A Lone Star State

It’s 2 a.m. and my grandpa and I are standing at a dead end, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico. We have to get up at 5:30 a.m., but I don’t want to ruin this moment that I know my grandpa has orchestrated to be “profound.” He got so excited when we arrived in Galveston that he insisted on giving me a night drive tour of the town where he grew up. I feel like I could fall asleep right where I stand.  The wind feels light but sounds harsh as it sweeps over the water.

“I always was a wayward son,” my grandpa tells me. He has a habit of trying to force moments to be emotional and deep, like scenes from a movie, but I know he’s being sincere. He tells me that he’s alone here, his younger brother and parents have passed away, and confides in me that he wished he’d never left. That’s a lot to take in for someone whose sheer existence is due to my grandpa leaving Texas and moving to the Pacific Northwest. He looks down at some rocks by the water and tells me about when he and his brother J.L. would come there and go fishing. He recreates the dialogue out loud.

“Did you bring the fishing poles, J.L.”

“No, Butch. I forgot them at home.”

“That’s okay, I brought my net.”

One thing I can say about my grandpa, he’s one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. He puts his whole body into the story. Arms sweeping in the air, motioning to imaginary people. Distinct voices and speech patterns for every character. Loud. Very loud. A lot of the time I doubt how true his stories are, but he tells them so well that I don’t want to interrupt.  

I’ve never been to the south, let alone Texas. After my grandpa’s cousin Johanna died, they decided it was time to have a proper family reunion that wasn’t at a funeral or a wedding. Before we left, my grandpa tried to give me some warnings and advice. I’m not sure if he was concerned for my safety or his pride. Maybe both. But I got a kick out of it either way.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention you voted for Obama,” he said. “They will literally strangle you.” I laughed, but he assured me he was serious. My grandpa hates my political stance. So much so that he’s never really asked me what my political stance is. He found out I voted for Obama from my mother one day (even though I swore her to secrecy not tell him) and since then he’s been trying to reeducate me with conservative values.

Texas smells like oil. It’s not an overwhelming smell, you forget it’s there after a while, but there is always that faint stench of refined petroleum in the air, at least in Houston. It was one of the first things my grandpa pointed out to me when get off the plane. We got into our rental car and headed off toward Galveston. I turn on the radio and a rap album called “Stuntin’ for a Stunna” starts playing. I eject it from the player and my grandpa tells me to throw it out the window like a Frisbee. He’s getting more Texan than usual by the second.

This brings us to now. 2 a.m. at the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually my grandpa realizes I’m tired and that we’re getting up in just a few hours to go fishing, so we head to the hotel.

The FM radio alarm clock blares at 5:30 in the morning. I force myself not to make any complaint about how early it is or how tired I am. Yawns, however, are inevitable. We get packed up and head out to the car. The sky looks the same as it did at the Gulf. Dark. We drive over the Galveston Causeway and meet up with my grandpa’s cousin A.D., the patriarch of the family, and his son David.

David is one of the specific family members my grandpa told me to not tell about my Obama-voting-habit. We’d be staying with David for the rest of the trip, so I was told to be polite and let him say whatever he wanted (even my grandpa admitted that David can be hardheaded and opinionated). We’re a few minutes late, so introductions are quick. They’re eager to get on the boat. A.D. mentions that the last time he saw me I was about “this tall” – stretching his arm to about half off his height. He said the same thing when I saw him last year.

We get on David’s white, well-kept but well-worn fishing boat and ride out toward the peninsula. Everything looks black. We travel at 35 miles per hour while they look out to make sure we don’t hit an island or a reef. I worry. They seem over confident for something they tell me is so dangerous. The political talk starts early. Who is awake enough to be mad at the government at six in the morning? I’m barely conscious enough to care. I hope I’m not this bitter when I’m middle-aged or senior-aged or any-age. They have something to say about everything and how bad it is. They are so upset about how things are going. Ranting and building on top of each other’s rants. Then every once and a while they’ll stop and say “man, look at that sky; it’s beautiful.” I’m not saying it’s not a wonderful view, it’s amazing to see Venus rise with the sun against the silhouette of a lighthouse, but I don’t understand how they can go from hating the world to being enthralled with the beauty of nature the next moment.

The day of fishing is pretty uneventful, but long. Early on, I managed to hook a large fish. It’s the biggest bite anyone gets all day. Being very inexperienced with fishing, I had all three of them yelling at me on what I should do. David tries to help me by adjusting the drag. He adjusts it too tight. Five or six minutes of fighting my Moby Dick are ended by the snapping of my line. I’m a little disappointed, sure, but it seems like my family is taking it way worse than I am. For the rest of the trip, most of the conversation centers on how great it would have been if I had caught that fish. They speculate it was probably fifteen to twenty pounds. They talk about how great it would have been if I got a picture taken with it to show my friends back home and brag about it. Personally, I’m just proud of myself for even hooking a fish like that and fighting with it for that long. But the conversation did turn from time to time. David asks me what I’m studying. I say journalism. Instantly my grandpa chimes in, “he’s going to be the next Rush Limbaugh.” David says “that’d be good.” This is not true. David then asks me if I’m a conservative. My grandpa is quick to respond “No, he’s a liberal.” This is not true. They make some crack about using me if they run out of bait. We go back to fishing.

