Texas Vacation – Part Two

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.”

Texas Vacation – Part One

Today is my birthday. To celebrate, I had my doctor insert a needle into my knee capsule this morning. Technically, she was hoping to extract whatever liquid had escaped my swollen bursae, but the well was dry. Nothing came out, so she inserted the needle a little farther and struck a small patch of thick blood. This is not what she expected and she told me so.

Did I mention that this was done without the bothersome application of anesthetic? Appreciating her limits – she is but a humble family doctor, a generalist, a Jack of all illnesses but master of none – she referred me to an orthopedist. Later that afternoon the swelling extended all the way down to my ankle. So I can’t say it was an uneventful day. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me….

This began just over a week ago as our vacation was underway.

Between the Burlington airport and the closest interstate exit, an extensive three story smudge of a hotel hides behind the strip malls and gas stations of Route 2, which was the main road between Montpelier and Burlington before Einsenhower bypassed it with I-89. The road is still a bustling artery, and many prefer it to the interstate when winter weather snarls traffic. Out in the countryside it meanders, crossing the Green Mountains and passing small towns, fields, and forest. But once it enters Chittendon County, an avarice awakens in this pulsing arterial. Small delivery trucks multiply and vie for position with wily commuters and by the time it reaches South Burlington, the road is banked on both sides with the heartless utilitarian architecture of warehouses, industrial businesses, fast food chain restaurants, trucking motels, and other ugly manifestations of its naked greed. As it passes the airport and approaches downtown, it makes a cynical attempt to clean itself up and present a passable moral character to the naïve college students on the far side of the interstate. Our hotel was one such attempt.

It was a nondescript gray building with a maze-like parking lots surrounding it. Inside, it was dull but clean. There was a small pool, a laundry, a continental breakfast in the morning, chocolate chip cookies at night, and an award winning restaurant next door that served nothing we could eat. The rooms were clean and smoke free, and they provided a spot where our car could lay low for a week while we flew to Texas. Our plane left at six in the morning and they promised a shuttle to drive us to the airport at four.

Somehow we managed to get the children in bed and pack the bags. Dawn was already asleep before I finished brushing my teeth, so I worked my way in the dark to the far side of the bed. I walked straight into the heater/AC unit under the window, smacking my right knee squarely on the kneecap with the resounding thunder of sheet metal warping.

It didn’t hurt. I say to you again, I felt no pain. I’ve been repeating these words for days now to various incredulous medical people (my wife included), which may give you some indication of how large my knee eventually swelled. But at the time, my immediate concern was that I might have woken the children. I clambered into bed and did not remember anything until the alarm on my cell phone went off at three in the morning. The chimes made a trickling sort of sound, a rising and falling arpeggio, which woke Samuel and made him laugh. I laughed with him, and then as I moved to get out of bed, I stopped laughing. My knee felt strangely stiff, but after flexing it a few times it seemed to work as well as ever.

We had three suitcases, a half dozen carry on bags, four bags of snacks, and two preschool children to negotiate through four airports and three different flights. Everything went like clockwork, even the half mile sprint across the Houston airport. For reasons known only to the mystical druids of airline reservations, Dawn and Samuel had one pair of tickets, and Rose and I had another, which often meant that we sat rows apart. But when one of our flights landed, we would plan our escape in sign language over the arched heads of a dozen passengers.

This generally worked out that Dawn unhooked the car seat but left it in place, grabbed Samuel and a bag or two, and dashed for the checked luggage where his banana stroller waited. Meanwhile, Rose and I brought up the rear, picking up the remaining bags on the way. The white snack bag handle slid over the handle of the green roller bag, and the car seat fit snuggly on top of that. I carried the laptop, Dawn had the backpack/diaper bag with three clear plastic baggies full of 3.2 ounce containers of liquids and gels. Even Rose had a small backpack full of books and diversions which fit conveniently over the stroller handles when she became to tired to haul it herself. In short, we were the model of post-911, traveling-family efficiency. We landed on time with all our luggage and Granddaddy and Granny waiting for us. In gratitude, we made a campfire between carosel numbers 2 and 3 in baggage claim and then ritually slaughtered and sacrificed a yearling heifer without blemish as a pleasing odor to our Lord.

