My Texas Women

I was raised by one, I married one, and I raised one myself—and I wouldn't be who I am without them.

February 2003By Comments

MY INTENTION FOR THIS anniversary issue was to write about my favorite Texas women. But history and myth, which all too often have been indistinguishable here, paid scant attention to women. The best popular history of Texas, T. R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, makes more than passing mention of just three: Jane Wilkinson Long, the wife of an early swashbuckler, who stayed with two young daughters and a slave girl on the Gulf Coast across from Galveston Island in the year 1821 while her husband went gallivanting off to foment a revolution against Spain and got himself killed; Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by Comanches in 1836 at the age of nine (“The Warrior’s Bride”); and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the wife of an impeached governor who gained his revenge on his tormentors by successfully running his spouse in his stead in 1924 and again in 1932. These three different women shared a common circumstance: They did not set out to make history; their destinies were thrust upon them.

But at some point before compiling my list of women who had set out to achieve something and succeeded—women like Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and author Katherine Anne Porter—I came to reflect on the three women featured in Lone Star. Something about them echoed in my own life. I didn’t have to search through history to find my favorite Texas women. They were women much closer to home, women from whom I have learned so much: my mother, my wife, my daughter. Texas women all.

In her own way, my mother was like Jane Wilkinson Long: alone and widowed at Galveston. My father died when I was not quite five years old and my sister was still an infant. Natalie Burka never remarried, never even had another date. She was infused with a sense of duty—to her children, to her deceased husband, to her own sick mother living across town—that waged a lifelong war against self-pity and rarely lost a battle. Losing her husband wasn’t her only disappointment; she had wanted to go to law school at a time when few women even attended college (she was a University of Texas graduate), but her mother wouldn’t hear of it. And so she lived most of her life alone, not only physically and emotionally but also intellectually—the story of countless Texas women alone on the frontier of their daily lives.

Except, of course, that Galveston was hardly the frontier. It had plenty of wide-open spaces, but they were all wet. It was indifferent to Texas mythology and culture. The husbands and children of my mother’s friends did not wear boots, which she always called “cowboy boots.” They did not drive pickups. They did not hunt. Galveston was more Southern than Texan. Propriety was the essential virtue, and that suited Natalie just fine. She knew the right thing to do in any situation, and the frustrated lawyer in her emerged to codify proper behavior for her children. One did not have a television set in the living room; the living room was a place for conversation. One did not leave the dinner table until everyone was finished eating. One served mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup in a small bowl, never in the original jar or bottle. Men may dry dishes but must not wash them. One did not come downstairs barefoot—and socks didn’t count. If I violated a rule, Mother (never the too-familiar “Mom”) did not have to pronounce a guilty verdict. The slightest rise and fall of an eyebrow served as her gavel. Like so many unsung women in the unwritten histories of Texas, she viewed her role as that of a civilizer, and civilization depends on rules.

And yet, for all of Galveston’s isolation from things Texan, she had a strong sense of place about her native state, which she transmitted to me. My indoctrination as a Texan began when I discovered in a corner of a bookshelf a trove of pamphlets she had collected. They were part of a series called Texas Brags that contained facts and jokes on the theme of Texas excess. (“Moisture once got so scarce in southwest Texas they had to put stamps on letters with paperclips.”) Texas Brags was ostentatious and audacious— irresistible adolescent humor. It turned me into an instant Texas chauvinist.

When I was eleven, she decided that it was important for me to experience the ritual of summer camp in the Hill Country. I had little enthusiasm for the idea. I had never been west of Houston. To win me over, she told me how my father had driven her up to the Hill Country during the wildflower season. They picnicked amid the bluebonnets and afterward he proposed to her. I envisioned alpine meadows and agreed to go. Years later I learned that the picnic took place outside Brenham. That was my mother’s idea of where the Hill Country began. When you live on a sandbar, rolling countryside looks like hills and hills look like the Rockies. Or, maybe, when you love a person and a place, you want to make them one.

For she did love the real Hill Country, enough to forgo the usual process of sending her camper off by chartered bus and instead making the drive herself. I remember her talking about how clear the Guadalupe River was. After a long drive across what was then desolate ranchland west of New Braunfels, we stopped in Boerne to catch our first glimpse of the river. I could see fish swimming deep in the clear green water. Off the beaches of Galveston, I couldn’t see my hand two inches below the frothy surface of the Gulf of Mexico. I would spend many hours in the river that summer, and the smoothness of the bottom stones and the gentle coolness of the water and the clarity of the light in its depths never failed to seem exotic to me, as they do to this day.

My wife is the Ma Ferguson of this tale. This is dangerous territory: Ma is known primarily as the appendage of her husband, which Sarah Burka most assuredly is not. But there is one similarity: Fehrenbach writes in Lone Star that Ma is remembered for granting two thousand pardons in twenty months—”the most extensive use of executive clemency in Texas history.” Sarah is at least as generous with her pardons, all issued for the benefit of the same miscreant.

Miriam Ferguson is treated as a comical figure in Texas history, someone who is not to be taken seriously. But she deserves respect as a woman, if not as a politician. It cannot have been easy for her to have subjected herself to ridicule, not only in her time but in the judgment of history. But she was there when her family needed her, and she could be counted on to do what needed to be done—and that too is Sarah. I was 33 and she was 22 when we became a couple—we went to a movie, shared an armrest, and the next thing I knew, the point of contact was on fire—but the moment I knew I wanted to marry her was when I realized she was older than I was.

She is from Houston, but she is a Westerner at heart, and it is the strength and straightforwardness of Western values that I learned from her. If she had her way, she would never go east of the west side of Houston. It is no coincidence that her terra incognita includes Galveston—even now, more than seven years after my mother’s death. The Southerner and the Westerner, Natalie and Sarah, never fully appreciated each other. Sarah was laissez-faire while Natalie was regulatory. Sarah was casual while Natalie was formal. Sarah preferred not to hide her disapproval while Natalie preferred the artifice of the knowing look. Sarah did not consider it an offense against nature to prepare breakfast in her bare feet—and neither, I discovered, did I. They achieved détente but, alas, never rapprochement.

I started learning from my daughter the moment she was born. Janet Burka came into the world wet and cold and squalling, and a nurse took her over to the cleanup table before either Sarah or I could hold her. I followed and put my hand on a clammy forehead. The squalling stopped as suddenly as if I had thrown a switch. It was the best moment of my life: instant lifetime bonding. As a parent-to-be, I had always wondered whether everything would be different after our child was born. And now I knew: I had joined a huge fraternity that I never knew existed.

Janet is a Texas woman by birth, but the question in my mind has been whether she would be a Texas woman by choice. She is my Cynthia Ann Parker: in danger of being captured by hostiles. I took her on a family outing to Lost Maples at age two months, to Big Bend—just the two of us—at age nine, to San Jacinto just before she left for college. But times are different from when I was growing up. The chauvinism of Texas Brags is out of style. The mythic version of Texas history is no longer taught in the schools. By the time she was a freshman in high school, she knew that she wanted to go to college out of state. She ended up at Occidental, in Los Angeles. I accompanied her on the drive to L.A. for freshman orientation in August 2001 and discovered a hillside campus with mission-style architecture, soaring palms, and fruit-laden orange trees. I flew home wondering if I would ever see her in Texas again.

Three days later Janet called. “Daddy, can you buy me something for my car?” she asked in that tone that made it impossible for my answer to be anything but yes.

“Of course,” I said. “What is it you want?”

“A ŒDon’t Mess With Texas’ bumper sticker,” she said. “And can you get it right away?”

Related Content