Sunday, April 26, 2009

Uncle Dick's Outhouse

My father’s older brother, “Uncle Dick”, had a cattle ranch on the plains of West Texas, where my family spent all our vacations until I went away to college.

After a long, boring all-day drive from Fort Worth, we would pass through the aptly named town of Lamesa, which Texans pronounce “la ME sa.” In Spanish, “la mesa” means “the table”, and the town is surrounded by land as flat as a tabletop. We would head west through an empty landscape with a clear view of the horizon, surrounding us like the edge of a giant, shallow soup bowl. After fourteen miles without seeing a single human habitation. we came to the second road on the left and turned into the dirt track which led three more miles to Uncle Dick’s ranch house.

Uncle Dick was twelve years older than Daddy. My father was still a child when his brother bought this land in West Texas, where land was cheap. As a teenager Daddy spent one summer helping on the ranch. He remembered eating nothing but oatmeal during the months of hard work on that dry, sandy land. After that, Daddy never ate another bowl of oatmeal the rest of his long life.

By the time I remember going to the ranch, we ate well on steaks and homemade buttermilk biscuits. Times were better – but not much. When Uncle Dick had a good year selling cattle, he bought more land. As an old man he counted his holdings in square miles.

My brother Lyle loved going to Uncle Dick’s.. Besides scattered cattle standing like boulders amid cactus and sage brush (Uncle Dick called it “shinery” because it grew only as high as his shins), Uncle Dick raised horses. When Lyle was nine years old, he ran away from home, headed for Uncle Dick’s, when a man who had picked up the little hitchhiker called Daddy from Mineral Wells, and Daddy went to pick his son up. When Lyle grew into a teenager, Uncle Dick gave him a pony. Of course, we could not keep a horse at our house in Fort Worth; he only got to ride Sonny Boy on our annual vacations at the ranch. As an adult, Lyle worked a day job selling Acme bricks but continued his passion for horses. He and his wife Jane bred quarter horses.

I hated going to Uncle Dick’s. When contractors started building “ranch houses” in the 1950's, they did not have in mind the place where Uncle Dick and his wife called home. It was a five-room frame house with window frames so flimsy that the sand blew right in, coating every inch of floor, tables, and bedding. As the old song goes, “The sand from Amarillo lay on my pillow.” No electricity, in the evening we dined by the light of smelly kerosene lanterns. To wash dishes Aunt Verna carried buckets from the windmill and heated water on a wood stove. Worst of all, no indoor plumbing. What I hated most was going to the outhouse.

Uncle Dick’s place was north of Midland, where the Bushes and other promoters became rich on the oil wells in the Permian Basin. In the 1950's men came around and offered Uncle Dick money for “drilling rights” to his land. By that time Uncle Dick had lots of land on this sandy, barren desert. He would not sell, but he signed leases. As far as I know, no oil wells were drilled. From leasing alone, as an old man Uncle Dick became rich.

He and his second wife moved into Lamesa. (Poor Aunt Verna died, still carrying water from the windmill.) He was in his mid-70's when he built a new brick house. Instead of a lawn, he planted the front yard in rose bushes. Behind his fine new house, he had a brick outhouse, complete with modern plumbing, but completely separate from the main house. Uncle Dick said, “I’ve been going to the outhouse all my life, and I’m too old to change now.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

High Camp

Debra, my home health care nurse, was late when she came to take my temperature and blood pressure. She was depressed about two patients so ill she had to send them the hospital that day. She perked up when I greeted her with, “I’m doing okay.”

As usual, I talked except when she stuck the thermometer in my mouth. Finally, to give her a chance, I asked, “What have you and your husband been doing?”

Her face lighted up as she said, “We went camping on the Brazos over the Easter Weekend.” Canoeing up the river to reach their first campground, she took the front position in the canoe. Fighting water whipped up by the wind, she was drenched. Her husband saw several inches of water in the bottom of the canoe and thought it had sprung a leak. “We spent four days and canoed 25 miles on the river. We did primitive camping and had a wonderful time!”

