Friday, August 26, 2005

Ranchito Morbido, Never to be on The Back Word

All good things must end, but must it be before my essays get published? The Back Word, the Texas website that brought several essays to the public, is no longer publishing new material. That's a shame, because I had more topics I wanted to explore. The shutdown came just before the site was going to publish this essay, a "lighter" version of an essay that should appear a Jewish paper in October.

I'll miss the Back Word, the thrill of waking up on the first of the month to check for a new essay being posted, the chance to email the URL to friends. I had fun and I got my creative cogs kickstarted, so I'll buckle down and try to market these essays and others still a-borning to other outlets (perhaps some that will even pay me). And now, the grand finale:

Ranchito Morbido: My Little Place in Texas

I grew up in a rented house on a dusty alley in Mission, Texas, about three blocks from the Missouri-Pacific tracks that divided the town into Hispanic and Anglo sections. My mother rented the house, which didn’t even have its own mailbox, for 21 years and never had any interest in buying real estate. She preferred to invest in the stock market. I still have shares of General Motors, Sunoco and TXU (formerly Texas Utilities) that I inherited when she died in 1984.

Yet, her legacy includes a little bit of Texas land that proudly bears the Wallach name. I haven’t seen our portion of the state since 1989, but I think about it often. I can picture it in my mind’s eye, shaded by the oak and mesquite trees in Gonzales, the historic town on the rolling road from San Antonio to Houston. In the distant future that draws closer every day, I’d like to return to Gonzales and the only property I’ll ever call my own in Texas.

I’m referring to the Jewish cemetery on Water Street in Gonzales. The place always fascinated me, as the final resting ground for my mother, two grandparents, two great-grandparents, and one great-great-grandmother (Charlotte Bath, died 1912), along with aunts, uncles and cousins. I want to be buried there, too. In doing so, I’ll be part of a family presence in Gonzales that goes back at least to the 1890s. The last living Gonzales cousins headed to the bright lights of Lockhart in the 1970s, but the deceased liked Gonzales just fine, and there they remain.

My mother died in Tyler, where she lived with her older sister Charlotte during the last three years of her cancer-shortened life. Afterward, Aunt Charlotte arranged for the headstone in the Jewish cemetery. It was as simple as Mom’s life. It says, “Shirley Lissner Wallach, March 11, 1920 – January 12, 1984.” It lies a few feet from her parents, Jared and Eva Lissner.

I first saw Mom’s gravestone on July 3, 1989, when I visited the cemetery with my then-fiancĂ©. I hadn’t visited the place since 1966, when Mom brought my younger brother and me there to see the gravestones of her parents, both of whom died in 1959. On that 1989 visit I had to chuckle at the thought that Mom finally had some land to call her own under the Texas sky. I was starting to build a family life in the Northeast, so I saw the Gonzales cemetery as part of my past, nothing more. My fiancĂ© and I followed the ancient Jewish tradition and put a rock on Mom’s grave, then left into our radiant future together.

Fast-forward 12 years, and the radiant future was flickering out in divorce. Fortunately, my ex and I hadn’t bought a joint burial plot, so I had the freedom to get buried wherever it so pleased me. The Northeast never held much appeal in that regard for me, since the place has never felt like “home” in a gut-level sense.
I quickly decided to be buried in Gonzales. As a final resting place, it has a lot going for it: all those family connections so I will be among my own landsmen, as the word goes in Yiddish; a temperate climate so my gravestone will last for centuries without the wear and tear caused by snow and cold in the Northeast; an inland, semi-rural location unthreatened by excessive housing development, global flooding, or any other unpleasantness coming down the pike to endanger Yankee cemeteries. As the real estate agents love to chant, “Location, location, location.”

OK, sounds great, I’m sold on the place! Where do I sign up to buy what I call my ranchito morbido?

