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When she went to South Texas as a County Home Demonstration Agent in 1940, Aletha Barrett was in culture shock. Raised in the gently rolling green farmland of Northeast Texas, Aletha was unprepared for the vast sandy expanses and different societies she found there. From unearthing baby rattlesnakes to exploring the unknown spiciness of Mexican food, every day was a learning experience. Ever an adventurer, Aletha ventured deep into Mexico when it was largely unknown to North Americans. Over the course of several trips she witnessed what might have been a murder in Mexico City, endured the then-perilous Pan-American Highway at the mercy of a drunken bus driver and stayed in Acapulco when it was a tiny village with just two hotels. In later years, after marrying and having a family, Aletha always said she was going to write a book about her life in South Texas, but somehow the right time never came. After Aletha's death, her daughter Janis Susan May, a writer and novelist, was going through her papers and found an outline, some notes and a rudimentary chapter or two. Janis Susan had been raised on her mother's stories and knew them by heart, so working from the notes she completed the book. It was, she says, the best testament she could envision to the memory of a remarkable woman.
|Publisher:||Swimming Kangaroo Books|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||172 KB|
Read an Excerpt
The weather was bitterly cold that early morning of December 31, 1940. People who don't believe that it gets cold in northeast Texas have never been there in deepest winter. Snugly wrapped in my heavy coat and driving my recently acquired, second-hand, heaterless car, I braved the cold and began my journey south.
To my relief the cold decreased as the miles accumulated. My coat was tossed into the back seat at Austin, where I spent the night. The next morning, many miles further along, my sweater joined the coat in the back seat. Fifty miles more and sweat started to roll down my face. Through the next few years I drove that road many times, sometimes all day, more often all night, but the temperature never again seemed to change so distinctly.
Finally I reached my long anticipated destination--the little town of Falfurrias, Brooks County, Texas. On arrival my first impression was of blowing sand. It puffed in gusts, swirled in circles and rose in curls on tiny whirlwinds almost as if it were a living organism. It also seemed to take a peculiar delight in stinging and sticking to my sweat-damp face. Even though this was just the beginning of January the packing sheds along the road were deep with great piles of golden oranges, all ready to be boxed and shipped. An assortment of buildings and sheds lined the entrance to the town where my office awaited and where I would hopefully find a nice place to live. Falfurrias was the only town in this county of ranches, citrus orchards and scattered farms.
The town boasted a single traffic light where the only two hard surface roads in the county crossed. One led to Kingsvilleand Corpus Christi in the east and to Laredo in the west. The other road, the one on which I had traveled from San Antonio, one hundred fifty miles north, led on southward to Edinburgh and Mexico.
Of course, the red light was against me. I stopped and looked around finally coming to stare in disbelief. Across the corner a large painted sign covered the side of a low brick building, proclaiming in large letters "The Land of Heart's Delight." It was an advertisement for a locally made butter, but I didn't think of that. My mind couldn't get past the last two words.
Heart's delight? I thought of the long miles of unrelievedly bleak ranchland leading to this dusty, unprepossessing little town. Nothing could have been more different from the lush green farmland and tidy village of Trenton in northeast Texas that had been home for all of my life. How could this place delight my heart? Doubts and questions began to creep in on my decision to move to this place. On the other hand, it didn't matter if I liked it or not. I had a job, and in those waning days of the Great Depression jobs were too precious to regard lightly.
The light turned to green, permitting me to go on. I set my mind to the first order of business ... finding the courthouse where my new office, my new life awaited.
The outgoing agent was very kind and welcoming. She showed me my office and outlined my duties; what's more, she had even arranged a room for me for the night. The next day she took me to the only three rooms available for rent in the town.
Nothing shows the difference between that time and now better than my daughter's attitude. She hoots with laughter at the thought that one's job could dictate where one lived, but that was a different era. Respectability--or at least its more obvious outward manifestations--was as much a requirement of the job as the work itself and, being as they were representatives of the United States Government, agents were allowed to live only in certain approved rooms. The idea of a single woman (and at that time all home economic agents were single women) living on her own in an unapproved situation was simply beyond credibility and most certainly unacceptable.
Whoever set the standards for approval of those three Falfurrias rooms I don't know, for none of them were what I would call acceptable.
The first place raised my doubts. In a private home, the room had no outside entrance. To get in it was necessary to go through the landlady's and her husband's bedroom. I don't know who would even consider renting such a place, or how that couple thought anyone would. I didn't stay there long enough to find out where the bathroom was.
The second available room was in a small, old hotel. The room was nice, and I would not have minded living there, but even though the place was quite old and extremely small the cost was far beyond what my parsimonious salary could carry. I turned my back on it regretfully.
