The Middle Distance 12.16.2011: Merry Texas Christmas

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photo by Sean Cayton

For all of my children’s lives, thirty-four Christmases with the exception of just a few, we have gathered at their grandmother’s house in Galveston, Texas for the end of year holiday. For many years we drove the hard, long course from Colorado Springs to the Gulf coast in late December, counting road kill and armadillo sightings along the way. One year, the boys and I weaved through northwest Texas taking state highways, and came upon a 20-foot tall fiberglass cheerleader on the side of the road in a small town whose name we can’t remember. I made them get out of the car and pose with her and snapped their picture. We haven’t seen her since.

When the children became adults, they continued the pilgrimage to their grandmother’s house from wherever they lived — San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boulder — and they still do. Next week we will all land in Houston from our faraway posts, and together make our way down the Gulf Freeway, past Baybrook Mall and NASA and the smokestacks of Texas City, past bingo parlors and XXX-rated video stores and windblown roadhouses, past Bayou Vista and rippling wetlands dotted with feathered cranes poking around for a fish, across the causeway, to Galveston Island.

Once on the island, we survey the progress or degradation of the landscape depending on the previous year’s weather disasters, and take note of what still stands: Smitty’s Bait Shop, Leon’s Bar-B-Q, Happy Buddha Chinese restaurant. Gone are the magnificent live oaks that used to spread their curving arms across the four lanes and the median of Broadway, drowned in the 2008 hurricane, but the oleanders seem to flourish. Stray dogs roam the sandy alleyways. From Seawall Boulevard, we greet the sparkling ocean and ever shrinking spots of beach stretching between rock piers. Here and there, a fisherman or woman with an aluminum lawn chair and an ice chest squints into the sun, dropping a line into the sea.

When we arrive at my mother’s house, we know what we will find. Tables and shelves lined with photos of the grandchildren at every phase of their lives. Junior high school hair. First grade’s snaggle-toothed smile. Images of boys and girls in soccer uniforms, baseball outfits, prom dresses, and birthday hats, all preserved, framed, and dusted. A Christmas tablecloth on the oak dining table. And in every corner, gifts we gave my mother over the many years we’ve been coming here — windchimes from Hawaii over the kitchen door, a ceramic cat door stop, knick-knacks on the windowsills, objects whose age we gauge in proportion to our own.

When we arrived in Galveston last year, we expected it was for our last Christmas with my mother at her house. Two of the grandchildren had been with her at Thanksgiving and had watched in horror as she went into the hospital with pneumonia and a blood clot on her lung, weakened by chemotherapy and in debilitating pain. By Christmas, having decided to pursue no further treatment for her various ailments, she was at home with hospice care. We were watchful and quiet around her, protecting her nap time, hoping our last days with her would be gentle and as pain-free as possible.

Then we all went home and she lived for another year. This year we are celebrating the luxury of bonus time and another chance to gather in the house that holds our memories. She will prepare the dough and I will roll out and cut the biscuits. We’ll have sausage, especially flown in from Tennessee, at breakfast one more time, with glass jars of her homemade strawberry preserves scattered around the table. The boys will lounge on her comfy old couches and watch football with a running, sarcastic commentary, and we will nap on her sun-dried sheets, in her dark bedrooms, the sleep of our dreams.

It never occurs to any of us that it is too inconvenient, too far, too remote, or too costly to visit Galveston at Christmas, for her house is where we want to be, no matter where we live. We have not allowed ourselves the serious talk we should have about where we will go and what we will do when she is no longer there and the torch has passed to my sister and me. For now, we book our flights and imagine the salt marsh smell and wing our way to my mother’s house for Christmas. We will know we are there when we see pelicans overhead, their heavy wings spread, their dinosaur heads aligned in a perfect V, gliding over the open sea.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


13 Responses to The Middle Distance, 12.16.11: Merry Texas Christmas

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    How wonderfully special. What a building block for memories for the future. I loved it and wept.

  2. Sarah says:

    Hope your trip is wonderful and your Christmas beautiful! x

  3. Kay Johnson says:

    Your stories are always welcome and familiar- I go to my mother’s in South Texas, by Corpus Christi, for Thanksgiving and many of your descriptions could be out of our family gatherings.
    I have made that road trip across West Texas many times in the last few years to visit my mom, and there is always something interesting. Last month there were thousands of crows, geese, and sandhill cranes overhead on that stretch of highway out of Lamesa. The cheerleader you talk about is in that very town, off the main road, on the way to Lubbock. I have pictures of her from several trips- she is located in front of a tire shop!
    Merry Christmas and thanks for the stories.

    • kathryn says:

      Thank you so much for solving the mystery of the giant cheerleader and Lamesa. I’ve tried to find her so many times, cutting through little towns where I was sure she would be, to no avail. Next time I drive, a detour through Lamesa will be on the agenda.

      • Kay Johnson says:

        It is about half-way to the coast so we usually stay in Lamesa or Muleshoe(!) There is also a drive-in movie theater there that we have yet to try that looks interesting. I have a couple of pictures of her that I could email you if you are interested.

  4. Kay Johnson says:

    ps: Lamesa is pronounced La-meesa, of course! ha

  5. Dee Fowler says:

    Yep, just like Boerne is Burr-nee. I do miss it. And, what wonderful images and feelings. We got some bonus time too, with our mom. You said it beautifully.

  6. Isabel says:

    A very Merry Christmas to you and all your family. Love, Isabel

  7. Grace Clifford says:

    May your mother conquer her afflictions and your family spend many more Christmases with her. My children will be at my house again this season, but now that even my grandchildren are married, much time must be surrendered to spouses’ families. Such is life, but I know they love me, and that is what really counts.

  8. Marty says:

    My love to you all and especially your mom, whom I have known by your warm stories and Liz’s visit. Merry Christmas, Kathryn.

  9. Liz says:

    We love MB and her comfy home – especially at Christmas! We will be missing you all this year, as we know it will be filled with sweet family connections, sausage and biscuits, a HUGE gift exchange, karaoke at the Holiday Inn, and walks on the beach! Love to you ALL and especially to Mama Bettye!
    Liz and Kendall

  10. Mary Moncebaiz Monsees says:

    I cried when I read about your wonderful family gathering at grandma Bettye’s.She is a joy to know! Although I no longer live in Texas, a huge part of my heart will always remain. Thanks for sharing your memories. It reminded me of the true valve of Christmas–sharing love,family and friendship. Warm Holiday Wishes to you all.

  11. Kim Powers says:

    A beautiful and heart-warming tradition that is truly what this season is all about- love, and sharing it. Blessings and Merry Christmas to all of your family and especially to Mama Betty. 🙂


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