And that’s the funny part. My efforts to find out who controls the Gonzales cemetery and buy a plot there have been utterly inconclusive. In Gonzales, as in other Jewish communities, cemetery records fade away, synagogues close, the old folks die and the young ones leave and forget about cemeteries with headstones written in the Hebrew language few can read, let alone understand. Even when a paying customer comes along, it can be impossible to find somebody in charge of Jewish cemeteries, somebody to take the check and give title to a few cubic feet of prime memorial space.
God knows I made a determined effort to find an administrator. During the divorce, I called my cousin David “Buddy” Michelson in Lockhart, formerly of Gonzales, one of the last members of my mother’s Depression-era generation. We talked about the cemetery, but he did not know who ran it. A Texas Jewish Historical Society member provided leads to information, but not what I needed.

A few years passed and I tried again. I learned that Buddy had died in 2004. The Gonzales city government directed me to Buddy’s family and I soon had a long talk with his widow, Abbi. She reminisced about the time, shortly after their marriage, when Buddy showed her his parents’ graves in Gonzales. She said Buddy cared deeply about the cemetery, establishing a trust fund to ensure its perpetual care. Ironically, Buddy wanted to be buried in San Antonio, near the graves of Abbi’s parents.

My cousin Linda, Aunt Charlotte’s daughter, recently sent me photos of the place, showing Mom’s grave and the Texas Historical marker at the cemetery. She wrote, “The cemetery is well maintained and appears to have room for more graves.” Abbi is now checking around Gonzales to find definitive information about the cemetery’s management.

In the mean time, life goes on. The divorce that led to this sequence of discovery recedes into the past, while my new life unfolds day by day. My ex and I recently wrapped up post-divorce financial matters that give me the resources to become a homeowner if I so desire. Given the run-up in real estate prices, I may delay before I take the plunge again into homeownership. I imagine I’ll buy my little plot of earth in Texas, my ranchito morbido, before I get something fancier up here.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Rebel Soul: Notes From a Texan Abroad

(originally published on The Back Word)

A picture taken when I met my father after eight years apart reeks with irony. He left Texas after my parents divorced, heading to Michigan and then New York City. He never returned until he paid us a weekend visit in the fall of 1970. My brother and I, aged 11 and 13, stand with him in a yard in Mission, Texas. Looking warily at the camera, standing far enough from my father to signal unease, I have my arms crossed over an orange University of Texas sweatshirt.

This is ironic because I learned, often and in rough terms, that my father hated Texas. Whether this dislike stemmed from the failed marriage, his dismay at Mission’s lack of urban sophistication, or most likely a combination of the two, he never missed a chance to knock the state. He was from St. Louis and suited to cities, my mother was from Del Rio and listened to the morning farm report on the radio. Beyond speaking English, they had nothing in common.

I saw my father a few more times, when my brother and I flew to New York to visit him and his wife. Despite escalating tension, I kept returning, lured by the bright lights and big city. He never accepted us for who we were, and instead tried to mold us into what he was and demanded we become. He started about 10 years too late, and squandered whatever goodwill we felt for him with constant attacks. The Texas we saw through our father’s eyes was a nasty place—conniving Southern Baptists intent on stealing our Jewish souls, crude mercantile behavior, no European-style culture, grubby people who couldn’t speak French. “That’s Texas thinking” was the second lowest insult possible, slightly higher than “you’re just like your mother.” He called us savages because we didn’t attend operas or symphonies! He warned, “Van, they’ll eat you alive at Princeton if you don’t know classical music.” (In fact, I discovered at Princeton that Monty Python mattered far more than Mozart.)

Texas became the symbol of the push-pull of my warring parents. The harder he tried to hammer me into being a prep-schooled, wine-sipping bon vivant in Brooks Brothers suits, the more passive-aggressively I attached to Texas. Other kids rebelled with long hair, drugs, and that damned hippie music, but I opted for a hard-edged appreciation of my Texas identity.

The mental process went like this: You don’t like Texas? That’s tough—check out my Sesquicentennial belt buckle, my beard, my taste for the twangiest mountain music and the border’s norteno sounds. To this day, a few months shy of my 48th birthday, I take intense pleasure when my father goes goggle-eyed at the Texas flag in my apartment and my faded Levi’s blue jeans. Confused youthful rebellion evolved and remained part of my adult identity. You don’t like the way I dress or act? I couldn’t say the following when I was 17, but I can easily say it at 47: That’s just too fucking bad.

