Web Extra: Out of Smithville’s Past
See related: Movietown Megalopolis
Smithville native Shelley Row shares the hometown memories that came to life when she returned following a year's sabbatical away from Central Texas.
By Shelley Row
The two inches of rain is a hot topic even before I land. My seat-mate tells me. Central Texas is in a deep drought, a serious thing in an area of cattle ranchers and farmers. Mother and George (my honorary step-dad) collect me at the airport and talk with relief about the rain and the resiliency of the grass. Sure enough, the broad fields between the Austin airport and Smithville are the pale green of hope.
The talk of rain is familiar. My head rattles with distant dialogue.
“We sure need rain.”
“We’ll have to start feedin’ early this year unless we get rain soon.”
My grandmother smelled rain in the air. My granddad hung a newly killed rattlesnake on the fence to bring rain. If it rolled belly up, rain would come. A turtle crossing the road from right to left meant rain was on the way.
Like the grass, my roots are in Smithville. For years I couldn’t wait to leave; now I look forward to coming back. I return to see my family. This is my excuse. Later I realize I come here for the grounding; to know the comfortable familiarity of three generations who made Smithville their home.
There are two main roads—Main Street and the old highway. The traffic signal hangs where they intersect, and memories line both streets. On Main Street, antique stores like “Out of the Past” replace shops like Bock’s Red and White Grocery or Ken’s Pharmacy where my grandmother worked. Our grocery sack, delivered to our back porch, always contained a small box of raisins for me from Mrs. Bock. At Ken’s, my sister and I sat on chrome bar stools at the soda fountain while Elizabeth made chocolate milk shakes.
Farther down Main Street was Mikeska’s barbeque. My granddad took me there. We pushed open the swinging screen doors, shuffled through the sawdust as the smell of mesquite filled the room. Warmth embraced us from the barbeque pits that had been cooking since early morning. Our barbeque was served on brown paper, and, yes, my granddad ate with his pocket knife. I still have that knife.
Mikeska's has been gone for years. Now we go to Zimmerhanzel’s on the highway. It has a glass door, no sawdust, and real forks and knives. Everyone in town lines up for their barbeque. Lunch comes early here. The older ladies are first. They finish as we arrive at 11:30 a.m. Next are the working men—road crews, farm, and ranch hands—whose days start early. When lunch is in full swing, we share our table. Again, conversation centers on the rain.
“How much rain you git?”
“Inch and eight tenths.”
“My grass greened up.”
“My grass had to come up from the roots.”
Every morning, before the heavy heat sets in, I walk through
town. The air is fresh and light then. In its heyday, Smithville was a major
railroad town. Walking, I hear the sounds of Smithville’s past. A train whistles
as it comes through the yard, “Whoooon.” Cars clank together, and the wheels click on rails.
The streets are an orderly grid with familiar names– Burleson, Gresham, Olive, Hudgins. I wander past wooden houses in artfully chosen colors. The wide-blade carpet grass is lush and thick due to attentive watering. Tall sycamores, pecans and magnolias shade the streets, and crepe myrtles sprout tassels of pink. But the grand matrons are the live oak trees, with trunks too big to reach around and limbs that canopy an entire yard. I loved these trees as a kid. They are still here. Still growing. Still making me stop and stare.
Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed, except the paint. But, I come out of the past when Mother and George tell me about family friends. Some have died, others are sick, and all are older. We interrupt Jeannette baking zucchini-pineapple bread. Tuffy jumps best he can with his four-inch long dachshund legs, but soon lies quietly in the floor with a chew bone. He chews until only one end is left. Chew bone ends fill his basket. Joyce tells us about her twin great-grand daughters while we admire her garden. Miss Silky with her sleek grey hair, even at 90+, meets us at the door. We visit sitting in a rocking chair that belonged to her grandmother.
George takes me on a ride through his pastures. It’s a pastime in Smithville – riding around, looking at the cows, and appraising the water level in the tanks. Bouncing along the rutted, dirt road I am again in my granddad's 1946 green, Chevy pickup with the wood-slat sides. George gets out of his new truck to open the wide, aluminum gate. It swings open smoothly with one easy push. Not like the gates at my granddad’s pastures. They were made of barbed wire and a post. When I was old enough, he let me open the gate. I had to be strong to lean against the post, loosen it and pull it out from the wire loops at the top and bottom. I walked it to the ditch, stepping carefully to avoid the bull nettle and cow pies. George drives by his tank to judge how long his cattle will have water. It looks bleak. But unlike the cows that may go thirsty, I am drinking in a lifetime of memories.
From the June 2012 issue.