When I was three years old, my grandparents bought some land in southeast Travis County. At the time, it was way out back of beyond, a few miles southwest of what was then Bergstrom AirForce Base and is now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It was about 100 acres of Texas blackland prairie, dotted with a few tanks (that's Texan for ponds, y'all). Some of my earliest memories revolve around this land, upon which Grandaddy bequeathed the rather grandiose appellation El Rancho Grande, but which most of us simply referred to as the farm.
There was a small house on the property, built at the turn of the century; very basic. At first, Grandaddy and Grandmother had tenants there, a young Mexican family who took care of the land and the livestock. My grandparents were running cattle on the land, and had some horses as well. My very earliest memory is of visiting the land; standing outside the corral and watching one of the new colts run. There was a big fig tree next to the corral, and if any of the kids needed to use the facilities, we had to go in the bushes and use a fig leaf for toilet paper. Those fig leaves were rough! But we were not allowed to go in the house, because, one of the adults said, we would disturb Mrs. Figueroa. (That wasn't her name; but no family member who remembers it remains.)
I have a vague memory of a dark-haired, pretty woman standing on the steps of the house, wearing a white blouse, and Mr. Figueroa talking to Grandaddy in Spanish --- the tenants did not speak English, but my grandfather was fluent in Spanish. My mother says there was a little girl who was cross-eyed, and my grandfather, who was a Shriner, arranged for her to have free surgery at the Shriners' Hospital. But that's all I remember of the tenants, except for their firing.
There was a new colt, a handsome little guy the color of light brown sugar. One of the Figueroas' relatives, an uncle or cousin or brother, got drunk one day and went out into the corral. He harassed the colt, scaring him and causing him to run. The colt ran into a big bale of barbed wire, and in his panic got completely tangled in it. He had to be put down. Grandaddy was furious. He kicked the Figueroas out, renovated the farmhouse, and he and Grandmother relocated there from their own home on Preston Avenue in West Austin.
Grandaddy was a postal inspector, but his dream was to retire to the country and be a gentleman rancher. When he and Grandmother finally moved to the farm, they kept cattle, horses, ducks, geese, chickens, and peacocks. The peacocks made a horrible racket but they were beautiful, and we loved to collect their feathers. Grandmother also kept guinea hens, which lay colored eggs. The kitchen of our home on Bluebonnet Lane frequently was filled with the peeps and grunts of boxes of fluffy yellow chicks or ducklings, which my mother would take to sell at the local laundromat. In those days, even in the city, many people kept chicken coops in their backyards. The tiny chicks and ducklings were so fragile and warm in your hands. Their fluff tickled your nose, and they smelled good, the way baby things so often do. We had a back porch that was slightly sunken and always flooded when it rained. I desperately wished to take the baby ducks swimming on the back porch, but my mother was less enthusiastic about this plan, so it never materialized.
I was the first female grandchild. Preceding me was a long line of boys --- my cousins Paul, Pat, Bill, and Tommy, and my big brother, Greg. Shortly after the nove to the farm, Granddaddy brought home a Shetland pony for all the children, an ill-tempered tiny grey creature named Lightning. The boys were all afraid of him at first, but I toddled right up and demanded a ride, which sealed my fate as Granddaddy's little cowgirl directly. He was very proud of his little Sissy, as he called me. For Christmas that year, I got a pair of red cowgirl boots. Red!
Lightning was too bad-tempered to last long as a children's pony --- he bit and kicked --- so Granddaddy sold him and one day brought home, in the back of his station wagon, Noodles and her colt, Champ. Noodles was a Welsh-Shetland mix, larger than tiny Lightning, and both she and Champ were a beautiful burnt orange color, with macaroni-colored manes and tails (thus the pasta-related name, I presume). The first time I rode her around the big fenced-in yard, Champ ran along beside us, not very sanguine about his mamma being mounted. Doglike, he reared and put his little hooves on my leg as I rode! It was very startling, but Granddaddy said he was just playing.
Another time, I was riding Noodles in the corral. We usually rode bareback and often without even a harness. I must have been a little older by this time --- maybe six --- because I had been reading about Native Americans and was obsessed with them. My mother was standing out in the corral with Grandaddy and was worried because he was letting me ride by myself, without him leading Noodles. He was certain I was all right. As they talked their boring grownup talk, I happily rode Noodles in circles. But she began to go faster and faster, and soon was running! My short legs couldn't grip well enough, and I began sliding off. But I remembered reading about the Native American riders and how they would slide down to the side of their horses to shield themselves from arrows. Don't ask me how, but that's what I did. I held onto Noodles' mane and chest, and had one foot hooked over her back and the other under her belly. I was terribly proud of myself. Granddaddy noticed and stopped her before I could fall, and once again, my place as his little cowgirl was assured. These many years later, I vividly recall the disappointment of being prevented by a head cold from riding with him on Sunshine in the parade at the Sheriff's Posse Rodeo.
