My mother, Julia Sherrod, will be 93 in September. This weekend she was hospitalized for a blood clot in her leg, and after three days in bed, she has pneumonia. She's sleeping a lot, but when she's awake, she smiles her lovely smile at us and I think, "What a woman."
She was born in 1917 in upstate New York, about as far north as you can get without being in Canada. She grew up in Black River near Watertown. At 16 she went off to college and then nursing school in St. Louis, at St. Louis University, where she met and married my father, Alan Sherrod, who was in medical school there.
I know she must have loved him a lot, because she moved with him, two toddler boys and baby me out to Pecos County in West Texas, to a tiny town called Iraan. This was just at the beginning of the 1950s drought in West Texas.
I figure my mother, reared in the vast greenness of the Finger Lakes region, must have thought she had moved to the outer edges of Hell -- an arid dusty place where the only color came from an immense blue sky.
We've recently had some lovely rains in Fort Worth, a gift from Hurricane Alex. Mother has asked me every day if my garden is loving the rain, because she knows down to the marrow in her bones that in Texas, rain is the greatest gift of all. As I've spent time with her in her hospital room, we've talked often of the weather, for weather has loomed large in her life.
In her early years it was the cold weather of the north. She and her brothers and sister have vivid memories of snow drifts reaching to the eaves of their two story house in Black River, of walking to school through tunnels of snow.
But she has spend the majority of her life in the arid heat of West Texas. One of the first lessons Texas taught my mother is that the weather is about the only force Texans give in to, and they do that only because they have no choice.
Texas weather is a living entity to those of us who grew up here. The West Texas wind is a constant presence, like the sound of our own breathing, and only when it stills do we get frightened. The hair lifts on the back of our necks. Something ominous is about to happen.
Texas weather can kill. We grow up knowing that in our bones. People who have seen a flash flood, or a tornado, or a drought-spawned dust storm have an understanding of the term "an act of God" embedded in their souls. Only God could create such forces, or hope to control them.
As children we were warned constantly not to play in ravines or gullies, partly because of rattlesnakes, but mostly because of the danger of flash floods. Texas was held in the bone-dry grip of the '50's drought then, and the earth was packed hard as a grave.
The wind rattled dry mesquite branches and at church, everyone licked their dry lips and prayed for rain. Ranchers' mouths grew thin and hard, and caliche dust caked their sweat-soaked hair, turning it white even on young men. Tears were the most plentiful source of moisture, and they were damn few for these tough, tired people.
Their red-rimmed eyes scanned the skies until the dust storms drove them indoors. Rain had abandoned the earth, and so the earth gave itself to the wind.
The wind would move in slowly, pick up the earth, swirl it around and drop it again, maybe a mile away. It teased the earth with laughing gusts and dust devils. Gradually it picked up speed and earth until it was a swaggering brown giant, blotting out the sky.
The wind and the earth locked in a dark violent dance out over the flat lands and the sun hid. People fled inside and locked doors and windows. but they couldn't keep it out. Dust crept in everywhere as it tried to escape the wind, sifting under doors and windowsills with desperate ease.
The maddened wind flung the earth against all obstacles, blasting paint from cars and buildings, tearing up weedy bushes by the roots and sending them head over heels like clumsy frightened tumblers.
Then, the sound would change. The frenzied keening became mournful. As if sickened of the violence, the wind would slow, drop the earth from its grasp and move away, moaning.
The earth would settle back into its new places, waiting for rain to find it again.
Rain. It was the key to life, and a way of death.
But when the rains finally came, they had been too long away. The earth was hardened and rejected them.
With no place to go, the water ran frantically into the low places, gathering momentum as it went along. By the time it reached the lowlands and was forced into smaller and narrower gullies, its speed and force was terrifying.
Out of control, it gathered up cattle, goats, horses, people, cars, mesquite trees -- roots and all -- and slammed the entire writhing brown wall furiously against any bridge or obstacle in its way, taking parts of the highway and the bridges with it.
And then it was gone, leaving newly shorn ravines and gullies and an eerie silence in its wake. The earth would be damp for a few minutes, then the sun and the dry air would greedily devour the moisture.
Nothing was left to pay witness to its passing except frightened children and shaken adults, puny bystanders in this elemental affair of the heart.
The earth was not the same after such storms: new lines, new shapes were forced into being by the wind and the water.
But the people survived, heads bowed only to strong winds and God.