I WANTED TO GIVE my daughter something useful just before she left home to go East for her freshman year in college. So I took her back to East Texas. Though California has been home for the last 10 years, our roots lie not far from the border of Louisiana, where the sound of bullfrogs and crickets are tangled in the soft, late-summer night air.
I wanted to give Madelon something of substance, a piece of fabric called family, wanted to weave her and bind her into this warmth. Wanted to let her see how large this fabric is, how long, how wide, how many people she is connected to within it, how many are behind her. Most of all I wanted her to know how she is loved.
At the turn of the century, my great-grandfather bought 3,200 acres of land in Scottsville for peach orchards. So I took Madelon back, back to Dallas to her great-grandfather's 93rd birthday, to grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins first, second, third and twice removed. Then further back to Scottsville, in the piney woods, to more cousins and to her great-great- grandmother's house in the East Texas countryside. Our cousins still live there. It is 15 miles from Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack at which we would camp.
In this way I am saying to her "This is where you are from, and who you are from as fully as I know it. This much I can show you. The rest you will have to figure out for yourself, or make up as you go along. This is as far back as I can take you. You are on your own from here." When we set out at dawn there is a mist on Lake Caddo giving it an eerie quality. We have entered another world. In our canoes we take the forgotten narrow bayous the motor boats will avoid, paddling twisted channels back in time. Many of the cypress groves are impenetrable and the channels through them choked with water lilies this time of year, leaving only an opening as wide as a canoe to move through.
Our guide, David Lomax, has spent most of his life here. Cottonmouth water moccasins and alligators are what we watch for. As we paddle through Smith's Slough to Carter Lake, the channel begins to widen out. This is one of the more remote and beautiful parts of the lake. Much of the water is covered with duck weed, billions of tiny green organisms floating on the surface. It makes a brilliant green skin on the water in which the cypress stand, grayed with long strands of Spanish moss. In some parts the duck weed is red, a form of its flowering.
As we paddle through the lake we spot a water turkey camouflaged in gray and brown at the base of a cypress tree. There is a loud plop. "Probably just a water snake," David says. Staring at the duck weed more closely, Madelon notices brilliant yellow beads in them and a sudden movement. "Those are frogs' eyes, those little yellow beads. Look closely!" she cried.
Yes, they move. The duck weed was like a mantle for these hundreds in their perfectly matched green disguise. Above us, on a limb was an elegant hawk, probably a red-shoulder. Far off a white heron lifts its huge wings in a low flight over the mist-covered lake of budding waterlilies in the morning light. We see great blue herons and green herons as well. An owl hoots behind us. The water moves. Alligator or beaver, we will never know which.
The section of Caddo Lake called Big Lake has wide open expanses of water dotted at the eastern end in Louisiana with oil wells. The western part of the lake, the portion we visit, is a labyrinth -- not a place to go without a guide. Innumerable gaps, breaks, passes, bluffs, basins, heads, prairies, arms, sloughs, bayous and holes form secret places, hidden, protected.
Overgrown and wild, the island and swamps around the lake have been hiding places for centuries for Indians, runaway slaves, people living outside the law and an eccentric few who love the lake for its lonely beauty. There are Moss Break, Devil's Elbow, Oxbow, Cross Bayou, Alligator Thicket, Blind Slough, Whistleberry Slough, Blue Elbow, Turtle Shell, Hog Wallow, Bois d'Arc Pass, Cockle Burr, Eagle's Nest, Pig Pen, Potter's Point and Little Green Break.
Behind each name is a story. We put in on the lake at Uncertain, Tex., five miles from the state park. Uncertain, population 176, is appropriately named, given the disputed boundary situation between Texas, Louisiana, Mexico and the United States in the 1830s. At Port Caddo, towards the western part of the lake, the first sheriff who tried to collect taxes was shot, and his official papers and tax rolls burned.
