Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saying Farewell To My Mom

One of my earliest memories of my mom comes from when I was four, or possibly five. I was playing with one of those toys where kids pound plastic objects of different shapes into the corresponding shaped holes. As usual, I was trying to put a square peg in a round hole. My mom came outside to say she was going to the store and asked if I wanted to go with her. Normally I would have jumped at the chance and the prospect of perhaps talking my way into a piece of candy. But this time I said no, I would rather stay home and play.

She looked vaguely disappointed but said OK and left. I’m sure my dad was in the house or perhaps perched over his artist’s easel in the converted barn behind our house that served as his studio. She wouldn’t have left me alone at that young age. And as she turned the corner and started the car, I came to the realization, for the first time that I was separate from my mother, that I would always be me until I left this sphere. And she would always be my mom, until her time came.

Sadly, that time has arrived. My mom passed away at night last week with family at her side, fighting until nearly the very end. As I wrote a few months ago on her 81st birthday, my mom was a tough old bird. But it was time for the fight to end, for her to have peace. Our family came to accept that. After more surgeries than we can recall — heart, hip, tailbone, gall bladder, neck — her body shut down over four days until she just slipped away while unconscious.

My mom was hell on wheels when I was a kid. There’s no getting around that. She was tough and willing to go toe-to-toe with me when I was a smart-aleck teenager. (Short as I am, I still had four inches on her. I come from a long line of short people, including my mom.) I learned to avoid her wrath, and truth be told, I was about half scared of her. So were my brothers.

I became independent financially and personally at a young age, 17, similar to the path my mother took and probably for the same reasons. Neither of us liked being told what to do, though of course you eventually learn someone is going to be telling you what to do the rest of your life — boss, spouse, caregiver. The latter term is what best describes my mom’s greatest achievement. She was trained as a nurse but didn’t work much outside of the home when we three boys were under the roof, though she did teach nurse aides classes in Longview for a few years.

In 1990, my father became disabled at 59 because of a botched surgery. That is when my mom became truly a shining star. For the next 17 years, until I took over and placed them both in assisted living, she cared for my father at home. She took him to doctor’s appointments, cooked, cleaned, and made sure he took the medications that covered an entire shelf in the kitchen. She paid the bills, filed insurance claims and continued to take pleasure in her six grandchildren.

It wore her out. By the time we figured out neither of our parents could safely stay in their home anymore, she had become a brittle diabetic. Worse, she kept losing her car in the parking lot of the doctor’s office. Even worse, she thought she owned a black Maxima. It was a bronze Altima.

In her final years, my mom mellowed tremendously. After my dad’s death a little over two years ago, she lived alone in nursing care, loved by the staff for her good humor and even disposition. Even in the last days, when she could still talk, she invariably answered the question of how she was feeling with, “Pretty good.”

She cared for my dad and lived out her last years with dignity and grace. That befitted her name: Grace Adrian Bourque Borders.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Busking on Sixth Street

Busking — Chiefly British: To entertain by dancing, singing, or reciting on the street or in a public place. (From


Guy Forsyth said while on stage in Longview a few weeks ago that he started out busking in Austin, a word with which I was just vaguely familiar. I thought I knew what it meant, but I have learned not to rely on guesswork when it comes to words I don’t really know. Such carelessness has caused past problems when I mangle words, using them in the opposite way as intended. Once I used “opprobrium” when I should have used “approbation.” The latter means approval, the former the opposite. If I had good sense, I would have used neither, since I was unsuccessfully trying to pretend I own an extensive vocabulary. An alert reader pointed out my error. It was a humbling experience.

Forsyth is a popular and frequent performer on the Austin scene whose reputation has spread. A friend first alerted me to his music four years ago. He adeptly plays guitar, harmonica, ukulele and the saw, on which he wobbles a haunting version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” at most shows. His voice is his greatest instrument, with a wide range as he sings in a genre his website describes as Americana and blues. He works hard, playing the other night in front of perhaps 75 appreciative folks at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts. The museum in my hometown hosts a fine music series that features folks one often sees in Austin — including in the past few years Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Slaid Cleaves. It’s quite a treat to see such stellar artists in a cozy venue, so I make a point of catching these shows when possible.

Guy, his band and I share a couple of bathroom experiences. The last time I saw him before Longview was three years ago at Antone’s in downtown Austin. I was with a group of friends and family. Guy and I ended up in the bathroom together. I recognized him, of course, as we both stood facing the wall. “Good luck, tonight, Guy,” I said. He said thanks. That seemed to be stretching the limits of conversation one should have in a men’s bathroom with a stranger, even a semi-famous one, so I stopped at that, not wanting to violate men’s bathroom-conversation protocol.


