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On a hot summer evening we sat on Katie Gray’s back porch with Tulip at our feet. We began in praise of dogs and of Tulip in particular. We rehearsed the all-important facts that Katie and my mother were the same age and both married men named Bill. Katie asked me one or two questions. Then, satisfied that I didn’t want to talk about myself, she told me all about growing up in West Texas.

Katie and TulipKatie's memories of childhood were unshakably rosy. Her daddy, as she always called him, was director of the first marching band in the small town of Ballinger near San Angelo in the twenties, and Katie remembered him as being very handsome in his uniform, leading his troops from the gazebo in the old fairgrounds park. I studied his picture and said he had indeed been handsome.

They had a good time out there in Ballinger. There was a grandmother’s house and a schoolhouse and cousins who were country and cousins who were rich, and ranchers who thought nothing of driving two hundred miles to go to a party and then driving home the same night. Katie was a good-looking girl with loads of boyfriends. She documented that claim with faded black and white photographs. She had a favorite sister Olivia. She stressed the “Oh” and said the “v-i-a” like a single syllable, Oh LIV-ya.

Olivia had a boyfriend once who blew through town in the height of the depression in a big long car and threw around money like there was no tomorrow. He was a real city slicker and his car had cost a fortune, and nobody ever did figure out where he was from or where he got his money. They made up their minds that he was a gangster in the mafia and running from the law.

Katie had one boyfriend, she said, who was a pitcher in the west Texas baseball league, and she used to go to the minor league games to watch him play. Once he told her he would hit a home run for her, and he did, too. He went on to become a centerfielder in the major leagues, but that was after she broke up with him. He even played in the World Series.

Katie’s family was very poor, but they would give a hot meal to any hobo passing through, and Katie had only bitter scorn for the rich folks on the other side of the tracks who went to church and looked down their noses at Katie's daddy and wouldn't have given a glass of water to Jesus Christ himself on a hot day.

“I guess you might say we lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” she said. “I still do.”

Then she said, “I just hate hypocrites, don't you?" I did.

Katie's family may have been poor, but their house was always clean and nice. We contemplated the merciless minutia of early twentieth century housewifery. It was tough for women. Katie’s mamma washed all their clothes by hand.

“First she made ‘em, then she washed ‘em by hand on one of those old washboards. And cooked on a wood stove, boiled my daddy's dress white shirts. You’ve heard of boiled shirts. And then she pressed them with those old flatirons, and if you don’t think that was hot work out there in the summer. You know the wind just blows all the time out there, and the dust gets right in through the walls and inside all the cracks around the windows. You just can’t imagine what that’s like.” She said “cain’t.”

Eventually she fell silent, coasting happily on golden rays from a sun setting on a distant time.



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Visits with Katie

Life on Caswell Avenue
Boiled Shirts
Major Gray
The Owl and the Ficus
On the Porch
Other Friends & Neighbors
Christmas 1993