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May 28, 2009

Of Old Texas Days

Patricia A. Kelly

I’ve just returned from a visit to my mom’s home, Texas. We went for the surprise birthday party she arranged for her brother, and for a small family reunion. She and I are so blessed that all three of her brothers, and her sister, are alive and well.


I hadn’t been in Texas for at least eight years, maybe more. I did see some of my family when we went to visit their ancestral home in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, in 2001. We even got stuck in Prague for an extra week because of the World Trade Center attacks.


I was surprised at how much I felt at home in Mom’s home place, after all this time. My uncles, though older, were just about the same as always: cantankerous, opinionated, warm, generous, funny and secretly affectionate. I laughed every day at the bickering among the five siblings, saying finally, “You all are wasting a lot of energy trying to set each other straight. You know it’s never going to happen!” It was great fun to listen to them, though.


The birthday party went very well. Uncle Bob was surprised, which pleased me enormously. I didn’t even have to lie much to keep him away from home that morning. A lot of his family drove about four hours to get to his house in West Texas, and he had quite a few friends in attendance as well. He’s 80, works all day at home and in the antique business, drives like a bat-out-of-hell and can throw together a delicious home-cooked meal in about 15 minutes. As far as I can tell, he has changed very little in the past 20 years.


The cousins, aunts and uncles who attended, familiar to me since childhood, warmed my heart. I felt right at home. That’s the amazing thing about family. They’re family!


I ate classic Texas food during the trip – barbecued brisket, fried okra, pinto beans, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, more fried okra, cornbread, biscuits, homemade jam and pecan pie. Much of it I first tasted at my Nana Bo’s round oak table. The only things missing were fresh tomatoes, Jell-O with fruit cocktail, warm, homemade light bread and poppy seed kolaches. I rarely eat any of that when I’m home.


I learned a lot about a lot of things – my mom’s behaviors, where I got my idea that deer and geese could add a lot to the food bank (or anyone’s) pantry, and that frugality and privacy are core values in life.


I saw the small, frame farmhouse where my mom was born, empty now since her cousin died. That’s where my brother and I got sick with the measles and were confined to one of the double iron beds in a plain, bright, linoleum-floored bedroom. Our granddad showed up from work on the farm to visit us one afternoon. He proceeded to dump a bucket of live crayfish onto the floor to entertain us. I’ll never forget it.


Just down the road stands the house of Mrs. Kladiva, where a duckling pooped all over my brother’s white pants, and where I first tasted a kolache, fresh and warm from her woodstove. It is also empty now, overgrown and abandoned. No more baskets of eggs in the hallway for sale; no more baby animals tucked behind the warm stove in boxes padded with fluffy cotton or wool; no more bucket of milky table scraps waiting to be fed to the pigs; and no more warm, clean, fresh-baked scents.


When Mrs. Kladiva added the bathroom on the back porch, she told my aunt, still a small girl, that the toilet was so modern that it washed your bottom when you flushed it. My aunt approached it with great trepidation the first time she used it, you can be sure.


Mrs. Kladiva was a large woman with warm, sun-browned skin, short, unruly gray hair and deeply calloused feet, which rarely touched shoes. She always wore cotton house dresses and aprons. Mr. Kladiva, Charlie, was little, with a day old beard, farmer clothes and lips that puckered in because our unannounced visits usually found him without his teeth. I think my Nana didn’t quite approve of Mrs. Kladiva’s housekeeping, but we all knew she preferred to be working outdoors with her large flock of fowl. I loved visiting her.


The empty houses, the deceased, or older relatives, are all reminders of time passing by. How much time is left for me? For my family? What will be the shape of my grandchildren’s memories?


Connections (and poppy seed kolaches) make the world worth saving. I hope we can do it.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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