I headed toward Longview early on a Friday afternoon, figuring I would make it to Guy’s concert with 90 minutes to spare. Just south of Belton traffic suddenly stopped on I-35 in that sickening way that anyone has experienced, if they have traveled this “Highway From Hell,” which is what I would call this interstate if it starred in a movie. Drivers go from 75 mph to zip in seconds and for the next 30 minutes crawl along. I had no idea why and how long the delay would be, so began plotting an escape route by cell with help from my fiancé and her brother, who works for the highway department. If I could just get to the exit, I would cut across on a different highway and avoid I-35, which could be a parking lot all the way to Waco, where I start heading east.

Before I got to the exit I came upon the wreck, which involved a couple of 18-wheelers — one of which was hauling carnival rides and ended up upside-down, straddling the median and tying up both sides of I-35. I arrived about 45 minutes later than planned but still made the concert in time.

As it turns out, Guy and his two band members, traveling in a white box van, were stuck in the same traffic jam. He apologized while tuning up just minutes before showtime. There was a terrible wreck on I-35. Later, during a break, I end up next to his drummer in the dual restroom line and ask her if it was the same accident that waylaid my journey. Turns out we were likely within a few hundred yards of each other. We should have saved gas and shared a ride.


A few weeks later I wandered Sixth Street on a hot Sunday afternoon during the Pecan Street Festival and happened along a world-weary busker. He was a one-man band, sweat-soaked and wearing a fedora, a drum and cymbal contraption strapped on his back and operated with a foot strap, a banjo in front, a harmonic rack in front of his mouth. He was about my age, I figure, flirting with the double-nickel. Painted on his drum was a caricature of the musician and the words, “MR. TOJANGLES, ONE-MAN BAND.” He did a credible version of “Blue Moon,” and received several dollar bills in the glass tip jar propped in the banjo case.

I joined others in filming his performance with my iPhone and tossed in a buck as well. This is hard work, especially when the temperature is knocking on 100 degrees. My hat goes off to all those street musicians who start out on street corners, hoping someday like Guy Forsyth, to get to play at places like Antone’s. But even Guy has to hit the road and play modest-paying venues like the Longview museum. For that, I’m grateful.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas), May 19, 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Trot-Fishing In America, East Texas style

WRIGHT PATMAN LAKE, ATLANTA STATE PARK — A soft drizzle falls across the lake as the wind blows out of the south. Everything is a uniform shade of gray on this unseasonably cool final day of April in East Texas, as my future father-in-law and I whiz across the placid water in a flatbottom boat. We are running two sets of trotlines, each containing 50 hooks with plastic jugs bobbing on either line. We hope to have landed a mess of catfish.

H.K. Teel will turn 80 in October. He complains about having slowed down in old age, that he is not as strong as he used to be. That certainly is true, but he’s still tough as the skin on an old Appaloosa catfish. Most mornings, during the two-week period in May and October that he runs lines, he is out on that lake by himself. A few years ago he hauled in a 60-pound App (not the computer type) while running the lines alone. As he tells it, “One of two things was gonna happen. Either I was going to get that fish in the boat or y’all would find me at the bottom of the lake, my arms wrapped around that sucker’s throat.”

He got that fish in the boat.

I have been on the mouth-stuffing, food-cycle finale of the fish harvested from this lake for more than three years. Both H.K. and his son, George, love to deep-fry fish, hush puppies and fries for family gatherings — of which there are many, this being a big family. These are hands-down the tastiest catfish I have ever eaten — light, flaky meat that melts in your mouth, especially if you grab a piece right after it is pulled out of the fryer. This is about the only time I eat fried foods. At least it is cooked in canola oil. You have to live it up occasionally, right?

The rain covers my eyeglasses, casting everything in a gauzy haze. H.K. heads to the first trotline, marked by two white bleach jugs. How he can find a gallon jug barely bobbing in this mass of water escapes me, but he goes right to it and hands me a plastic jug with the top cut out. It is filled with chicken hearts, which he is using as bait today. Yesterday he used bream. It depends on the weather, wind, moon and air temperature as to what bait is used. My job is to pull up the line and spear a chicken heart on each hook, while hoping we’ll come across a mess of catfish as we reload.

Someone apparently ran over the first trotline, knocking it down. H.K. is not happy about this development and mutters a few imprecations. There isn’t a single catfish on the trotline. With tutoring I learn how to pull up the line and in so doing pull the flatbottom from one buoy to the other. By the time I’m finished baiting 50 hooks my hands are sore. We head to the other trotline, a few hundred yards away.

A few tugs and chicken-heart baiting later, a blue catfish has swallowed the hook. H.K. hands me a small net to get the fish into the boat. With some effort I finally get the hook of its mouth and toss the fish in the five-gallon bucket.

