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A road trip in time

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Just last week, I told this story of my gambling Uncle Richie and the road trip I made alone to his funeral. This is one of my favorites, told in the days when both my oldest brother and mom were still alive and when we’d first begun to lose treasured family members. I come by my commuting naturally and as a lover of a good road trip.

Services for Uncle Richie

PUBLICATION: Houston Chronicle


 I scrawled the directions on a piece of paper near the telephone, my husband — in the background — more incredulous all the time.

“You’re gonna turn at Aunt Bessie’s old place,” the voice on the line said.

“But I don’t know where she lives. You know, I haven’t been out there since I was just a kid.”


“You’ll know it by that blue Chevy parked in the yard,” he explained.
“You sure her car’ll be there?”
“It’s been there for at least 20 years,” said my oldest brother who was giving me directions to the cemetery in East Texas where my uncle was to be buried. My husband, on the other hand and not two steps away, was giving me grief for even thinking about trying to find it.
Half the drive was a two-lane highway; the other half was red-dirt roads only traveled by the people who lived down them. My last obvious landmark would be the Arcadia Four Corners Grocery, a store that never had much business, and by now was long closed.
A battered, lone stop sign still marked the crossroads in front of the Four Corners, although the chance of two cars being in the same area at the same time was — as they say in this part of the country — slim and none.
I had been in that store a lifetime ago. My family occasionally stopped there on our way to my grandmother’s house, a place where we chased chickens and milked cows.
As a visitor from civilization, I was never comfortable with the bathroom out back or the black potbelly stove that dominated the living room. I did, however, manage a taste for the sweet well water we drank from a dipper after the silt had settled to the bottom.
I always bought grape Nehi soda at the Four Corners and poured peanuts in it — not because I liked the taste, but because it was the East Texas thing to do. Friends today ask me, “What was the point?” And I can’t really tell them. It made the grape soda salty and no longer refreshing, and it made the peanuts — washed by the soda — rather bland. The only fun was the foam, caused by the salt in the carbonation. But that wasn’t even much fun when the indelible grape soda foam washed onto my clothes. I never did it unless we were visiting the country from our home in what my mother considered the city.
“You’ll come to a `Y’ and you need to stay right,” my brother continued. “You’ll take the second road to the left. It’s down quite a ways.”
“How will I know if I’m going right?” I asked. My husband, still pacing in the kitchen, shouted, “Why don’t you use the mobile phone in Bessie’s car to call for help?”
I cut him a look while the voice on the phone said, “Well, if you come to an old burned up barn, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and come back.”
In the end, I decided it would be best for me to go too far, then come back.
uncle-richieMy uncle had been the kind of person most families kept in the closet. In mine, he was a hero. We all wanted to be at the funeral.
Uncle Richie was my mother’s baby brother, although he looked much older. He was sick or dying for years, and there was much speculation about how much of his original organs remained after the hard life he’d led. We were certain he’d lost one lung to cancer. Despite that fact, he continued to smoke and cough, sometimes falling into breathless, ragged attacks as he exhaled a long drag from a filterless cigarette. His illness never stopped him until the last year of his life.
His body, always weak and frail, was a contradiction to the reckless, carefree life everyone said he lived.
I am the youngest of six children, and my memories are shaded by the eyes of a child and remembered as legends told in a family.
In one of my few personal experiences with Uncle Richie, he breezed into town in a huge pink convertible. The car seemed the size of a living room with buttons everywhere for making windows and seats go up and down. We all took a ride around the block with the top down, a one-car parade, waving to our neighbors.
My brothers, all three of whom have a Texas passion for vehicles, tell me Uncle Richie had two separate pink 1955 convertibles — a Plymouth and a Ford. One had a hardtop that rolled down into the trunk with the push of a button. We still have a picture of Richie — taken in the late ’50s — on the hood of a convertible. He’s wearing baggy pants, a sleeveless T-shirt and a hat, cocked on the side of his head. He looks carefree and full of fun. It’s the way I most want to remember him.
It’s that man, perched on the convertible, who must have been a draw for the ladies. By last count, he married eight times — the first time on a dare. The women were mostly redheads, voluptuous and crazy. The family rumor mill had most of these women on their way to or from mental institutions, both before and after relationships with Richie, which only added to his curious stature.
I remember most the beautiful, seemingly worldly, Lottie Jo. She smelled of fields of flowers and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She wore billowing, soft clothes with blouses that hung off both shoulders, showing sprays and sprays of red-brown freckles the same color as her hair. She was the mother of at least two of his children — my cousins — who, by the time Uncle Richie was dying and they were contacted, wanted nothing to do with him.
All Richie’s relationships seemed to end violently and with threats of murder and mayhem — all from women. One burned his new home as it was being built at my grandmother’s home place. Another threatened to burn my mother’s home, and that must have been near the end of his life as he became more and more bedridden in a back room that once had been mine.
Uncle Richie made a living gambling, but it was hardly a living, as my mother said, and his unreliable lifestyle was the downfall of all his marriages. Gambling, however, was the true love of his life.
There were stories of a suitcase filled with cash on one visit, while the next trip my mother would complain he was in town to borrow money. Of all the people who borrowed money from my mother, he was the most likely to pay her back.”Oh, he forgot about a little,” my mother said. “But not much. Everyone forgets a little bit. He was just like one of the kids.”
Many years ago, Mother bought her younger brother enough clothes to go to Las Vegas for a stint as a card dealer. It was the longest period of time when he was out of our lives.
Later, when he came back to Texas after allegedly being run out of Vegas, he was among an anti-elite group of gamblers who seemed to know about any game in town. He played in barrooms, trailer houses and back alleys. It was a shock to me as an adult to be told these little towns could draw regular, semi-high-stakes card games. It couldn’t have been the glitzy scene portrayed in movies, but there were still fortunes made and lost, and shots were still fired when someone felt wronged. In Richie’ s case, the shots were most often fired at him and not by him.
“He didn’t play a straight game,” they said of my Uncle Richie.
He had his own brand of ethics, though, and one of his rules concerned the big cities. He steered clear of Houston and thought the people much too cold and calculating. He told the story of a game one night in a Houston bar where someone came looking for a hit man. Richie said he watched as others at his table flipped a coin and decided who would do the killing.
“I never knew if it was the winner or the loser who got the job,” he said later.
So, it was a damp Texas morning when I drove my own convertible to Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Shelby County, between Center and Timpson, to say goodbye to the family legend. I retraced a route I hadn’t seen for more than 20 years and had never driven alone.
The dirt roads could no longer have been familiar, but I was drawn in the right direction and never made a wrong turn. It just took me a long, long time to get there.
My mother said she was so surprised to look up and see I was there, just as she and others started to make their way to Uncle Richie’s gravesite.
I couldn’t have been any later and still made it on time.
My mother was in her element with these country people. The suburban town she’d lived in for my lifetime was not her home. This was. Everyone was related in some way or another to her — to me.
I stood among the pine trees and the graves and heard my uncle called a Texas pioneer. All the sins of his life were forgotten and he was honored for his roots. The mournful crowd heard solemn words, but I preferred to think of Uncle Richie with a gleam in his eye and an ace up his sleeve. Life was a game for him, and how he loved the game.



Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

December 16, 2016 at 9:31 pm

Accidental swim reminds me of Carnegie Hall

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carnegie hall

I accidentally swam in my jammies yesterday. It came about quite innocently and, as we now say in the business world, “organically.” That means it evolves naturally and without a specific plan in mind and without anyone noticing or raising a ruckus.  “Organically” is a good thing, both personally and business-wide. So, here’s what happened.

I went into the backyard early early so that I could beat the Texas heat to my flower garden. I did some snipping, some watering and some weeding but was not at all sweating or glistening. I write this because I was not drawn to the water as a cool down as I have after bike riding in the middle of the summer. It was a perfect morning. Temperature still in the 70s and comfortably windy. Birds singing, frogs croaking off at the distance, no mosquitos or flies awakened just yet. I was one with nature and my backyard.

As I headed back inside for some indoor chores, I thought what a shame it was to go back inside when I’m seldom out so early unless I’m in the car commuting. Happens that this week I’ve taken a much needed stay-cation to recover and refresh from an arduous year of knee surgeries – two for me and one for my husband. So, instead of “getting away” for an island vacation (I always prefer the beach to the mountains), I’ve decided to stay home and enjoy the luxury of my own pool (still new from last year). My plan for the week is to read, float and sip umbrella drinks made by my own cabana boy. If I remotely attempt to clean a garage or an attic or sign on to work, I will be much embarrassed at my own lack of discipline at not allowing myself to be lazy. This Type A personality can certainly relax on command.

