An illustration of a young woman covering her eyes as an older man carves into a brown tree with a small knife
Illustration by Jan Feindt

Too Wild To Love

A multigenerational Texas family leaves the state for a new life on the East Coast

by Elizabeth Bruenig

Like most everything concerning Texas, leaving the place is too vast a thing to comprehend all at once. I was standing at my kitchen window in New England the day I realized I had finally left the state, some dozen years after my departure. My mother had called to say she and my father had finally packed their things, pulled up stakes in Fort Worth, and set out for their new home in the mid-Atlantic. It was March: buttercups and jonquils among green tufts in the drainage ditches there; icicles peeling the gutters away from the eaves here.

For a moment, the bleakness ahead of me—a dull rattle of freezing rain on the windowpane—seemed a certain sign from the universe that none of this was meant to be. More than 200 years of family history, most of it consigned to the front matter of family Bibles and photograph inscriptions, now traveled unsteadily to some new home as my folks drove toward Maryland along the broad highways of North Texas. The remainder of it, written in the bones of all the people who came before me, stayed in the red earth they left behind.

I wanted to call and tell them to turn around and go back, but it wouldn’t have been any use. They wanted to be closer to me and my children on the East Coast. People can be heliotropic, their faces turning toward the future the way flowers lean to the sun. They were always going to follow their grandchildren, and I was the one who’d spirited them north in the first place. I had been the one to end our family’s history in Texas; they had only been late to accept it.

I have always loved Texas, as much as any Texan is given to love Texas. The beauty of its peerless landscapes blazes in my memories even now, brighter than the day before me. I think of calamitous slate thunderheads hulking over a green afternoon parking lot hissing with summer rain; fields of cobalt bluebonnets ridged with paintbrushes the color of umber and fire; the crisp, clear, neon perfection of a single Sonic Drive-In square in the center of some interminable grassy plain on a shadowless, starry night. But I have also been transfixed by Texas’ brutal counterpoints. I remember a heifer I saw lying at the bottom of a creek with an eye as milky pale as an opal; a garter snake my mother hacked in half with a hoe in our garden at sundown; every steer skull and cowhide a reminder that death is nearby in pitiless, harsh places, which can also be beautiful, even sublime. My constitution has been shaped by the home I loved, so maybe I had neglected to accept that I had walked away.

It wasn’t until after I left, with my parents trailing behind me, that I understood what Texas meant. The eye barely opens wide enough to admit all the light she radiates, and it was only in shades of gathering dimness that I began to see what it meant to have left her, long after I was already gone. The land chose my ancestors over many scores of burning summers and storm-blasted autumns, and in that way it had whittled our blood down to my cousins, their children, my children, my brother, me. Texas had made us for herself, and so there were things we took with us when we left.

A decade ago, at college outside Boston, my friends from the eastern seaboard would grin in surprised awe at my mother’s check-in voicemails, occasionally aired on speakerphone.

Hey, sugar, she would say, I’m just checkin’ in on ya…Up here at Kroger’s fixin’ to make a pot of chili. Cowboys’re on later, so the boys’ll be watchin’. Well, y’all just gimme a call if you wanna yak. I won’t be up to much.

By then, through a process I still don’t entirely understand, I had lost my accent. But my mother’s accent remained: not a drawl but a twang, not a slow lyrical hush over scads of too-harsh consonants, but a quick, lilting slur of vowels and wanton truncation, all arranged in a complex tone halfway between earthy warmth and high skepticism.

It is singularly Texan in all the ways the linguists specify and in ways I now privately catalog and treasure as fragments of a native tongue borne out of a native place. The abrogation, for instance, of the a in the Texan-inflected days of the week—Sund’y, Mond’y, Tuesd’y, and so on—lends an almost archaic feel to the words and shifts the words’ stress almost entirely to the first syllable. The days are made familiar in diminution. They sound less like the stern measure of a lifetime and more like another element in the Texas wild.

My mother inherited her accent largely from my grandfather Norman, who tallied his early days in the Panhandle during the inhospitable Dust Bowl, when durability of character was a necessity of life. He was born in Childress in 1936, one child of five belonging to Horace and Vera Musick, who raised and processed pinto beans, okra, peppers, wild plums, pecans—whatever the dead land yielded and the wind left behind. They preserved what they could and ate the rest in soups and stews not much more than a mess of pottage. When he was 16, Norman joined the Air Force and became a mechanic. That trade saw him through the rest of his life. By the time I knew him, he was a tall and lean, potbellied Texan grandfather with tawny, leather-worn skin, a salt-and-pepper mustache, an omnipresent pair of cowboy boots, and a standing offer to take me fishing. He wore shirts with Western piping, and smoked cigarettes. He played the banjo and had no use for religion or politics, both of which seemed to him corrupted in their institutional forms.