Only a true camper would have respond that way after being soaked with cold water, patiently blowing on damp wood to start a fire, and sleeping in a tent on hard ground. It is magical in the woods with no sounds but the wind rustling through the leaves, the crackle of burning logs, and the voices of children roasting hot dogs and melting “smores.” Camping is life stripped to the basics. All you need is a warm sleeping bag and a fire to cook your meals. Even if it rains, you slosh around in the mud and look for wildflowers.

I remembered the first time my family went camping. We were living in Michigan. My husband promised our son Karl we would take him to see the U.S. Constitution, the sailing ship moored in Boston Harbor. Two days before we were to leave, he came home after work, and, as I was dishing up supper, told me we did not have enough money to take a vacation. The next day I went to Sears and bought a tent. The kids and I put it up in the back yard. When The Cad came home that evening, I took him to the back door, pointed to the tent, and said, “We’re leaving in the morning.”

In Massachusetts we set up the tent in a state park with a pond, not Walden but near the famous one. My children – we only had two little ones then – enjoyed swimming in the pond as much as our sightseeing excursions in Boston and Plymouth. Back home in Michigan, a neighbor asked five-year-old Martha, “How did you like camping?” My little girl replied, “I liked it except for the underground plumbing.”

My husband did not like anything about sleeping in a tent or smelly outhouses. In the following years, the children and I went camping without him. Martha was a teenager when we moved to Illinois. The next summer she returned to Pennsylvania to go backpacking with the Girl Scouts on the Appalachian Trail. Two years later she went as an exchange student to Norway. Her Norwegian family told her, “We want to go to our summer place in the mountains, but it has an outhouse. We know Americans like indoor plumbing.”

Martha said, “They did not know that I had been backpacking where, when I felt the need, I looked for a convenient tree to squat behind.”

About that time Wally and I started having difficulties. I told my boss, “I have to get away.” I came home from work, put the tent on top of the car, and taking David (who had not been born when we camped by the pond near Boston), I fled to Pennsylvania, where we had been happy. We arrived at the campground after dark. It was raining. David, 13, helped me put up the tent. We climbed inside, unrolled our sleeping bags, and slept soundly. I woke up the next morning and realized I really did not need a husband.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Frank Gehry and Me

Frank Gehry and I recently celebrated our 80th birthdays.

Who is Frank Gehry? I asked a friend if she was familiar with him. “No,” she said, “I never met him.” He does not go to the senior center or the Baptist Church. He is a world-famous architect.

Who am I? I am an unimportant old lady who writes this blog.

Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Las Angeles, California. Both are innovative designs which changed the way people think about buildings, the way Pablo Picasso’s paintings caused a revolution in the way people look at paintings. I stood before famous buildings throughout the World, and to me Gehry’s designs seem outlandish. I looked at paintings in all the great museums in the U.S. and Europe, and I admit I prefer the Impressionists to Picasso. But Gehry and Picasso influence those who know more about architecture and art than I do.

I am a writer whose unpublished manuscripts fill four big boxes in my garage. I feel I have no influence on anyone about anything.

According to the New Yorker, on his birthday Gehry said, “I told my staff that when I was eighty I would slow down. Well, I did, but not much. I don’t feel like eighty. I guess you never think you’re the age you are, and, as long as you don’t look in the mirror, you aren’t.”

When I leave the dialysis center after sitting immobile in a chair with needles in my left arm for four hours, I FEEL like eighty. I continue to write. That’s what I do. I have a good life: a comfortable home and NO Debts. Charlie, my cat, throws up hairballs, which I have to clean up. When I come home from dialysis, I hit the button to open the garage door, and Charlie starts to meow from behind the kitchen door, where he is waiting to escort me into the den and climb up onto my lap. I scratch his head and feel content. Maybe a few people enjoy reading my blog.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In My Garden

Jesus came on Tuesday. Jesus takes care of me. Not the Jesus that floats around up in the sky somewhere, but a tall, good-looking Hispanic who weeds and mows my yard. This time he dug up and transplanted iris.

Three years ago Emma gave me three little iris plants. I brought them home on the train from Fort Worth in a brown plastic grocery bag. In this short time the plants multiplied until they chocked everything around them. The purple sage bush, where they began as little plants in front, was surrounded and suffocating.

Jesus dug them up and divided them, and now I have a row of iris across the front of the house and around the crepe myrtle.

