Family Matters

What went through my mind when I learned that I had long-lost relatives in the Deep South? I worried about how Texan I really am.

My state of mind has always been wrapped up in my state. I can't claim to be a native Texan (my terrible secret is out—I was born in Los Angeles), but surely I've done enough time here to expunge my birth record. I grew up in Corpus Christi, married a native Texan, and settled in Fort Worth. I can't imagine being anything other than a Texan. Life without barbecue and Tex-Mex would hardly be worth living, my heroes have always been cowboys—and cowgirls—and I love cedar, fever and all.

But this year my smug Lone Star identity shattered like an empty Lone Star bottle tossed on the highway. After years of correcting people who had the nerve to suggest that Texas was part of the South—okay, Beaumont maybe, but Fort Worth is where the West begins—I recently rediscovered my other roots. In Alabama.

It had been so easy to live in a state of denial about my mixed heritage. My mother's family, the Smiths, is a big, lively, close-knit clan from Kingsville, the home of the King Ranch. Heck, my grandfather was called J.R. long before it became a recognized name in everybody else's household. But my father's family, the Joneses, was mysterious and faceless. After my dad, Sam, left his hometown of Samson, Alabama, at seventeen to fight in World War II, he'd gone back only once, for his father's funeral. His mother remarried and moved, and Daddy lost track of his fractured family. He so rarely spoke of Alabama that I felt even more secure in my Texanness—even when he griped about his adopted state. "Everything here has either thorns, stingers, or fangs," he liked to say when he wasn't complaining about the weather.

When the pine trees and a mixture of curiosity and regret finally pulled Daddy back home last year, he found, to his great surprise, a sister and a cousin living in Samson. I wanted to meet my long-lost relatives too, but I suddenly had an identity crisis. Would I find die-hard Confederate flag wavers in my bloodline? Or would the scene be straight out of Faulkner, a Southern Gothic of tangled vines, crumbling mansions, and family secrets that haunted the generations? This spring, though, I put aside my indignation and worries, picked up my parents and my brother, and headed to Alabama, speeding along Interstate 10 past bayous, crawdad farms, rice fields, and swamps of cypress dripping with moss.

On the long drive, listening to my father's stories, I felt as if we had grown up in different worlds. He had worked peanut fields with a mule as a boy; I rode ponies bareback through the mesquite brush and prickly pear. He talked of hot summers swinging off tree limbs into the lazy Pea River; I spent the summers of my youth dashing into the Gulf's warm surf.

Samson was the picture of rustic Southern charm. Rocking chairs lined long porches. Blooming wisteria hung in the trees like amethyst necklaces. My newfound relatives were warm and funny like my Texas relatives but with worse drawls. And so much for my expectations of Southern loyalty: I found out that my great-grandfather had indeed fought in the Civil War—with the Yankees.

The slower Southern pace and rolling green landscapes were as lulling as an afternoon in a hammock. But while my dad was out of his element in Texas, I realized how much I was out of mine in Alabama. I missed cedar-choked hills, the rhythm of Spanish place-names, and sky uninterrupted. And I missed a state that for me had become a big extended family that had filled in the gaps in my personal history.

As I drove back along the curving coast, the Golden Triangle's belching refineries loomed as oddly welcoming signposts. Far behind I'd left people who were faceless strangers no more. I left part of myself in that little Southern town too. But I wasn't any less a Texan. I felt more of one than ever.

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