The third room was fine. Large and airy, it opened off the living room in a very nice private home. I wondered why such a pleasant room was vacant when rentals were in short supply, but took it immediately anyway.
I soon found out. There were two reasons, and both quickly became apparent. As soon as I would leave my room the husband would appear, all too ready to take every opportunity to put his hands where they shouldn't be. Evading him instantly became a way of life. Nor was the wife any better; eagle-eyed and viper-tongued, she was constantly finding fault with the most innocent situation, accusing every female of being little more than a gleefully fallen woman. Curiously enough, though, she never credited her husband with any but the most moral and upright behavior.
Before long the situation became so unbearable that some of my clubwomen went to bat for me. They went out and, defying the dictum that an agent couldn't live by herself, found me a house to rent. Explanations were given, arguments were made and--reluctantly--my superior finally gave her permission for me to live alone.
I was just happy to have a nice situation in which to live; I didn't mean to be the vanguard of a revolution, although I eventually was. As word of my liberation spread throughout the system, other agents said (quite rightly) that if Aletha Barrett could live by herself they could too. Before long the 'approved room only' rule was, if not dropped altogether, at least generally disregarded.
My daughter--distinctly a child of the modern age--still regards the whole matter as both unbelievably old-fashioned and eminently laughable. At the time it was neither.
The house the ladies found was a tiny structure with four minuscule rooms. I was told it had been built by a Latino (in those days we just said Mexican, no matter their citizenship) woman as her retirement home; in all the years I rented from her I never saw her, but the next-door neighbor was her agent. For the privilege of living alone I paid rent of $12.50 per month out of my $150.00 (+ $25.00 car allowance) monthly salary.
I am not exaggerating by calling the house tiny. I could stretch out my arms and touch the side walls in both the oblong kitchen and bath. The front two rooms were each about ten by twelve feet. Each had large, French-type windows that comprised most of the outer walls and which, for some peculiar reason, opened inward, reducing the available space even more. The west room, my living room, had a door opening onto a small, covered porch.
The bathroom contained a tub, commode and, covering one wall, a small old wardrobe that served as the only closet in the house. The kitchen had a small, makeshift sink, a tiny gas stove and a door to the outside.
Even though I was considered an older woman, being close to thirty, that small house was the first place I had ever lived in alone. It was an experience in more ways than I can count.
From the very first the color of the interior paint was unbearable. In spite of the trouble and upheaval obtaining the house had caused, I decided that either the color scheme had to go or I would. The woodwork was a hard, bright green. The walls had been painted a brittle purple. Through her agent, the owner refused to repaint (apparently she had chosen the hideous combination for herself) but she offered no objections to my having it done. That didn't seem to be a solution, as my salary did not stretch to hiring a painter.
Around this time one of my sisters came down for a long visit, as much to see this wild and alien land about which I had written as to check on my well-being. While she was there we decided to do the job ourselves, starting with the smaller chore of painting the woodwork. To my utter astonishment, once the woodwork was turned into a soft off-white there was an amazing transformation. The walls no longer looked dark purple, but softened into a sort of muted lavender. Even though I have never been fond of any kind of purple, the old color and the new white woodwork made a pleasing and completely bearable combination, so it was left that way for as long as I lived there.
As much as I enjoyed living in my tiny house, having it necessitated buying furniture, an expense I had not counted on. Shopping strictly on the budget installment plan, I went to Corpus Christi, where I bought a refrigerator. For the living room there were two chairs, a small drop-leaf table that took very little space when closed and a sofa that opened out into a bed for when I had company. A bed, dresser and small chest completely filled the bedroom, leaving only inches in which to move around. For the moment curtains were out of the economic question; sheets draped over the windows served in their stead. My mother sent me some extra knives, forks and spoons from home; with a few dishes and pans and empty mayonnaise jars for cups and glasses my kitchen was furnished.
The second year the local home ec teacher and I decided to share the house and housekeeping expenses. She was having difficulty finding a place to live, and I welcomed the financial help. I enjoyed her friendship and her company, but the house was simply too small for two. When we moved around we often bumped into each other; when we were in a hurry it became almost dangerous as well as comical. Our joke was that we had about as much room as was in our two cars parked outside. After a few months she simply gave up and moved as soon as a suitable room became available.
That funny little house served its purpose, but it must be admitted that even when I lived there alone I felt squeezed after growing up in a big old two-story house with five bedrooms. Neither did it ever really feel like home, even though I lived there almost four years. Always, after being away a few days, whenever I returned to that house I had the sense of going into a strange place, one that was foreign to me and where I did not belong. Later I was asked why, and I never had a good answer. Some places just never feel right. There's no concrete explanation, no reason that fits into words ... that house just was never my home. Until the day I moved away for good I never quite lost the feeling of "What am I doing here?"