Several more about the same size — maybe 24 inches long — follow. I put on gloves after getting cut by a fin. H.K. does not approve of this, saying he has never seen anyone wear gloves to unhook a fish. I know it’s wimpy, but I need all ten fingers to type and would rather not sustain injury.

We hook a big one, about 12 pounds and at least three feet in length. I get it into the boat with no problem, but the hook just won’t come out. H.K. is getting a bit impatient, so we trade places. I’m secretly relieved that it takes him a few minutes and a pair of needle-nose pliers to get the hook out. The 12-pounder is too big for the bucket and flops about on the boat’s bottom.

We finish running the lines, head to shore. I redeem myself by successfully backing the truck and trailer down to the ramp. I may not be worth a flip at unhooking catfish, but I can back up a trailer with the best of them. We head to his farmhouse. I take more photographs of him cleaning the fish and carving out fillets. I don’t volunteer to help, and he doesn’t ask. When he is done, there is a large bowl of fillets, enough to feed at least a half-dozen people. He kindly offers to fry some fish up for brunch (my term, not his), but I need to get back to civilization.

I keep thinking about H.K. wrestling that 60-pounder into the boat. I bet that was a sight.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas) May 12, 2011.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Good Memory? Fuhgeddabout It

My middle brother Scott and I got into a mild argument the other day about what our phone number was when growing up in Allenstown, N.H. in the 1960s. That is where we lived until June 1968 when my parents came to their senses and came to Texas. They hired a mover to load up most of our possessions and pulled a U-Haul trailer with their 1964 Mercury Comet containing the immediate necessities — clothes, etc.

It was a grand adventure, three sons and the parents leisurely winding our way south, stopping at Gettysburg, in the Smokey Mountains, finally arriving in Longview — where I learned that I talked funny. Further, I had no idea how this nearly 13-year-old Yankee kid was going to survive an East Texas summer. It felt as if the world was on fire, and it was only June. Forty-three years later, I still wonder as summer begins — about two weeks ago here in Central Texas, just before Easter for Pete’s sake — how I’m going to survive the next six months. But I always do.

Anyway, I think our phone number was Hunter 4-3656. He thinks it was Hunter 4-8898. We both agree on the area code — 603. New Hampshire still has only one area code, which is part of the state’s charm. I do love visiting my native state and try to do so annually, though job responsibilities and economics have kept me away for a couple of years. But the Granite State is always on my radar when perusing the news. I would love to live there from July through September and then come back to Texas. I’m just one winning Lotto ticket away from being able to do so. Scott, who used to teach math, says the lottery is gambling for the mathematically challenged. He can be a bit of a spoilsport.

Anyway, this was a peculiar argument. For a number of years both Scott and my youngest brother Gregg have served as my institutional memory. Since Gregg is nearly nine years younger than me, and Scott and I are just 29 months apart naturally I lean more on Scott for childhood information. Both have a greater grasp of what actually happened when we were all too young to shave than I do.

I don’t know why my memory is so bad. This is not a recent development though it clearly is getting worse as I age. My one claim to memory fame used to be a better-than-average recall of phone numbers. Hence, my contention that I accurately remembered our New Hampshire home phone number. I know the phone numbers of every newspaper for which I’ve worked, and dumb things like the main line for the Ford dealership in Nacogdoches, which I haven’t patronized in nearly 10 years.

Cell phones have ruined that talent, useless as it was. Neither my daughters nor my brothers or most of my friends have landlines. Their cell phone numbers are plugged into my iPhone, so it isn’t necessary to memorize numbers anymore. Like most of you, I just scroll down until I find the name of the person I’m calling. So now I can’t even remember phone numbers.

I worked for a couple years running the Longview newspaper, where I went to junior high and high school. I was constantly being stopped by folks who said, “Hi, remember me? We went to high school together.” I would truthfully recall about one out of every 10 people who asked that question. Quickly I brought my high school yearbook to work so I could look people up and try to jog my memory. Most times that didn’t work, either.

It’s not just people that I can’t remember. I have gone to used-book sales at the library and come home with copies of books I already own. Worse, I’ve actually already read them. I have rented movies only to realize about 30 minutes into it that I have already watched this flick.

Oliver Sachs is a neurologist and writer for the New Yorker. He wrote in August about his personal struggle with prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces or locations. It’s a fascinating piece. Sachs can eat dinner with a colleague and meet her on the sidewalk 15 minutes later and not recognize the woman. There are times I wonder if I have a minor form of that malady.

I emailed a buddy in New Hampshire, my childhood friend with whom I still stay in touch and asked if he remembered our home phone number. Amazingly, he did. More surprisingly, I was right. A small victory but one that I will remember.

At least I hope so.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), May 5, 2011.