So I kicked off my Crocs and put my feet in the water. Before knee surgery, this itself would have been a production of Broadway standards. I couldn’t remotely get to the first step of the pool last year without first pulling over a chair or a bench for leverage.

Thus, I found myself sitting on the side of the pool, feet dangling in the refreshing turquoise water – still wearing my jammies.

It happens, too, that I was wearing hand-me-down jammies from my daughter. These are black and white musical notes over a too large t-shirt with the only color being “Carnegie Hall,” written in red on the left side where your shirt pocket would go. I never sang at Carnegie Hall but Laura did as a high school senior. We bought these jammies as a souvenir and, later in life when she went off to college; I found them in a pile of clothes to be handed off to Society of St. Stephens, our church’s donation center.

I had even written a story about the trip for the cover of the Houston Chronicle’s lifestyle page. It was spring of 2001 before the world would change that September. It’s still a story and adventure I love to reread, although it’s shaded by the circumstances of seeing the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers only months before they fell.

Of course, I couldn’t give up Laura’s Carnegie Hall jammies even if she was ready to move on. So, they went into my jammie stash.

Back in the backyard, I waded for a while on the first step of the pool and then ventured to the second. I eventually sat on the edge and dangled my feet, thinking the water was a bit brisk. While the old lady in me was feeling pretty cold, the organic part of me tossed aside my glasses and dove in head first. I was underwater, swimming with no contacts or goggles and relatively unencumbered, and that’s how I stayed for the next hour or so. I had no towel, no book to read, no electronics and no glasses or contacts. Pretty uninhibited for a change.

Today, I’ve started a new habit for staycation. When I get up, I put on my bathing suit first thing. It’s not that I minded swimming in my pajamas, and, as a matter of fact, I quite enjoyed it. However, at some point when you’re not in appropriate bathing suit attire, it gets late enough in the day that it’s a bit awkward to get out of the pool.If I truly want to spend the day in the pool, I have to be a bit more prepared.



Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

May 31, 2016 at 7:34 am

Commuter Chronicles had 3,500 views in 2012

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WordPress has been a very intuitive blog vehicle for me, and I’ve enjoyed the experience of being a regular columnist again. I tell folks who think about blogging how easy it is, and I know they don’t always believe me. But, in this day and age, everyone can be a blogger. I can start a million more blogs if I want to and change the look and appeal anytime. It’s just that easy. I love our new technology and recommend we all embrace it. I’d read what you have to say.

I’ve actually written Commuter Chronicles longer than this year and this blog because I started it when I first started commuting to Houston about 15 years ago. I would write columns about my travels and experiences in Houston and send it back via email to my tennis team, book club and other friends in the ‘burbs – just for a laugh. It felt natural to me because I had been a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle and Detroit Free Press in my newspaper days. And that easiness of writing my thoughts stems from being a diarist starting when I was a kid. I would write every day in my Barbie diary about the events of every single day.  I may have mentioned before that I have written on every single page of three diaries from all three years of junior high. Should I ever become known for my serious work as a writer, my first act will be to burn those very shallow pages.

It is quite notable that in my hometown of Port Neches in the year 1969, Jesus’s image appeared on a screen door of the home located behind the Western Auto. As unbelievable as that sounds, it is true and people who lived in the area remember it well. It was huge news, made national television and Parade magazine. Like folks for miles around, I pilgrimaged to the newly formed shrine with the also recently invented Polaroid camera to take a photo of the image of Jesus. That proof remains in my wallet and on my person at all times to this day.

I tell you of this weighty event to create juxtaposition with my junior high diaries. There is not a single mention of Jesus on those pages. Instead, you can find every girlfriend and every boyfriend who called me that night, what we talked about and what I was thinking about wearing to school the next day. Those diaries are just that embarrassing.

