When my father was told he was going to die soon, he declared he would not die in our house. It was the home where he and my mother had raised my brother and sister and me. “This has been a happy place,” he told us. “Your mother will probably live the rest of her life here. If I die here, then every time you go into the room where it happened, that’s what you’ll think about.” He made plans to move to Corpus Christi to a house my mother had recently inherited, and he and my mother walked out of their home together, knowing that she would come back and he wouldn’t.
The first time they had seen our house was in 1961, when I was two years old. My father had resigned as minister of the First Baptist Church in Nacogdoches to run for Congress on a civil rights agenda, and lost, and accepted the job of president of San Marcos Baptist Academy. He scouted out the house and took my mother to see it, a huge old structure that inhabits almost a whole block in the historic district of San Marcos, just down the hill from Wonder Cave. She sat in the car looking at it. “What do you think?” he asked her.
The exterior architecture was perfect Greek Revival copied from a house on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, but the interior was a Victorian horror. The rooms were dreary, the woodwork coated in dark-red varnish, the walls covered with garish wallpapers.
“Who would wash all the windows?” she wanted to know.
It’s a testament to my father’s infectious enthusiasm, his foresight, and general bullheadedness that they bought the house. It needed to be re-plumbed, re-wired, re-floored, and re-roofed. For a year I toddled along behind the work crews, inhaling fumes of varnish remover and playing in lead paint sanded off the exterior. The paint was so thick on the ground it looked like snow, and I have always wondered if my slow reading and poor math skills are because of this remodel. We moved into the house when I was three and my brother was six; my parents named it Crookwood, because the previous owners were the Woods. My sister was born a year later, and was brought home and laid on the blue vinyl window seat cushion that my brother and I called the “mile a minute” because we used it to sled down the stairs. I lived there for all of my childhood except for two years away, when my father was in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Now when I think of my hometown, it’s the home, more than the town, that comes to mind.
The house, and the yard too, have changed over the years. What was an open stretch of grass in the back now has hedgerows and patios, a flower garden, a fishpond blessed by a mossy old statue of Saint Francis feeding the birds. The pond sometimes has fish and sometimes doesn’t, depending on whether raccoons have raided. An area where my dad buried our dogs is marked with a stone: “Our Faithful Dogs.” Pecan and oak trees have grown taller and wider. My father wasn’t a gardener, but he loved to cook up plans and stroll around, chewing on his cigar and overseeing the progress. It took him nearly thirty years to talk Mrs. Denny next door into selling part of her lot so he could attach it to ours. He turned it into a garden of native shrubs and trees with a marker reading “Garden of the Grandchildren” as a monument, by then, to his.
By far the most alluring structure of the property, for children, was an old carriage house we called “the barn.” It had horse stalls and feed storage rooms and a hayloft upstairs with chutes down to the stalls and two large plank windows we could shove open to look out over the yard. There was a grain bin with doors that opened like laundry hampers. It was unattached from the wall, and once, when my sister and cousin and I climbed into the compartments and poked our heads out simultaneously, the shift in weight toppled the whole piece over and we were nearly decapitated. We pulled our heads in like turtles before the doors hit the ground.
Our neighborhood had more boys than girls, and the barn was their main hideout. I was a tagalong, and in order not to include me officially in their club they dubbed me a “mascot” and made up ways to keep me out of their hair. They left me once in a feed storage room hiding from “Indians” they said would scalp me, and then forgot I was there. The tin walls had been painted with skulls and crossbones by someone years before, and I was scared of these but terrified of alerting the Indians if I yelled for help. I can still conjure up the silence, the dusty smell of that place, the exact shape of the painted skulls.
Later we kept some animals in the barn. I had a goat named Bilbo Baggins that lived in a pen at the back until he developed a taste for the poisonous oleander leaves. After rushing him to the vet a couple times to have his stomach pumped, we drove him out to my grandparents’ property near Kerrville. When he was gone, the barn seemed empty, so we got a pony named Banjo. But he turned crazy and mean, as horses will do when isolated from other horses, and chased me around the yard one day trying to trample me. We turned him loose at the Laity Lodge Youth Camp that my grandparents owned on the Frio River, and he lived the rest of his life wandering with a band of other retired, ornery horses.
Next my father decided we should raise chickens. He acquired a couple of nesting hens through a friend named Pete Owen, and we awoke one morning to the magic of