Friday, February 22, 2013

Bound for Beaumont

The following is what I've written for my first Life Writing homework assignment, which was to write in detail about a trip. It's my understanding that I'm supposed to read this aloud at our next class. (Note to self: take water bottle.) You'll have to read it to your own self if you're interested, but I'll make it up to you by throwing in some pictures at the end.

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There were five of us packed into my grandparents' maroon-colored 1949 Chevrolet Coupe that summer we went to Beaumont, Texas. It was 1957, I was fourteen, and I was the only one in the car who had never seen the ocean. The aunt and uncle we were traveling to see had promised us a trip to the beach, which would have excited me if the prospect of being away from my 15-year-old boyfriend for an entire week hadn't made me so gloomy and grouchy.

Our trip had begun at home in Springfield, Missouri. I was born in Springfield, as was my sister, Judy, four years after me. About two years after our father came back from fighting in World War II, when I was five and Judy was one, Mother and Daddy divorced. Mother took Judy and me with her to her parents' home, and we'd lived there ever since.

Mother was doing most of the driving on our way to Beaumont. Packy, my grandfather, rode shotgun. He never was a big talker, and on this trip he seldom spoke up at all except to tell Mother what she was doing wrong. Packy's name was Lewis Saunders. Martin's Furniture Company had made him retire from driving their delivery trucks when he'd turned 65, but he still considered himself an expert driver. "Wanda," he'd say, "you ought not to be so close to that center line. Get over." Or, "Wanda June, slow down, now."

Mother had a quick answer for every one of Packy's driving tips. Mother was smart. She worked for B.C. Christopher & Sons, a brokerage firm, where she spent much of her day standing on a step-stool in her high-heeled shoes, transferring stock prices from ticker-tape to chalk numbers on a blackboard. She was beautiful, too. She would turn 34 a couple of weeks after this trip, but she regularly lopped seven or eight years off her age. She could get away with it, at least until I showed up next to her, skinny as a rail but as tall as she was, and called her "Mother" in front of everyone. It hurt my feelings how much that annoyed her.

Judy sat on one side of the backseat, and I slumped on the other side in a deliberate demonstration of my abject misery. Mammaw, our grandmother Lola, rode between us. Mammaw was a peacemaker, a happy person who appreciated the grace of God, the beauty of nature, and the goodness she believed was in the hearts of all people. Judy and I needed that buffer. We had a classic case of sibling rivalry, fussing and feuding over everything from toys to clothes to the nuances of each word that poured forth from the other's mouth. Mammaw would keep us from sniping at each other and from leaning into one another's space, even if it meant riding for twelve hours with her feet straddling the drive-shaft hump in the floorboard.

The '49 Chevy was a two-door car, so no one could get out of the backseat unless someone first got out of the front. I felt trapped in there. The July temperatures only made it worse. We couldn't have survived the heat with the windows up, so Mother and Packy kept theirs rolled down, creating enough wind in the car to keep our hair blowing over our eyes and into our mouths. The little windows next to the backseat were small, triangular in shape, and could be opened about three inches by sliding them back. Judy and I opened ours as wide as they would go and pressed our faces against the open spaces. We deemed the additional air movement worth the price of getting peppered with road grit and smacked by the occasional flying insect.

We drove straight through from Missouri to Texas without stopping to spend the night. Occasionally, between restroom and gasoline stops, Packy would take over the driving so Mother could get some rest. She slept with one eye open when he was at the wheel, her opinion of his driving being at least as critical as his opinion of hers. Somewhere along the way, after hours we'd spent napping, complaining, heaving dramatic sighs, and consuming homemade sandwiches while the wheels kept rolling, the hills of the Ozarks gave way to the flatlands of East Texas. I saw my first mirage on a two-lane Texas highway and was mesmerized as I watched what appeared to be water in the road disappear magically at our approach. That may have been the first moment it occurred to me that this vacation might not be all bad.

Eventually we pulled into the driveway of my aunt and uncle's single-story, white-painted-cinderblock house. Their sons, Gary, Lew, and Kenny, spilled out the front door to greet us. The boys were stairsteps--eight, seven, and five years old, respectively--and were much taller than they'd been the last time I'd seen them. The whole family had lived down the street from us in Springfield until a couple of years earlier, when they'd moved to Texas to be near my aunt's brother.

My uncle, Neale, was Mother's older brother. He was a quiet, gentle man. He smoked a pipe, handling it in a way that gave him the appearance of being lost in thought, though if he ever had a deep thought, he didn't express it. In Springfield Neale had worked at the U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners. Now, in Beaumont, he worked as a television technician at an appliance store. That seemed to me like a smart career change: the new job was safer than the old one, and television was getting to be a really big thing. At home we could  already get three channels.

Neale's wife, Yvonne, had grown up in Beaumont. Later she'd been a member of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and had served in England during World War II. That's where she met Neale, who was also in the service. Now her full-time job was reining in those three boys. Yvonne was rather plain in appearance, except for her pretty eyes, and I'd once overheard Mother uncharitably questioning her intelligence behind her back. Yvonne's strengths were kindness (unlike Mother), tolerance, and resilience. Whatever happened, she rolled with the punches.

