REUNION IN TEXAS
Joyce's family gathers in Texas for the latest reunion of la familia.
La Familia attendance
keeps growing each year
By JOYCE KIEFER
Our Best Western Motel in Corpus Christi offers a waffle iron and small cups of batter with their complimentary breakfast buffet. I lift the lid of the iron and notice the grid seems strangely configured. I pour on the batter and flip the iron to cook it. Two minutes later I open the iron and pry out my golden waffle. It comes out shaped like the state of Texas!
In the world-weary 21st century, Texas pride remains rampant. I know this from the half dozen visits Ive made since I was a kid. The braggadocio is fun, a throwback to a simple time. Ive come here this summer for the biennial family reunion of my cousins. We began these gatherings in 2001 when Carmen, the oldest member of our familia, turned 100. That reunion and the three that followed were held in Tucson, Arizona, where she was still living. By the time the fourth one took place, Carmen had passed away. Would the Reunion still have legs without her presence, without being a tribute to her in some way? Because she will always be part of our story, we realized we could move on from Tucson to other places in the country that portions of la familia call home.
The first shift was to San Antonio, Texas.
This summer we are once again in San Antonio, this time at a resort on the edge of the city where the Hill Country begins. Last time we collectively did the River Walk, Ghost Walk, La Villita, Mercado and general downtown, and we remembered the Alamo. This time well focus on just hanging out together with Texas as our backdrop. No outings are planned , even though Sea World beckons on the other side of the Freeway and the Schlitterbahn Waterpark is a mere hour away.
As I step out of our rented car at the hotel mid-afternoon, the air hits my face as if a shower door in a small bathroom suddenly opened while the hot water was running full force. The news says the heat is 96 degrees but feels like 103. Wind will gust to 35 miles per hour, the weatherman adds, but what I feel is one prolonged gust. Were not in California any more.
My cousin Jorgina has flown out with my husband Bill and I. She plans to room with Cousin Lettie, who flies in from Virginia. Bill's and my room is ready; theirs is not. As the afternoon deepens into evening, their room is still not ready. Neither are several others for our group. The clerk explains that the staff is extra busy because a large group of people checked out today. But arent all the rooms cleaned daily in a brand name hotel like this one? I wonder to myself. I tell Lettie and Jorgina they can use the other queen bed in our room. Cousin-in-law Del complains to the manager.
With or without rooms, all of us move on to dinner at Cousin Judys place about an hour away. Country music plays in the elevator Trace Atkins, Vince Gill. Bill and I try a quick Texas two-step before the door opens. Along the loop freeway I notice the strip malls are huge. Judy explains that in California you can walk from one end of a strip mall to the other, but in Texas you have to drive.
We relax immediately at Judy and Jims home, as if it had been a couple of weeks instead of a couple of years that we gathered there last with everyone. Weve developed a core of 50 family members who show up at all the reunions. Additional cousins who show up occasionally keep track of the family on our website or on Facebook. We no longer need get acquainted time.
When we return to the hotel by 11 pm, Jorgina and Letties room has finally been cleaned and they move in. However, Bill and I cant get the key card to open our room. The front desk clerk calls a technician. He tells us the battery in the lock is dead. The next night the lock is stuck again. This time the same technician slips a wire device under the door and, burglar-like, loops it around the handle inside and pushes open the door. These locks are all old, he explains. I think the rattling I heard at the door as I fell asleep was him, changing the batteries again.
Later Jorgina talks to one of the maids. In limited English the woman says she gets $8.00/hour and sometimes has to clean up to 30 rooms a day. I do an online check to see how hotel maids do on average and find an op ed piece in The New York Times, written by a hotel manager. He says the average pay for hotel maids is $10 and the room load is 10-14 rooms. Our hotel maid hints at an ongoing sick-out.
We think the sign pretty much
says it all, right?
A day with nothing planned is like a microscope. You focus on the small things before you, the way you can see a universe in a drop of water. I wonder if the teenagers in our group are bored, since they came in from the pool at high noon. Cousin Sofia, age 15, drapes herself in a lounge chair in the lobby while her mom works on a family Jeopardy game to present at our dinner that night. Two teenage brothers drive into town to re-do the Riverwalk and the Alamo. A clutch of teenage girls evaporate somewhere on the premises.
