Lessons from my great-aunt, an East Texas original.
I was a child in a magical place, in a house my father built in the piney woods of East Texas, and I wanted for nothing. There were the woods themselves, and a creek with frog’s eggs, and a terrifying culvert, and a pond you could fish in, and also a pond you weren’t allowed to fish in. There were dewberries in the summer and dewberry cobbler. We had a field that was our baseball field, and across that field lived my great-grandfather and my great-uncle Perry, and then there was another field and across that field were Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw — Virginia and Arnold Davis.
My great-aunt Maw-Maw was a socialist and she was 6 feet tall. Or, more truly, she was 5 feet 11 inches and a yellow dog Democrat: She’d vote for a yellow dog before she’d vote for a Republican. A couple years ago my cousin’s dog actually got into Maw-Maw’s house and she found it asleep on her bed. Maw-Maw winked at me and said it had been years since she’d had a male in her bed. I asked her if she enjoyed the experience and she said, “No, ma’am. I chased him right out.”
She worked in the fields as a child. She was valedictorian of her high school in 1941. She gave birth to three tall girls and a son named Robert, who died when he was a young adult.
I don’t know if I ever met Robert, but I think of him now that I’m a pediatrician and I’ve seen the grief of mothers — how long it is, looming over an entire life. In her older age, Virginia would take gifts to young families in her church. She’d find out something the family needed and make sure they got it. “She taught me a lot,” my mother said, “about being kind.”
Virginia’s politics were solidified in Port Arthur, where Arnold worked in the refineries and she worked in the company’s corporate office. The union was strong, and when they said to strike, you’d strike and you’d go without pay. In these lean times, the union would always make sure the rent got paid and the kids got fed. Virginia felt that Arnold never would have had safe working conditions or fair pay without the union.
She drove herself to church, where she eventually became the oldest member of the congregation. She also stood up and walked straight out, cane thumping the wood floor of Benui Baptist, when the preacher started using his pulpit to tell people how to vote. She’d’ve walked out even if he had been endorsing her candidate. Holy was holy, and then there was politics. And boy, in Texas, the twain don’t meet.
So I grew up shelling homegrown peas on her porch, eating her cobbler and sitting on the carpet while the women talked politics. No man could tell you how to vote — not your preacher, not your husband. Back then, Texas had been a Democratic state since Reconstruction. Ann Richards was governor, having come into office partly on a boost of protest after her opponent compared the weather in Texas to rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Clayton Williams should’ve known better; a weatherman had already been fired for making the same comment right after a news report about the rape of a child. But good ol’ boys learn slow.
It was my rural Texas family, though, who taught me that men can be gentle with children and animals and appropriately respectful of strong women. Perry was like that. He must’ve been 6-foot-6 in his boots and denim overalls, and you could see him rolling through the tall grass a long way off. He grew new potatoes, corn and peas in long rows behind his house. He’d make stew from the squirrels and parboil raccoons, but I remember him best placing an injured sparrow into my hands one day when he picked me up from first grade. “Be gentle,” he said, and when I closed my hands I could feel the bird’s little heart racing against my palm. When Perry’s dog had puppies, he walked across the field and placed a squirming pup into my brother’s arms — much to my parents’ surprise. But it was the right thing, and we grew up to measure out our lives by the dogs we’ve had.
The lessons you learn in childhood about love and gentleness, about men and women and politics, may not carry you all the way through life. I had a brief early marriage, myself. It was nothing like Virginia and Arnold’s, which was strong and lively until he died — 20 years ago now. My marriage got so bad I could explain my motives for leaving in one sentence.
Even so, I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed of my divorce right up until the moment Maw-Maw found out about it. My mother told her, and she gripped the side of her recliner with one hand and pointed at my mother with the other and said, “You tell Rachel I said ‘Congratulations for being strong.’”
After that, I felt just fine. The holiest person I knew, and the toughest, had given me absolution.
The losses that come with age accumulated for Virginia. Arnold died in his 70s, and a few years later Perry died of stomach cancer. (“I ate three bags of popcorn and a ’coon,” he once told his oncologist when asked about his diet.) As state politics swung right and then righter, Virginia occupied herself with humble acts of protest: inserting expletives into the governor’s name, clipping political cartoons that would infuriate East Texas Republicans and posting them on her refrigerator. She took her birthday parties in Las Vegas, where she’d see shows and play the penny slots. Her favorite show was “the transvestites,” whose singing she admired very much. She didn’t fly out to Vegas for the last couple of years, though. Maw-Maw beat cancer four times, but then it took her daughter Laura and she never quite recovered.
The land is different out there now. The particular lives we led when I was a child seem impossible now that you can see the lights of a subdivision through the trees beyond Virginia’s porch. The road’s been paved. The squirrels, I imagine, have grown fat and arrogant without my great-uncle stalking them. The country has been circumscribed, and I imagine Perry’s ghost rambling its perimeters before sinking into the land again.
It was just last week that they told Virginia she had lymphoma again. She was 93 and enjoying life very much, so she opted for palliative care. They thought she had more time. We all thought she had more time. Even after she made her decision not to take chemo, she said to my mother, “Well shoot, Reta, I’ve beaten cancer four times. I might just surprise them all and beat it again!” But in fact, she went very quickly.
I was working an overnight shift in a hospital halfway across the country when my mother learned of her death. I am a doctor myself, so I should’ve known to call her last week. To say, just in case, that I loved her. To thank her for helping raise me, for making me the woman I am. To say congratulations, for being strong.
Illustration by Kailey Whitman.