All life wants to multiply. We kill mountain lions and let the deer grow free in the forest. We limit the numbers that human hunters may kill. The deer multiply so fast that they strip the woods of edible vegetation. Then the deer go out searching for food on farms and around suburban houses. They strip expensive landscaping of everything except marigolds.

Many years ago there was a book called “The Population Explosion.” It has happened. China is the only country which is attempting control with its “one child per family.” Part of the problem in Dharfur is too many people for that dessert to support. In Mexico devout Catholics do not practice birth control. My cleaning lady told me her mother had 25 children. Thirteen survived. Now a citizen of the U.S., Esther has two. Does anyone really believe that the people who sneak across the border are all terrorists bent on destroying us? No. They want work to feed their families.

When my iris multiply again, I’ll have Jesus dig them out by the roots. If my neighbors do not want them, I will throw them away. We can not do that with excess humans.

Any suggestions?

Sunday, April 12, 2009


On Thursday I was caught in horrible traffic as I drove the expressway into Dallas to see the Etruscan exhibit at the Meadows Museum. All four southbound lanes were packed with cars bumper-to-bumper.

“Why am I doing this?” I asked myself as my Elantra crept forward at 10 miles an hour. Who cares about the Etruscans anyway? They were conquered by the Romans and their name and culture disappeared before 150 B.C. I should say “virtually” disappeared, using the word like we now say “virtual reality” for computer games.

In Dallas, the Ancient Etruscans have been trumped by Ancient Egyptians. The Dallas Museum of Art has the big “King Tut” show of objects from tombs in Ancient Egypt. I admit I saw the “Tut” first and only came to the Etruscans when I realized I had to hurry before the SMU exhibit closes. Southern Methodist University has a "dig" in an Etruscan archeological site in Tuscany. All of its “finds” must be kept in Italy. In return the archeological museum in Florence loaned some of its treasures to this exhibition at SMU’s Meadows Museum.

The Etruscan show fascinated me – well worth the discomfort of being stopped in traffic for almost an hour in a drive which should have taken less than half that time. I listened to classical music on the car’s radio. Not a bad way to spend an hour on a Thursday afternoon.

The Meadows is housed in a big, marble, neo-classic box of a building, a kind of 20th Century version of an over-sized Roman temple. I took the elevator up to the second floor, where one wing is used for temporary shows. The central room is a 50-foot cube, reminding me of the sanctuary of a Protestant Church. Right now it displays a collection of statues of life-sized, fat, toga-clad, stone Etruscans, lying on their carved stone caskets and holding in their hands offerings to their gods.

I was more interested in the side galleries with glass cases displaying more intimate objects. Little cards dated the items from the 9th to the 2nd Century B.C. The painted designs on early ceramic pots are similar to the ones hand-crafted by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. Quite different were the elaborate gold and bronze “safety pins” used to hold togas in place before the invention of buttons and button holes. Gold earrings with dangling stones could be worn today. Also looking quite contemporary were bronze ladles and tweezers. An Etruscan touch: an implement on a bronze brazier ended with a replica of a little human hand, cupped to rake the hot coals.

After pouring over the 400 objects until my feet hurt, I stepped out the front door of the museum and met the setting sun. I tuned and saw a cube of marble, the base of a statue which had been removed. I have no idea why the statue was gone, but it provided a place to set my purse while I dug for my keys and sunglasses. Instead of the statue, “footprints” showed where the figure’s feet had been attached to the marble. Instantly I was transported mentally back to a hot August day in Olympia, Greece. I had stopped to rest on a piece of marble beside the avenue which had once been lined with statues of heroes at the original Olympic games. There, too, I saw footprints, and at that moment, somehow the ghosts of the Ancient Greeks came alive to me.

Going to museums and reading history reminds me that these were real people living through difficult times. The times are always difficult. The Etruscan woman, dipping up stew from her bronze kettle, worried about how to deal with the Romans, just as the American mother, serving her family Campbell’s chicken-noodle soup, worries about terrorists.

