From the age of seven until I was twelve years old I was shipped off to Maw Maw's farm in the heart of Cherokee County each August. I was sent there to pick corn. That was my summer vacation. The corn gathered by my cousins and myself was referred to as "livestock corn," that is to say, not fit for human consumption. I never figured out why this was, it looked like regular eating corn to me. In my youth I thought, rather foolishly, that it had something to do with all the ticks my cousins and I picked up in the cornfield. After Maw-Maw collected us kids in the creaky red pickup and drove us back to the farmhouse at the end of the day, we were literally covered in the tiny bloodsuckers. (When I complained about the ticks my grandmother would say with her slightly deranged laugh, "They have to eat, too.") Once home we were placed in the bathtub, usually two at a time, with tweezers and coffee cup full of rubbing alcohol, to spend thirty minutes or so picking ticks off each other. We never got them all. This didn't really bother my cousins, who enjoyed nothing more than a leisurely romp through the cow paddies and seemed to have a fellow feeling with all bugs. But I was a fastidious youngster (imagine David Hyde Pierce meets Tom Sawyer) and kept looking for ticks on my legs and arms until I fell asleep that night.
The Baumgartner's spread was smallish, as spreads in the Texas Bible Belt went in those days. Ninety acres and 42 head of cattle. There was a routine the cows followed every day. At dawn they roused themselves from the barn and its environs and headed out into the pasture toward the fish pond. It was a 3-4 hour walk, at bovine speed. When they reached the pond they'd shit and hit the salt lick and drink lots of pond water and lie in the mud and do other cow things. When afternoon came, as if by some invisible signal, they'd line up and make that long walk back across the pasture to the barn, skirting the corn field that was surrounded by a western style barbed wire fence. The livestock corn was for winter consumption, see. During spring and summer months the cows ate pasture grass and avoided the prickly pear cacti which was everywhere and punctured my tender ass sore bad. I don't know which is worse - prickly pear stickers or ticks. Occasionally, if the winter was severe, hay was bought and hauled into the barn for the cows. But hay is expensive and Maw-Maw's farm wasn't really a working farm anyway. It was her hobby - and my misery. She just wanted to run a farm and so she did until, gradually, the cattle and other livestock were sold off to make ends meet; then she started selling acreage, then, when she was very old, she moved into a little house inside the Tyler city limits.
My grandparents on mama's side of the family were known to us kids as Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw. Grandparents on my dad's side of the family were Me-Maw and Pe-Paw. Matriarchal great grandparents were called Me Maw Maw and Pe Paw Paw or Maw Maw Me and Paw Paw Pe. Patriarchal elders were by default known as Maw Me Maw and Paw Pe Paw and Me Me Maw and, unavoidably, Pe Pe Paw. This last moniker never failed to bring shrieks of laughter from my Tyler cousins who were connoisseurs of any and all bathroom humor. The word "poot" would leave them rolling on the ground, clutching at their sides and kicking their feet like circus clowns.
Maw-Maw loved her chickens. Chickens and church were her passions. These two things brought my grandmother profound pleasure: Singing hymns in her loud guttural voice at Mount Olive Baptist Church, and cosseting her dozens of hens. There was a rooster on the farm for propriety's sake, but she never really cared much for Screech, as she called him. Many a morning I heard her threaten to take the shotgun out to the shed and put an end to his evil ways. Perversely, he was the last creature to leave the farm. I suppose he died somewhere of old age. Maw-Maw did, however, adore her hens, and it tore at her heartstrings when one of them stopped laying eggs thus sealing its fate for a neck-wringing, plucking, and the cooking pot. Sometimes, with a chicken of which she was particularly fond, she'd have to ask Paw-Paw to perform the fowl execution. I refused point blank have a hand in it and she always accused my Tyler cousins of dragging out the act for too long. They were cruel youngsters.
My Paw Paw held an interesting job before he retired. He spent most of his days inside the caboose of a special train, transporting German POW's from Galveston deep into East Texas and an internment camp that was supposed to be secret but everybody in those parts seemed to know about it. He told us exciting stories about the prisoners that only as an adult I began to doubt the veracity of. Many decades after the end of the war, Paw-Paw retired and bought Maw Maw her farm and that's where they lived during my childhood and where he told me and my disreputable cousins those fabulous tales about German soldiers. He was a deacon at the Mount Olive Baptist Church. Very pious, everybody said.
Three years after my partner and I began our life together we made an unannounced Christmas visit to the farm. Dirt poor we were, and had to scrape pennies together for gasoline. We had started attending the University of Houston, though. I was winging it but Art's tuition was paid for by the federal government, a way of thanking him for serving in the armed forces for four years during the Vietnam War. Such a different world then.
It was a tense weekend for everyone concerned. Very few of the adults would engage Art in conversation. Paw Paw perused the family Bible and muttered under his breath and frowned at us the entire time. Older aunts tittered and scurried about, searching for things to do. My elderly uncles wheezed and smoked cigarettes and talked about football. My sister gave us a sweet smile, but my own mother looked mortified when she met Art and I outside, in the driveway.
"Why didn't you call and let us know you were coming?"
"I thought it would be a nice surprise."
"It's a surprise all right. Everybody's inside. They all know."
"They all know what?"
"What do you think? I mentioned it to your Aunt Judy and she must've said something to those terrors of hers."
"I didn't plan on hiding anything from anybody. This is who I am. They can take it or leave it."
As things turned out, the Baumgartners chose to leave it.
My Baptist family was unimpressed by Art's military service and slightly horrified that he had been raised as a Roman Catholic. As far as they were concerned he was nothing more than a hell-bound papist HOMOSEXUAL that had led their Maxie Lee astray. I was so proud of Art, though. He was so handsome and polite to my relatives, even as they studiously ignored him, even as certain of my cousins snickered behind their hands and lisped with abandon. Since neither Art nor I lisp I don't know why this particular taunt was used. Still, I confess that throughout their sheltered lives my cousins have consistantly clung to stereotypes, like cornfield ticks to the soft flesh under my arms.
At one point Maw Maw handed Art what must have been a ten-year-old box of chocolate covered cherries. This was supposed to be his Christmas present. It was sort of a family joke. Whoever got those cherries was out of favor that holiday season. (I was the recipient of the box for too many years to mention.) Thing is, no one ever actually took it home with them. But as we were leaving, I noticed that Art had that old box of stale candy clutched to his side as if it were a rare treasure.
I remember Christmas morning watching Art sitting cross-legged under the Christmas tree playing with toys that had just been opened, entertaining a circle of delighted toddlers. He was doing this because none of the grownups wanted to talk to him. At that point I made a pledge never to return to Maw-Maw's farm. To this day, I haven't been back. (Painting courtesy Peggy Conyers)