Monday, May 30, 2011

Sudden memories

Grandmother and Grandfather Nordyke on the
Callahan County, Texas farm. The grey Chevy
is parked under the cottonwood in front.
Have you ever been reading a book and suddenly swept up by it, you land right in the middle of your own memories? That’s what happened when I read the first chapter of The Sound of Windmills by Jackie Woolley. She so described life on a hard scrabble Texas farm in the 1940s that all of a sudden I was back in the grey Chevy going to visit my grandparents on that on-the-edge farm where my dad grew up.
Here’s the review I wrote of this book for Story Circle Book Reviews. ( You can read my review at

The Sound of Windmills
Jackie Woolley
The trip to see Grandmother and Grandfather on their family farm on the semi-arid, windy, and lonely edge of west Texas delighted this little girl. As we drove up the dirt road in our old gray Chevrolet, I bounced all over my side of the back seat knowing I was going to have so much fun--gathering eggs, watching Grandmother milk the cow, walking down to Greenbriar Creek to gather dewberries, not to mention gobbling up the dewberry cobbler that came out of the woodstove just a little later. All of this played out  to the background serenade of the whirring windmill. It was lots of fun for a city girl, but not so much for the couple who wrestled their living from these 287 acres for most of their adult lives. It remains a memory I treasure: not only for the fun but, now, for the character and good natures of these two strong people.
            All these memories and many more, came rushing back as I read Jackie Woolley's multigenerational saga of the Taylor family. Myra and Joel Taylor live with their daughters, Marilyn and Rugene on a working farm, much like my grandparents', near the fictional town of Langor, Texas. It's a hard life, and Woolley has an excellent eye and ear for it. I do not know exactly how much of this story is autobiographical; I suspect, quite a bit.
            The hardness of farm life is made even harder for the Taylor family because as the story opens, Joel, a polio victim, is dying. Myra, who has done most of the farming and managing for years, expects to carry on with the help of her daughters and a trusted hand, but after Joel's death, their long-time landlord (they are sharecroppers) mercilessly tosses them out within days. Stricken, Myra lands on her feet, and begins to form a new life for the three. This is the true beginning of the long story.
            The focus is primarily on the younger daughter Rugene, a strong spirit and sometimes lonely bookworm. She is determined to go the college and find a life for herself but not in Langor. At the same time she is determined that "I'll be back someday. I'm going back to buy the old farm.” Rugene manages to live much of her dream. Meanwhile, Marilyn and Myra also struggle with their own lives and as well as with holding the three of them together as a family.
            Because the novel spans several decades, it might have been confusing to a reader. What is happening to whom and when?  Woolley handles this problem skillfully by working historic happenings into her story without being obtrusive. The book is no one-night read. It is a rather daunting 545 pages, and is full of twists and turns; however, the main story moves nicely along holding the reader's interest. By the time it comes to a close most of its issues are resolved and three strong women are at peace with themselves and with each other.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Towed! or Whitey's big adventure