I read Herodotus. About 450 B.C. this Greek, “the father of history”, traveled to Egypt. He marveled at the pyramids, which were already 2,000 years old! Think about that. Today we hear doomsday sayers: “The end is coming!” Perhaps instead, we, like Herodotus, are just one era in the long line of history. A thousand years from now people may look back and call us Ancient Americans. Will they say we lived in another Dark Age? Or is this the beginning of an era of worldwide peace and prosperity?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Southern Comfort

My grandmother was an unreconstructed Southerner. She was proud of her father, Bill Wade, who got on his horse, rode over to Dallas with his brothers, and lied about his age to enlist in the Confederate Cavalry. “Papa said it was the only lie he ever told in his life, and that taught him a lesson.”

As the South went down to defeat in 1865, great-grandpa’s captain told his men, “Boys, when Lee surrenders, the Yankees will take your horses.” With the officer’s blessing, Grandpa Wade and his buddies deserted and started home. He was back in Texas before he learned that, in the terms of surrender, Grant permitted the rebels to keep their horses.

Grandpa Wade said, “Since I was never mustered out, I will remain a Confederate soldier until the day I die.”

The family was proud of Grandpa Wade and his loyalty to the Lost Cause. All shared his feelings, not only my grandmother, but also my mother and her children. My brother, who served two tours in the U. S. Air Force in Vietnam, told me that, when he dies, instead of a U.S. flag, he wants a Confederate flag on his coffin.

I was twelve years old when I learned a terrible family secret. My mother’s father was from Ohio, and his grandfather was in the Northern Army! No one talked about that shameful thing in our family.

I grew up and became engaged to an airman stationed at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. A woman came up to me after church and said, “Ilene, I hear you are marrying a Yankee!”

Marry him I did. And went to live with him in Chicago, where in the public library’s Civil War collection, I found a book on Ohio regiments which named my great-great-grandfather as a “company sergeant” and listed the battles in which he fought. So many battles, I was surprised that he survived without being wounded. My parents came to visit. I took Mother down to the Chicago Library, and we obtained a photostat of pages which told what Grandpa Worstell did in the War Between the States.

In the next 20 years my family moved from Chicago to Detroit to Dallas to Philadelphia and back to Chicago. We lived in the suburbs, but when my parents came to visit, we took the train to Chicago’s “Loop”, went to the library, and found the book. This time I gave Mother a Xerox copy.

Later, on a visit to Texas, I asked Mother where she kept Grandpa Worstell’s Civil War records. She said, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I never saw anything like that.”

My mother could not admit, not even to herself, that her great-grandfather was with Sherman when he marched through Georgia!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

My friend Alice seems bothered by unusual names. She asked about my brother Preston, who is hospitalized with his fourth reoccurrence of leukemia (possibly a result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam). He’s in remission again, thank you, and may be going home soon. Alice said, “I never heard the name Preston.”

Then she added, “There is that man at the senior center – you know, Melva’s husband.”

“Ethan,” I said.

“I never heard the name Ethan,” Alice said.

“Preston and Ethan are English names,” I told her. Not common names, like Tom and Jim, but not too unusual for English-speaking people.

Alice is really Alicia. Her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico. She was born in the small town of Yoakum, near Victoria, Texas. Spanish is her primary language, and her life today is a mixture of Mexican and American cultures. She named one of her daughters “Jane”, but day-to-day she cooks beans and corn. When family comes from out-of-town, she makes enchiladas.

Alice said, “I never heard the name “Ilene”. I know someone else named “Ilene”. I know two people named “Ilene”.” As if we were the only two in the World with that name.

I did not explain to Alice that the name is Irish and the usual spelling is “Eileen”.

At a book signing, I said my name and handed the book to the author, who immediately started to write, “to Eil–.” “Oh, no!” I cried, “That’s not the way I spell it.” With disgust, she thrust the spoiled book aside and inscribed another one for me. I was embarrassed, but I learned my lesson.

When I am talking on the phone, such as looking for auto insurance or making a doctor’s appointment (old people frequently get referrals from one doctor to another, requiring a hassle of calls and paperwork), and someone asks for my name, I always say, “I will spell both names.” Besides Ilene, I also have a difficult last name. I use my maiden name as a writer, but for business I use my husband’s nine letter, unpronounceable (by Texans) Polish name.

When I am wearing a name tag, often someone comments on the spelling. I explain, “I was named for my mother’s best friend, and she was named for her mother’s best friend. They were all Texans, and Texans can’t spell.”

Non-Texans laugh. Texans don’t.