Once, during our visit in Beaumont, my uncle invited his boss home for supper to meet the Missouri part of the family. Yvonne baked a cake for the occasion. Unfortunately, ants found the freshly baked layers cooling on the kitchen table and quickly swarmed over them. Yvonne was unperturbed. Judy and I were shocked to see her scrape off most of the ants with a table knife, hand-pick the stragglers, and proceed to frost the cake. When she produced it at the end of our evening meal, we kept our mouths shut and politely declined dessert.

The highlight of our vacation occurred a day or two after our arrival in Texas. Mother, Judy, and I piled into the car with Yvonne and the boys, all of us in our bathing suits, and drove to the beach at High Island. I was impressed by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico that seemed to go on forever. The beach itself didn't live up to the expectations I'd built up based on beautiful pictures I'd seen. Hurricane Audrey had slammed into the Gulf Coast only a month earlier, and the shore was littered with driftwood and other debris washed up by the storm. Everything looked dirty. The exposed particles of broken shell in the sand made me uncomfortable about walking on it in my bare feet, but I managed to tiptoe into the water with the others and stay there long enough to be able to tell my friends I'd been swimming in the ocean. Not that I really knew how to swim.

Thinking we could at least go home with genuine southern suntans, we spread our blanket on the sand, ate our picnic lunch, then stretched out on the blanket. We'd been sunbathing longer than I considered fun when a car pulled up beside us, a convertible with three men in the front seat. They stopped to talk to Mother and my aunt, asking where we were from, how did we like Texas so far, all the usual questions one would ask of strangers meeting for the first time.

The men were headed to a seaside restaurant/bar that we could see from where we were standing. They invited us to join them for a cool drink, and Mother surprised the rest of us by accepting their invitation. The restaurant, which I believe was called Breeze Inn, was nearly empty inside. I was happy to be out of the sun. We sipped our cool drinks--soft drinks for the women and children, beer for the men--under breezes stirred by ceiling fans. While the adults talked and laughed at one big table, we kids sat at a separate one nearby, keeping a watchful eye on the restaurant owners' enormous, sleeping dog, the first Great Dane I'd ever seen.

Everything was different after that day at the beach, and I don't remember much about our activities after that. I'm sure we must have done some sightseeing, but I couldn't tell you what sights we saw. I mostly remember that Mother was spending every evening with Tommy, the man she'd liked most of the three we'd met at the beach. He'd pick her up when he got off work, and they'd be together until after the rest of us were asleep. Mother seemed to be having a great time, but Judy and I were left with our grandparents, aunt, and uncle, none of whom shared Mother's energy or zest for fun, and three cousins who had always driven us crazy merely by being boys.

Our trip back to Missouri was much like our trip to Texas a week earlier. We were headed in the opposite direction, of course, and some of us had sunburns that itched like crazy. There was also a new tension in the car. Mother was quieter. She'd cried when we left Texas, and I couldn't understand why. She'd known Tommy less than a week, so it couldn't have been about him.

Back home in Missouri, I was happy again. My boyfriend came over on our first day back. He sat with me on the front-porch swing and seemed glad to see me. We had the whole rest of the summer ahead of us. Except for the sunburned skin that was peeling off my body in sheets, everything seemed to be back to normal.

I didn't know then that Tommy would call Mother long-distance every single night or that he would come to Missouri and marry her on the 8th of August, three weeks from the day they met. I had no idea that the day after their wedding we would pack up everything we could fit into a small trailer, say goodbye to everyone and everything familiar to us, and move to a little Texas town near Beaumont. I didn't know that our summer vacation would turn out to be a life-changer.

This is the 1949 Chevy when it was new, parked in front of my
grandparents' house. Several years later 
Mammaw and Packy bought it from Mammaw's sister Cleda
 and her husband, Ernest. Cleda is pictured here at left with her
daughter, Nadine, and Nadine's daughter, Kathy.
Springfield, Missouri, about 1949.


Our cousins, (L-R) Kenny, Lew, and Gary.
Beaumont, Texas, July 1957.


My uncle, Neale, and his car, which was the one we rode in to the beach.
Beaumont, Texas, July 1957.



My aunt, Yvonne.
High Island, Texas, July 1957.

Linda (me) on the left, my sister Judy at right,
Kenny in front, Gary in rear.
High Island, Texas, July 1957.


My mother, Wanda, with her nephews, (L-R) Gary, Kenny, and Lew.
High Island, Texas, July 1957.



Mother and Yvonne.
High Island, Texas, July 1957.


The men from the beach. That's Tommy in the middle.
High Island, Texas, July 1957.



With Packy and Mammaw (Lewis and Lola) in front of
the home we'd be leaving a day or two later.
(L-R) Linda, Packy, Mammaw, Judy.
Springfield, Missouri, August 1957.


Surprise! Everything turned out okay!

Standing (L-R): Linda, Wanda.
Seated (L-R): Donna (Tommy's daughter), Tommy, Judy.
Orange, Texas, November 1957.

4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the story - and glad everything worked out OK. Good luck with your reading!

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  2. Great storytelling, Mom! I didn't want the story to stop. You are such a gifted writer. Nighty-night -- love you!

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  3. Great story! I remember almost everything in it but did learn a few things. In so many ways it seems like yesterday.

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  4. Great job, Linda. Loved the photos, too.

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