A good day, a busy day, we both thought we deserved a treat as we headed for home up Houston's lower Westheimer. That’s easy to accomplish. Lower Westheimer is a food Mecca. Where? What kind?  French, Italian, Italian, Italian, Indian, eat-the-whole pig, middle Eastern, eat! Eat! Eat.
And so we decided to grab a bit. We picked a favorite, wheeled around the corner to the parking lot, but wait! A lovely spring evening, a gentle breeze, big trees gently waving, twilight falling in. "Know what, let's park around the block on the street and stroll around. And so we did.
Bet you can guess the rest of this story.
We saw cars parked curbside in the beautiful 300 block of Avondale. Looked good. "Oops," said Bob, pointing at a dim barely visible sign. "No parking from here to the corner." So we backed up and found a nice place midblock. After our pleasant saunter, we sat by a window to watch the cars go by and ordered rissoto with sauted sow belly. Lovely, but small.
We been so good lately, we decided, let's indulge. "One nutella sundae and two spoons please." The waiter was prompt, friendly, and full of chat. We enjoyed, and  then headed back through the pleasant evening to the car.
Just as we turned the corner Bob stopped, frozen his posture that of a fox who has just heard the first bay of the hounds. I could feel the fur rising on his back.
"The Jeep is being towed! I just saw it go down the street." It was one of those moments lost in time, never ending.
"A Jeep is being towed. You know it's not ours. We didn't do anything to get it towed," says the chipper eternal optimist—me.
"A Jeep with a luggage rack and a bike rack on the back?"
We both broke in to the trot of two foxes when the hounds are getting close. We turned the corner.
No Whitey. (Not a really original name for a white Jeep, but there you are.)
That's when we read the sign more closely. True, it said no parking to the corner, but it also warned that cars parked between the signs (yes, there was another one) without a resident permit would be towed. It meant it.
Fortunately, the restaurant is only about a mile from our house, so, after I warned Bob that I was not in walking shoes and no more sprinting, we headed home.   Bob remembered that there is a neighborhood Houston Police Station on the way. Guilty as can be, we might as well 'fess up and find out how to find Whitey. What a nice policeman!
First, he told us that every time he works that station seemed like someone comes in and complained about getting towed off Avondale. Then, he asked us our license number. Dumbstruck. We both were dumbstruck. We looked at each other. I did a mental struggle and came up with the first three letters. The fellow laughed.
"Looks like she expects you to finish it." Bob shrugged.
"Well, you'll need the license number or the vehicle identification number to get it back."  Oh yeah. Then he went on, "I can't remember mine either, so I took a picture of it on my I-phone." Good idea, after the fact.
As soon as we walked in, took off our shoes, and had a drink of water, Bob grabbed the "paid bill folder" and started flipping. Before long he had it--the license renewal form with both numbers. 'Course neither of us will ever forget that license number again. After some deacceleration, our hearts were still pounding, off to bed. Even with the license number the nice woman on the phone told Bob after a 10 minute wait and a scare when she said Whitey wasn't in the system, it's four hours before they can tell you where the car is.

We found him. Not to far, but too far to walk. As soon as rush hour was over, Bob called a cab and set off on the rescue mission. There was Whitey, lonely among the other cars with miscreant owner. A mere $238 (that's not counting the taxi) later, Whitey brought the penitent Bob home.
Whitey's now happy in the driveway and Bob and I are resigned to valet parking and separating our strolling from our dining.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Grandmother Nordyke

Nancy Narcissus Coffey Nordyke--Happy Mother's Day!

In honor of Mother’s Day a few words about my grandmother, Narrie Coffey Nordyke, mother of my dad, Lewis Nordyke.

I was always a little in awe of Grandmother, not just because she could wring a chicken’s neck without ruffling her starchy newly ironed apron, but because she had been a pioneer.         
            Narrie (Nancy Narcissus Coffey) was born in 1874 in DaltonGeorgia to Molly (Mary Catherine—Katy, my Catherine is partly named for her) Ferrington and E.N. Coffey, a Confederate veteran of  the Battle of  Chickamauga. When Narrie was small the Coffeys pulled up their Georgia stakes—land was scarce and mostly farmed out—and headed forTexas. As a kid I envisioned the covered wagon, the campfires, the winding road, until one day I asked Grandmother, “What was it like to be on a covered wagon?”
            “I have no idea!” She pulled herself up to her full six feet and said with her usual dignity, “We came on the train.” My vision changed. White gloves were Grandmother’s thing. She wore them to the beauty shop in Baird, to the cafĂ© downtown; almost anything was worth putting on her good suit and white gloves. Now I saw a parlor car with a little girl in white gloves and a Sunday dress walking down the aisle. Later, I learned they came on an immigrant train sharing a boxcar with their livestock, household goods, and several other families. I can only guess that they wished for the open trail and a campfire.
            I think about Molly, getting onto the train with her youngsters knowing full well that while there would be many letters (wish I could find them) sent with love, likely she would never see her family again. Far as I can tell, she didn’t.
            Narrie grew up in Callahan CountyTexas surrounded by Georgia family and friends. But when it came time to fall in love, she picked a sort-of Yankee fiddler from Limestone County who’d come to visit relatives before heading for fiddling jobs in the saloons of Alaska.
Nancy Narcissus Coffey and Charles T. Nordyke
Married in Callahan County, Texas, December 24, 1899.