Ultimately, I split the difference between Mom and Dad. In his own ham-handed way, my father profoundly influenced me. Those visits to New York opened me to post-high school options beyond my family’s traditional loyalty to the University of Texas. Like a character from a Larry McMurtry novel, I found a way out of the restless alienation I felt in small-town Texas. I did leave Texas for Princeton, moved to Brooklyn, got married, moved to Connecticut, got divorced, and never went back for more than a few days after 1977. At my 10th high school reunion, a friend reminded me, “Van, you said you were going to get the hell out of Texas.” And I did.

And I like aspects of the Northeast—the weather, New England, the career options, New York’s endless appeal to what I call my “action junkie” tendencies. But I’ve never viewed New York State or Connecticut as home. Buffalo? Syracuse? Waterbury? East Hartford? I have no childhood memories of the area, no rootedness beyond my young son and the walls of my apartment. That’s typical Wallach behavior. I’m just the latest in a paternal line of dream-chasing drifters; after all, my father, his father and I were born in three different countries, men blown like tumbleweeds across borders in pursuit of elusive fulfillment.

My late mother’s family, on the other hand, has modest dreams and happier lives. Her family has remained in Texas for seven generations, since my ancestors got the hell out of Germany in the 1860s. For proof, go to the Jewish cemetery in Gonzales, on Water Street, where you’ll see gravestones of people born as far back as the 1840s. I’m related to almost all of them.

As I’ve gotten older, my Texas identification moved beyond rebellion to become an intense, if physically distant, sense of who I am. That sense always existed in me, and friends and relatives always tried to stoke the flame of affection. Bill Austin, the late owner of the Upper Valley Progress in Mission, where I had been a teenage reporter, regularly sent me packages of clips from the McAllen Monitor, usually detailing political corruption in the Valley and the many dangers of Mexico. My mother sent me charming gifts such as a heavy brass armadillo, a crocheted armadillo, and a t-shirt with armadillos saying, “Homesick for Texas, send chili soon!” (Come to think of it, my mother had an intense affection for all things armadillo). So in terms of remaining attached to my roots, I am very much my mother’s son, perhaps more than when she was alive.

As the decades passed, I made peace with my father. We’ve lived within 50 miles of each other for almost 30 years. We talk and get together with my son so he can know his grandfather. I’m more outspoken when my father crosses me. We don’t talk about the past.

Being from Texas is a point of pride, an outsider’s badge in an area where practically nobody comes from the South. To identify myself as a Texan means to say, “I look at the world a little different from you. I’m not exactly like you, and I’m glad of that.” People take note of Texans while folks from, say, Ohio and Virginia are politely acknowledged, if that. Everybody’s got a Texas story, friends who moved there, a comment on the President, and saying I’m from Texas makes me the lightning rod for whatever opinions they care to spout.

Not that I’m a mindless booster or Texas-right-or-wrong type. After all, I live up here, not down there, and I’m not looking to relocate. The closest I ever came to that was when I tried to find a job in Austin in the late 1980s after I got married and my bride and I wanted to escape New York. I doubt I could ever emulate Larry McMurtry, who returned with riches and fame to open a bookstore in Archer City. Go back to Mission? No way, Jose!

Instead, I’ll build a virtual Texas through contacts with relatives and occasional visits. I’ll write essays like this that mine a deep vein of memory and conflicted emotion. I’ll cruise the websites of the McAllen Monitor, major papers, and the Texas Observer to keep up with the state’s kookiness. Of course, if I ever become McMurtry-like rich and famous, I might consider a Victorian mansion in Gonzales, the kind that looked so huge and splendid when I was a kid growing up in Texas.

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

I started thinking about contenders for the title of my personal Queen of Soul in late June, after I attended the American Roots Music Fes...