Decades later, while on a trip south with my daughter and sister-in-law, I looked for that little house only to find it had been destroyed many years before. While I treasure the memories of my time there and the lovely friends I made, I don't miss that funny, tiny, eternally alien little house one bit!
Only those who have been through the grief of being unemployed during the horrors of a Great Depression can really appreciate how wonderful it was to have a job--any job--at last. I had been luckier than most; though for almost ten years I could not get a job for one reason or another, I had my wonderful family. I stayed at home with my parents and youngest sister and the various assorted relatives who lived with us. It was not a life of leisure--quite the opposite instead. I helped my father and worked on the farm, helped my mother with the garden and the canning and the housework, helped our large tribe of relatives with whatever needed to be done. Whatever else my family knew we knew how to work!
Finally in 1938, things had loosened up enough that it was feasible for me to go back to school and get a degree. It had been almost ten years since the Depression had cut my college career short. As a much older student who was having to work to pay her living expenses, I was frightened and apprehensive. With reason. Getting through college was not easy with working and studying and constantly worrying about money and if I could ever get a job, but in August of 1940, I at last graduated from East Texas State College with a degree in Home Economics.
But I had no job. As we drove through the night home from Commerce after the graduation ceremony I wondered if all the time and work and sacrifice had been worth it. I had a degree, but no chance of a job. Economic pundits said the Great Depression was over, but where we lived it was hard to tell; money was still tight and jobs almost nonexistent. I was deeply tired, over-excited and more than a little depressed.
Suddenly, as if lit by a thousand candle flames, the midnight sky turned a beautiful glowing red. None of us had ever seen anything like it. My father stopped the car and we all just stared. Could it be the Aurora Borealis? In North Texas? We never knew. We never found anyone else who saw that wee-hour display, but my family and I know that on the night I graduated the sky turned a glorious red in celebration, and it shone down on us all the way home.
At first it seemed as though the brilliant omen was a dud. Armed with my new degree I applied for every possible job, and was regularly turned down, just as I had been turned down before I got my degree. Then, in the late fall, the Agricultural Extension Service advertised that County Home Demonstration Agent positions were open. I got an appointment to see their representatives in Sherman, which at twenty miles away was the closest they would come to my home.
There is sometimes a demon of mischance who delights in kicking you when you are down. The day of my interview our family car died and refused to move. There was no way I could get to Sherman. By then I was so accustomed to not getting jobs I was too numb even to be grief-stricken.
Luckily I had a friend who heard of my misfortune. The wife of the local banker, she was a strong-minded woman accustomed to arranging things to her own will. We remained friends until her death a few years ago, and I miss her still.
When she learned that I had missed my chance for an interview, she refused to accept it. Instead she placed a few long-distance phone calls--rarities then--to find out where the interviewers would be next and to make me an appointment. Then she called me to inform me of what she had done and that we were going to Dallas the very next day. Even though Dallas was almost seventy miles away, over three times what Sherman had been, she didn't blink at the distance; she even drove me there herself and waited through the interview to drive me home again.
A few days later they told me I had the job.
I was so proud of getting the job, and so very, very grateful to have it, that no matter how difficult things got the idea of leaving it never crossed my mind--at least, not for long and never seriously, though at times it was tempting. No matter how tempting it was, however, the memory of that ghastly decade of joblessness was always there to make me swallow my pride and my temper and keep working.
Not that it was always easy. The incident which most often comes to mind was when a very wealthy Anglo rancher came to the office and arranged for me to give a meat canning demonstration for a group of women on his ranch. Canning and cooking demonstrations were only a part of my job; as a County Home Demonstration Agent I had to be able to do and to teach everything about running a home, from laundry helps to reupholstering furniture.
I told the rancher, as I told everyone requesting any kind of demonstration, exactly what was required and what their responsibilities were.
This time everything was ready when I arrived. The steer had been butchered and chilled out and the meat was neatly laid out on the table. After months of working with poor families who were trying to better their hand-to-mouth existence I was amazed at the sheer amount of meat. On the other hand, everyone knew this man was one of the wealthiest in this part of the country, so I assumed he had put out so much meat so the women could learn the best way to treat each piece.
Except there were no women. The fire was hot, the jars ready, the requested equipment, and more, set in tidy order ... but no women. There were, however, two Mexican ranch hands, whom I had thought were there to help handle the larger pieces of meat. When I asked one hand when the women would be there, he replied that the boss had said I should just go ahead, as they were expected any minute. In the meantime, he asked, could he and his friend watch? Of course I agreed.
