A couple of months ago we bought a house in what our friend John calls the hysterical section of East Dallas. He’s right. Over here, we’re hysterical about the historical. Talk at neighborhood parties runs to wainscoting, molding, hardwood floors, original light fixtures. We’re heavily into restoration, as well as debt.
I love my new house, I tell people. How egocentric. The house isn’t new; I am. We move in, clean the windows, lay orange paisley shelf paper, polish the red-brown floors, and penetrate the attic, hollow with disuse. The ghosts of the past marvel and complain at the dust we stir up, then sigh and subside. Till we’ve been here for a while, we don’t really matter.
Who knows; when we are ghosts this house may restore us. Some earnest young resident of the future may discover that on May 1, 1979, a Dutchman, Willem Brans, with his wife and stepson took possession of this house and lived here till chance or death intervened. We’re a matter of record now. He’ll plumb our lives for his restoration project, just as once I plumbed other lives in another house I loved but failed to restore, the house that got away. I call that house the old house because I don’t live there now, as this is the new house because I do. Actually the two houses are about the same age.
The old house, which was built in 1925, sits on an eight-acre tract in a high section of southeast Dallas called Pecan Heights. The little farm stands alone, the 40 acres that were once its pride dwindled, the white frame house weathered and shabby, though built to last. Across the road small shotgun houses huddle together; to the west there’s a freeway, to the east service stations, a body shop or two, and another freeway. At the bottom of the pasture, sloping behind the old house, runs a single track for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Horses grazing quietly between the barn and the tackhouse take fright when a gasoline truck plummets down the west freeway toward downtown Dallas; people who might like to be restorers take fright at the ugly row of rental warehouses encroaching on the house from the east. The old house will never be restored, partly because its surroundings are so drab, partly because its land is so valuable.
For its present owner the farm is a financial investment, and he’s holding onto it. “The place is zoned 12-that’s industrial, and in short supply so close in to town,” he told me recently. “It’s kinda lost out there and nobody knows about it. But you’re talking about land that is worth two to three dollars a square foot for industrial purposes.”
In the Map and Platte Division of the County Records Building I look it up. The tract has 343,286 square feet. At three dollars a foot, I could buy it for $1,029,858. Regretfully I decide to pass. I’m sure I’ll drive by there one of these days and discover it’s all been razed and somebody’s putting up a tool-and-die plant or an air-conditioning factory. In the meantime, I can restore the place in my mind, so periodically I do that.
A family of four, we rented the farm for $250 a month from late October of 1970 till May of 1973. My husband at the time, my penultimate husband, as John Leonard says, had a new job on television which gave him an evanescent fame. I had just wandered into teaching after years of full-time mothering, and was precariously balanced between two worlds. Our marriage was a thin gold wire stretched taut over a chasm. Our daughter was ten, our son six. The four of us were excited about living on the farm. We felt it was a sign, as if the gods of endurance and solidity were making an epiphany, and when we acquired a collie pup, because farms have collies, we called her Pif for short.
Together in the fall afternoons we pored over the pasture and orchard as if they too held signs for us. City dwellers who didn’t want to be, we were a bust as farmers too. That fall we harvested pecans from 30 or 40 trees only to have them grow winy and stale before we could use them. In the spring we raced the greedy birds to the figs and pears, and lost. The freeway breathed exhaust fumes on our extravagant garden; we let it go to weeds. We weren’t cut out for the quiet life of custom and duty that farming demands. Our old cars, laden with the kids and the dog, were always pulling in and out of the circular driveway, with a screech of tires on the loose gravel, on fictitious and time-wasting errands. But we loved the romance of the farm.
In a gully by the railroad tracks filled with broken Old Crow bottles and rusted Pearl cans, my son and his father found two flat white tombstones speckled gray with age. They pulled them to the house on my son’s red wagon and the four of us scoured them with Ajax. Sarah Rockett. Edd Rockett. Birth and death dates, that was all. I remember that Sarah died in 1933, the year I was born. Edd lived another 20 years or so, died an old man.
The courthouse records told us what we wanted to know. My husband, who loved to find out such things, came home jubilant. Edd and Sarah Rockett had bought 40 acres from a man named Thur-man in May of 1925, and by the end of the year had put up the six-room house, with a big sun porch across the back to face the young pecan and fruit trees they planted, and a five-stall barn. They lived there for eight years, till Sarah died in the worst year of the Great Depression. The records said she died of pellagra.
Pellagra. The irony of a farm wife’s dying of a nutritional deficiency impressed me. I thought about it often as I moved around the clumsy old-fashioned kitchen, brought pine cones in for the oak table in the gem-like octagonal dining room, the prettiest room in the house. Maybe during that impossible winter of ’33 the Rocketts had nothing to eat but the corn saved for livestock. I had heard of such things. But no jars of canned snapbeans, peas, and squash? No bright pickles or preserves, with the cucumbers, figs, and pears right there? No crocks of kraut? No hams in the smokehouse or scrawny chickens pecking in the barn grain?
