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On Mother’s Day: Remembering Nonnie

On Mother’s Day, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, too, because she was also my mother. She was, and this remains true for many kids today, my second mother. She lived with us and was my back-up mom – my safety net of sanity when life got crazy. She was a grand-mother.

Her name was Nonnie, which my mom told me was short of Eunice. Nonnie was my nanny until I reached first grade. To the extent that I have any talent as a writer I attribute to her. She taught me to read and write early. She was a role model as a disciplined writer. When she was 70 she bought a Smith Corona electric typewriter – a beautiful shiny blue work of art with chrome trim. To me, it seemed like a sports car for writing. In six years she wrote four novels at the kitchen table during my nap time. The tap, tap, tap sound of the keys was my lullaby most afternoons.

She wrote under the name Sylvester Wimberley. Sylvester because she guessed a man was more likely to get published than a woman. Wimberley because she so loved that Hill Country town.

I wish I could tell you that Simon & Schuster discovered her and she had a couple of best-sellers, but that was not the case. When she died at age 82, in 1969, we found the four novels – and journals and diaries – in her chest of drawers, neatly stacked in manila envelopes beneath the many tablecloths she had crocheted over the years.

They were all moved up to the attic with many of her memories where they were out of sight, but not fully out of mind. When I was in graduate school ten years later, I went up there and found her manuscripts in an old suitcase behind Christmas decorations. The pages were yellowed and brittle, but still quite readable. Over the next few days I read them all. I had hoped to find an Atwood in the attic, but, truth is, Nonnie was more of a diarist than a novelist; more Aurelius than Atwood. She was, perhaps, like her grandson: good in short bursts, but not as skilled sustaining the long narrative.

One journal entry especially moved me; it focuses entirely on her lifelong relationship with her hair:

From my earliest memories my hair has been a subject of conversation. My father was the first to make me conscious of it. He thought it was beautiful. It was long and straight and heavy with a gold cast to it. My father would not let it be cut. Even as the younger girls were getting theirs cut, my father would not let me cut mine because he liked the length of the braid.

My grandmother was on her deathbed and mother had to take time about with her sisters caring for her. So my father took care of us and he had his say about how I should wear my hair. When I went to school the boys would make fun of it saying it was the color of molasses candy that had been pulled. I am not sure the golden tint was still in it then. The boys delighted in sticking the ends of the braids into their ink wells which earned them my angry retaliation.

When I was twelve I went outside with my grandfather McGee one summer’s day. I went out on the front porch with him just after sunup. He turned to talk to me and he stopped and said, “Eunice, I didn’t know that your hair was such a pretty red.” I laughed and said that it was just the sun shining through it and lighting it up like that. I never forgot that moment. I had had so few compliments in my life and I was to remember that one always. My grandfather would sometimes pass behind me at the supper table and run his rough hand over my hair. He didn’t say anything, but I found it as comforting as a compliment.

Many years later, after I had married, I still kept my hair long and braided. It had become strawberry blonde. I wore it as a braid wrapped around my head. I took the pins [out] of my hair and wrapped the braid around my neck. It was as wide as a collar. Once I was wearing it that way when I went to call on Betty Graham and she asked me where I got a collar that so closely matched my hair. I told her it WAS my hair. She had to take it down to see the length of it and was surprised by its weight, too. I suppose that was the longest, and heaviest, it ever was.

Once when my niece Guy Ann was five years old and she and I were standing out in front of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio waiting for my husband Fred, a strange woman came up to me and said, “Lady, did you know that your hair and that child’s hair are exactly the same color?” I had not thought about it but when we got home Guy Ann wanted to see for herself. So she pulled my hair down and laid hers over it. Sure enough, you could not tell where mine ended and hers began. As the years went by Guy Ann’s hair got a little darker and mine got ever lighter until it was both blonde and white.

In 1963, when I was in my late 70s, I ran into Sam Black, a man I had not seen for fifty years. He greeted me with these words, “Well, Eunice, you have lost some of the gold in your hair!”  Indeed I had.

Now that I am 80 years old, my hair is all white. White like new cotton. And I think it is just lovely.

My grandmother wanted all her life to be published. I am happy to know that, now, by quoting her here, she finally is. Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma.

McMurtry And Twain

Larry McMurtry is, by many standards, Texas’ best writer.

He wrote “Horseman, Pass By” to wide acclaim when he was just 25, which became the movie “HUD,” starring Paul Newman. When he was thirty, he published “The Last Picture Show,” which won him even greater critical praise and the movie that followed launched Cybil Shepard’s career.

“Terms of Endearment” is another of his great novels. The film that followed pumped sales of the book when Jack Nicholson and Shirley McClain took the lead roles. McMurtry’s best book is his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove.” That became, to most Texans anyway, the best television miniseries of all time.

McMurtry grew up on a ranch in Archer County, Texas, where there’s about five people per square mile. It is interesting that another famous American writer owned land in Archer County. That was Mark Twain. He didn’t live there, but he did own land there, as an investment. This 320 acre plot is still known locally as “the Twain property.”

So these two great writers, Twain as perhaps America’s best and McMurtry as perhaps Texas’ best, both owned land in Archer County, Texas. Small world. Both were Southerners. Both grew up in small, rural, agrarian towns. Both wrote classic books about the American West and about the cowboys and pioneers that inhabited those vast, rugged, haunting landscapes.

Now let me stop here to tell you an interesting story about Twain and the land he owned in Archer County. One day he received a letter from the County Clerk of Archer County saying that his land was in danger of being repossessed due to unpaid taxes. Twain had a man in Texas who was supposed to pay those taxes but he had failed to do so. So, Twain immediately paid the back taxes and saved the land. He was quite angry about the whole affair. He explained in a now somewhat famous letter to his friend William Dean Howells that he had had a man in Texas who was supposed to take care of those taxes, but that man had taken the money and run, so to speak. He wrote that if he ever caught up with him he would suffer on a Biblical scale. Twain said that “he shall beg for brimstone, he will beg in vain.” Now there’s beautifully worded threat even the mafia could be proud of.

