The Autumn of Alamo Heights

In San Antonio’s most genteel neighborhood, the only frightening sound is the ticking of the clock.

Lucie Keblinger Whitehead, octogenarian widow of ten years, sat musing over a bowl of Cream of Wheat in the kitchen of her elegant two-story home in Alamo Heights. The room was chilly; it was late November, and a norther had howled into San Antonio overnight. A tiny woman with a wrinkled face and thinning gray hair pulled into a knot in back, Lucie drew her robe tighter about her frail shoulders and wished that Bill Talley, her gardener, would arrive and build a fire in the living room. The furnace was on, of course, but Lucie liked heat from the fireplace. Mabel Eggleston, the housekeeper and driver, would soon be here, too. Bill and Mabel came early each morning and left at midafternoon.

Lucie scowled at her Cream of Wheat. She didn’t like breakfast. She had gone for decades without it and ate it now only because she needed food with the Hydro-Diuril she took every morning for her blood pressure. She wished she could take medicine for her eyes. Throughout the day, her vision blurred, cleared, blurred again. Her peripheral vision was good. But retina damage made it hard for her to read, dangerous for her to drive. She had stopped driving, although she still had a license. She had once flown to Johns Hopkins to see some doctors about her eyes, and the doctors, thank God, had assured her she would never be blind.

Lucie liked to think of herself as someone who refused to worry. She did worry—she worried a lot—but she preferred to call it being concerned. Today she was concerned that not one of her two daughters and two nephews had called or written for a while; they customarily called every weekend. (She had thought of the nephews as her sons. She had raised both after her sister, Mary, had died while giving birth to the younger.) Lucie needed to know once and for all who would be coming for Christmas. If everyone came, there would a dozen people here in a few weeks. She would need to start preparations today.

Neither of her daughters had stayed in Texas. That was her fault for sending them to school in the East. Lucie Jean, with whom she had toured Scandinavia last year, had gone to Wellesley, married, and settled in Washington, D.C. Mary Ann had gone to Swarthmore, married, and settled in Boston. Each had three children, all grown now. Lucie got to see them only once a year. It wasn’t enough, so she spent a lot of money on phone calls—$141 in October.

Through the window came the faint hum of Tuxedo Avenue’s early-morning traffic. There were never any trucks, though; Alamo Heights forbade through truck traffic on Tuxedo. Alamo Heights was good about such things.

Alamo Heights is the silk-stocking city-within-a-city of San Antonio, the place where most of the area notables live. Three miles north of the Alamo, the city of Alamo Heights is a hilly, wooded village two square miles in area, with six thousand people. It is an incorporated town with its own police and fire departments, zoning codes, school and business districts, mayor, and city council. But to most San Antonians Alamo Heights also means the incorporated cities of Olmos Park, which adjoins Alamo Heights on the west, and Terrell Hills, which is adjacent on the east. Each is wealthier and more homogeneous than Alamo Heights proper—and smaller. Olmos Park has a population of 2069; Terrell Hills, 4644. Since neither has a business district, their residents use the shopping strip in Alamo Heights, and most churchgoers in both cities worship in Alamo Heights.

Lucie’s father, Thomas White Keblinger, a big, energetic man with a bushy moustache, had come to Texas from Virginia in 1872 and settled vast farmlands near Abilene that now belong to Lucie. In 1910, ready to retire, he had moved his family to Alamo Heights because its wooded, verdant hills reminded him of Virginia.

Lucie rose, put her empty bowl in the kitchen sink, and moved with short, slow steps into the living room. She sat down on the long sofa near the fireplace. She loved this room. It had a twenty-foot-high vaulted ceiling with hand-hewn beams, tall French windows, rose-tinted walls, a Goggan grand piano, a winding staircase, and a portrait of her late husband’s grandmother. She had lived in this house for 26 years, and she would never leave it.

Sometimes Lucie felt she had lived several lives: first as a child in West Texas, with carriages instead of cars and lanterns instead of electric lights and a governess instead of a school, then as a girl in Alamo Heights. She would never forget the day the city began chopping down those beautiful trees to turn River Avenue, which wasn’t even paved, into Broadway. Women had actually chained themselves to those trees to save them. Her next life was as a student at Columbia University, and later she taught history at Sul Ross and Kidd-Key colleges, and later still, she was the wife of a biologist for over forty years and a mother to four. The decades seemed to blur together.

And now, finally, she was a widow with failing eyesight and high blood pressure. She shivered. She heard a car out front, footsteps approaching in the yard. Bill. She rose and hurried to the front door. Soon she would have a fire and someone near her.

In the Country of the Old

San Antonio is a senior citizens’ paradise. For decades it has attracted retirees because of its mild winters, low crime rate, and leisurely, almost poky pace. With five military bases and attendant facilities, it is an ideal spot for retired servicemen and their families. Old people seem to thrive, to last longer in San Antonio. And the largest community of elderly people is in and around Alamo Heights.

Ours in an aging country. Between 1900 and 1977, our life expectancy soared from 47 to 73 years. In 1980, one in ten Americans was 65 or older. And women were out-living men by about 8

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