I prepared bounteous farm meals from food I bought at the supermarket. A brown Mexican pot of pinto beans bubbled at the back of the stove. I simmered turnip and mustard greens with salt pork, fried little circles of fresh okra, mashed potatoes with lots of butter, sliced fat red tomatoes, pulled iron skillets of hot yellow cornbread out of the oven. Everyone loved my down-home cooking, especially the redneck rock singers.
For whether because of my husband’s television fame or because of the farm itself, we fell in for a time with Allen Damron, a classy young man who was a folk singer and a passionate folk-music entrepreneur, and with B.W. Stevenson, whose real nickname is Chuck but who was then calling himself Buckwheat.
On Sunday afternoons Allen and his entourage would come out for beans and beer. Buckwheat always arrived with his girl Sharon, a redhead with a warm, open smile. Sharon worked in my husband’s television studio and seemed far too wholesome for the crazy life she led with B. W. He was barely 22 at the time, a boy who’d grown up on the pavements of a West Dallas suburb, but he looked 35 at least, and a little like Chill Wills-a round pudgy bearded face, the kind of beer belly that hangs over a tightly cinched belt, a flat broad butt and skinny shanks. He drank a lot of Coors and it made him wild and funny, or quiet, surly, and a little scary. I didn’t envy Sharon, who sewed, painted, baked bread, and dipped her own candles.
One morning just about dawn we heard a loud banging at the front door: Buckwheat. He’d been drinking all night and somebody’d called him a fake Texan and by God he’d come to ride our big stallion. Useless to argue, so my husband took him out to the barn to saddle up, and the sleepy children and I trailed along for the fun. The pasture was wet and cool; the horse was white-eyed with the drunk stranger. B. W. had hardly ever seen a horse, I imagine. While Sharon watched nervously, Buckwheat climbed timidly on the high back and was instantly and unceremoniously dumped on the soft grass, his silly stovepipe hat rolling to rest a few yards away. He tried again a couple of times, looking and no doubt feeling foolish, as the sun came out and the late-summer day turned hot, and he began to sober up. I watched as long as I wanted to, then went on up to the house to make biscuits and cream gravy. It seemed the least a Texas farm woman could do.
Sharon and I both cast ourselves as strong pioneer wives in the romantic saga inspired by the farm. Sharon even wore ankle-length gingham dresses sprigged with tiny flowers. As she strummed pensively on her guitar, her long dark red hair would fall across her cheek; she seemed a living tintype. But neither Sharon nor I rode. Every once in a while, at my husband’s insistence, I’d climb reluctantly on old Bess’ broad and willing back, clutch the saddle horn till my knuckles turned white, and shout high-pitched bossy commands into the horse’s indifferent ear.
“Use your hands, not your voice,” my husband ordered. “Let go the horn, you won’t fall. Use the reins to control her.”
Timorously I’d loose the horn, one hand at a time, and take the reins. With nothing to hold on to, I’d become conscious of the least motion of the lazy-horse. When Bess stamped a fly away with one hind foot, I’d pull her in tightly. “Let her go,” my husband directed. “At least let her walk, Jo. She doesn’t know what you want.”
Reluctantly I would ease the reins, drop one; as I reached for it, I’d feel a stirrup slip away from my shaky foot. Bess would snort, in disgust I thought.
At last I’d be permitted to dismount. The mare and I would both sigh heavily, then she would trot out to the pasture before I changed my mind, almost a young mare again with relief. I would slip up to the house.
Standing at the kitchen door sipping Gallo red, I’d watch my small son jump up and down eagerly while his father saddled the pony for him. A real farm woman could ride, I’d reflect as I put the potatoes on to boil for supper. A real farm woman would be like Judy Damron, Allen’s wife.
Judy-Allen called her Jelly Bill-was a slender tanned girl with a yellow ponytail. She trained horses. Once a month or so she’d bring her horse trailer up from Austin, with a new skittish colt she wanted to bridle and saddle break.
My daughter and I sat on the corral fence and watched. Jelly Bill talked to the colt, rubbed it down all over, walked around it till in a few days she could touch it anywhere, from any angle, without mishap. In a week or two she could climb on bareback, lie across its neck, and slide off before the startled pony bucked. It was a pretty sight, and my own blond daughter and I sometimes watched all morning from the safety of our corral fence. Then we’d have lunch on the picnic table under the liveoak trees at the kitchen door-sandwiches and cold potato salad and tall glasses of iced tea.
