and programmed the GPS and told me when to turn left or right. Driving down the typical Houston-what-seems-like-forever on a long dark road searching for food, we slowed, turned into a strip mall with a Tortillería and a Carnecería, and found El Rincon Taquería.
It was after 10 pm, the door was locked, but the sign said open till 11, and there were two women inside. We knocked; they opened. And while we admired the orange walls with the photos of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution and the bull’s horns, they made us the best refried bean and ham tacos I’ve ever eaten. For only $2.95 per person! “Gracias y buenas noches!” I said. I’m a white-looking woman but my grandfather spoke fluent Spanish growing up on the Mexican border and that language is part of my blood.
Smiling, we drove on, through chill and fog to the hotel.
The next day, to NASA.
First, I have to confess that ever since the morning of October 11, 1968 when the teacher led us into the big school auditorium and they wheeled in a two-by-two foot, black-and-white TV on a trolley, and we sat squinting at that distant little screen and heard the countdown, 10, 9, 8, 7 … and saw the tiny Apollo 7 rocket blast off, I have been bewildered and turned off by the excitement over space travel. This reaction was increased by the 5th grade boy with a buzz cut who sat next to me in music class and swung his arm while belting out “over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail, and those caissons go rolling along”; he wanted to be an astronaut.
However, my daughter is an engineering student and her fellow students told her she had to see the Space Center.
So we went. And my interest was caught, because at NASA, we found history and curiosity and hope. The history of all the silliness of man’s reckless and inextinguishable urge to go out there into the unknown and see what could be seen, do what could be done. This included research, stories of astronauts, as well as actual space shuttles and exploration vehicles, and even the entire Mission 18 rocket, side-lined by federal budget cuts, and lying in a huge hangar. We saw the control room where a bunch of 20-something engineers had commanded the computer monitors (back then only those young people knew anything about computers), the same control room which commanded the launches of those 60s and 70s missions and communicated with the first Americans in space. We sat in the viewing room next to it, where astronaut’s families had nervously waited, along with presidents and dignitaries, and put ourselves metaphorically into their shoes.
Fortified by NASA energy, we drove through cold and rain to the Houston Fine Arts Museum, admired paintings by famous painters including Mary Cassat and Frederic Remington, art of the Americas and Europe, and decided it was not necessary to spend $17 each to enter the special Oscar de la Renta exhibit.
We did the banal and necessary: we shopped at Ross Dress for Less where the saleswomen spoke Spanish and I tried to dredge the word for to try on which didn’t come. But we all worked around that because we wanted to understand each other. My daughter and I bought new underwear and left happy.
Each day as we drove through the immensity of Houston, my civil engineering daughter oohed and aahed and took through-the-windshield photos of the incredible multi-layered overpasses, with their big star and patterned geometric decorations; she marvelled at the wide lanes, the generous highways—up to six lanes each side. She was in love.
I used to be intimidated by those big concrete works but I could see her point: the scale was grand and they were sculptural, muscular, and fascinating. As we drove north on the new Highway 290, huge and open and comfortable, and left the city, passing through unremarkable East Texas pastureland dotted with little farm houses, I remembered when I liked driving and being in a car. Years ago …
There’d been the initial thrill and independence of teenaged driving, the dash to high school and the swagger of entering the school parking lot, the challenges and hair-breadth misses of the city. There were the vacations when we drove west to visit our grandparents and the population thinned, the openness and light and miles of fields and pasture mesmerized, and the sight of another car became a surprise. I remembered when my grandmother drove me out there in her big air-conditioned car, playing her favorite Big Band tapes of Glen Miller and Benny Goodman, and we smiled as we shared a stick of Wrigley’s gum. It was like setting sail in a ship on the sea, protected in our space bubble from the blazing sun, from school and home problems. And I found I wanted to keep going into that great space, to see what could be seen. To discover.
We next landed in Austin: at Kerbey Lane Café, an old favorite of mine, where we met my best friend from first grade, admired her cool colorful outfit, including turquoise cowboy boots, and ate new-age, Tex-Mex enchiladas verdes. A good port of entry.
Austin is the central Texas city where I grew up, near the seat of state government and the University of Texas, back in the days of hippies and Armadillo World Headquarters and long-haired men in cut off shorts and nothing else, and impromptu rock concerts at the local park. I lived up the street from that beloved park that was shaded by oaks and pecans and elm, and surrounded half by a creek with limestone banks. In spring on a certain afternoon, my brother and sister and I raced to Eastwood Park for Eeyore’s birthday party, and we spent endless warm summers exploring the creek, walking and running under its trees, playing softball and throwing frisbees, and eating crushed ice to keep cool.
