Monday, March 24, 2008
My aunt recently sent me this picture. It was taken in January, 1962 and I am the two-month-old baby. This was taken at my christening and my mother, Barbara Allen Coffee Mansee (and later, Merrell) is the lovely woman standing on the left. To the right is my grandmother, Jane Allen Shindler Coffee Crow, whom we called Mama Jane. Her mother, my great-grandmother, is holding me. Her name was Louise Ellen Osborne Shindler, Mama Louise to me. And seated on the right is my great-great-grandmother, Emily Allen Osborne, who was called Dam. Look at all those pearls!
I am very fortunate to have known and visited frequently with Mama Louise when I was a child and I enjoyed Mama Jane's presence in my life until she passed away several years ago. Dam died when I was still a toddler, so I have no memories of her. My mother was in and out of my life several times due to the roller coaster of mental illness and sadly, she died a few years ago at the early age of 62.
Dam's family lived in Georgia for many years but she somehow ended up in Hempstead, Texas. That's where my earliest memories of my mother's family are based. Mama Louise married a gentleman who emigrated from Austria, a brilliantly creative and charming man named John Thomas Shindler (most likely Schindler before arriving on U.S. soil). I spent two weeks every summer of my growing-up years in and around Hempstead, exploring Mama Louise and Pop's huge old house and dogging my male cousins and their friends, who had zero interest in including a girl in their adventures. So I was frequently the victim of their experiments and pranks (when they weren't hiding from me) and was once even tricked into the underground storm shelter where I spent a terrifying few minutes alone in the cool, dank darkness.
I cherish memories of the laundry room at Mama Louise's, which was a full-sized room where all the laundry was washed, dried on a complex indoor clothes line which could be raised and lowered (designed by Pop), then ironed. The room contained a second refrigerator where clothes dampened with water from an old bottle with a red sprinkler top were rolled up and stored until ironed. The fridge also held a highly-coveted store of pale green "pony" bottles of Coke which were always slightly frozen and gave blessed relief from the scorching Texas heat...when I was allowed to have one. Those bottles probably only held about 6 oz. and were doled out only when I'd been particularly good...so different from today when kids are virtually raised on soft drinks and the customary size is ginormous. The only thing that could compare with one of Mama Louise's frosty Cokes was Blue Bell ice cream, which came from nearby Brenham or the locally-grown watermelons, torpedo-shaped, unbelievably sweet and juicy...nothing like the bland, fat melons available today. Amazingly, at the peak of the season, Hempstead melons sometimes sold 6 or 8 for a dollar back then! I sometimes wonder if I could find a melon that matched my childhood memory if I travelled to Hempstead one summer.
I think of these things every time I root around for special items to set around the house when I feel the need for some variety. I have so many old and pretty things that were passed down through the generations and I treasure them more for their ability to trigger such pleasant memories than for their aesthetic appeal. I think of stories I've been told of how Mama Louise scandalized the town by becoming one of the first women to get a driver's license. The town fathers cautioned Pop that he needed to speak to Louise about her reckless speed, said to be approaching 20 MPH. And I wish I could have been around when Pop's cotton gin still occupied the property behind their house. It was a large vacant lot when I was a child and prime hunting ground for wildflowers. Brandywine cups were elusive but my absolute favorites. (photo credit: Maria Bajema)
And back in those days "horny toads" were still plentiful, so toad hunting was another regular pasttime. (Actual name--Texas Horned Lizard.) Even though I never lived there, Hempstead somehow marked me with the strongest sense of place of any I've known. Not sure how that works but I'm glad to feel a connection to someplace in spite of all our moving around.