Believing people has always been a failing of mine. I started. Agents were specifically enjoined from doing any demonstrations for individuals, but as the women were expected any minute I continued. It took a while of working alone for me to realize that the women would not be coming, that no women had ever been expected, that there might not even be any women on the ranch!
When at last even I realized I had been deliberately misled not only into doing a private demonstration but into doing the work as well, I started to leave. I was furious. To add insult to injury, neither the rancher nor his wife had even bothered to come and greet me or offer me the traditional cup of coffee.
"Please, miss," the first hand asked earnestly, "could you not teach us so we can show our wives?"
I wanted to stalk out to my car and leave, but even if it weren't part of my job to teach I couldn't have gone away and left two men so eager to learn. Besides, my native thrift wouldn't let me go away and leave all that good meat to spoil! It was a good decision, for never have I had more willing workers or more dedicated pupils. We went over every step in the meat canning process carefully, so they could be sure of telling their wives the correct method ... as well as finish up the rest of the meat!
When the processing time on the first batch was completed and the pressure cooker removed from the fire, I said, "You will really have some good meat to eat this winter."
"Oh, no, miss!" they exclaimed. With a frankly longing look at the bounty that still spread gorily across the worktable one of the hands explained, "This meat isn't for us. It's to feed the boss' dogs."
I didn't dare speak to the rancher or his wife, even if I could have found them. It took me most of the long drive back to town to cool down enough to be able to form a coherent sentence. The government was paying me to teach the poor people of this county how to better their lives and improve their health; instead my office and I had been lied to and fooled. It not only degraded me, it degraded my office and my employer--the United States Government!--too.
My anger must not have cooled as quickly as I had thought, for when my superior read the account of that day in the required monthly report she grinned. Most of my daily reports were nowhere near so emotional. Instead of being angry with me for staying--which I had halfway feared--she simply told me not to worry. According to her, at one time or another almost every agent met such a dishonorable type who abused the help offered by the department. It was, she said, a hazard of the job. It made me feel better about my job, but it did nothing for my still-smarting pride or my sense of honor. For the rest of the time I worked in Brooks County it was all I could do to be barely civil to that rancher and his wife!
Working with most of the groups, however, was without such obvious stress or strife, even though their ways of doing things were often very different from mine. Sometimes I learned as much or more than I taught and in more fields than just home arts! My upbringing had been among restrained, if not somewhat puritanical people. It took me a while to adjust to the honest earthiness of the Latino culture.
One day me a group of Mexican ladies wanted a demonstration on yeast breads. The group was of fair size, the kitchen was small and the work was done on a tiny table in the center of the room. In an effort to see all that was being done the women pressed close around me and the table. The effect was distressingly warm and claustrophobic, but I persevered and tried not to ask them to move back. Since I was more than a head taller than most of them I have been used to looking over things all my life; sometimes I had to make myself remember that most people have to strain to see when in a group.
My hands were wrist deep in flour as I showed how to mix the dough when suddenly a gentle hand was laid on my shoulder. Two more followed it, then all three slid down my back to my narrow waist and over my unfortunately ample hips.
Startled, I jerked backwards, bumping into several of the clustering ladies and almost knocking them over. My flour-covered hands flew up, spraying the entire room--including me and the ladies--with a thick coating of dusty white. The impact created a bizarre chain reaction as one woman overbalanced and careened into another until the whole group of respectable Mexican ladies was wobbling and staggering like a clutch of children's toys.
Very conscious of their dignity, the ladies quickly righted themselves, then burst into unrestrained laughter at the sight of their flour-covered friends. When each realized she looked the same or worse, they all just laughed the harder, myself included. Other than shaking the worst of the flour off, cleaning up at that point was ridiculous so we continued the demonstration looking as if we had been caught in a passing snowstorm.
But not until I had asked, "Who was touching me? And why?"
A knowing smile went around the group, and one of the ladies behind me giggled. "Oh, miss, we had all been talking about how pretty you are made..."
I laughed. What else could I do?
Right after I went to work for the Extension Service the government put into effect a program to use stored surplus cotton to furnish needy families with mattresses. All the agents were informed that they would be required to organize, oversee, teach and help in any way necessary to manage a mattress-making center ... and all in addition to the rest of their duties! First of all, the agents had to learn how to make a mattress themselves before they could teach the center supervisors.