At night occasionally we’d drive in to town to the Rubaiyat, Allen’s country music club on McKinney. I liked seeing Jelly Bill behind the cash register, her face as shiny as her white satin shirt. Which was the real Jelly Bill, I’d wonder, the tomboy rider or the sexy girl here now? The farm was a dream she wanted to enter, but where did she belong? And I watched her tall young husband bend over her protectively, while Buckwheat began crooning, “Five o’clock on a Texas morning,” and Sharon knitted as he sang. For that matter, where did we all belong?
Of all the people who visited the farm, perhaps only Jim Bones, the photographer, saw it as it was, not as it had been. Jim spent several days with us from time to time. He didn’t want to ride and he didn’t eat much. Jim liked grass, and he got exasperated with us if we cut ours-he wanted to see what would happen if we left it alone. Jim’s favorite post was the children’s treehouse, where he’d sit dreaming the morning away, nothing visible of him but the back of his shoulders and his head, encircled by soft puffs of smoke. My husband asked Jim to come down but he wouldn’t. He saw things we didn’t see-the pattern of grasses waving in the pasture, the striations on a weathered log, the mosses under the tree by the faucet.
The best party we ever gave at the farm was the Jim Lehrer Going Away Party in 1972, when 300 people or so came out to eat barbecue and drink beer. Hart Stilwell came up from San Antonio to help my husband with the barbecue. Hart was a skinny old lizard, a newsman and the author of preachy socialist novels – Border Town, the only one I ever made it through, I last saw mentioned on a list of novels about adolescents. How hurt Hart, its barely disguised hero, would have been at that. He wanted to be as tough as his old man, the Texas Ranger, had been. When he walked into Dorsey Wier’s Houston night club, the band would strike up “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and Hart would preen. He’s the only man who ever called me a tomato.
For the going away party Hart and my husband cooked half a steer Mexican style, which involved a great deal of Jack Daniels and an all-night vigil under the stars. We arranged a circle of bales of hay in the back yard, got a group called the Possum Trotters to come and play, and Buckwheat to sing. Allen and Jelly Bill came in matching cowboy outfits, Sharon wore a gingham skirt and a white peasant blouse, and I had a red and blue square-dance dress. We danced to the Possum Trotters, drank and ate and talked. At a certain point in the evening old Hart, who in the way of declining macho men wanted constant attention, got frustrated because nobody was noticing him and set fire to one of the bales of hay. We danced attendance on him after that.
It all fell apart of course, as things will. My husband left, but I stayed on. The horses kept breaking loose and straying onto the freeway. The kids’ Welsh pony, Little Lady, got picked up on the street by the Dallas dogcatcher, and I had to pay $50 to get her out of the pound. Finally, I just jumped the fence myself.
Sharon and Buckwheat split, and he went on the road for a while. Last I heard he had bought a place out from Austin. Jelly Bill left ardent Allen to run away with a baldheaded, middle-aged cowboy who’d been married for years and had grown children. Allen took it hard. Three or four years ago old Hart died.
Not long after Hart’s death, my ultimate husband and I went by the farm to see about a picnic table I’d left behind in my impatience to get away. As we drove onto the loose gravel of the circular drive, I thought how pleased Jim Bones would be: Tall grass covered every inch of the yard. A commercial Coke machine sat on the front porch.
No one was home. The house lay still and quiet in the late afternoon sun; a strange brindle horse looked up benignly from its grazing, grass blades hanging from its long jaw. We walked over to the barn, then to the tackhouse my husband had used for an office, now open and empty. The treehouse had fallen down, its gray boards stacked carelessly against the tree. Crickets whirred in the dry grass, and a couple of fat yellow cats rubbed against our legs and meowed.
The picnic table was still under the kitchen oak, or part of it was; the legs at one end had been hacked and burned off, maybe for firewood. The back door to the sunporch was open, and I couldn’t resist walking through, followed by the cats. The whole house had been divided into separate cubicles with Pier I madras bedspreads and tie-dyed sheets. Mattresses lay on the floor, and I remember a large hookah beside one. A skillet and a stew pot sat on the hearth; there was no stove. Dirty dishes were piled in the kitchen and clothes littered the floor. The only piece of furniture, a large paint-stained table in the dining room, was covered with half-finished ceramic pots and bowls. Some of them were nice, I thought. We got hurriedly into the car and drove away.
I haven’t been back, but the owner tells me a woman who works for the government lives there now. She raises rabbits or something like that-the farm’s a good place for rabbits, I imagine. But of course she just rents, holding off the tool-and-die plant for a few more years.
But why should I care? Here I sit in a perfectly restored new house brooding about the old house. Sometime after I started writing in this space, I discovered that my mode is nostalgia, my tone the bittersweet, my theme is loss. At first I blamed my Mississippi birth. But my hus band the Dutchman is like that too. He left Holland when he was eight years old and yet, or therefore, he dreams of it, a Delft blue heaven. Perhaps we are all Southerners of the soul. No matter how happy we are in the present, we always mourn the past, and know that we lost something in the War which can never be restored.