Nature, as he revealed it to me, was no less vicious but much more beautiful. When I was a little girl, we would go down to the dock to catch catfish in Lake Arlington, part of the Trinity River basin. “Look here, honey,” he would say when he reached into the bucket of live minnows, spears of quicksilver in mid-July. There was a hook, glinting. Then the sunlight shattered over his hand and one of the fish writhed in his fingers. I couldn’t watch him bait the hook, nor nail the catch to trees to gut them. The older I became, the less sensitive I was to the manifest brutality of the natural world. I realized, in a way that Papa Norman knew more acutely and intimately than he ever stated to me directly, that human beings are as subject to it as any living creature, especially in Texas. What seemed frightening nevertheless seemed fair in a place where the natural world and civilization are never too far apart.

This occurred to me most acutely when I learned to ride horses, no older than 6 years old, the age my eldest daughter is now. At the time, I was surprised to discover that my father, a man who appeared at home late in the evenings in a suit and tie and five o’clock shadow courtesy of his accounting job in Dallas, had once ridden horses with his grandparents in Hillsboro. If my dad—the pinnacle of Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex professionalism—had also been initiated into the ways of animals and the seasons and life and death, then the spirit of the place did infuse its furthest reaches.

My father taught me that a horse must take a saddle and bit and must be broken to ride. Your dear one will scrape you; your beautiful one will throw you; your sweetheart will startle at a gunshot and bolt for its life. In each case, the animal could kill you, all without much warning or ill intent. Horses are noble but nearly ungovernable. It isn’t by sentiment that they’re inducted into human designs, and sentimentality only obscures the relationship between the animal and its rider. It is possible to look at a creature in all its glory and majesty, innocent as it is pitiless, and say: You are too wild a thing for me to love.

I never intended to leave Texas. It happened slowly but steadily. I fell in love with an upperclassman two years ahead of me at our public high school in Arlington. He was my debate team captain, and he lived just down the street. When he accepted a full ride from the University of Oklahoma, both of us were too far-flung from New England to realize his grades and scores would easily have qualified him for the Ivies. All the better for us: He drove home from Norman on the weekends, or I rode the Heartland Flyer from Fort Worth to his stop, and we never put an end to our high school romance. In the bare room he rented in Oklahoma, we planned the future.

I would go to undergraduate school in Massachusetts—a serendipitous choice inspired by a woman I had met—and he would graduate and join me in the north as a rising law student. Then we would marry. When the time came, we stopped only at a Subway for lunch on the drive from Dallas to New Orleans for a courthouse wedding and dinner on Bourbon Street. After that, we followed work, and by the end of a seven-year whirlwind, we found ourselves in a basement apartment in Washington, D.C., with one paying roommate and dozens of rats.

More than any patch of suspicious mold or upturned corner of linoleum tile, the rodents represented the conclusion of so much careful planning. All our best efforts had led us here, and yet the fruit of a good deal of human ingenuity hadn’t accounted for rats. We had been nomadic for so long that I had never had to deal with vermin. They augur permanence, colonizing stores of unused food or swept-up garbage, all the debris of settled civilization. We searched for humane rattraps. My mother suggested we buy a cat.

That a cat was the obvious solution to the infestation occurred to her about as naturally as the cat took to his appointed purpose; she’s always been canny and matter-of-fact about that kind of thing. With speed and alacrity, Pepper dispatched the rats and put the fear of God into the scattered remainder. In so doing, he became a companion of ours, sketching out the shadow form of a nascent household far away from home.

My mother had also told me that as soon as we set up housekeeping, we’d get pregnant. This was another bit of wisdom evidently derived from the intersection of nature and culture. It never took her anything more than hanging her laundry too close to my dad’s on the line, she would tell me, always in grave good humor. She wanted things to be easier for me than they had been for her; that this is either desirable or achievable is the central mythology of parenthood. I didn’t listen to her, and I was visiting home in Arlington in September of 2015 when it caught up with me.

We had stopped by an old friend’s house in the Near Southside of Fort Worth for ceviche and Coca-Cola, and as I climbed uneasily into the boiling heat of my mother’s SUV afterward, complaining of aches that struck me as insignificant at the time, she fixed me with a sideways stare. Her stillness was frost in the mesquite-dappled shade, and it sent a chill racing through me. She said I was pregnant, and I argued with her reflexively. But she was right.