For once in my life I was lucky. This unusual assignment was easy for me because I had experience. I already knew how to make mattresses! Back in the darkest days of the Great Depression with no hope of a better economic future in sight, my mother lamented the lack of money to buy needed new mattresses for the family. With all the kinfolk who came to visit and simply stayed, new mattresses rapidly went from a wish to a necessity.
Ever practical and able, Mother reached a decision. All four of us daughters were at home then, so she gathered us together and announced that in a land of cotton farms it was ridiculous not to have good bedding. We needed mattresses, we had no money to buy them, so we would make them ourselves.
When my diminutive but decisive mother spoke like that, no one questioned her. We just started to learn how to make mattresses. Our great-great-great-grandparents had been pioneers when our part of Texas had been a wilderness corner of Mexico with no law, no government and no neighbors, Mother reminded us; they had to do everything for themselves, so we could too.
It wasn't easy. Mother somehow got us all into the nearest mattress factory where, by careful observation and judicious questions, we learned the basics. Then she bought the extra-long needles and heavy thread that were necessary. If we weren't convinced before that Mother was serious, we were then. Unless it was for an absolute necessity, Mother never spent anything from our tiny hoard of precious cash!
A shed behind the house was cleaned out and turned into a mattress workshop. My father, a carpenter as well as a farmer, turned some scrap wood into a worktable that was slightly bigger than a double bed. Mother bought yards and yards of blue and white striped ticking material that we cut into six mattress covers. Father went to the local gin and had cotton processed into a bale that was not pressed, so it lay in soft, fluffy, cloud-like layers. We were in the mattress-making business, and make mattresses we did! We must have done a good job, for some of them were still in use after more than fifty years.
While working in that drafty shed behind the house at home in Trenton I never dreamed I would be working in a semi-desert area that was so alien to everything I had ever known--and still making mattresses, but that's how it worked out. There were three mattress centers arranged in my county. The county judge doled out $50.00 for the first stock of thread and needles. One branch of the government furnished the ticking material for the covers. The cotton came from another governmental agency. Each qualifying recipient paid a small fee to the center to cover the cost of the thread and to pay the supervisor.
At two of the centers all the participants were Mexican, and they brought along both their laughing good humor and their children. Each day of work turned into a noisy party as husbands, wives, older children and assorted relatives and friends worked around several enormous tables. Some made the ticks. Others laid on tiers of cotton, then covered the layers of filling and beat the resultant pile with long switches to bond the fibers. The process was repeated again and again until the proper thickness was achieved. Finally the top was sewed down securely and the long needles used to sew a stabilizing roll around the edge. It was a lot of hard work, but it also gave a lot of satisfaction--and some very good mattresses!
My three centers operated for about thirty-three months. Once I had finally gotten them operating properly, it was my duty to check every center every day--in addition to the rest of my work. It took some doing, but I made it to each one almost every single day, probably missing no more than a dozen or so checks all in all. By the time the centers closed I was heartily sick of the sight of mattresses in any stage of manufacture!
When the centers finally closed for the last time, the supervisors turned over to me all the records and money. Ever a tidy person, I had wondered how everything would balance out; I never did get rid of the apprehension that I would be held accountable for any discrepancy.
Thankfully, by the time everything was balanced out and the last bill paid, we had $50.00 left--exactly the same amount with which we had started out. Feeling somewhat depressed that I had not bettered the financial investment, I glumly took the money back to the courthouse where I handed it over to the judge with a complete report. Then I waited somewhat apprehensively for his reaction.
The judge was a powerful man--sedate, set in his ways and more than a little intimidating to people even older and more sophisticated than I. To hear him break out into unrestrained laughter was a shock.
"This," he said, waving the $50.00 like a flag, "is the first time I have ever known the county to get back any money at all on a project!"
Looking back it seems amazing how insular we were in the days of my growing up. In our area everyone we knew was all pretty much the same, despite the fact the Baptists and the Presbyterians enjoyed a long-standing rivalry. Even the blacks who lived on the outskirts of town were more like us than not.
The itinerant field hands who followed the harvests, hired by the day to pick seasonal crops like cotton, were about as exotic a culture as we ever saw. Instead of working as long as work was available and saving the incoming money against a time when there wouldn't be any (as we had always been taught civilized people did), they shocked my younger sisters and me by working only long enough to get the price of a bottle of whiskey or two and staying drunk until they were broke. Then they would work again. It was a haphazard system that drove the farmers, who were battling both uncertain markets and the even more uncertain weather, absolutely crazy. It also ruined a few farmers when the markets or the weather turned against them. What we regarded as such an irresponsible attitude on the part of those who should have been grateful for the chance to work went against everything our community believed in. I realize that such attitudes and actions are regarded much differently today, but in that time and that place, they were about as exotic and different as things got.