That time was past: the greater park is still there with the tennis courts and basketball court but the small wading pool where I learned to swim has been removed; the old concrete ping pong table and the indestructible iron merry-go-round, slide and jungle gym are gone, replaced by some less-durable plastic play pieces. A number of the huge trees have died and I noticed an embankment where once grew tall juniper and pecan trees hung with arm-thick grapevines is now denuded and eroded. I told my daughter that when I was eight, one time on that very embankment, I was taking my grandmother for a park tour, and saw a huge water moccasin coiled in an old grapevine and we had to turn back.
And I looked around for fleeting glimpses of the childhood friends who are left there only as ghosts, as are those of the African-Americans who celebrated the city’s first Juneteenth celebrations in that woods.
We drove to the address where I grew up and stopped to gaze for a moment.
How I loved that home!
The house had become a rental, the carport was leaning and the front screen door hung open but some trees still stood. I pointed out to Thekla that the oaks were natives but my father planted those two big palm trees, and I told the story about how in 1969 my father went to Sears one day for jeans and came home with twenty-two palm trees that were on sale for 50 cents each in the garden department, and how he planted them and they grew as big as a house, but then twenty trees died in a hard freeze in 1984. I explained that my father also put in the flagstone walk, choosing each stone carefully for shape with the help of three children, who also helped plant the bamboo hedge, which though it looks tired now, once was luxuriant and spread like wildfire, all of which made us feel we lived in a tropical jungle.
THE TEXAS STATE CAPITOL
I sighed and we drove on to the State Capitol, and took photos of its pink granite majesty, its geometric architecture, original dome, the great central hall, the painting of the second female governor Anne Richards (‘91-‘94), and we visited the Senate Floor and some of the new expansion, which are underground via elaborate tunnels. My civil engineering daughter was happy with the sturdy building and entertained by the range of details, including the bronze door hinges and doorknobs with decorative Texas star and embellishments.
We signed up for the tour in English and heard the gray-headed female guide’s rendition of Texas history, about the battles for independence from Mexico, the days as a republic and as a US state, and saw the six flags that have flown over this land: Spain, France, Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Confederacy, and the United States.
I reminisced with the guide and some other employees how the Capitol used to be when I worked nearby in a state agency in the 80s. How there used to be just one guard at the door at either end, and the doors were kept open, and the mood was jovial. But then came the bombing of the Oklahoma City Courthouse and suddenly there were more guards at government buildings, and sand bags and metal detectors, and they searched for weapons.
Thekla and I went outside and jogged round the substantial grounds, saw a bronze statue of a Confederate on a horse, and then a bronze of a woman pioneer, an African American memorial, a memorial honoring the various peoples and animals of Texas’ pre-US history, even one for the state’s children.
THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
In a cool drizzle, we toured the original forty acres of the University of Texas campus, where in my day of ‘79-‘86 there were 35,000 students, grown to 51,000 today, and known as one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the America. We saw the 307-foot Tower that presides over the campus, and the main buildings in their handsome Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in white limestone and red tile roofs. The students were still friendly and gave good directions; the History Department building had many windows sporting GUN FREE UT protesting the legislature’s law allowing carrying of weapons on campus; there was a newly-built student union where we ate quesadillas.
We walked past the art building where my parents had studied art and I pointed out to my daughter that just across the street along that creek was where my parents first met one afternoon: my father saw a young woman in red sandals standing before an easel and painting the creek scene and decided to speak to her.
North of the art building, we found the bronze Mustangs out in front of the Texas Memorial Museum. Still splendid though streaked and dirty, the seven horses were modelled by artist Alexander Phimister Proctor on some of the last pure Spanish horses in the state. Their beauty and bravado, along with that of other campus artworks—the substantial WWI memorial fountain bronzes, the Charles Umlauf’s Runners, and the newer Cesar Chavez figure—made seeking them out well worth the effort.
Of the eleven libraries on campus, we entered the ones where I had often studied: the undergraduate library and the Perry-Castañeda Library. The latter, the main library, was where my mother worked for over forty years: she began her career when the library was housed in the Tower, a crowded labyrinthian place of bookshelves, small windows and tiny wooden desks, where poor grad students sometimes hid their foodstuffs and slept. Then from the late 70s, Mother’s office was in the PCL, the new four-storey concrete structure, open, well-lit and comfortable, and where in later years as a higher-up, she was affectionately nicknamed the Queen Bee.
