Saturday, March 11, 2017

13th and a half street and Rio Grande

When you live in the same town your entire adult life, one of the things that happens is that by the time you're old, all of the places you pass by are what they are, but they also have a kind of ghostly overlay of all of the memories of the things that happened there.

There must be a hundred places in Austin where I could stand on a street corner and tell not just one, but multiple stories about what happened there.

This is 13th and a half street between West Ave. and Rio Grande.


Along 13 1/2 St. is the parking lot to Austin Community College's Rio Grande campus. When I went to the Women's March, (which is already a significant memory that I could tell my grandchild about - except she was there too), I parked there because it's only a few blocks from the capitol.

As I was walking back, I was thinking about the house across the street, on the corner of 13 1/2 and Rio Grande, which even though I was only in it once or twice, completely shaped my life in a way. Given its importance (to me), it occurred to me that I should take a picture of it.

That story is just one that plays in the background as I stand in the parking lot looking at the house. At about the same time as Jan decided to go upstairs at the house on the corner, Steve and I were living in the tiniest apartment imaginable (made from half of a two-car garage) - if you cross Rio Grande and walk down the alley between 13th and 14th to the brown roofed house at the edge of the picture, the door to the tiny apartment is off the alley.

When Steve and I lived there, what's now ACC was still Austin High. There were several Coke machines around the high school that dispensed soft drinks in actual glass bottles. The kids were supposed to return the bottles to wooden racks next to the machines, but of course the bottles ended up everywhere except where they were supposed to be. If you walk down West Ave. to 12th St, you'd drop off the lower left corner of the picture, but a block down the hill was a small HEB, Steve and I would walk across the campus and retrieve bottles from under bushes, out of trash cans and flower pots, continue on to the HEB, redeem the bottles for 5¢ each, and use the money to buy something to cook for supper. And as we walked around, I'd wonder . . . did my mother sit on this bench? Hang out with a friend under this tree?

Further back in time, before I was born, so not a Memory but a Family Story, my mother went to Austin High School. My grandmother was convinced that my mother was far too brilliant to be held back by the inadequacies of the high school in the dusty little town of Bangs, Texas, so she packed her off to live with her older sister, my Aunt Kat (Kathleen) in the Big City of Austin, where there was a fine university (that my grandmother had attended, I think) and presumably a decent high school.


This is the house that my Aunt Kat was living in at the time. It doesn't look that impressive, but it was bigger than it looks inside and in a very nice neighborhood a block from the Law School and across the street from Eastwoods Park. My grandfather bought it as a wedding present for my aunt and her husband. I imagine it was quite expensive at the time. I heard about it a lot from my father, because it pissed him off that my grandfather only gave him and my mother a rundown woodframe duplex in Beaumont when they got married. Kathleen was my grandfather's favorite.

And my mother was my grandmother's favorite. The sibling rivalry was downright toxic. When Aunt Kat (who had somehow tracked me down) would come over to hang out at my house when my daughter was a baby, she was in her sixties by then, but she was still going on about the unfairness of my grandmother's preference for my mother. 

So, when my grandmother decided that Kathleen, in her early twenties and newly married, was going to have to take in her teenaged sister, so didn't react well. She made my mother live in the apartment upstairs over the garage (it was still a garage then) there on the left in the photo. You can see the door to the stairs peeking out behind the fence. My father told me that Kat would buy groceries for my mother and drop them off, but my mother had to make her own meals. He said that when she got there, the utilities weren't even turned on, no electricity, water, gas, and she had to figure out for herself how to get them turned on.

She was thirteen. Maybe twelve. She'd skipped at least one grade, maybe two.

So she was on her own. Far from her parents, the town she grew up in. Her sister didn't like her and obviously tried to have as little as possible to do with her. She probably walked to school. It's a bit of a hike, almost two miles, but walking to school was what most kids did. Even now, the school bus only picks up kids that live more than two miles from school, otherwise they're expected to walk. The straightest route was to cross the UT campus, so I imagine she did. 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about my mother's time at Austin High, living in a garage apartment behind my aunt's house. What must it have been like, living alone at twelve or thirteen years old, walking across the university campus, with its imposing buildings, tower, huge trees and lush lawns, not to mention thousands (literally) of College Students filling the sidewalks and malls.

UT students in the 1940s

And then, walking into that huge high school. What must that first day have been like? I would have been terrified. A year or two younger than even the freshmen, how could she feel like she belonged?

Photo of Austin High School in 1934. A few years before my mother got there but not by much - 
she probably started school there in 1937 or 1938.