In the years just before America’s entry into World War II, thousands of people, shaken and scattered by the Great Depression, made their way to Houston, where the shipyards were booming.

My people wound up there, too.  The place they lived was called West End, rows of little white houses set up on cinder blocks, neighborhood groceries, such as Chick Schreiber’s near my grandparents’ house off Washington Avenue, and buses that could take you downtown to see the picture show or to the Sam Houston Coliseum for the annual Fat Stock Show and Rodeo.  Daddy and Uncle Harold saw Gene Autry there twice.

Grandma and Poppa, my great-grandparents, lived there.  I spent a lot of time in that house on Malone Street with my grandmother and Momma, who helped to take care of Poppa when he had cancer.  There were deer antlers in the house and a picture of Jesus on the wall.  (Grandma was very pious and made her free-spirited husband keep his beer outside in an icebox.)  I think there was a big chinaberry tree just off the front porch.

Momma was among Poppa’s favorite grandchildren.  I can’t remember how many he had, and, with nine kids of his own and their offspring, I was often confused about just what kin all of them were to me.  It didn’t seem to matter.  We were close in those days.

Cancer was a mystery to me.  I hated to see Poppa like that.  But he always kept his humor and ornery ways, even then.  I like to remember him as the lovable old cuss from the Rio Grande Valley who used to supervise the gutting and skinning of deer in Uncle Kenneth’s yard.

When Poppa died, it hit us all hard.  Grandma followed a few years later, and that was even worse, for I had figured out by then that all of us were going to die.  Even Grandma and Poppa.  Even me.

Death was hard enough to figure, but to watch them suffer was more than I could bear.  I remember crying when Grandma couldn’t recognize me anymore and wondering why God had allowed this to happen to that saintly woman.

I began wondering all over again when Momma told me she had cancer.  We put her on prayer lists and asked friends to pray for her.  I also wondered how she could do this to me.  (Even our best wishes are tainted by Original Sin.)

Cancer and the Will of God remain mysteries to me: Momma called one day and asked me if I believed in miracles and I said, Yes, I reckoned I did.  And she told me the cancer was gone.  No treatment.  No reason.  Just gone.

I hadn’t finished rejoicing when a friend of ours called a little later.  I told her about Momma, and she was happy for us.  Then she reminded me of her uncle, who had been dying for years.  She was wondering what to pray for.  Just pray for what’s best for him, I said, leaving it to God to do the rest.  And be thankful for what you have—and what you had but had almost forgotten.  That was the best I could do for her.

In Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, Mac Sledge, a recovered alcoholic and onetime country-music star, has a moment like that, wondering why some things happen and others don’t—why some people live and others don’t.  And he couldn’t answer his own question.  This beautiful little film, shot near Waxahachie, Texas, leaves off with Mac playing ball with his stepson, laughing and enjoying the tender mercies God has granted, and not asking questions he can’t answer anymore.

So I thank God for the tender mercies he has shown us: for Grandma and Poppa, for Momma, for Washington Avenue and Malone Street, and for the memories, fading now, but still there.