“How shall we sing the Lord’s songin a strange land?”
—Psalm 137:4

       “[Man] has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him
endure and prevail.”
—William Faulkner

Where to begin? At the beginning, or very near it.

Two young people, one a 16-year-old schoolgirl, the other a 21-year-old carpenter, married in my mother’s home church in Houston’s West End on Valentine’s Day, 1953.  The neighborhood was filled with wooden houses resting on cinder blocks, my great-grandparents’ house standing on Malone Street, just north of Washington Avenue.  A little further north of Washington was the old Katy road; across it, the Heights and Cottage Grove.  The neighborhood stretched west from Shepard Drive to Memorial Park.  The people were mostly from rural backgrounds, from all over Texas and the Southwest.  Displaced by the Great Depression, they came to Houston for work at the shipyards, building ships for the U.S. war effort.  They built their churches, opened small businesses (Chick Schrieber’s wooden grocery store with the massive butcher’s block and old glass display cases was close by my maternal grandparents’ house near Floyd Street), and went to work.  Streetcars connected the Heights to downtown, and you could see the rodeo or a circus in season at the Houston Coliseum.  My father saw Gene Autry there once, he and my uncle Harold bumping into him as he strolled outside the Coliseum before the war.  Daddy said Gene was real nice.  Harold was killed on D-Day.

The West End was the kind of neighborhood where deer hang off tree limbs in hunting season, and people keep chickens and other animals in wire coops and pens.  The people were mostly Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, Scots-Irish, and German in origin, their faces lined, hands made rough by work; but they were happy, or maybe content is a better word, in a way people don’t seem to be anymore.  (I vividly remember their sense of humor, their wordplay, rhymes, and jokes, their entirely unselfconscious way of getting on with life.)  Looking at their pictures now, many of them look older than they really were at the time.  My maternal great-grandmother had nine children, including a set of twins, a girl and a boy.  The boy was killed by a rattlesnake bite in the Rio Grande Valley before they ever moved to Houston.

After the war, West End people began to move north and west to Spring Branch, an unincorporated area of creeks and cow pastures north of the old Katy road, unpaved from there to Addicks.  My father went to see Mr. Schultz at the bank and borrowed $8,000 to buy land and building materials.  He hadn’t asked for that much, but Mr. Schultz thought him good for it, telling him they would need furniture.  (He spent $7,000 of the loan.)  In those days, every family had “their banker,” “their doctor” (ours was Dr. James Synott, who remained a family friend for his lifetime), “their barber” (Randy McCracken), and even “their insurance man” and “their” Sears & Roebuck or “Monkey Wards” appliance salesman.  Mr. Schultz was our banker for decades.

Working after hours and on weekends, Daddy built our house, a home with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room, and asbestos siding.  In 1955, my parents and older brother moved in.  Daddy worked hard and paid off the loan.  We owned the house and the land outright.

Over the years, Daddy added on another bedroom, built a fish pond, and planted trees, live oaks, a hackberry and pecans, and two mimosas near a century plant that grew massive and bloomed and died in a lot less than a century.  Momma cultivated flower beds.  (She went through a cactus phase at one point, which proved dangerous for not-so-careful kids on bikes.)  We had a small garden and a menagerie of animals—rabbits and chickens, a pet raccoon and a pet squirrel, and a host of dogs.  I still think of Pee Wee, a tough little Boston terrier, as my dog.  He was loyal and fiercely devoted to the toddler me.  (We had home movies, but I swear I can still remember Pee Wee live and in action.)  Pee Wee attacked anything on four legs that got in our yard, killing cats and damn near killing a much larger dog that got crossways with him.  Momma painted a picture of him.

We watched home movies on a white screen or the wall of my parents’ bedroom in the house my father built.  One shows my great-grandfather Sam, known to all in the extended family as Poppa, wearing a checkered hunting shirt and his worn cap, smoking a pipe and cleaning and skinning several deer hanging from trees in the front yard.  The small children and the women come behind with rags as Uncle Kenneth sprays the insides out with a water hose and we clean up what’s left of the mess.  The men and the boys have short hair, maybe slicked back with hair tonic or that goop that made your hair seem rigid as if it had been frozen.  The women are in dresses or pants with the legs rolled up, some have scarves on, and everybody looks so thin.

