Granddaddy lives with Granny in deep south Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where the cost of living is low and the birding is excellent. Though the area is heavily Hispanic, there is a strong block of Midwesterners who swell the local population during the winter months. They drive monstrous RVs down the highways and backroads to settle in a mobile home campground for half the year. Or else, if they have some money to invest, they buy a home and fly in. Their life is a continual round of retirement play -square dances, golf outings, church suppers, and social visits – broken only by occasional medical mishaps. Then in April, when the Texas sun starts to get a bit angry, they head back to their Midwestern homes where Spring is still flowering and the grandchildren are down the street. In Texas, these people are called “snowbirds” for their migratory habits, but south of the Rio Grande, where they sometimes go thrift shopping and touristing, they are called Q-Tips for their white hair and white shoes.
Granddaddy is one of them, in reverse. The only house he owns is in Harlingen, Texas. In the summer his wife and he pack up the camper van and tour the rest of the U.S. and Canada. He is a skilled woodworker who served in the navy years ago, thus their camper van is rigged somewhat like a ship of the line. They can store more clothes, perishable goods, and non-electric diversions than another snowbird could store in a fifth wheel. He and Granny cook whatever they like, shower whenever they want, and stretch their six-foot frames comfortably to sleep all in the limited confines of their four-wheeled fortress.
Their summer voyages, as plotted on the map, resemble the perambulations of a rat lost in a maze as they cross the country visiting the many friends and relations who have sent them invitations. For weddings and baby christenings and just plain chewing the fat, you could not find better companions for they are simple, charming, straightforward people, pleasant to a fault (if you can avoid speaking of politics and religion) and more useful than a Swiss Army knife. They are a dying breed of self-sufficient working people whose collective resumes include plumbing, painting, cooking, sewing, masonry, sheetrocking, quilting, and childcare. Granddaddy can make or fix almost anything, and Granny can take care of the rest. She is also the only force in nature that can keep Granddaddy in line.
The Rio Grande valley where they live is mostly drought-stricken farmland, but we happened to arrive after a rare two inches of rain. There was foot high corn growing on the fields and wildflowers everywhere. The valley follows the trickle of the Rio Grande for miles past towns with names like Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and the notorious Alamo. This river was once a thriving and unique ecological community, and today there are still wildlife sanctuaries where you can view chacalacas and green jays and many other birds unknown to most NorteAmericanos. But the lifeblood of the river is drained by farms and factories all over the Western United States before Texas even has the opportunity to extract a pound of flesh from it.
There are agreements in place between various states and Mexico as to how much water each group may take from the river, but these limits are often legally skirted by industrial farmers who irrigate their soil with fresh water from the river and then dump the run off back in. Their net use of the water is thus within the limits, but the quality of the water in terms of salinity, fertilizer content, and other contaminants is greatly degraded. Suffice to say, it is not a river I would consider swimming in. Not that I would have the opportunity near Harlingen. The river itself no longer drains into the Gulf of Mexico but gasps its dying breath among pathetic mudflats before reaching the ocean. At this point, the international boundary with Mexico is marked with stakes and the Border Guard has several agents permanently posted there to prevent illegal immigrants walking across dry land into our country.
Granny and Granddaddy live in the smallest house I have ever seen, though “house” is something of an exaggeration. It is more like a single house unit in a row of other house units, each separated from its neighbor by a single, shared wall between the garage and fenced courtyard of one house and the interior of the next house. The roof shingles make a continual mountain-valley pattern for an entire city block length. Within the house, the rooms line up like dominos from the street in front to the golf course canal in back: bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, living room. What more does one really need? Compared to the camper van, their house is something of a mansion. But to my suburban eyes, it is an efficiency apartment escaped from its tenement.
This is not meant to be disparaging. My father-in-law is handy, and his wife has more good sense and good taste rolled up in one woman than he deserves. Together they have made the inside of their home a model of spatial efficiency, thrift, order, and comfort. The laundry fits in a small closet, the dining table doubles as a kitchen counter, the raised bed is a wardrobe underneath, and hand-made cabinets and shelves fill the unnoticed corners and crevises. It is spacious for two, and still comfortable for six. My daughter, who thinks our Vermont house is too small, did not once complain about the space in Granddaddy house, though it would easily fit twice in our Vermont house.
As you can guess, Texas does not much resemble Vermont. Harlingen is hot and flat, covered with strange, non-native palm trees hidden behind he billboards that litter the highways. There is a constant assault of construction equipment everywhere you go. The signs are in Spanish as often as English, though I’m certain there are more native Spanish speakers. There is sweet fresh grapefruit and oranges and more birds than I can remember seeing ever in one place.
I remember stopping at a grocery store with my father-in-law. While waiting in line with my challah (yes, the bakery sold challah) and grape juice for Shabbat, I noticed that the Hispanic gentleman in front of me was purchasing tortillas, three-dozen eggs, chorizo, and an avocado. Now despite being vegetarian, I must say it made my mouth water. Granny and Granddaddy are excellent cooks, but their repetoire is constrained by their high blood pressure and my children’s food allergies. Had this man in front of us added a few limes to his purchase, I would have wrangled an invitation to dinner from him, vegetarian or not. Outside, I mentioned to Granddaddy how it was the healthiest purchase I had seen someone make in a grocery store in years, but he just shook his head, uncomprehending. Granddaddy is not a multi-cultural sort of fellow, and tortillas are about as foreign to him as Australian fried earthworms.
A Texan once came to Vermont to visit a friend of his for a time. He had a pleasant stay touring the mountains and visiting the sugar shacks, but he simply could not get over how small everything was in Vermont. The houses, the farms, the roads, the stores. After a week, he decided to bring this up with his host in an indirect and hopefully unoffensive manner. “You know, on my ranch in Texas, I get up in the morning and drive two hours to see my cattle on the range. Then I drive back home for lunch. Then I drive an hour to check the fencing. and then another two hours out to the barns and sheds to check on the equipment and the feed and the workers. I spend all day driving, and I never once leave my own ranch.”
The old time Vermonter nodded his head sagely and said, “Yup. I oncet had a truck like that.”