            On December 24, 1899 Narrie and Charlie Nordyke married. After a brief stint inLimestone County, and, yes, this time they did go in a covered wagon, they lived and farmed in Callahan County the rest of their long lives. Lewis was the middle child and middle boy in the family of seven.

On the farm, probably in the late 1920s.

At the 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
I'm the imp in the jumper planning mischief with
my cousin Charles Reid. (Can't you tell?)
Poor little Paul Gene--the likely victim--is

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thanks for the memory

I promise. This won't be sad. But. . .
Twenty-four years ago today, my mother died. I'm not going to tell that tale. Rather, I'll share a favorite story.
We'd moved to Houston. Mother lived in our family home on Lipscomb Street in Amarillo.  We or, at least, the three kids and I made the right-at 800 mile drive every summer for a couple of weeks of fun--memories they treasure. (I looked on one of the guy's Facebook profile and found he was claiming Amarillo instead of Houston as his home town. Hmmmmm.)
Mother came to see us as well, but it was rarely for fun. Usually she'd dropped what she was doing, walked away from her desk at the Amarillo Globe-Times just as soon as she could find someone to cover for her in reponse to my cry for help. One time a kid had been a terrible accident, I needed to be at the hospital, who would keep the other babies? Mother. That was but one.
This time was different. She'd come as part of my birthday present. I got a sitter for the day and she and I set out for a day of grown-up fun. She'd lived in Houston as a bride. We found the duplex where they lived. Ever the reporter she hopped out of the white Studebaker and sprinted to the front window. She came back with a funny look on her face.
"What is it?"
"It's the same furniture!"
Now it was time for the real fun--shopping downtown. Hard to believe, but this was pre-Galleria Houston. The fine stores were all downtown. This was a special trip. I suspect now that Mother had engineered the whole thing. Almost all of my birthday presents had been money. Not just Mother, but Bob, my grandparents, even my sister, who was on as tight a young-family budget as I was managed  five bucks. Mother told me that it was time I had a good dress. Not something I'd made myself, and not, not, not that cut down maternity dress.
Off we went to Neiman Marcus for lunch. This was the start of a great tradition. For the next twenty or so years, every time Mother made a non-emergency Houston visit, we alway had lunch at Neiman Marcus--downtown, then Galleria, finally the now long-gone Neiman's in Town and Country near our house.
"We'll look for that dress here," Mother told me.
"No. Let's go to Foley's. I can get two for what one will cost here."
"Let's at least look. It's so much fun." We hopped on the escalator.
The prices in the dress department knocked me out. "Let's go."
"Oh, try on a couple." Mother pulled a dress off the rack. "This one's not too expensive, and there are so many thing you can do with a black dress. Dress it down for church, dress it up with a pin for those company parties." She gave me that look. I'd had an almost lecture over afternoon coffed the day before about a wife's responsibility to make her husband proud, or, at least not embarrass him with a made-over maternity dress.
Just to hush her, I agreed. It was my money; I was going to buy two dresses at Foley's.  The saleswoman acted like I was the most important customer she'd had in two weeks. Was this dressing room fine? Would we like a cup of tea? What else could she do?
I wanted to cry. I'd never looked so good in my life. Not even in the wedding dress I'd bought on sale. I turned, I looked this way and that in the three-way mirror. Another mirror on the other wall showed my back. I looked good all the way around.
"Just imagine it with  your pearls."  Mother had given me and my sister pearls for high school graduation.
I could. Time to finish this before I wavered. Just as I reached for the zipper, the saleswoman reappeared.
"Can I bring something else."
Mother smiled brightly. "She'll take it."
"Wonderful choice."
I waited until she left with the dress before I started. Mother held up her hand.
"Listen to me. You are worth it. That's why we all gave you money. So you'd have a dress worthy of you."
I hushed. I also wore that dress until it was a thread and loved every minute of it. I still love it's memory.
Thanks Mother.
So what to do today to honor her memory. I can't drive 800 miles to put flowers on her grave. I could make a donation, but no.
I'm going to buy a new outfit and make her proud.