Kathy Whitmire was the first woman mayor and Lee P. Brown was the first black police chief of Houston (and any major US city). He later became Houston's first black mayor. Ann Richards had won as Texas State Treasurer and would become governor. My political science degree was focused on social policy and I saw such hope. And, my friend told me about a job opening at city council.
There was a caveat. While the position was working for one of the first two women in the Houston City Council, Christin Hartung was a Republican. We determined the benefits of having such a unique experience outweighed any policy differences. And, this was a time when decorum (for the most part) still existed.
I was hired by her overly protective and paranoid right-hand man, who told me that I was now a semi-public figure, and my words and actions in public should never reflect poorly on the council member and ... did I ever have subversive materials mailed to me???
Though I spent free time in the multi-culturally staffed office of George Greanias, whose district included the gay and arts centered-area of Montrose in which we lived, my focus was constituent services and with Houston's famous lack of zoning and complex of codes and plans, my days were spent problem solving. My disagreements with Christin were surprisingly few and mostly about how her wealthy constituents (in the “Silk Stocking District”, as it included the über-wealthy in River Oaks) took a disproportionate amount of her attention, but, she let me do what I could for folks with fewer resources.
It was thrilling in ways. I knew most of the city news before it was reported and was privy to member-to-member pre-council meeting negotiations.
And, Christin taught me some surprising things. That there was a feminist point to wearing high heels – it put me more in eye line with the men I needed to solve constituent issues and thus avoided, for the most part, the "don't worry yourself, little lady" brush offs. That you could abbreviate "thank you" as 10Q. And, when she gave me a makeover as a wedding present (I think she was a bit horrified that I only wore mascara and some powder), that, even if a River Oaks woman was just going out to play tennis, she needed to think in layers, lots of them . . . foundation, contour, eye and lip liner and so much more that I almost wrecked on the way home when I didn't know who was looking back at me in my rear view mirror.
The biggest thing I learned was that my skills were better suited to advocacy work and that I did not want to run for public office. Ever.
And now, looking back, that there can/or could be decency and human compassion across our divisiveness.
These two kids – my brother was just over 2 and I was 3 1/2 years – look so innocent, don't they?
Between my father's work travel and the two of us wild ones, our young mother, who would have been 24 at the time and states away from family and other support systems, was more than willing to shoo us out the door. The neighbor kids would crawl through the "secret" hole in the fence and join us as we headed across the creek (I have no recollection how deep or how we crossed it) behind the house and up into the forest. where we played among the tree roots.
One day we explored further into the forest and ended up, much to our delight, on a playground. Eventually, our hungry tummies called us home. Unfortunately, my brother was missing a shoe and, as the older sister, I was the target of my mother's frustration. When I responded to her query as to where his shoe might be with "on the playground." she was baffled, not knowing where a playground might be and all I could tell her was "through the forest."
In the car, we eventually found the park. The shoe was at the bottom of a slide. And I am sure my mother was overcome with lots of emotions. Recently, through google earth, I was able to find our old house ... and the park. The forest is mostly developed with homes now, but if we had walked directly from our home to the park, it would have been, at least according to Google, 1,554.35 ft (5 football fields) mostly through the forest for, again, a 3 1/2 and 2 year old! But, we were strong and fearless little kids.
I know that that escapade didn't stop our explorations. I think we just learned not to talk about them with her, and . . . to keep our shoes on.
Clyde Connell blew open a new creative space for me. It would be years before I would learn to weld and begin making sculptures in earnest, but the seeds were planted and . . . there was time for them to germinate. She had not started sculpting until she was in her 60s.
In 1983, my not-yet-husband and I were living in Houston when we were invited to join his Pennsylvania-homed parents at the Lake Bistineau, Louisiana home (or camp as it was called there) of Clyde and TD Connell, parents of my future mother-in-law's friend Clyde.Yes, mother and daughter both being named Clyde was why we called the elder one Mother Clyde and, yes, they were of Scottish descent.
My soul was immediately enthralled with Mother Clyde, her concrete, simple, window-abundant home full of her art, inside and out, her generosity, her concern for social issues, questions about human existence and her church-based civil rights work.
Mother Clyde's use of rattan and red clay of the forest, found pieces of farm equipment, and paper she made to resemble that of wasp nests touched on my childhood history of making secret places in the fields and forests nearby whatever home we currently occupied. One of her series was called "Habitats." Another was "Ritual Places." These pieces were visually and physically at one with the beautiful moss-laden cypress swamp in front of their home.
I was able to visit her again during our Houston years. Then, in 1998, shortly before her death, while I was visiting in Texas, I drove over to see her, by myself this time. I was able to thank her for her influence and, as frail as she was, her hospitality and genuine interest in others remained strong. (An aside, her son and his wife took me out for crawfish étouffée and were unsuccessful at getting me to suck the heads.)
As one of my treasured mentors, she was included in my "Ancestresses & Wise Women" sculptural series. I used her methods and materials for that piece - wood, handmade and brown paper, red clay, farm equipment pieces, stones - and infused it with my gratitude.
I threw my leather gloves down in a flourish.The last of the dirty work – the bending of steel rods, the grinding, the welding, the weaving of baling wire, the oil sealing – on my Community Grove sculptures was finished. The gloves – new and clean just weeks ago – were embedded with oil and the seams were broken open in places, testament to hours and days of joyful metalwork.
My eyes wandered to the detritus – the scraps of steel rod and wire,the hand tools and power tools, the layer of welding dust coating everything on and around my table and across to my work "bench," an old, long bar counter from, what I was told, a pawn shop. On top were plastic bins and boxes of small tools and materials and several Folger's coffee cans (my parents' coffee of choice) filled with screws and nails and random findings. My mind flew back to the Junker ("Yunker" in my family's German heritage) Brothers garage, which my maternal grandfather co-owned.
The garage was only a few blocks from my grandparents' home in their small south Texas town. Grandpa would come home at noon for two hours for dinner – the biggest meal of the day. It was always heavy on fried items, including Grandma's homemade egg noodles crisped up in the skillet with lots of butter and corn flakes cereal. And bacon, always lots of bacon or leftover ham mixed into the green beans.
After a nap, he would sometimes let me walk back with him to the garage. I was fascinated by the workbenches and shelves full of tools and parts, but I was not allowed to explore there. Instead, he would give me (was it a nickel?) to buy a roll of Necchi wafers from the front counter and ring it up myself on the old cash register with the delightfully satisfying bell and clunk of the cash drawer as it opened when the sale was totaled. I would then sit on the stool and ring up combinations of items for imaginary customers.
Grandpa was parsimonious with his words, but quick to point out when my/our actions didn't line up with his way, the correct way, of doing things. Back at his workshop in their home garage, on the other hand, I knew, from his lack of reaction, that I was free to open the many coffee cans, cigar boxes and jars with the seemingly endless, to my young eyes, amounts of treasures - recycled bolts, nuts, springs, washers, gaskets, with which I created patterns and experimental structures.
As a girl in the 60s, there were many things that I was not allowed or supposed to do. But, that smell of oil and ground steel and copper from my grandfather's car repair garage and his home one are the same aromas I now create in my studio.
A place to decant my brain, to capture inspiration and share fresh insights. [Posts from 2015 onward]