I find that other than my big hook early in the day, I’m not a good fisherman. But I was also very inexperienced. As I struggled doing a proper cast over and over again, my grandpa got annoyed. He would interrupt and try and move in, saying, “Damnit, just let me do it.” My grandpa can be very impatient. I know he’s proud of me in what I do, but when it comes to teaching he gets a bit flustered and embarrassed when I can’t do it right. A.D. stops him almost every time.

“He’s gotta learn, Butch,” A.D. says. My grandpa huffs and goes back to his pole. A.D. pulls me to the side and slowly goes over with me what I’m doing wrong. Everyone jokes about how he is “the godfather” of the family, a call back to our Sicilian heritage. Though I’ve heard stories about how he can be short tempered and stubborn too, today he is being the most patient and understanding with me. In that moment I really appreciated that and I’m thankful that of all the cousins he is the “patriarch.”

After eight hours, we head back. My grandpa is very rushed. He keeps talking about how pressed for time we are. He wants to give me as much family history as possible. This becomes the focus for the next couple days. Visiting the homes of people I never knew (or barely knew) and seeing them now housing people my grandpa doesn’t even know. We watch them all from the comfort of our air-conditioned sedan. It must be weird to look at the house you grew up and know that you couldn’t walk in and go to your room without the permission of a stranger.

A nightly ritual becomes sitting either on David’s porch or living room and discussing politics. Well, more so them discussing politics and me being quite, biting my tongue; my grandpa told me before to let David say what he wants in his house. I can honestly say, I have never been more offended in my life. I’m pretty sure that most of what I heard was them trying to outdo one another with “how conservative they are,” but there had to be some honesty in what they said. Racism, sexism and prejudice still have a place in Texas and it makes me sick. I agree with nothing they say. I don’t even want to repeat what I heard. It’s hard when you love your family so much but you hate the views and most of the values they are portraying.

As they kept lecturing me about my youth and views, I finally get the courage to correct my grandpa and tell them I’m not liberal, but a moderate. They seem to respect that, at least more than being a “liberal.” David asks me a question about homosexuality, I respond and my grandpa tries to quickly defend my culture and upbringing but to both of our surprise my answer seems to get approval. It makes me wonder if I should chime in more. Maybe if I spoke out and called them out on their views then they could maybe change. But I don’t speak up. The risk is too high and I am not brave enough. In between their hateful comments they mention how beautiful the sky is or how good this certain brand of ice cream is. Am I the only person confused by this?

We visit three cemeteries. Two of the cemeteries are for my grandpa’s grandparents. The third hosted his mom, dad, and brother. We parked our car on the side of the road and I followed my grandpa as he walked straight to his family’s plot, never doubting a step. A large square stone stands prominent above the rest with the name SIMMONS etched boldly at the top. On the back is the name of my great-Uncle J.L. On the front are each of his parents’ names and an empty spot next to them. This is where my grandpa is going to be buried someday. A plot with no name, waiting for him. Someday I’ll come here and see my grandpa’s name etched on this stone. I feel sick. How must he feel? He starts talking to the graves.

“Mom, Dad. This is my grandson Dusty.”

“Wake up, J.L.! Dusty’s here!”

I feel uncomfortable, but I know it must be cathartic for him. I see his eyes tear up. He’s all alone. In a sense, he’s become an orphan. My grandpa is such a proud and boisterous man that I’ve never really thought of him as being sad. The only times I’ve seen him cry is when we had to put down our family dog, Bubba, when I was 10 years old and when my Uncle J.L. died. Uncle J.L. was a good man. He always looked up to my grandpa, even though my grandpa has a habit of acting unimpressed with anything unless it directly appeals to his interests. We get back in the car and my grandpa asks me to put in his U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band cd. He says it always raises his spirits.

The reunion itself is rather uneventful. I mostly wander silently. I never know what to do around large groups of people I don’t know. Some highlights include an amazing Italian buffet and a relative asking me if I’ve ever been to a donkey show. Mostly it’s just another reminder that I don’t have anything in common with the people down here. In my family, I am an outsider. They talk, think, act, walk, and probably even breathe differently than me.

I fill in the missing pieces of our portion of the giant family tree while my grandpa mingles with the relatives. I silently curse my introverted demeanor. I know he expects me to be able to just start up a conversation with anyone because, “hell,” he would say, “they’re all your family!” These people are strangers to me. When I did talk to people, there wasn’t much to say.

I join my grandpa in a conversation with his cousins about last names. We all are descendants from Domenic Mancuso and his wife whom no one can seem to remember her name. My grandpa’s last name is Simmons. He and his brothers only had daughters, making him the last in his Simmons line. He gives me crap for carrying my grandmother’s last name – a product of him never officially marrying her and my biological father not being present in my life. If he had married my grandma or “adopted” my mom then I would be a Simmons too. They all laugh it off as I become the brunt of the joke. Suddenly I feel much more pride in my “Henry” name.

The reunion begins to dwindle and only a few people are left before my grandpa and I leave. I hear him mention to a cousin that he’ll probably think about these moments on the flight home and cry. I’m still unsure what to think about any of this and end up more confused about my heritage than before I got to Texas.

As our flight begins to take off, I think about how alone I am in this part of my family. I think about how alone my grandpa is. I think of how we have this one similarity though I have very little in common with him anymore. But then I look out the window. Orange and blue clashing with the clouds. And in this moment, all I can think of is “man, look at that sky.”