Now that I can blog, it’s especially better than my old newspaper days. The reasons are

  • I have no editor. I was an editor and a writer and always a control freak. As a reporter, I didn’t love being edited. As an editor, I didn’t love not being the writer. The current symbiosis that everyone can be a writer is fine with me.
  • I get to write about anything I want to write about.
  • I get to take my own photos like I did in the Beaumont Enterprise days. (Or else the famous Big Johnny gets to take even more beautiful photos with his fancy, smancy lens.)
  • I have no deadlines and can arbitrarily post whenever I feel like it.
  • Folks can immediately respond to anything I write, and we can start a dialog about something we’re thinking.
  • And, thank Jesus, I have no editor.

As an old-time journalist, I’m very intrigued by the easy statistics provided by WordPress. For instance, I can tell how many folks view the blog and how many different individuals read behind me. I worried for a while that most of my views were from me looking at the column myself but then figured out that I didn’t count. So, in the olden days, I knew my work was coming to your doorstep, but I didn’t know whether or not it immediately went into the birdcage or whether you just read the sports section.

I am reminded all of this because, at the beginning of the year, WordPress automatically sent me an annual report about how Commuter Chronicles went in 2012. Here’s the roundup:

  • Biggest news is that my blog received more than 3,500 views last year.
  • Also huge is that about 320 folks follow me on a somewhat regular basis.
  • Interestingly, viewers were from 31 different countries – mostly the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. But still, others. Who knew?
  • In 2012, I posted 61 columns; not bad for the first year and considering I didn’t start until March.
  • There were 220 pictures uploaded. Some in slideshows; some in galleries.
  • The busiest day of the year was July 24 when 100 different folks looked at my post on the same day. That most popular post was “Advice from my teen-aged self” that I wrote during my high school reunion and trip to Port Neches.
  • I got the most comments from readers on my column called, “A mystic passage home,” also written during my reunion week.
  • My regular readers get email messages when I post, but most others come from LinkedIn or Facebook.
  • Some people find me when they look for my name, bicycling columns or even the term “road warrior.”

I’m looking forward to more blogs in 2013 and plan to keep it light and fun. Life is too short to take it too seriously.  However, I do, in fact, have a few serious reflections in me and hope you will ride along with Commuter Chronicles through thick and thin. Sign on to follow; don’t miss out. Then, sign on to WordPress and start your own. It’s truly fun.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

January 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Saying goodbye to saying goodbye

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As someone once said to me, “You should be a lot more rich or more famous by now.” Thelma has plenty of time for both.

This week, one of my all-time favorite co-workers left my side for a new and wonderful adventure. I am melancholy, of course, but it’s been far easier than many of my past goodbyes. I give credit to the internet for that change in my emotions. She’s a pretty regular Facebooker who reads my blog, texts me, sends me photos of her girls as they are growing up and who routinely shares interesting and exciting ideas with me.  She will be in my life every day just as many of you are.

I wake up and check my Facebook to see what’s going on with my friends and my family. I comment often and “like” even more. I see my Facebook friends daily, I know them intimately and I tell them what I’m thinking frequently. They are in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and California, and they travel often to more states and countries, leaving me messages and beautiful pictures. They do not live on my block. I have no Millie and Jerry Helper to John’s and my, Rob and Laura Petrie, something I’ve always longed to have since the first days when, as a dreamy girl, I fell in love with the lives I saw on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Then I go to Twitter to get my news from selected sources who also happen to be my friends. Because of my newspaper background, I’ve chosen writers and sources who I know personally and trust some, depending on how many late night war stories we told in the golden days of the Fourth Estate. I look at YouTube for laughs for the day.

I have an iPad, a smart phone and a husband who has tried all the notebooks before landing on the iPad, too. I have two kids who were born in the techy era and who take photos and videos far easier than they write letters or even thank you notes.  I keep up with them via text, knowing that my son won’t respond unless I ask a question and that my daughter will respond always.  My niece sends me shopping and fishing photos and another co-worker texts me photos of her new baby’s smiles.

As a former columnist for the Houston Chronicle, I once wrote that I never intended to be the type of parent who kept my children locked in my generation. I would embrace their music, their movie heroes and let them live in the world as it is today and not as it was “in my day.”