The area was plagued with bogus land certificates and fraudulant titles in addition to the confusion of boundaries between Louisiana and Texas. The environs around the lake were a haven for those who took the law into their own hands. It was wild country and it stayed that way for a long time. Up until 40 years ago, we were told, "a man could live off the land, make moonshine, kill alligators and do whatever he wanted." That Saturday night we went over to the Waterfront Restaurant where Kizzie Mae Hicks, known as the best cook on the lake, works. The Waterfront Restaurant is quiet now. Kizzie is standing there with her apron still on, her daughter Barbara at her side, when we walk in. Barbara's 13, but already as tall as her mother. Kizzie sits down, sending Barbara for a glass of ice water. We begin to talk. I introduce her to Madelon; when Barbara comes back, our daughters meet as well.
Kizzie has lived on the lake for 41 years, having moved here at the age of 6 from Leigh, which we pass going between Scottsville and Caddo. She started fishing this lake then, hunting squirrels and rabbits too.
"This lake is so low now. And the fishing's not as good as it used to be. Motor boats and oil have hurt it. When I started fishing here, there was nothing but wagon roads. You could always catch something. This place was called 'Sand Banks.' Each slough and bayou has a name given to it by the old colored. We call them somethin' else than what's on your map.
"But as I was saying, I have been on and around this lake all my life. I've cooked at most of the lodges around here: Big Pine, Flying Fish, Shady Glade, Curley's and now this one, the Waterfront. When I first started working, you didn't sit down, take a break or eat, nothin' but work you were so busy. I made $3 a day, working 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Did that for six days a week. After 20 years of working like that on my feet, I got arthritis bad. Don't want Barbara to have to work like that. These kids hardly know how different it is for them. Yes, they still know what prejudice is about, but it's not as bad as it used to be. I tell her to get her education, work hard at school. That's what she's got to do.
"On Aug. 14, some years ago, I lost a 16-year-old son. He drowned right here on the lake. Curtis Smith. I still have Barbara and my twins Ronald and Donald (15) and Ray Charles, my oldest. He's 26.
"Curtis and some other boys were swimming right by the bridge outside here. The sheriff called. He had tried to call me at the house, but I was cooking at Shady Glade then. Finally he got me there. He said, 'Kizzie, I'm sorry to tell you that your son Curt is drowned.'
"'No! That can't be!' I said.
"'Yes it is. I'm gonna come get you. They're still looking for the body.'
"Well, they couldn't find it for a while. He and some friends had swum across the river and were swimming back. About halfway he hung back and said, 'Go on.' One of the boys turned around after a few strokes and said, 'Curt, are you coming?' 'Yes,' he said, 'Yes.' Then he went down once and never came back up. The boys that had been swimming with were so distressed. They still couldn't find the body. Finally they got a boat and one boy got in it. They went out to the middle of the river till he said, 'There, here, here's where he was,' and they dove down and found the body right off. Not a mark on it." We sat and talked with Kizzie a little while longer that night before returning to our campsite on the lake. The next day, we packed up and drove back to Scottsville in the 104- degree heat. I wanted to get out to visit with cousins Steve, Jack and John Verhalen about being in the nursery business all of their lives. We were to meet at John's place between Scottsville and Marshall.
Much has changed since 1900 in what was once a big family business. Slowly the land was sold off and the business came apart. A big family, all of whom were involved in the management, with very different ideas as to how to run the business, was the main reason the nursery shut down nearly 60 years later, my cousin Steve explained.
Jack, who still lives in the big house, the homeplace, with 16 acres left surrounding it, went off on his own after that and opened up a shop on Highway 80 called Verhalen Gardens. Steve has always continued to sell nursery stock and helps his son John, my contemporary. When John bought 40 acres in the early '70s, he started a separate nursery company altogether. Last summer John reregistered his business in the family name and once again there's a Verhalen Nursery in Texas. It is planted with Chinese wisteria and crape myrtles.