But that night at the restaurant reunion dinner, the girls surprise and move us with a presentation they prepared that afternoon. They model their Grandma/Great Aunt Graces high school prom dresses from the 1950s. The modest ones were made by Carmen, who was Graces mother and also a professional seamstress. The strapless ones were clearly store-bought, perhaps from Jacomes in Tucson. Cousin Stephanie precedes the fashion show by flashing her version of Jeopardy on a screen, featuring facts about family members, dead or alive. We form teams to come up with the answers and resolve to do this again at our next reunion.
Cousin Sofia models
one of Aunt Grace's
prom dresses from
Sunday morning most of us gather at the hotel for brunch and goodbyes. I find it hard to leave everyone and push on to the rest of the trip I had planned.
I had looked at a map of Texas to see what we could explore that was no more than a few hours drive from San Antonio. Not much. Weve been to Austin. Last Reunion we tacked on Fredericksburg and the Hill Country. This time its Corpus Christi, two hours south on the Gulf of Mexico. Houston, the runner-up, is over three hours away. The driving time between cities is like traveling around an entire country. The culture is as distinct from my Bay Area California as that of a foreign place.
Along the freeway a billboard reads, San Antonio loves God, country, and supports free enterprise. The guy and gal disk jockey partners on a country western station discuss the dangers of texting while driving. He adds, But I dont want any law passed against this, the government telling me what I can and cant do. We can take care of ourselves. The woman agrees emphatically.
Once we arrive in Corpus (as the locals call it) and pass the oil refineries, I notice the shore area looks more like South Florida than Texas. When the wind calms down at twilight, the Gulf gives the air a tropical feel with a light salt water scent. I dont know this Texas but I enjoy its subtlety. Next morning we explore the off-shore Mustang Island to visit a couple of bird sanctuaries in small pockets of swampy vegetation. The gloriously Southern name, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, classes up its location next to the wastewater treatment plant. Bright native flowers detract from the tanks and the smell. According to the warning sign, a couple of alligators lurk in the swamp but we dont see them. I picture their nubby bodies swimming against the wastewater tide through the pipes, looking to emerge in someones toilet bowl. Most of the songbirds have migrated but I spot the russet flash of summer tanagers flitting through the white fuzz hanging from the finger-like branches around me at Paradise Pond.
A view of the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center.
I look around the edges of Port Aransas to spot the place where Cousin Caroline took part in a practice deep cover operation when she was a Texas Trooper. I cant see a promising spot in this flat place to hide a body.
Ever-prepared for high water, island houses and condos stand on pillars like they do in the Everglades. In Corpus itself the homes along Shoreline Boulevard sit on the ground, nested in lush plants and fortified with hurricane blinds. When I asked an elderly man when the last hurricane struck, he said, it was a dozen years ago. Those blinds are good for keeping the house cool too, just like air conditioning. If a hurricane comes up, you just shut them tight and get out. His wife added, Then youre in the hands of the Lord.
The hurricane that drowned Galveston up the coast in 1900 is legendary. The folks in Corpus are ready for escape. The right lane on the main highway heading north is not for bicycles, I was surprised to learn, but for evacuation. The symbol for hurricanes is painted on the roadway white swirls like the blades of a food processor.
Someone elses brand of disaster is always exciting. All we have are earthquakes.
Two days later we say Goodbye Texas and fly home to the San Francisco Bay Area. No hurricanes, gale-force winds or face-slapping humidity. A heat wave is anything over 80 degrees. The cousins want the next reunion to be in Southern California where another cluster of family lives. The beach and Disneyland beckon. I will help with planning.
Our Reunions have become gifts of surprise more subtle now that we know each other more. Over breakfast Nellie confided that she would like to be a giraffe if she had to be an animal. Her husband, Cousin Ruben, would be a mesquite tree if he were a plant. Right now the reasons are just between us but I see possibilities for the next family Jeopardy game.
As for location, Texas, the home ground of Tucson, Southern California were there on a voyage of discovery as well.
©2011 by Joyce Kiefer. The photos are the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted July 4, 2011.
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