As an adjunct professor at the University of Houston, I argued with the tenured professors that “yes” our students should be allowed to use spell check and grammar check.  Why not let them start here, I said, using my hands to indicate a higher mark than where we started when we had to be accurate spellers and grammarians. I argued they would go much farther in the theoretical learning cycle when they started with the tools of today. P.S. I lost that battle and the spell check was turned off for Reporting I and Reporting II classes.

I propose a new experiment for the neuroscientists of today who study memory. How is this new generation of communications affecting our remembrances and the health of our brains?  My memories are keener because I have my friends from the past along to remind me of details they remember that I don’t. My stories are more complete when I start a post on Facebook and someone who was there who is now my Facebook friend fills in the details from his or her perspective.

This happened recently when I recalled the toughest interview of my life with Karen Silkwood’s father, back in the ’80s.  The photographer who was with me began filling in the details, and my mind expanded to think of more and more images from that dark living room in Nederland that had the single adornment of her driver’s license photo blown up one thousand times as large as possible. I still wonder, if they were as so close as he said, why this was the only photo of his daughter he had.

Today, I work on a team and recently passed on to our team leader the differences in how I reach my fellow teammates after work hours. Two are by Facebook, one is by text and the fourth is by telephone. They are all pretty available if you know their preferred communication technique.

So before I post this blog, I will message Thelma that I am writing about her . . . again. I will tell her it’s not smarmy and she will like that because Thelma is not the sentimental marshmallow that I am. I won’t even say she has been the Ethel to my Lucy because she has been far more effective than Ethel ever was at keeping Lucy out of trouble. She has been my rock — an excellent foil for my high strung and creative soul. I’d say she’s helped channel my energy and intelligence for good instead of evil, and the world has been a safer place because of her.

She will be fine with being the subject of this blog because she knows me and knows how much I admire her and how much I wish her well. My co-workers are in my life because my life is so much about my work. I don’t separate the two. And when they become friends, they can now be friends for life — no matter where their office or home is located.

Just because I have left the newspaper business or Michigan or even my hometown of Port Neches, doesn’t mean I’ve said goodbye. The only thing I’ve said goodbye to  is saying goodbye.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

October 20, 2012 at 9:04 am

Advice from my teen-aged self

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One of the instigators of my recent high school reunion and certainly a candidate for the TV show “Hoarders,” came in while we were decorating for the pre-reunion confab with a yellowed container full of notes from our junior high years. Wow! I was so shocked to see my far-neater-than-today handwriting abundantly displayed among these intriguingly folded and be-flowered offerings.  

And, in fact, I am glad Patti is a hoarder because I spent the better part of that evening reading advice and opinions from my teen-aged, lovelorn, drama-rama self. This letter atop the pile of notes at the right has a pause for algebra homework and a flower at the bottom to brighten your day. However, in the middle of the spread of notes, I gave poor Patti some bizarre advice. I suggested she call up her current love interest, wait until he came to the phone and then hang up. What? How crazy is that for attracting the man of your dreams. And, in fact, I’m lucky I landed Big Johnny before Caller ID was invented.

As revealing as these notes from junior high were, I unfortunately already knew the depth of my shallowness.  Years earlier, when I wrote for the Houston Chronicle’s old “Star” magazine, I wanted to do a piece about how Jesus appeared on the screen door in the house behind the Western Auto in Port Neches. It’s one of those hometown legends I repeated frequently around newsrooms and cocktail parties and something few people who lived above the Mason-Dixon line believed.

To get a feel for that story, I first obtained a copy of the original Polaroid — which my hoarder mom still had displayed prominently atop her dresser in her bedroom. Then, I went looking for my notes from back in 1969 when this miraculous and life-changing event occurred.

I’ve always been a diarist and a journal keeper so I thought the now-adult me could find some salient details for this new article. A lot was in my head but I wanted more. I have a record of most of my days, starting in seventh grade with a baby blue Barbie diary that had a flimsy  key that was never a match for my wily brother. (So, it makes sense that I’m now a happy blogger today.)

In any case, I looked through every single page for three years of diaries and never found a single note about Jesus on the screen door. All I had on my diary pages was frivolous musings of who had called, what had happened at school that day and what I was wearing. Jesus never made an appearance. The details from that day were magnified in my head but not written on a single sheet of my junior high mind. The reason may be in the beginning of this note to Patti. Perhaps it, too, “was too dangerous to write down.”


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

July 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm