On certain special days until then, Matthew stayed home with dad, mom packed sandwiches, and she and I left the house very early in the morning to drive south though town toward the Gulf and Galveston Island.
Rush hour traffic in Houston was an ordeal that fit best in lists of things caused skin irritations and mental afflictions. It was better described in grunts and moans than words, but it had to be survived in order to get free of the city and into the more open and ever flatter country that ended in sandy beaches.
The coastal plain of Texas then was grassy, dotted with scrubby little trees, sagging wire fences, and clumps of clapboard houses. Occasional gas stations still had a pair of pumps out front which once had uniformed attendants to pump fuel. Of course, the pumps had changed, and the attendants were gone, but the stations still felt like pieces of a past in which automobiles were more empowering than commonplace, and roads led to other lives in new places.
Since I was a child, the Gulf has been capitalized in my mind as if it were the only gulf in the world, or the only one that mattered. It became apparent almost immediately upon moving to Texas that the Gulf was in the same category as God: The Gulf was fully capable of spoiling us rotten or destroying us with no reliable warning.
Galveston Island knew the shiftiness of the Gulf intimately since it was the Gulf that gave it life, and it was also the Gulf which in 1900 rebelled against her company to such a degree that it summoned a 15-foot-high wall of angry water to kill thousands of islanders as it scrubbed more than half the place down to sandy topsoil. The next morning presented a wall of debris containing the bits and pieces of 3,600 homes and storefronts shoved inland as far as the Strand like a giant bed quilt that had been hastily pushed aside after someone overslept.
The Strand with its cast iron and brick storefronts and warehouses felt like a mixture of New Orleans and Lower Manhattan meant to blend function and elegance in a way that made coastal life seem especially charming. Most of the store fronts had French windows and shutters, most of the sidewalks were easily a foot-and-a-half higher than the street in case of surprise tides, and between store awnings and scattered trees one could usually avoid the sun. Here and there in the district were sleepy churches and sprawly mansions built in more optimistic times when there seemed no end in sight to a wealth brought from cotton, sugar, and the need for travelers to pass into a still-new world.
The Island knew how to hold onto her personality, and she knew how to present her best face regardless of weather. Other parts of the world had to wait for those two magic points in every day when the sun was rising and when it was setting to look their best; Galveston had the knack of knowing how to achieve this regardless of fickle sunshine. It was an easy place to love, and trips to Galveston Island became the replacement for trips my mother and I once made into the woods of Michigan to places where proper grown ups wouldn’t think to look for us.
If there hadn't been time or desire to pack a lunch, then no fear: One of the piers on the Island was home to a shack that required a lot of faith to perch as it did beyond the seawall over the water; this place was like a pop-up camper stuck on the end of a popsicle stick by a wad of chewing gum. You walked to the end of the pier and into a doorway to get into a space that was more open air than closed room since the windows were always open (or non-existent) and the savory-tangy smell of the Gulf was always huffing through like an old lady sighing during a nap.
They made Po Boy sandwiches that were built inside a third of a baguette with most of the crumb ripped out to leave a toothsome shell. Stuffed inside was creamy tartar sauce, crunchy slaw, shredded lettuce, and shrimps. The shrimps were roughly the size of buttons, and they had been dredged through flour cut with correct blackening spices before being dropped into hot fat to plump them into sweet crispness before a couple hands full of them were forced into the baguette with the other ingredients.
The girl behind the counter called our number and handed us our sandwiches with the kind of grin one wears when they know they are passing along something very special and are prepared to enjoy someone else’s enjoyment of that thing. The Po Boy had to be eaten immediately while the cool bits were still creamy and the hot bits still had their crunch. They were a food that was made for an exact moment in that place suspended between the shore and the sea; they were edible performance art that had to appreciated on the spot by a responsive audience because they were too ephemeral to travel or keep for later.
From our first visit to the Galveston, the actual attraction for my mother and me was a place called Pocket Beach. Signage for individual beaches on the Island was sketchy at best, and Pocket Beach was almost invisible on signs and maps; you had to know where it was to find it, and know when you finally got there because even its entrance was simple to overlook.
Fragments of 20’s tile floor the size of small cars had been tumbled in low piles where the land gave way to the water to prevent storm erosion, and these created tidal pools that contained entire worlds for a boy my size. In these glimmery pockets were crabs the size of nickels, tiny sand dollars, sea anemone, urchins, and smatterings of minuscule fish all going about their business oblivious to my pokings and proddings.
I would hop from rock to rock peering into pools as my mother slowly walked nearby looking for pebbles, shells, and bits of glass that had been tumbled into gems by prolonged argument with the salty water and gritty sands until they finally belonged in the place where they were found.
Eventually, we would break for lunch at some point between the moments when our necks ached from staring at the ground and our noses began to tingle from too much sun. We would sit on old towels munching and comparing our haul of seashells, laughing and making castles of mud drizzled through our fingers, or just laying in the sun.
The sun would begin threatening to fail, and we would get home just in time to put on dinner and the four of our family would sit down together as if we had been home all along - as if our coastal adventure had never happened. But it had. And we were browner, and happier, and quieter for it.
When it comes to the Gulf and beaches, above, under, and gently supporting all with the warmth of a hug, are memories of my mother. These memories are why I love the beach. In recent years, my mother speaks more often than ever of her own mother, and I begin to understand: No matter how old we get, or how far we might travel, or whether she is even able to speak to us any longer, our mothers are there with us. They are in the wiring of our thinking, in the secret habits we inherited to assure ourselves we are whole, in the way we cook, in the way we express love, and even in the way we pick the sea shore for bits of glass and shell. I feel lucky with the mother I was given, and the childhood her life provided me. Happy Mother’s Day. And? Don’t forget to call your mother.