My mother was a very learned and intellectual woman. She used to read to us of ancient Greece and Rome, of the varied histories of Medieval Europe and Constantinople (my personal favorite) and the Middle East. I sort of believed, though, that somehow things that were in books weren't really real, not the day-to-day way things in our lives were real. Life as we lived it was the real life and the way most people lived.
Then I went to South Texas. It may have been in the same state, but it was so different it might have been in a completely different country. Or even another world.
My work was with two distinctly different cultures, Anglo and Mexican (now called Mexican-American.) Between the two were so many differences and still a few similarities. Many of the families, the Latino community would say, had been there when the land belonged to Mexico. Some seemed slightly resentful when I said that my people had been too, for my great-great-great-grandparents had come to farm (on land we still own) in North Texas when it was part of Mexico and the whole country still belonged to Spain, long before the Republic formed.
Many of the Mexicans in my county were third or fourth generation residents, but had never learned to speak English. Many had never gone the short distance to the Rio Grande River nor crossed over into Mexico. Some had never been more than one county away from their home. While working with these people it soon became obvious that my high school and college Spanish would not be adequate. I began to study the language again and when needed, a translator was provided. It never occurred to any of us to ask why these multi-generational American citizens and residents didn't learn to speak English.
Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that they thought themselves Americans. They may have lived here, but their customs and superstitions were totally alien and often caused me no end of misunderstanding.
For example: Sometimes women brought small children with them to the meetings. The little brown-eyed Mexican children are very beautiful; more often than not they look like dolls. Now and then I would say to the mother, "What a beautiful child" or something like that. Always after that, no matter how inappropriate or inconvenient such an action was, the mother got the child, brought it to me and deliberately laid its hand on me. It was so obviously and pointedly done--not to mention often interrupting a demonstration or a meeting--that I stopped making such comments. That was unsatisfactory, because I loved children, and the little Mexican children were incredibly appealing.
Finally one kind woman took pity on what they regarded as a barbaric and ignorant Anglo and explained that if anyone complimented a child without touching it they were actually making a curse against it. Had that not, she then asked with a pitying kindness, yet been discovered where I came from? After that I was very careful not to offend with a compliment again.
Another Latino custom foreign to me was that while little girls always wore dresses and were generally muffled from neck to ankle no matter how hot the weather, little boys were another thing. They wore only little shirts and nothing else. After seeing hordes of little boys wearing nothing from the waist down with their tiny private parts open for all to see I could resist no longer and asked one of my women why. She seemed startled that I didn't know it was the one sure way to ensure their masculine potency and guarantee that they would someday father many fine children. She seemed even more startled that my people had no such practice. "If you cover up your little boys," she wondered with genuine concern, "how do your men get children once they are grown?"
I didn't feel qualified to answer her. While the practice of exposing the boys was generally confined to the under-three set, it was not at all unusual to see boys close to school age running around in nothing more than a shirt and a smile.
The difference in attitude between male and female didn't stop in childhood. One charming Mexican girl I especially liked was a teacher. About my age, she had attended the University of Texas (in Austin--there was only one of them then) and was now living at home with her parents while she taught school a few miles away. We saw each other regularly when I held a 4-H meeting at her school; when the meeting was over and the children gone, we usually enjoyed a short chat before leaving.
One day she was obviously excited and pointedly rushed the children on their way. She could barely wait to tell me about the adventure she had had the night before. I poured us the last of the meeting's leftover punch and settled down, so bound up in my own boring life that I was all too ready to hear a tale of incredible romance and derring-do.
Her eyes sparkled as she took her cup of punch. The night before, she said, her parents had been away for the evening. Inspired by a demon of mischief, she and a girl cousin had slipped her parents' car out of the garage and driven to town alone--a distance of about twenty-five miles. Terrified that they would be seen, they hadn't even stopped for a Coke before turning around and going home. She was almost as relieved that they had not been caught as she was exhilarated about the adventure.
I must have disappointed her by my lack of enthusiasm for her daring. At the time I was not only driving further than that by myself every day in the course of my job, I drove all night long, often alone, all the way across Texas many times--every time I went home, in fact.
With her people the idea of a young unmarried woman going out unchaperoned was beyond the pale; how she had been able to go to the university, I cannot even guess. In my culture a young woman went alone wherever it was reasonable, or needed, without question, for young people were taught and expected to behave on their own. It never occurred to us that anyone male or female would have to be guarded to see how they behaved--there were simply things that one did and things that one did not do, no matter who was there. In my friend's culture, it was a dangerous risk for an adult single woman--although a university graduate and a schoolteacher--to leave her home and drive a few miles after dark without permission or a chaperone.
Another source of cultural frustration was my unseen landlady. When I was away from home on vacation during my second year in that tiny house, she built an even tinier one-room house about twenty-five feet behind mine. It was a place for her to stay now and then, since, her agent said, her own home was occupied. He managed to imply that as I was occupying her home she had been put to the bother of building another. The fact that I was paying quite well for the questionable privilege never seemed to occur to either of them.
Neither did it seem to occur to them that it was in the least bit improper for her to build a house on a lot for which I was paying rent. I was furious; her agent merely shrugged, his expression saying all too well what he thought about crazy Anglo old maids. I didn't dare make too much of a fuss, however; as much as I would have enjoyed stalking out of his office in outraged righteousness, there was still no place else in town to live.
I did come close to it, though. Some months later I had been away for several days on a work project. Normally no one in the neighborhood noticed when I came or went, but this time they had been watching for me. No sooner had I pulled into the driveway than they began to gather, their eyes bright with anticipation.
It took a while to figure out what was wrong and even longer to sort out what had happened. While I had been gone the owner had come to stay in her new house. Before leaving she thought she would keep her commode clean by tying the ball of the tank up out of the water. Such a maneuver might indeed have kept the bowl clean, but it also meant that the water ran all the time, and it ran faster than the capacity of the drains to carry it away.
The water had accumulated, filling the tiny room and swelling the wood until the walls bulged. When the water level reached the windows it managed to break a pane of glass and gushed out. The neighbors were more than slightly agog. The landlady was gone to wherever she went when she was not in Falfurrias, but her agent was there and, after much discussion, it was decided that he should break in. That was how we discovered what had caused the flood. The absent landlady was duly notified and workmen were dispatched to make repairs.
Then, several weeks later, I received my water bill. Not only had she built another structure on land that I was renting, she had tapped into the water lines for my house, which meant that all the water that went into the new house was put on my bill!
During all the time since the flood the landlady had never intimated that the water disaster would be charged to me nor had she made any mention of recompense, apparently assuming that since the bill came in my name I should be happy to pay it. Her agent even seemed a little curious that I should be outraged at such treatment, but when I threatened a lawsuit (a rare occurrence at that time) he grudgingly repaid me and made arrangements for compensation of excess utility usage when the lady should be in residence.
To my amazement and disgust apparently they both thought that it was all right for them to do anything they wanted any way they could to anyone they pleased, acknowledging that something was wrong only if they got caught. It was a very different attitude from the one I had grown up with, yet it was now one I often met among some people in this strange and alien land.
Sometimes the two cultures banged together not only ideologically but most uncomfortably. I had not been on the job long when I was having a cup of coffee with one of my new friends--a lovely Mexican girl barely out of her teens. It was growing late in the afternoon when she suddenly looked at the time, jumped up and said she had to run. It was, she said, her evening to sleep with the priest, and she had to hurry to get ready.
My horrified reaction stopped her in her tracks. She listened politely to my appalled sputterings about premarital chastity and the theory of priestly celibacy, but said nothing. That was also the end of our budding friendship; from then on she was consistently pleasant, but there was always a barrier between us.
My daughter, steeped in the modern cult of psychology, says that perhaps the girl was indulging in a bit of religious-induced fantasy. I don't know. If it had just been the one I might agree with her, but there were others, including a somewhat older girl of whom it was said bragged of her 'service to the church.'
All the rest of the time I was in the county I would hear snatches of rumor and bits of conversations about 'the priest's companions,' conversations that would stop instantly the moment I appeared. I never had any real proof, but there was too much else that was odd and indicative for me to dismiss the matter entirely. I hope I was wrong, but I still just don't know.
After World War II began everyone was trying to 'do their bit on the home front.' Part of my job was to help increase food supplies by teaching the women the best canning and preserving methods for homegrown food. After I had been struggling along against cultural differences and a scarcity of adequate equipment for several months a county official suddenly remembered that in previous years the county had bought a number of pressure cookers for a now forgotten project that had failed. He couldn't remember exactly where they were, or even if they still existed, but I was more than welcome to look if I liked.
If I liked? In those days pressure cookers were almost worth their weight in gold. I began to search and, one hot, dusty, miserable afternoon three days later a custodian and I found them on a rickety balcony in an equally rickety county warehouse. They had been buried under several years' worth of discarded equipment, accumulated junk and the inevitable sand. After all that digging, searching and sweating in that monument to dust and rust it was a moot question as to what needed cleaning most--the cookers or me.