John loves the land and growing plants. Out at the "farm," as his nursery is called, the hot blue sky is faded in the noonday heat. Thunderheads pile high, but no rain comes. The pink crape myrtles are in bloom. Steve is already there when we arrive from the lake. Jack comes later with a yellow watermelon under his arm for our lunch.
Steve and Jack are in their 60s, John almost 40. They've all left at one time or another, for college or a war, and they've all come back t this corner of the world and the business of growing plants. Jack and Steve have been doing it now for over 50 years, since they were 12 years old.
Rooted on this soil, sources for me, I ask them about the stories I had heard, recall my visits to see them as a child and come to understand something of how much they mean to me. These cousins that always lived in East Texas, have always been in the nursery business and living in my great-grandfather's house. Landmarks, touchstones, points by which one can recognize and move through the landscape of a life.
"The nursery was organized in the 1920s but it was here long before then, before it was incorporated as the Verhalen Nursery. It was formerly the Standard Orchard Company out of Chicago. Your great- grandfather was president of it. Those peaches Uncle Walter, your grandfather, was telling you about harvesting were probably packed about 1908-1910. That was a big harvest, first planted around 1903. They had bought the land in 1900, but it had to be cleared.
"First they planted the fruit trees. But then had a long period of time before those fruit trees bore a crop -- two, three, four years. There were 20-foot rows then, with a little peach tree using maybe 6 square feet the first year. They were using up a lot of land, so they planted row crops in between, such as vegetables and watrermelons," Jack explained.
"When a fruit crop is ripe you have to harvest and ship immediately. Nursery stock isn't so perishable. If it's bare root, without any dirt on it, you can tie them in bundles and store them in a cool dark place, they'll keep for months that way, some of the deciduous stock. Something that's balled out of the fields will keep as long as you keep the plant moist."
"When did they first plant roses?" I asked.
"Roses? Well after a number of years they, when was it, in 1918 or 1920, somewhere along in there would be my guess. From stories I heard they diversified because they weren't hitting enough full crops of peaches every year. Year after year, a full crop of peaches would make you some money. But if you miss a year because of some fluke of nature -- a freeze or something -- then you're waiting two years for money instead of struggling through one year.
"So they decided to diversify, some privet hedge, for example. Then they got to dealing with the bulb business, Abe Miller's American Bulb Company out of Chicago. The roses probably came on about the same period. The nursery here in Scottsville had roses before they had them over in Tyler."
I remembered hearing that. The way I liked to remember it, whether it happened this way or nor, was that great-grandfather, Stephen John Verhalen, started the commercial rose business in East Texas. Tyler's famous for it now, but it was started here. Is that true? I ask Steve.
"I think he did," Steve said. "But he was growing roses at that time just from cuttings, they weren't budding them yet like they do today. Then Tyler, Texas, got into it, where they've got the Rose Festival. It didn't take long. That's a better growing area for roses, a much sandier soil over there in Tyler. Easier to harvest them there, the sand shakes off. Here the red clay has to be brought in and washed off. This soil is better for balled stock."
"My grandfather told me that at one time Verhalen Nursery was the biggest rose grower in the state. Do you think that might have been true?" I ask my cousins.
"Oh it might have been, hard to say now. Well, they had close to 100 acres in roses. That's maybe a million plants. And I remember the time when the last shipment of bulbs that went out of here was sold to a fellow named Stevenson in Florida. We packed 28 railroad cars of narcissus bulbs on our siding at one time."
Madelon sits patiently painting a watercolor while I query our cousins. Soon it will be time to go back over to Jack's for a Sunday dinner. Before we leave, John gives me some wisteria to take back to California. Jack gives me bulbs from his garden shop and seeds: okra, squash and spinach. John gives me a gardenia cutting, then Steve says, "Here, you better take some of this too," as he knocks the dirt off some Carolina jasmine and slips it in a plastic bag. Later Madelon takes some of the bulbs for her room at college in New York. I pack my plants carefully in my suitcase to put in the ground when I return to California. We leave the nursery and go back to the main house.
