“If anyone asks, just say you’re from Texas, and if that’s not good enough, tell ’em to go to hell.” —Nana
It’s summer between seventh and eighth grade in middle school. I would turn 13 that August, and my grandparents on Dad’s side were taking my brother, Brian, and me to Texas. It was like a family vacation, only it was two weeks and change long, and my parents weren’t coming along. I guess you could call it one of my grandparents’ retirement trips. They took off for a couple of weeks because they could. We got to go with them.
We drove the entire way in a burgundy Oldsmobile, winding west, stopping now and then to rest along Interstate 10, Nana and Brian in the backseat, Paps and me in the front seat. I was the designated navigator, outfitted with cool shades, an atlas, and a sense of direction much better than my grandmother’s. Brian played pocket video games, and his most urgent request was that whatever motel we stayed in that night had a swimming pool. We laid up for the second night of our trip some place in Louisiana. We’d pulled off the highway early, probably four in the afternoon or so. Paps was taking the drive down slowly.
It was a classic side-of-the-road motor lodge, the kind where the pool and its concrete deck were off to the side, near the parking lot, with a teal iron fence around it. The wind was blowing the bayou air, and leaves and bugs littered the water’s chlorinated surface. We had about thirty minutes to splash around (although I only remember Brian jumping in) before the thunder started rumbling beyond the interstate. Soon the thunderheads rolled over for a drenching rain. We ate supper at a Shoney’s that night and fell asleep to the glow of a television broadcasting a baseball game, the room’s air conditioner blasting away under the window.
We hopscotched around eastern Texas. We stayed a night or two in Beaumont, and later drove north to some of the farther out of the way places: Crockett, Nacogdoches, Weches. We stayed at Danny and Jeanette’s ranch. (Jeanette was my grandparents’ niece.) It was my first time staying at a real ranch house, True Texas style. There was a cook’s kitchen, and an atrium filled with plants that led out to a second wing, where there was a bar, complete with an antique cash register and spittoon, a pool table, and plenty of sofas and chairs to relax in. Outside: a rambling patio and a Texas-shaped dinner bell just itching to be clanged.
And it was good the house was pretty big–the summer heat was an inferno. I remembered sweating just from standing in the shade. No activity needed to perspire.
We were there in part for Danny and Jeanette’s 25th wedding anniversary, which was a big affair. Uncle Earl (who was actually my great uncle) cooked, smoking meat, making tortilla-sized nachos, mixing margaritas. This was the summer I learned to tap a keg and pour a beer with the right amount of foam on its head. I told jokes to the grown-ups. There were dozens of people at the ranch for the dinner. Maybe more, but I can’t trust my memory to that. There were toasts outside as the evening set in. It grew dark, and the party lingered on.
Whenever we’d talk about family origins with my grandparents, as in where we came from, or whether our name was Irish or something, Nana would ultimately tell me, “If anyone asks, just say you’re from Texas, and if that’s not good enough, tell ’em to go to hell.”
Even though my grandparents dotted the continent before they got stuck in New Jersey, they’re both from families that were stuck in Texas. My father’s from Austin. And even though you can dig back a few generations into the 19th century, the Hogan lineage seems to evaporate there. Who knows how we got there.
The family still has plenty of sprouts, and most of them must have shown up for this party. There I met and hung out with plenty of others roughly my age, distant cousins and kin, and we’d play pool inside the house or run around on the ranch. One night we watched tarantulas run across the road after a good rain.
All of us kids were there for a few days, anyway, so when the sun would be high in the sky, and it would be unbearably hot outside, we’d stay inside and play pool in the lower wing of the house. There was an old stereo, and we figured out how to play records on it, and we’d let the music echo through the tile-floored room, taking turns with the cue sticks, the rest of us hanging out at the bar, pretending we were grownups. There was a Dire Straits album, and that’s when I heard “Sultans of Swing” for the first time. I listened to it several times that week. And I remembered feeling utterly cool.
When I go back and look up those towns on Google, I can see via satellite pictures that there’s not much to the towns we visited so many years ago. And that’s how those memories are. I don’t remember anything about the towns themselves. Just the houses we’d visit. Great Aunt Somebody or Other who owned more land than God but only air-conditioned one room in her entire house. She made us a cake. Or Marcy and Earl’s house that had no yard, only rocks, and a screened-in patio. Marcy kept a pump organ in the living room, underneath one of her many paintings. I spent a night out on their back porch, listening to sounds I’d never heard before.
This was the trip where I spent the most time with my great-grandmother, Julia, for whom our daughter is named. O.J. Simpson jumped in his white Ford Bronco the night of my brother’s birthday.
We did some tourist kinds of things, drove through Austin to see the house my dad first lived in, visited the Alamo and ate at the Pizza Hut across the street, and checked out the killer whale show at Sea World. We went out to Lyndon Johnson’s ranch and rode by the house where Lady Bird still lived. I imagined her upstairs, sitting behind the lace curtains, watching our tram bus drive by.
It took two days and five thunderstorms to drive back to North Carolina. Looking back now, I’m more than impressed with my grandparents, who took on what I can only assume to be the burdensome task of keeping up with two grandchildren, ages twelve and seven, for more than two weeks. Knowing what I know now about kids that age, I cannot imagine what kind of terror Brian and I might have been. I hope we were good.
And something tells me we were, because Nana always brought up the trip to Texas when we’d drive up to visit her in New Jersey. She always had such fond memories of our time there. It changed us both, perhaps, though neither of us were aware at the time just what a bond we were forging, grandparents and grandchildren together in an Oldsmobile, with plenty of time and love to drive deep into the heart, not just of Texas, but of one another.