We all grew up out at that farm. We hunted crawdads on the edge of the tank. We collected the big shell fossils that were just laying around everywhere, evidence of Texas' ancient Permian past as a shallow sea. We played with horny toads, who would squirt blood out of their eyes and fall asleep if you turned them over and rubbed their tummies; and with beautiful little box turtles, with their red and yellow-lined shells. We romped with Pete and Repeat, the two German Shepherd mixes Granddaddy brought home one day. (Pete was the smart one; his brother Repeat was sweet and dumb as a box of rocks). We drove Granddaddy's faded old blue pickup truck, the Blue Bomber, around the pastures. It had running boards and didn't go very fast, which is why the older boys --- not one of them had yet seen 10 --- were allowed to drive it (I was, to my eternal frustration, too little). We helped Granddaddy pitch hay and set out salt licks for the cows. In the barn, you always had to watch out for scorpions and rattlesnakes.
We cranked ice cream in the shade of the trees and helped Grandmother pick vegetables out of her half-acre kitchen garden. You haven't tasted a vegetable until you've tasted one you pulled out of the dirt a few minutes before. Grandmother made a delicious yellow squash casserole, duck egg omelettes, and chicken dinners. I remember the distinctive smell of chicken blood, and watching her pluck them at the counter --- a chicken that minutes before had been running around the yard, until Granddaddy caught it and wrung its neck.
Granddaddy died when I was nine --- the first human death I encountered, having previously only known the passing of our little Chihuahua, Poncho. Grandmother sold most of the livestock; she did keep Noodles and Champ, but without Granddaddy there to supervise, we were not allowed to ride them again and eventually she sold them, too. I would often go and spend the night with her, sleeping in one of the two twin beds in her large bedroom, falling asleep to the sound of her radio playing the scary CBS Radio Mystery Theater, narrated by E. G. Marshall. I still remember its theme sound, a three-note phrase played on a double bass, deep and unsettling.
When I think of my grandmother, a stylish, petite, no-nonsense woman who had been a great beauty in her time and had an elderly, rich, disappointed suitor until the day she died, her scent comes to me --- a unique perfume of Juergens hand lotion and cigarettes. She had beautiful skin, smooth and soft even when it became mottled with age spots, and took great care of it. She also insisted on buying expensive and high quality skin cream for me from a very young age! I think of the sound of her sewing machine whirring away --- she was a wonderful seamstress and made all my clothing until I was in high school. The last thing she made for me was a costume for a scene of Samson & Dalila which I was doing in college. It's a treasured possession. I didn't realize it at the time, but Grandmother was a great opera fan and always listened to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcast from her favorite armchair. I've never seen her as excited as when I reported to her that William Warfield himself had called to give me my acceptance notice for graduate school at the University of Illinois. She was a fan.
I was an apprentice at Chicago Lyric Opera when she got so sick. I gave up the opening night performance as one of the handmaidens in Turandot --- all of three lines, but a big deal to a very young singer --- to fly back and see her one last time. No regrets. Her voice, her perfume, her essence are a part of my soul. I remember driving all over town with her --- she loved to go shopping --- and the way she would finger an unacceptable piece of fabric, looking down at it through her bifocals, and then peer at me over their tops. "Idn't that tacky?" she would say in her soft Texas drawl.
After my grandmother died and my father retired, my parents moved out to the farm and did their own round of renovations. My aunt was already living there, in a prefab house they'd put on the site of Grandmother's former garden. At some point, when two rambunctious Golden Retrievers in addition to a couple of toddlers got to be too much for my older brother and his wife, Jamie and Katie came to live at the farm, and became important characters. As I was by now living in an apartment in Chicago, my mini Schnauzer Sassy was with my parents at the farm; but Katie and Jamie didn't consider him to be a real dog and declined to leave him in charge when one of them decided to go on patrol around the property. One or the other of the Goldens would frequently disappear for hours at a time; but never both of them. One of them always stayed to guard the compound; and at night, one of them slept on the porch of one house, and one on the other.
One day, my uncle John Paul brought his old rodeo horse out to the farm. Old Red had been living in a lot next to his house in Houston, but JP felt he was lonely and not getting enough attention or exercise. Old Red quickly became a great favorite! He was a skinny old fella, but highly sociable. On his first day at the farm, he spotted the cows and a couple of donkeys in the neighbor's pasture, and took off running for them. He didn't even come back to the barn for a couple of days, but spent his time getting to know them across the barbed wire fence.