Many years ago I sent a copy of the Twain letter to McMurtry. I had stumbled across it in the Twain papers at Vassar University. I told him that he might be pleased to know that he wasn’t the only famous author to have owned land in Archer County. He wrote back in his straightforward, modest style. He said
that he didn’t know about that, but he was glad to know and that he would check into it to see if maybe they had owned some of the same land. I guess they didn’t. I never heard any more about it. But the day I received that letter from the great man himself – that was a mighty fine day.

As a teenager, I used to lie awake at night reading McMurtry. I felt a special connection with him because we lived on the same road, U.S. 281. Six hundred miles apart, it is true, but on the same road. He lived a mile off of U.S. 281 in north Texas and I lived a mile off of U.S. 281 in south Texas. He could hear the trains where he was and I could hear them where I was.

He and I were both lovers of books and of Texas. We both grew up in ranch country. He played the trombone. I played the trombone. And as the years passed, the similarities continued. He went to North Texas State and so did I. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and I… I read it. He now lives in Tucson, where I went to doctoral school, and wrote my thesis – on Mark Twain.

McMurtry is now in his 80s. Given the parallel nature of our lives,
I’m praying he has many beautiful years ahead of him.

The Top 12 Quotes From ‘Lonesome Dove’

Spoiler alert! In case you’ve been under a rock in Ogallala for the last three decades, this story contains spoilers for “Lonesome Dove.”

Since I am, like many Texans, an amateur expert on “Lonesome Dove,” people often ask me what I figure are the most loved quotes from the miniseries.

If I were wise, I would just say any of a hundred quotes could be someone’s number one, and leave it at that. But I have never let lack of wisdom stop me. I cannot resist the challenge of making a list. I know it is a delicate business; it is holy ground.

But the list I’m about to share is not just my opinion. I do have data on my side, based on feedback from a popular Facebook page devoted to “Lonesome Dove.” From that page I have been able to tabulate the most popular quotes or excerpts from the miniseries:

No 12. Woodrow has just buried Gus and puts up the grave marker made of the famous Hat Creek Cattle Company sign. Woodrow says: “I guess this’ll teach me to be careful about what I promise in the future.”

No 11. When the boys seem a little shocked by Gus’, shall we say, manly appetites, he says: “What’s good for me may not be good for the weak minded.”

No 10. Right after Gus has cut the cards with Lorie and she accuses him of cheating. He says, “I won’t say I did and I won’t say I didn’t, but I will say that a man who wouldn’t cheat for a poke don’t want one bad enough.”

No 9. Not long before Gus goes guns blazing into Blue Duck’s camp to save Lorie, he says, “They don’t know it, but the wrath of the Lord is about to descend on ‘em.”

No 8. Gus finds July Johnson burying his son, and Jenny and Rosco. July is naturally distraught, blaming himself, saying he should have stayed with them. Gus says: “Yesterday’s gone, we can’t get it back.” But he does assure him that if he ever runs into Blue Duck again, he will kill him for him.

No 7. Gus gets exasperated with Woodrow because Woodrow, to Gus’s way of thinking, is being dense. Gus says: “Woodrow, you just don’t ever get the point – ‘It’s not dyin’ I’m talkin’ about, it’s livin’.”

No 6. This quote punctuates the scene when Jake Spoon must be hanged along with the murdering horse thieves he has thrown in with. Jake pleads his case but Gus has little sympathy. He says, “You know how it works, Jake. You ride with the outlaw, you die with the outlaw. Sorry, you crossed the line.”

No 5. The San Antonio bar scene has several great lines together, so I decided to count them as one quote.

The bartender, upon insulting Gus and Call, gets his nose broken when Gus slams his face into the oak bar. Gus explains: “Besides a whiskey, I think we will require a little respect. . . . If you care to turn around, you will see what we looked like when we was younger and the people around her wanted to make us senators. What we didn’t put up with back then was doddlin’ service, and as you can see, we still don’t put up with it.”

As they rode away, Woodrow tells Gus he’s lucky he didn’t get thrown in jail and Gus says, “Ain’t much of a crime, whackin’ a surly bartender.”

No 4. A touching line, uttered by Gus as he lay dying. He says to Woodrow: “It’s been quite a party ain’t it?”

No 3. This one is a tie – so close I couldn’t separate them.

The first comes at the first of the movie, back at Lonesome Dove when Bol infers that Gus may be too old for romance anymore and Gus sets him straight. He says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

Following soon after that scene comes Call’s advice to Newt. Call hands him his first pistol and says, “Better to have that and not need it than need it and not have it.”

No 2. Gus lays out a prescription for Lorie’s future happiness. She is obsessed with going to San Francisco, and he wants her to understand that that dream is likely a misguided one.

“You see, life in San Francisco is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things – like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”

No 1. I began with Call and we end with him. Though Gus gets a great number of the best lines, Woodrow gets, without question, the most powerful, most quoted line of all.

After Call beat an army scout to a pulp, the horrified townspeople – who have never witnessed such violence before – are standing around in shock and seem to require an explanation. Call obliges them. He says, “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”

There you go. That’s the top twelve according to the data. Now when you write to me to tell that the list is wrong or that I left out this or that, I ask only that you remember Captain Call’s admonition: No rude behavior.

Roots: The Alex Haley Story (Ep. 9, 2014)

A special Black History Month tribute to the late Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, the author of the 1976 book Roots and co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.