When both the pans and I had been scrubbed up, a grisly process best not described, and the pressure gauges dismantled and tested, I found that almost all the cookers would be usable if given new rubber gaskets. As a reward for finding and resurrecting the cookers, I was given custody of them. It was, as I discovered, no favor.
The cookers were kept in a cupboard in my office for the people of the county to use. I had envisioned a system sort of like a lending library--someone would check out a cooker, use it, then return it to me so someone else could check it out. It was a good idea, but it didn't work at all.
More often than not instead of returning the cooker the borrower would turn it over to someone else who would loan it to someone else and so on, which meant that I now had the added job of driving all over the county tracking down fugitive pressure cookers. It did not improve my attitude when my superiors could not understand the amount of time listed as 'Equipment Retrieval' on my monthly report.
"Why didn't you bring the cooker back as you agreed?" I would ask an unrepentant borrower.
"I meant to get around to it," some would reply. By then some had been meaning to "get around to it" for three or four months. Those were usually the easy ones.
When I asked the same question of others I learned to dread being told that the cooker had been loaned to her friend Maria or her Tia Juana or someone else who generally lived on the other side of the county ... or the next county over.
"But you promised to bring it back," I would cry in frustration. "Why didn't you?"
They looked bewildered. "You would not loan a cooker to my friend Maria?"
"Of course I would! The cookers are for everyone in the county."
They would smile triumphantly. "Then what is the problem?"
I don't think I ever made any of them understand.
Culture frustration became a regular part of my life. I even learned to live with it--most of the time. When the pressure cookers were first available it was necessary to teach the women how to use them properly and safely. To do this I asked women to organize in groups and then I would teach the group through a demonstration. To insure that every one knew how to use them no one could check out a pressure cooker until they had been to a demonstration. Corn was a big crop that year, so we canned a lot of corn. As always, the instructions were that the preliminary work was to be done before I got there--the corn gathered and shucked, the table set up, adequate wood for the fire ready, etc.
A demonstration had been requested for a group that met at one remote farm. I had to get up even earlier than usual in order to get there at the appointed hour of nine a.m. I arrived at the little unpainted house on time, only to be startled to hear loud laughter and even louder music. To my knowledge the prospect of learning to can corn had never before provoked such a party atmosphere. Inside the house everyone was dancing. I was swept in on a wave of greetings, offered drinks and asked to dance by adults and children alike.
Dancing at nine in the morning was not part of my job description. "Could we go to the kitchen and begin work?" I asked.
"Sure," was the general response, "but there is nothing to do."
"Oh." Dismissively. "We have not gathered it yet."
"But you were supposed to have the corn ready."
The lady of the house shrugged her massive shoulders. "I know," she said with a smile, "but we wanted to dance."
At that moment I wondered what I was doing there, trying to teach people who were apparently so disinterested in learning. The men were summarily dispatched to gather corn, and the women set out the pans and knives ready for use on the table. Then the dancing began again. It took a bit of pressure from me to make it stop when the men finally returned with one basket of corn. Finally, over an hour late, things got underway. The men started shucking the ears while the women began slicing the grains from the cobs.
"Be sure your fire is hot while we do this, and some men need to go for another basketful," I instructed.
I might as well have been conjugating Greek verbs for all the attention they paid me. When I told a specific man to go gather more corn, he would go out and bring in a handful of ears. When I told him that we needed a basketful he would point out that he had just brought in some, and why did we need more when we already had some? No amount of either quiet logic or frustrated shouting reached them.
Finally we got enough corn prepared and put into the cans, though to do so I had to confiscate the musical instruments to keep the workers from sneaking away to dance in the living room. When I asked why they had even asked me here to demonstrate, they replied that they wanted to learn how to use the magical cookers. When I asked why they were dancing instead, they asked why I didn't like dancing. In their mind there was no conflict.
"But the stove is cold now!" I lamented when the cooker was full. "You were to have the fire hot to get the steam up."
There were more shrugs. "But there's no wood."
We waited again while some of the men chopped a little more wood. The others grumbled because they couldn't dance while they waited, but I had custody of the instruments and I stood firm. Already we were hours behind schedule.
The men came in with an armload of wood; an armload, no more. No amount of explaining, insisting or arguing would get them to cut more wood until it was needed, which meant until the last stick had been used and the fire died away to nothing. The pressure would go down, I would scream, the men would go out to chop another armload and everyone else would complain that they couldn't dance while they waited.
All things come to an end, and no one was more happy than I when that blasted pressure cooker demonstration was finally over. A task that should have been completed before noon had taken most of the day. It was late afternoon before I finally released the musical instruments and fled back to the world of sanity. As I drove away I could hear the sound of music and the thud of dancing feet.