Two hours later I changed into shorts for the eighty degree weather and discovered that some joker had stashed a grapefruit where my right knee had been. I had the strange experience of looking at my body as if it belonged to someone else, because I could feel my right knee and it felt normal (from the inside). It just looked and felt (from the outside) sort of squiggy.

The Seder

The furniture in the wide living room had been pushed against the walls, blocking the built-in shelves full of fiction, Judaica, framed photos of children, and the odd pieces of art purchased or presented. Tablecloths and tapestries covered the floor and were covered with candles, wine, grape juice, rose petals, boxes of matzot, three kinds of haroset, all arrayed on assorted mismatched china and pewter. The entire shrine was lit by table lamps and bordered with cushions upon which a dozen familes reclined for the self-styled Sephardi Passover seder. Glassy-eyed children, too tired and hungry to be restless, lay in the laps of their parents who were busy extracting the minutiae of the great Exodus story from their own vague childhood memories.

“And then Moses returned to Egypt,” said a guest and member of the shul’s board of directors.

“Why?” asked an innocent.

“Because … what’s his name? The guy who would eventually lead the Israelites over the Jordan. Does anyone know what his name is?”

No one answers. I assume this is one of the many pop quizzes intended the children, because the answer seems so obvious to me. Introduce a stranger to me and five seconds later I will have forgotten their name, but from an early age I could retrieve the name of the most obscure Biblical personages (as well as long tracts from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and this one was easy. But no one answers.

“Do you mean … Joshua?” I say with as much polite uncertainty as I can muster.

“Yes! That’s right! He came across the dessert and found Moses and brought him back to Egypt.”

There are several confused looks around the room, scratching of heads, muttering, but no one speaks or contradicts and I venture to open my mouth again.

“I think you must mean Charleton Heston,” which evokes enough good-natured laughter that even the board member smiles. The discussion continues.

“Papa?” Rose looks up from my lap where she has been reading the copy of “Chester’s Way” I plucked off the book shelf next to me.

“Yes, Rose?”

“I’m bored with all this talking.”

“Would you like to go back to the playroom?”

“Yes, please!”

Though she had wanted to go to the seder, getting Rose ready had not been easy. For months now, she has dragged her feet whenever we ask for her help. Resistance and distractions. We could not brush teeth without a crying fit. A call to the mud room for boots and coat had to wait on a sudden and last minute rearrangement of dollies for their comfort. If we interrupted her reading to ask her help setting the table, wailing and gnashing of teeth followed. Getting out the door for school in the morning was becoming increasingly hypertensive. We finally called a family meeting, and bribed Rose’s participation with strawberry milk.

In the end, we decided that stress was the enemy, that no one likes to be rushed or interrupted, and that the words, “We are going to be late” were to be exiled from the house. Overuse had stripped these words of their motivating terror, assuming they every had such powers to begin with. We simply could not expect a four-year-old to share our priorities. More warning time was called for. Firm but kind repetition of requests would replace anxious threats and reprimand in herding our children toward whatever goal or destination we had in mind.

But despite our collegiate agreement, we had been told that the seder started at 5:30 and by 5:00 I found myself saying to Dawn, “I thought we weren’t going to use the word ‘Late’ anymore. She paused, agreed, praised my observational skills, and then redelegated the supervision of Rose’s room cleaning to me.

But first we paused for a moment to listen to the shrill, insistent voices in our heads saying, “Late! Late! We’re going to be late!” to which we firmly and kindly responded “Shut up!”

In the first place, no Jewish event ever starts on time, certainly not one involving small children. And in the second place, who cares if we are late? Not our gracious and forgiving hosts who would not even note the hour of our arrival. Not the guests who would be too busy socializing. Certainly not our own children who cannot even read a clock yet. So we moved things along with as much bon vivant as we could muster, packed the car with kugel and children, and magically arrived at their door at 5:28.

