If you happen to be from a place like Brownsville—meaning not from a city like Houston or Dallas or Austin or San Antonio—and you tell someone you are from this place, the first question that person will most likely ask is whether you still have family back home. The next question, assuming there is a next question, will be about how often you go home to visit. They ask because they are nice and friendly and because this is what nice and friendly people do. They ask because they know it takes some effort to get to this place that you are from and because they understand that no one goes there to see anything new but only to see who and what they left behind, which, in most cases, happens to be a piece of themselves.
From Austin, where I have now lived for most of the past 25 years, a visit to Brownsville is 724 miles round-trip (the distance somehow becomes even longer when you attempt the journey with two small children sitting in your backseat). And as rushed as it is to go down there for less than 48 hours, staying for more than 48 hours only tends to remind me why I left. Which is to say that going for a long weekend does not necessarily mean going for a more relaxing weekend, because—as hard as this is to admit—there simply is not all that much for me to do when I go back home. This actually has less to do with its being Brownsville (though I know a few people in town who would say otherwise) and more to do with not knowing what to do with myself after I have spent some time with the few people I came to see. Nothing compares with the level of inertia—flojera, as my father would say—that overtakes me when I arrive in my hometown. Time seems to actually go backward. Imagine the classic movie device where the pages whisk off the calendar, except in my case it happens in reverse, the long-forgotten days adhering themselves back to one of my mother’s many wall calendars. If I do happen to stay past the weekend, I know that doing some work, even something as simple as reading a book, is not going to happen. I travel to Brownsville, my hometown, to visit my family, and soon I may not do even that. It has little to do with the inconvenience. The real reason is that practically everyone close to me who used to live in Brownsville and make it the place I called home has now left, and the home I always assumed would be there is disappearing.
This has been going on for years—most of my siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins now live in and around Houston—without my taking much notice of it. But just the other day my 87-year-old mother announced that she too would be leaving, moving out of the three-bedroom house where I was raised, the same one where I have always stayed when I go to visit. She bought it with my father in 1951, a couple years after they moved to Brownsville, and they lived there together for 53 years. She lived alone in the house for three years while he was in a nursing home and then for another two years after he took his last breath, sometime in the middle of the night. Before these two events my mother had never been alone, and because of the experience, she decided to move to Richmond, just outside Houston, and live with my sister, Sylvia.
My sister’s house is located in a rural subdivision about half an hour from the city and the two restaurants she owns there. Although the two-story house has four bedrooms, a carriage house, an exercise room, a large swimming pool, a hot tub, and a sloping backyard dotted with hundred-year-old pecan trees, my mother spends her days on the first floor, pushing her walker between the master bedroom and bath and then the sitting room and then the dining room and then the kitchen and then the living room and then, if she needs to, the laundry room. Because of her shortness of breath and her need for the walker, she has no desire or even curiosity for venturing upstairs. She is happy staying downstairs. In the morning, if she has slept well and the weather is nice, she likes to exercise her legs. With much sacrifice she plows forward over the gravel of the circular driveway until the plastic wheels of the walker reach the asphalt road that runs in front of the house. From there she walks the three hundred feet to the corner, focusing all her attention on keeping the wheels straight and not veering down into the looming ditch and only looking up occasionally when a car happens to pass by or she hears the neighbor’s quarter horses neighing in the distance; then she turns around and heads back to the driveway and the gravel. Sometimes she makes her own breakfast, sometimes my sister makes it for her. After my sister leaves for work, my mother spends the rest of the day watching television, reading the old newspapers she brought with her from Brownsville, and napping upright in the recliner, though she claims to only be resting her eyes.
While this all sounds nice for my mother, and in many ways ideal, certain facts remain. One is that my mother was my main connection to the Brownsville I once knew. My older brother Idoluis and sister-in-law Toni still live there, and I visit them whenever I make the trip, but my brother and sister-in-law do not live in the old house on East Nineteenth Street, with its slanting carport, its screen door that refuses to stay open, its tiny bathroom with the uneven door, its grapefruit tree that somehow survived the hurricane of 1967, its mesquite where my father parked his green work truck, his saddle on the passenger seat. I can keep in touch with my family by traveling to Houston or picking up the phone, but without the house, how can we stay connected to who we all were back then?
It is, after all, the childhood home that allows us to consider where we used to be, where we are now, and what exactly it is that might have happened between these points in time. So seeing my mother in Richmond will not be like seeing her back at the old house for her famous Christmas tamale party, with the small dining room so packed with people that we had to eat in shifts. Nor will seeing her in Richmond be like seeing her in the house where she and my father spent their last night together before he was taken away to the nursing home. And seeing my mother in Richmond will not be like seeing her standing on the porch where she teared up and made the sign of the cross as she and my father watched me leave home for the first time, 25 years ago.
Almost as soon as I left, I found myself telling people about the place I came from, stories about my family and friends who were living along the border and in my mind always would, stories of things I had seen and done while I was living there, stories about what it was like when I made it back home. Years later, telling these stories would lead me to write a book about Brownsville. What I understood only afterward was that if I could put these stories on paper, I could keep the place alive a little longer, until I was able to make it back again.
To be honest, though, what I know now is different from what I knew when I used to dream of returning. I know that my old neighborhood back home is not the neighborhood it used to be, and perhaps it never was. The owner of the rental property across the alley has left his house boarded up since last year’s hurricane season, and the weeds now reach the sagging top of the chain-link fence. During one of my mother’s recent stays in the hospital, someone got into the utility room attached to the back of her house and there, out of sight from anyone passing in the alley, used my father’s rusted-out tools to bust through the drywall and into the dining room, before taking what little there was to take. After cleaning up the mess, my brother, who looks after my mother’s financial matters and the house maintenance, called a home security company to come install an alarm to go along with the iron bars already on the doors and windows.
If this story has an epilogue, it is this: A few weeks after informing me that she was moving, my mother calls back to say her big move will actually be happening in stages. As definite as she was in making her decision to move, she is now equally defiant about not selling her old house (though no one has asked her to do this). How is she going to leave behind her viejo, she says, using the term of endearment she had for her husband of 67 years, a term she has come to use almost exclusively when she speaks of him, as if in death he is more her old man than our father. She visits the grave site at least once a week, sometimes more if someone will drive her. Besides, she knows where everything is in her house, unlike my sister’s house, where every day she has to search out the sugar or the utensils or a simple coffee cup, a problem she refuses to believe will be cleared up by spending more time at my sister’s and not less. But my mother wants it both ways: to be there in Richmond with some steady company and to be comfortable in her own home, with her doctors only a few minutes away and her telenovelas on the stations she already has memorized.
Not long from now, when my children are old enough to understand, I plan to take them to see the house on East Nineteenth. Maybe my mother will still own it; maybe by then we will have sold the place. What matters is that they see it for themselves, even if we are just parked on the street. Look over there, I will say to them. I used to live inside there when I was about your age.