Getting lost and showing up late to the grand opening was bad enough. Getting lost and showing up late with my aging parents in the car was a whole other matter. We had left Brownsville with enough time, but a couple of the smaller towns to the north weren’t so small anymore, and somewhere along the way I had exited too soon or too late and gotten completely turned around. Nothing seemed to be like it was before. In the almost twenty years since I’d left, all the cultural landmarks I’d felt were sorely lacking during my youth had arrived— IHOP, Red Lobster, Shoney’s, Target, Chili’s. Between the sprawling strip malls, glimpses of irrigation canals and cotton fields retold the story of how it used to be.
My father, who was about to turn 89, tended to be lulled to sleep in any moving vehicle, unless the vehicle happened to be traveling in the wrong direction. This is a man who once made an ambulance that was rushing him to the emergency room pull into the parking lot of an abandoned Taco Bell because he was convinced the driver was headed to the wrong hospital (which he was). It was as if at some point my father’s pacemaker had been replaced with a tiny GPS device, one that alerted you only when you went the wrong way.
My mother, in the backseat, was also worried about arriving late, but for her own reasons. We were on our way to the grand opening of a new H-E-B in McAllen, not far from the little town where she had grown up. This new H-E-B was several times larger than the one she’d worked at in Brownsville, beginning in 1955. In those days, the company was still regional and much smaller than it is today, with its more than three hundred stores across the state and in Mexico and new ones opening all the time. My mother had spent the past few days calling my cousins who lived in the area, some of whom I hadn’t seen in the twenty years since I had moved away, to tell them we would be attending the grand opening because the owner of H-E-B, Charles Butt, or as she referred to him, el señor Butt, had asked me to be there to sign copies of the new book I had written.
A year earlier I had explained to my publisher that it was one thing to write a collection of stories called Brownsville, and it was another thing to find a place to sell the book in the actual border town of Brownsville, where there was only one small bookstore and the closest Barnes and Noble was fifty miles away. What was the point of writing about the place where I had grown up if the people still living there had trouble finding the book? If I was giving a voice to their stories, it seemed like there should be a better way to offer the book to them. As luck would have it, I happened to meet Charles Butt at a Christmas party in San Antonio, which led to my sending him an advance copy of my book and the book being ordered and stocked at several of his stores, sharing prime space next to the tabloids, recipe books, and Harlequin novels at the checkout aisle.
Before we were lost and running late, my mother had been telling us how she learned to speak English while working at H-E-B. It was there, speaking to the few Anglos who lived in Brownsville and bought groceries at the store every week, that she gained the confidence to express herself. She had already learned English in school, but in the fifties, Spanish was more commonly used along the border, as it still is in many of the areas along the border today. It was all she and my father and older sister and brothers spoke at home. But my father worked outside the home and my sister and brothers had school, where they could talk to people in both languages. So it was working in the drug department at the first H-E-B in Brownsville, just four blocks from the international bridge to Mexico, where, selling shampoo and perfume and cough syrup and Band-Aids, my mother first learned to use her English.
Quick to make friends, she had her regular customers who came by looking for her. These were the ones who were patient when she would run out of English words—“ Se me acababa el inglés,” as she says—to describe a product, a salve or laxative, that might need a bit more explaining. It took a couple of years before she was comfortable asking if she could help a customer without fearing she might not have the English to answer.
On coffee breaks, she would sometimes cross our main street to mail a letter at the post office, which also served as the federal courthouse. Walking back, she might window-shop at Sears or the Three Sisters that faced the H-E-B.
Then there was Christmas 1956. All the decorations and pretty lights were strung up across the aisles when, late one night, the store and everything in it, including the perfume boxes and pen sets her customers had put on layaway, burned away in a fire so fierce that the Matamoros firemen rushed across the bridge to help the Brownsville firemen contain the blaze. It was one of those events people of my parents’ generation still talk about as if it was Pearl Harbor. While some people wondered if the holiday lights had been the source of the disaster, the fire chief blamed it on a faulty air-conditioning unit. But whatever it was, one thing was certain: the center of Brownsville burned that night. In time, the store was rebuilt and was followed by others as the company grew. (The old-timers, those whose loyalty to the stores has weathered a border economy subject to recessions on one side of the river and peso