The house of the religious school director was an old Victorian, one of many in those neighborhoods closest to downtown Montpelier. Though constructed from an obscene amount of native hardwood, its architectural lines were relatively simple. Unlike others on the same street, the porches did not sag, the paint was not peeling, the windows were not cracked. It was the closest thing to pre-fab, cookie-cutter construction a century ago, but loving owners had maintained its sparse elegance. It had the appearance of an elderly person living on fixed means yet with all their faculties and dignity intact, who knew how to economize and prioritize. The lights were all on inside, both figuratively and literally.

Like most houses of its time, its compact enormity was more clearly revealed on the inside with a curious mix of 19th century space and 21st décor. The doors were enormous and ornate with brass or crystal knobs and eggshell paint cracking along the edges of the inset panels. From the mudroom one entered a modern kitchen with a track-lit island groaning under a dozen potluck salads and casseroles. The rooms were illuminated with a gray twilight from the enormous paned windows whose fatigued frames were cemented shut with geologic layers of paint. The burgandy couches, unlike the stiff and upright ancestors that surely existed here a hundred years earlier, encouraged comfort and slouching and idleness. Twelve foot ceilings gave the impression of vast interior space and horrendous heating bills, but in reality the adults were forced to step gingerly around the plastic action figures, jigsaw puzzles, stamping kits, inflatable balls, and puppet boxes being actively redistributed by hordes of young children throughout the house. Our hosts and their two hired teenage Gentiles navigated from the kitchen to the living room and back, carrying platters and crockery and creating powerful air currents that pulled children and their caregivers in their wake from room to room.

Our hosts had planned enough in advance to assign seating. They asked everyone to place their dinner orders on provided cards so that when the time came, the meal would be swiftly served. They set a beautifully tableau and provided enough Haggadot and set a tone of geniality and fellowship. Then, having set the machine in motion, they reclined, as commanded to do during the seder, and let their guests take over.

There are many ways to show one’s love of God, and Judaism provides multiple opportunities through the observance of Passover. For those who express their love with wild extravagant gestures, there is the avoidance of legumes. The actual commandment is to eschew all sorts of leavening for the week, and flour left in a moist environment might naturally encourage the growth of yeast, and beans left around the house might mistakenly be ground into flour which might mistakenly be mistaken with actual flour. Or some such logic. I am not a reliable historian of rabbinic thought. For those who express their love with a burning desire to know the loved one, there is the opportunity to delve into the minutiae of the seder, and our group showed great enthusiasm here. And for those who love in the most unconditional and dependable way, the kind of love that changes the diapers and wipes the noses and does what needs to be done, it is enough for such people that some sort of seder happen. Dayenu.

Though we were only just getting to know our hosts and the other guests, we trusted them to provide us with enough. We did not know them well yet. They are popular people, genuine, kind, caring people with a theatrical bent wonderfully lacking in affectations. We only made their acquaintance through our children in the Sunday School, which is not to say our future relationship is doomed to superficiality. We have all met loved ones in our lives in ways yet more strange and unpredictable than this, even as randomly as being born into the same family.

The lurching progress we made through the haggadah allowed everyone the opportunity to add their bits of wisdom to the Exodus story, to skip the unfavored recitation of the four sons, and to ignore the impractical and unlikely ritual of getting thirty adults and children to wash their hands at the same time. It was a lovely seder, with witty and thoughtful conversation and a variety of exotic food, but unfortunately the conversation was above the heads of our children and the food was not served until nearly their bedtime. We lasted long enough after the meal for Rose to find one of the many afikomen scattered about. Our hosts sent us home with a large slice of flourless chocolate cake.

Did we fulfill the obligation to tell the story of Passover to our children? Yes, we did. Did they understand it? I would venture to guess that Rose will be shocked next year to learn that Moses is the star of the story, not Miriam, while Samuel will be left wondering how the checkers, action figures, and bouncing balls fit into the story. But there were no tears or tantrums, coming or going, from children or parents, and everyone got to bed at a reasonable hour, without any doubt or reluctance to do it again next year, so in that sense it was a tremendous success.