Jane, my full-blooded Texan daughter, was born in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2016. I think of her as Calamity Jane, arriving as though by invitation in that city at that time, when everything was set to implode. I had taken a job as an editor in The Washington Post’s now-defunct newsroom essay section, Outlook, after the magazine I’d been blogging for was unceremoniously put up for sale. I thought of the Post position as temporary, en route to professional magazine writing, though it didn’t obviously constitute a direct path to such a livelihood. I assured myself there would be a road between them if I kept making progress.

Slowly, my future began to manifest before I could conceive of it. Possibilities are ruled by circumstances, and each set of circumstances consists only of other possibilities realized. All the unrealized options, not chosen, wither on the vine. The choices I had made beget their own sets of decisions and excluded others. Jane grew, and my editing role indeed gave way to writing. I witnessed this in happy apprehension, glad of it all and hoping I was making the right decisions.

I wasn’t surprised when my parents sold the house I grew up in, though I briefly lost my breath one night when curiosity possessed me to look the place up on Google Maps. I discovered a still image of my brother halfway inside the front door, his car parked in the driveway. In time, the photo was replaced with another, and the ghost of my brother vanished.

My second daughter, Clare, was born in the summer of 2019, not long before I took a job based in New York City, spurring our move north. We bought our first house, huddled through our first winter, and settled into the rhythms of life. Everything now seemed to have unfolded so certainly, so naturally—from the point where it all began—that I overlooked the disappearance of the road back to Texas.

 

Now I call my mother in Maryland from my home four hours away in Connecticut to ask her questions about cooking or parenting.

Inevitably, she is assembling care packages for us, mostly from the bounty of her garden. Her father taught her to grow fruits and vegetables and to store them in sundry ways. She preserves lemons for escabeche, cans fresh salsa when her tomatoes are in, and dries lavender and basil in twine bundles strung up in her kitchen all season long. In the spring and summer, she collects stone fruit and berries and turns out 8-ounce Mason jars full of jams, preserves, and jellies, which glow like gemstones as they disappear one by one from my back porch pantry. What was survival for Papa Norman is second nature to her. But it is only merely familiar to me, and I regret it, as much as I appreciate never having needed to know it.

When mom visits our house, I implore her to tell me stories, write down recipes, remind me of fading memories. The world here is narrower, more provisional: Dense legions of black birch and white pines frame the horizon and mute the sun. There seems to have been, at some point, an agreement made in New England about the places humanity and industry would maul for use, and the places that would be left to the sugar maples and hemlock trees that have grown forever along these rocky hillsides. The opposing camps meet at their borders, with no uncertain ground between them. The ivy grows right up to the eaves, the granite cliff meets the road at a roughly chiseled right angle, and the parallel universes carry on side by side. The nights here are dark. In some places, hidden beneath boughs and behind ridges, the darkness gathers into an almost primordial shade that supplies some clarity as to how the Puritans, faced with their long-sought refuge, might’ve occasionally concluded that the devil walked among them.

What I remember about Texas is the night is brilliant there. Far from the cities the uninterrupted belts of stars glitter in the heavens like diamond chips on a disc of lapis, memorialized in song. Where people gather, they build monuments to light in their cities. In mine, on the wide-open plains, neither woods nor the hills interrupt their glow. In some sense, all of this was beautiful, magnificent; in another, I was always something of a fugitive from Texas’ equalizing light.

Can a person be turned by disposition against the daylight? And did I spend almost half of my life squinting against a sun so blisteringly white it pinched my pupils to pinpricks and spangled prisms in the sweat of my eyes? It must only have seemed that way, both because I was young and because I experienced the metaphor in a more material sense. Texas was always too extreme for me, somehow. The heat, the brightness, the wildness of the place—honestly and prominently presented—overwhelmed me in their charge. But it must have taught me what beauty is because I still search for it everywhere I look.

Papa Norman died at 61, having smoked a pack a day since he was roughly 12 years old. I loved him though I knew him little. More than two decades hence, my memories of him—his ash-smudged voice and oil-stained hands, his lonesome bluegrass music and wandering gait—have faded down to these impressions, which resonate in my thoughts when certain notes in my mother’s voice ring out. Norman’s mother, Vera, who was to me a little woman called Grandma Musick, survived three of her children. She lived in a neat, low-slung ranch house in Fort Worth, where my mother and I would go collect paper grocery sacks full of unshelled pecans she had gathered from her garden around the holidays. As elderly as she was by then, Vera would fill the bags to the brim and store them in her laundry room, where every surface was shopworn, efficient, bare. I wish I could take my daughters by the hand and lead them there, to show them they’re made from hard people built up from wondrous places and difficult times; that they’re stronger than I hope is ever tested; that there’s beauty in the beginnings of things and even in their ends.

From the December 2022 issue
The December 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine, "A Tex-Mex Holiday"


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The December 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine


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The December 2022 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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