Jack's wife, Agnes, has generously prepared cucumber salad from the garden, homemade potato salad, homemade chicken salad, beef brisket, iced tea and a homemade pear and pineapple pie. With the wisdom of someone who has raised six children, after dinner Agnes insisted that I not help with the cleanup, but instead spend some time alone with Madelon who had gone to her room. Worn out with visiting friends and relatives, traveling, caught in the midst of leave-taking, almost as soon as I walk in the room we both begin to cry.
She cried for leaving home and for missing her best friend. I cried for the world and all that I was sending her off into. I wonder if we can ever be prepared or prepare our children for what they are to meet. I cried for all the unknown, all the things I wished I had done, could have done, would like to have done, things I wanted to give her but didn't have and with the grief of letting go.
We cried just about as much as I thought we could. She was sitting up in bed and said she wanted to be alone now. Yes, that felt right to me too. I wanted to get outside and go for a walk. I gave her a hug and asked if there was anything else I could do for her now. "Rub your head?" "I'm okay now, Mom. I'm just going to read a while and then fall asleep early."
It must have been about 8 o'clock, close to dark. I promised my cousins that I'd stay close to the roads. Snakes are bad this time of year. My cousin John had killed a copperhead one evening in the rows of pink crape myrtle. I went out the French doors onto the red porch and onto the dry summer grass to the gravel drive that crunched under my feet.
The world was utterly still except for the crickets and the sound of my footsteps. There was no breeze to speak of as I set off down the road, going nowhere, just walking to walk. I went slow, took my time, just headed north toward where my great-grandfather's office for the Verhalen Nursery used to be. Despite the warnings I climbed over a gate and took off down an abandoned road to nowhere.
I wished that I hadn't known about the copperhead. Yet being so intent on looking down at my feet, I was gifted with the sight of a beautiful, large black and white striped grasshopper with bright red sides. She was a sight there in the green grass, with no attempt to camouflage herself like so many other creatures that I can never see until they move. Knowing nothing about grasshoppers, I decided she was remarkable and rare. She didn't move off her spot in the grass, just sat there (was she proud?) while I bent over and admired her. Then I turned back, climbing over the metal gate that sagged when I pulled myself up on it.
Now back at the main road, I heard a faint cry, oh it was the faintest of cries and a sad one too, from the thicket on my right. The woods here are close with pines, the tangles of vines and undergrowth impenetrable. The light was falling. I stopped. There it was again, a faint cry. I had to strain to hear it. It sounded like some small creature dying in that tangle of woods. The pines themselves were already dark as I strained to get a glimpse of what was crying in there. Do animals stop and listen at our cries? But all I could see was darkness, no way to go in there.
The light kept falling, and I kept standing there. If I couldn't go in and help the creature, I could stand here and listen, pay attention to its passing. And as I stood there peering into the darkness, unable to see anything, only hear, I thought of Kizzie, I became Kizzie, sitting up in the dark looking for her son Curt, who drowned. "I used to sit in the dark and try to see him, saying Curt, 'Are you there?'"
"He never came back, not in a dream or anything," she told me. "Now my father, he came to me in a dream one night and said, 'Kizzie, I'm all right.' Oh how I had worried about him. He wan't too religious. Said that people didn't practice what they preached for the most part. But my son, Curt, he was the sweetest child. Everybody loved him, he was a good boy. I never worried about him. Maybe that's why he never come back."
And I could see nothing, no matter how long I stood there looking in the dark or how many more times that creature, whatever it was, cried out softly. Finally the sounds stopped and I turned back. The sun had just gone down as I walked the road back up to my great-grandfather's house. I went into Madelon's room and found her asleep. Back in my own room adjoining, I opened the windows and laid down to rest, covered with the sounds of the countryside blown in on the soft night air. CAPTION: Picture, Madelon and China Galland. Copyright (c) By Rebecca Skelton