The houses in the neighborhood were small, the cars wide and round, or long and low with sharp fins.  My father had a three-speed manual pickup.  He was a Ford man.

Family entertainment was the Thunderbird or Post Oak drive-in or a late movie on TV on summer weekends, after a day of making homemade ice cream, cranking away on the porch.  We’d gather pillows and blankets and settle in for a John Wayne or Errol Flynn or Humphrey Bogart double feature on the Late Show and Late Late Show.  We would often fall asleep, but I seemed always to wake up in time to hear Perry Como sing the Lord’s Prayer before the TV station signed off.  I’d never heard it sung anywhere else, and it was very beautiful.  I felt like Jesus was standing right there.

I don’t think I ever really knew then how good our life was.  That came with time and experience and a growing awareness of some terrible reckoning and vicious betrayal that was being visited upon us.

It’s all gone, never to come back.

After nearly 60 years of living in that little house, which was still home to all us boys no matter where we had gone, the family gathered for a last supper a little more than a year ago.  Spring Branch had long ago been swallowed by a Houston that did not resemble in any way the “Space City” of the 60’s, much less the earthy, working-class rednecks, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer world of my early memories.  It’s a noisy, crowded, scary, post-American outpost of the global apocalypse, many of the natives resembling tattooed cannibals in the sketches of early explorers, if not the denizens of Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of hell, speaking foreign tongues or unintelligible English, filthy in places in a way the dirt poor of the past would not have tolerated, gleaming in others, glass-and-steel nihilism, Nowhere taken shape—which is, in fact, an outer circle of the inferno itself.

We sat behind the barred windows and prayed and ate our meal.

A few weeks later, we watched the movers empty the house on a drizzly November day.  My parents and I walked through the house one more time, its walls stripped bare, for Daddy had pulled out many of the cabinets he built, and the wainscoting he put in, leaving behind the hardwood floors that creaked and popped at night.  I paused in the kitchen, remembering where the head of the great trophy buck Daddy killed 50 years before had hung on the wall.  Daddy, standing in the driveway, said, “Goodbye, house.  You served us well.”

The house was demolished by the buyer.  I don’t know what’s there now and don’t plan to go back.

Within 14 months, my mother passed away peacefully in her sleep in the new house she had been decorating in Ft. Worth.  My father has adjusted, though he tells us that sometimes he sits in the empty house and talks to her.  The neighborhood seems strange to him.  It seems strangely empty, and he seldom even sees his neighbors.  “The world’s changed,” he says.

We took Momma back to Spring Branch for the funeral, and hundreds of people, some of whom I had not seen in decades, came to pay their respects and remember.  For that short time, the old Spring Branch seemed to have risen again.  At the family plot, Momma buried between her parents and my father’s, my wife and I show our children where we, too, will be buried someday.  My oldest daughter tells me not to get in too much of a hurry.

In one of Hemingway’s short stories, the wounded major, who has lost his wife, tells Nick Adams that it is better not to have anything to lose.  I don’t think that’s so.  I don’t think the major really thought so, either.  Faulkner, the same man who wrote that the past isn’t really past, once wrote that “between grief and nothing I will take grief.”  This magazine is called Chronicles, and in its pages, our writers record and comment on the present and remember the past.  But Chronicles is not about simple nostalgia, for a remembered past is the only basis any of us can have for thinking about the future.  I don’t think any of us believes we can resurrect a bygone day, and I hope my fellow writers and editors will forgive me the presumption of saying that the first step we have to make to get anywhere is to acknowledge that truth.  The past, or the best of it, is our guide, for it is the only guide we can have, and informed by that past, we stand at least a chance of hanging on to some things of great value that should be kept and remembered, cultivated, and used again as the ongoing disaster in progress plays out.  Our writers and editors have helped point the way to think about eventually building something new that draws on our past, about arranging our lives and teaching our children, re-educating ourselves, acting locally, keeping our faith, and honoring the best our past has to offer us.  We can write our own books and poetry, study together, worship, and draw on the rich heritage we have to sustain us through the present Dark Age.