Into The Woods

When I took my son to Cleveland, in East Texas, to show him the touchstones of my childhood, I discovered that the hometown I knew no longer exists—except in my memory.

September 2004By Comments

“WHAT’S THIS?” SAID MY FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD son, Tyler, as he pointed to a crawdad squirming on the edge of Double Lake, one of my favorite childhood haunts near my hometown of Cleveland, in East Texas. “It’s gross.”

My grandfather Dock Jarboe had once brought me to this very spot in the Big Thicket. Surrounded by the great stands of pine trees and hardwoods, he had entertained me with stories about how old-timers had hunted in this forest for bears, panthers, and wolves. Now here was my only male child standing on the edge of the lake on a July afternoon, unable to identify a simple crawdad.

Tyler planted his size 12 Nikes in the boggy soil—first the left shoe, then the right. His feet made a sucking sound on the wet earth. “Hear that, Mom?” he said. “The land sounds like it’s farting.”

We walked on without speaking, watching fishermen cast their lines into the lake and listening to the absurd sound of Tyler’s nervous march. Then he asked if he could borrow my cell phone. I explained that he would get no reception here. The woods are too dense.

“That’s okay. I just want to take a picture,” he said as he aimed my cell phone’s camera toward the spot where he’d seen the crawdad. “I just want to try and get a shot of this attack fish.” He not only got the shot but also entered it as the new wallpaper on my cell phone. Thus my two worlds—the old, rural Texas of my childhood and the new, urban Texas of my present—collided in a single image.

Tyler and I had gone back to Cleveland so that I could show him the kinds of things I used to do in the summer when I was his age. Swim in Double Lake. Climb the Liberty Hill fire tower. Run a mile around the track at the high school. Have a piece of cherry icebox pie at the Liberty Cafe. Shell peas. Make deviled eggs. Hike through the forest.

The Cleveland I remember was a timber town, poor and isolated, slow moving and inward. I haven’t lived there since 1969, when I gladly struck out on Highway 59 for the University of Texas, thinking I would leave behind the xenophobia simply by leaving the woods. Over the years, I returned for holidays and to mark certain milestones. I used to come back in the spring when the dogwoods first bloomed. When my children were young, we made regular visits to my parents.

After my mother died, in the fall of 1993, I discovered that some of the same feelings I felt for her I also felt for Cleveland: a strong sense of belonging, a disabling dependence, and deeply buried anguish. I decided to cut all ties to Cleveland, to stop thinking of it as home. By then I had lived more years of my life in my adopted home of San Antonio—where there are no pine trees and I have a clear, liberating view of the horizon—than in Cleveland. Cleveland felt finished for me, the curtain of the forest closed.

It’s my children who regularly remind me that no matter where I am, some part of me mentally inhabits Cleveland. My daughter, Maury, who is nineteen, says that my worldview is warped by Cleveland’s smallness and limited options. Once, when we were at a San Antonio Spurs game, for example, I remarked that there were three times as many people in the SBC Center as in my entire hometown. “Poor you,” Maury said dryly. Last season, when the Spurs faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, Tyler told me that several boys at Alamo Heights High School wore Lakers T-shirts to class. I couldn’t believe it, because I have a small-town, be-true-to-your-team mind-set. “It’s a big world, Mom,” Tyler said. “Room for both the Spurs and the Lakers.”

My parents and I were separated by a generation gap, divided by conflicting ideas about race, politics, and religion. The Cleveland of my childhood was segregated, conservative, and dominated by fundamentalist Christianity. It was a deeply Southern place where generations came and went yet nothing seemed to change. I defined myself by a determination to change. I embraced civil rights. I left fundamentalism behind. I moved to a city that is, in every way, Cleveland’s opposite: predominantly Mexican American and Catholic and, for the most part, free of Southern obsessions.

And now, all these years later, my children and I have a geographic gap, separated by more quotidian matters, like food. When I was growing up, we almost never ate in a restaurant, except on Sundays after church. I associate mealtime with eating at home—at a table, with all family members present. My kitchen, like my inner compass, spins between two places. Most days I operate a San Antonio kitchen. There is homemade salsa in the refrigerator and a pot of beans on the stove. However, Maury and Tyler can tell when my mood has turned dark and sad, toward Cleveland. They come home to find black-eyed peas, cornbread, and mustard greens on the table, served with a main dish of overcooked roast beef. Inevitably, one or the other child moans: “Oh, no, not mustard greens. Mom’s on Planet Cleveland again.”

Then the ritual begins. They make fun of my East Texas twang (sometimes I forget and that word spills out of my mouth as “forgit”). They can’t believe that my family had one telephone and shared a party line with our neighbors. They ridicule the fact that my view of the world is fundamentally agrarian while theirs is fundamentally technological. I live in real time on real landscapes. They live in virtual time and space. But it’s not all bad: At least they know how to work the DVD player.

On the morning we left for Cleveland, Tyler packed our Suburban with a small TV and a suitcase full of video games, and I made sure that we both had plenty of insect repellent. It had been raining for days in East Texas. I knew the mosquitoes would be big and hungry, not as easily vanquished as the virtual enemies in Tyler’s games.

On the long drive, I tried to tell Tyler about the remembered world of my childhood: the old men in khakis smoking on the front porches of wood-frame churches and the women harvesting watermelons from the red dirt, and how I would explore the forests around Cleveland, places of fantastic diversity where cacti grow alongside camellias.

“Are there snakes?” Tyler asked.

“Not only snakes,” I replied, “but quicksand too.”

Tyler shuddered and turned the conversation to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He told me his favorite song is one called “Hot Mama.” I chose not to brood on the relationship between quicksand and a fifteen-year-old boy’s preoccupation with dangerous women.

These days, Cleveland has lost its sense of place. When I lived there, the population was about five thousand and the distance to Houston seemed vast. Now Cleveland’s population has swelled to more than seven thousand, and Houston has sprawled out on Highway 59 to meet its edge. The suburbanization has been in progress for decades, but when Tyler and I were there in July, the transformation seemed complete. The town where I grew up no longer exists.

As we drove around, I called out the changes. We would not be having cherry icebox pie at the Liberty Cafe. It isn’t there anymore. I drove by all the schools—Southside Elementary, where my mother taught for years, my old junior high, the high school. All of them had vanished, replaced by newer versions. Years ago, the Twin Ranch Drive-Inn, which was owned by my best friend Margaret’s parents, shut down. The Drive-Inn had been the center of my social life. Margaret and I spent hours there, telling each other stories, stargazing, dreaming of true love, planning our escape from Cleveland. A boy named Butch gave me my first kiss at the Drive-Inn when I was fifteen, just Tyler’s age. “Yuck,” said Tyler when we passed what was left of the Drive-Inn. “There’s nothing here.” He was right—nothing but memories.

We proceeded to Circle Drive, and I pointed out the house where I used to live. Tyler had his own memories of the house. He was four when my mother died and had last seen her there. “She hugged me hard on the back porch,” he said. “It was nice.”

After Mom died, my father sold the house and moved to nearby Coldspring, a smaller town that has held on to its sense of place. We drove to Dad’s new home, where Tyler hooked up his video games and spent the evening on familiar terrain. It was raining again. I sat outside under the carport, listening to a choir of frogs sing their full-throated song, suddenly aware of how removed from nature I am in San Antonio.

The next morning, I told Tyler that he was in for a treat. I was taking him to my secret place, a place I had visited often both as a child and as an adult. We drove out FM 2025 toward Cleveland, then made our way to the Big Creek Scenic Area. The narrow, red-dirt road was lined on either side by tall pines. As we drove deeper and deeper into the forest, I traveled back in time. I was in my native habitat, a cloistered, sacred universe. Tyler woke me from the trance. “Mom,” he said, “do you know the way out of here?”

We continued on for several miles, then pulled over to a four-mile hiking trail. I wanted Tyler to get an eyeful of what’s left of the Big Thicket, what little has been spared from logging. I have hiked this trail hundreds of times, usually by myself. It’s where I’ve made the big decisions of my life, where I came to celebrate after both of my children were born, where I grieved when Mom died. Tyler and I slathered insect repellent on our arms and necks, and he grabbed a giant stick. Snakes and quicksand weighed heavy on his mind.

We walked along in silence for a while. The trees made cracking noises as limbs fell from on high. Water dripped from the leaves of the giant hardwoods, making a percussive sound that emptied my head of all thoughts. We crossed several creeks and heard animals stirring. “What’s that?” Tyler asked with every noise. “Natural sounds,” I said. The vegetation was lush and the air thick with humidity.

Near the end of the hike, Tyler began to settle into the rhythm of walking in the woods. His breathing became more relaxed. The nervous chatter stopped. On that sylvan path, sheltered by pines, we walked where my grandfather and I had walked. I felt serene, more at home and less self-conscious than I had in years. I showed him the things I love—old stumps from felled trees, toadstools with fat caps living in the humus of those stumps, lacy spiderwebs.

For a moment, I thought Tyler felt at home too. But when we were back in the car, he said, “That was creepy, Mom. Can we go home now?”

“Sure,” I said, turning the Suburban westward—away from Cleveland, toward San Antonio.

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