My mother and Aunt Tootsie spoiled Old Red with treats, which made Katie the Golden Retriever very jealous. She tried to scare him a few times, but he would just look at her placidly and go back to chewing his bread. Red was a gentleman at heart; he never tried to stop naughty Katie from stealing his food and always treated her with courteous indifference, no matter how snotty she was to him. He loved to walk with us in the pasture, or chill with us when we sat in lawn chairs in the yard. He'd stand behind us and hang his big head over our shoulders when the conversation got interesting. He also deeply desired to come in the house, but he couldn't figure out how to fit himself on to the porch. Once I caught him trying to figure out how to open the door to the potting shed --- the handle had a button on top and you had to push it, then pull to unlatch the door --- which is where we started keeping his food after he learned to let himself out of the corral.
Old Red had about a year out at the farm --- a happy, beloved year --- before his old heart gave out one day when he was getting a drink from the tank. We had to have a neighbor come pull him out with his tractor, and dig a horse-sized grave on the hill.
My sweet old dog Fritzie is buried out underneath one of the trees there, too; and another generation of grandkids grew up playing under the trees in the yard and in the comfortable old house. The adults spent many a lazy afternoon watching the kids swing or play baseball or run around the tree fort. We grilled. We had big holiday dinners around the giant table, often with opera singer friends of mine who were stranded in town while on gigs.
When I came back from my apprenticeship in Chicago and subsequent stint in Phantom of the Opera out in LA, I lived at the farm for a while. My husband proposed to me in my bedroom there, which he had strewn with rose petals. After we were married, we transported many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner from our apartment in far north Austin to the big table at the farm, where almost all the relatives and a few guests could sit. My father died in his bed there, having lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, and was laid out on a couch in the big open combination living room/dining room until his body could be removed. We all sat at the dining table with Dad lying dead a few feet away, looking like he was asleep.
We sold the land in 2007. The land speculators had been sniffing around for a while, and Mom held out until the very end and got a great price. By that time, Dad and my aunt were both gone, and Mom didn't need to be out there by herself. She moved to a place in town, close to us and to my little brother and his wife.
We all helped move her. It was a huge job. In addition to the house, there were two storerooms, the potting shed, the barn, my aunt's house, and the possessions of two of my great aunts, my grandparents, parents, aunt, and a large number of children who had stored stuff after their various moves (me being the greatest culprit. While going through things, I discovered the coffee grinder and food processor I'd bought in grad school. They both still work and I still use them).
Moving is always overwhelming, and this was an especially emotional one. The farm had always been the family haven, and we weren't going to have it any more. And there was so much stuff! We had garage sales for days and still left tables of stuff under the carport when we left. The developers were just going to bulldoze the place.
I hadn't visited the farm since we left. At first I thought it would make me sad, but I never was, not really, after the initial sadness of saying goodbye to a big part of my childhood. I didn't dream about it, like I thought I would. It was okay.
Last weekend, my husband and I went hiking not far from the farm. The hike itself brought on a wave of nostalgia and when we were done, I asked to drive by the old place.
The real estate bubble burst almost immediately after we sold the land; we got out just in time. There's development in the area but it hasn't yet reached our old farm. Now it's nothing but an abandoned old house in the curve of a country road. A big dryland willow has grown up directly in front of the gate; grass and weeds have obscured the gravel driveway where I once almost stepped on a rattlesnake. The yard where we rode Noodles and my nieces and nephews played and we sat under the shade of the trees passing the time is choked with bright yellow broomweed and dryland willow. Several of the trees that shaded us or gave fruit are dead. And a herd of cows were resting in the deep shade close to the house, the same shade where we used to sit in armchairs watching the kids play.
The edges of the property are littered with beer cans and empty bottles. And the house itself has been gutted. Thieves came inside to rip out the air conditioner and copper pipes. They left litter. A colony of bees has taken up residence in the chimney. The cows have been in the house, the doors left open by the intruders.
Abandoned houses are always sad, but strangely, seeing our old family home like this is not upsetting. Seeing it only confirmed what I already knew and felt --- this place is no longer mine. I left the farm many years ago, but all that was important about it went with me. Family. Happy memories. The strength and security that growing up in such a place gave me. I thought I would dream about it, mourn it, long for it; but I never have. I never have because I although I left the farm, the farm never left me. Its gray clay forms my limbs; its muddy water is my blood; and the love and goodness I knew there is my heart. The farm is so deeply a part of me that I can never really leave it behind. What remains out there in the bend on Sassman Road is just a crumbling place, slowly being reclaimed by the land.
When my husband and I left what remained of the farm and headed home, we quickly got lost. Development has erased all the old landmarks and changed the shape of the land itself. It was incredibly disorienting. In another ten years, maybe I'll go back to see if there's anything recognizable left. But it won't really matter.
I'll always know how to find the real farm.