As a whole, the campus was almost intimidating, bustling with students hurrying from class to class, and dense with new brick buildings that were more attractive than some of the mistakes in the 70s and 80s. We were happy to see a familiar face and meet up with an old friend Vince, a writer and one of the first people to encourage me in my writing.
LADY BIRD LAKE
We were lucky to walk around the lake on the only warm evening of our trip. We parked near my old high school, and started out crossing the nearby pedestrian bridge where I began my school cross country work outs in 1977. We continued on the path along the Zilker Park side, enjoying the view of water and ducks and the tangle of cypress trees and rocks along the bank, as the dark came and the high rise downtown lit up colorfully, reflected in the black water. My daughter was again snapping photos, delighted with this urban beauty.
That night we met old friends for a great meal of warm conversation, ribs, sausage and brisket at The County Line BBQ, and my daughter noticed that all restaurant patrons were drinking water or iced tea, not beer or wine. Very different from Europe!
The weather didn’t hold.
At zero degrees in flurrying snow, we drove to San Antonio, passing huge trucks whose sides were sheathed in ice. Arriving in the handsome center of town, with its pretty red brick and white limestone buildings, we drove past the Texas Alamo and checked in next door. We stayed at the historic Menger Hotel, built in 1869, sat in the fabulous lobby-living room, saw photos of famous people who’ve stayed there, and heard employee Doreen Sanders recite the exciting tale of the alligators that lived in the lobby fountain in the 20 and 30s. We also saw the fine old Crockett Hotel nearby where my great-grandparents, the children of English immigrants, stayed on their wedding night in 1911.
Of course, we visited the Alamo, an old Spanish mission which was the site of the 13-day-siege between 1500 Mexican soldiers led by General Santa Anna and several hundred Texians, and we were made thoughtful by the stands of national flags that represented the many immigrants who had travelled so far in their lives and ended killed in that battle. We visited the Institute of Texan Cultures, read about the Native Americans who lived in this region and the later arrivals on this soil—Belgian, Dutch, Danish, Germans, African Americans, and ran out of time for the rest. We walked the pretty River Walk on a bitter-shivery eve, ate a festive Mexican food with family while listening to Mariachis sing La Paloma, and even bought a few worry dolls and ceramic animals from a Latin American import shop.
We went to San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum on a frigid wet day, got fleeting glimpses of the beautiful grounds, and toured the exhibits, enjoying the current African American art exhibit and the varied works by so many famous artists, the prize bronzes, . . . on and on and then back to Houston again. To a walk on a foggy beach in Galveston, to a jog through my sister’s neighbourhood where I love the 1920’s cottages and and visit the local grapefruit and banana and lemon trees, to walking the loop round the desolate muddy Buffalo Bayou Park, flood ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, but hopeful with new green unfurling. And the last day my niece took my daughter and I on a tour of Houston murals where we took photos of ourselves leaping about before those graffiti works—an afternoon that gave a colorful, light-hearted end to our trip. And prepared us to leap back across the ocean.
My daughter reluctantly went back to college studies and I returned to Central England.
THE EDGE OF AN ENGLISH TOWN
And so here I stand where I so often do, on this lane looking towards the Derbyshire hills. It is chilly but I am well wrapped and I like to see those hills, and think about what I learned in Texas. At my sister’s I found a maternal family tree in a photo album, which showed that my great-great-great-grandfather, who immigrated to San Antonio in 1878, was born in the Derbyshire hills in 1829. In Hathersage to be exact. A town famous for its natural beauty, for connections to Robin Hood, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, and for millstones and the manufacture of needles and pins.
My grandfather’s surname was Holland.
I’ve seen his photos. He sported a big white beard on his jowls but kept his cheeks and upper lip clean shaven. And he looks a genial, cheerful fellow with a twinkle in his eye. What would this Grandpa Holland, who became a coffee and tea merchant transporting himself first to Kent, and later to San Antonio, Texas, think of me standing here now?
Did he miss those wet Derbyshire hills? Did he ever come home to visit? To relive the stories of his youth?
I do believe we’d have a lot to talk about.
The lead landscape photo, Texas Capitol, Texas highway, Mustangs, and Austin lakeside by night, all by Walker Grevel. The cowboy boots photo is by Tracie McFadden Burns. The NASA and Mariachi Bar photos are by Laura Grevel.