By Miranda Chop
My ancestors were among the first settlers to the county in Texas where I was born.
The Brazos River meanders through the hills and flatlands, carving out limestone and red rock against an endless sky–sometimes blue, sometimes thick with the promise of rain. It is a place of unruly and untamable land, a place in time when wood floors indicated wealth and means. The means to travel bumpity-bump in a big-wheeled wagon across the plains, through the valleys and over the many bends of Los Brazos de Dios to buy cut wood. The means to haul the wood back to the prairie to lay with care across the firm packed earth of Old Mexico.
My kin had the pioneer spirit. I don’t know what led them to Palo Pinto County or the banks of the clear, cold river, but they survived and thrived.
Perhaps there is some of that spirit in my bones, my blood.
Maybe my DNA is cut like diamonds to reflect the hardiness of my brethren. Did they toil with red hands in boiling water to wash cotton Sunday dresses? Were their knuckles dry and cracked, like the parched earth of the dry season? What did they grow in their tilled gardens, in the gardens of their hearts? What grows still today?
I imagine my great-great-greats of all variety hunched over wash tubs and rows of squash, or standing proud in the face of a coming storm, anticipatory in the nourishment of rain. The memory moves me. It is written in my body, my spirit recognizes the ones who came before and will come after. My bones creak with knowledge.
What stories do they tell?
They tell of hardship, heartache, longing and above all, perseverance. They tell of a whisper of energy, a keep on keepin’ on, and a slow and steady pace. It’s hot in Texas, humid, too. The oppressive heat and humidity of a storm cloud that builds and builds and never bursts suffocates and stifles movement. Beads of sweat meant to cool the body burn the skin instead.
Concrete seems to melt and the inky tar of paved roads sticks to the bottom of your shoes. How did they live without air conditioning? How did they get up each day and face the relentless Texas sun? A breeze might feel like a whoosh of air from an oven set to broil. Even the prairie grasses bend and dip to escape the hellfire winds. Everything slows to an imperceptible crawl, a snail’s pace of passivity. We talk slower, walk slower, live slower. We mend fences and bring casseroles to funerals and we check on our neighbors even if it means saddling up the horse and packing a lunch. This is what prairie people do. This is what I do, too, when the occasion calls for it.
I wonder about the early women in my family.
The prairie maidens in dirty aprons click clacking around the homestead with defiant eyes and strong hands carrying bushels of dandelion greens or fresh okra. They loved, they laughed, maybe not enough, they worked hard and they made a life for themselves and their families. I wonder about the depths of them. Did they know I would be here one day, requesting an audience with the dead? Do they watch still, hoping for a spark of recognition? Did they know they were special? Is it too late to tell them?
They have something to teach me. They put it in my make-up and told me to keep it safe. They gave me their knowledge and charged me with holding it until it was my turn to give it away. What do they say when they whisper?
“The river swells, soon it will be impassable.”
They picked prickly pears from cacti and made jam, I bet. Sometimes they got needles in their palms and it hurt. It was hard to hold the Bible open on Sunday, after the first church was built, after the Natives were converted. They had babies; they lost babies. I came from some of those babies.
They went on living. They had it hard. They paved the way for me, my mother, and her mother. They gave us what they could. They wrote it in our hair and on the soles of our feet, bony feet, small hands, supple breasts for nurturing all of life. I look at them and I wonder if I have any of that pioneer spirit at all. It must be there somewhere, hiding behind the creature comforts of ceiling fans and swimming pools made of cement, not pebble and dirt. Is it lurking just below the surface, like so much heartache and loss visited upon my family, upon every family?
I long to commune with my home, the breath of my blood and the spirit of my soul.
I yearn to uncover my pioneering birthright. What makes a person capable of facing the unscrupulous world of homesteading? What is it in us that nudges and pokes and prods us to give it a try, see how you like it, what’s the worst that can happen? We build bridges and boats and rocket ships to explore.
We take drugs and meditate and decode dreams to explore more. Like the preachers and teachers and nurses and mommas and surveyors of old Texas coming out to build shanties and dugouts against the tar-water backdrop of deep night, against the muted morning grays of early fall, we do it because we must. We do it because our bones, painted with the hopes and dreams of our ancestry, propel us ever forward.
Miranda Chop is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s good at being an auntie, cooking and reading. Accepting the present moment as it is makes her feel good. Resisting it makes her feel bad. Most days, she prefers to feel good. She also shares at her blogs here and here.
Photo: An Abstract Genius/tumblr
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer