After —well, I don’t like to think how long — I’ve finally had enough time to pick up enough steam on the Pine Curtain Project to start writing about East Texas history again. I haven’t had to start from scratch because I’ve been collecting bits along the way, but it still kind of feels like it.
My story of focus these days is my grandfather’s story, or rather my great-grandfather, Charlie’s. Among other things, he managed a speakeasy during prohibition, and made and sold moonshine. This is a tough one, because the speakeasy, a place called The Green Lantern, is long gone and left no trace! My grandfather remembers enough about it to roughly sketch the story, and there’s a brief mention of it in an Oral History document at the History Center. But that’s it! A head-scratcher for sure.
Anyway, because of the sparse info, I’m having get really, really detailed into my research. Which is fun, even if it is slower than I’d like.
Lately I’ve been digging into the Diboll Free Press archives. Nothing notable about the Lantern so far, but what it does have is a treasure trove of community gossip columns. These will take me a while to get through because I want to read every word! (And not just because the Free Press publisher was a Durham and covered the family like royalty, haha!)
Calling out a man who used up all the community blood!
Feasting on catfish!
What happened in Burke?! I must know.
Anyway, hopefully I will be able to update on the Pine Curtain Project more often. It hasn’t gone away, and there certainly are still plenty of stories out there to tell.
This is an embroidered vintage photo of my dad and aunt in the late 1950s in East Texas. They’re at my grandmother’s house in Homer, Texas outside of Lufkin, and looks like they’re on their way to school on a chilly day!
Lately, I have been thinking of embroidery. And by extension, I have been thinking about my Auntie. She died late April 2020, but not of Covid. A distinction that didn’t matter once she was moved into a skilled nursing center for what we thought would be a few weeks of care and then home, or worst case, private hospice. When she went in, she was well enough to ask for a specific red jacket to be brought to her, already planning her outfit for her release.
For about a month her daughter and my mother, her niece tried their best to communicate through speakerphone, FaceTime, message relays from the nurses (for as long as she could understand them) and finally, the last goodbye. My cousin, my mother and I stood in a nursing home parking lot in Tyler and yelled into a stranger’s iPhone as Auntie slept fitfully, inside and many floors up and maybe heard us but who knows, really.
She was my second casualty of the last two years and the first involving a person. This kicked off a parade of horrors that marched on to include the deaths of her husband “Pete-o”; a cousin younger than me and both of his grandparents – another great-aunt and uncle of mine, and two other cousins – siblings. Within one week, I lost two classmates – one who I had adored since 1981 and another that I had happily tolerated for just as long. A married couple from the family next door warranted a double funeral, closing off yet another chapter of our multi-generational story. My friend from college died that February, and in October my ex was killed in an accident while experiencing a mental health crisis. Loss upon loss.
And of course, the Big Bad gas station looms large across from my parents’ house. The Final Boss that will send my family scrambling back to Hoot Owl Holler where we came from, four generations and nearly 100 years ago.
I know mine is just one story in many similar ones these days. I really don’t know where any of us go from here. For me, and for a lot of people I imagine, there is a strong sense that things will never feel normal again. And how can they, with such loss? And how could we even want them to?
Thinking of Auntie, and thinking of embroidery, I keep coming back to stitches and sewing. Perhaps it is my mind, as it often does, working things out creatively when it is hard to communicate in other ways. Piecing it back together, trying to bring out the beauty.
Auntie was the family seamstress, making most of my clothes for most of my life. All of my prettiest dresses came from her: the red strapless prom dress with a full petticoat skirt and bow on the bodice, so glamorous and timeless that it was altered to fit my very short best friend a year later and looked equally amazing. A black, off-the-shoulder floral Gunne Sax-inspired dress for the 1990 National Future Homemaker’s of America (FHA) convention in Washington DC, complete with hand-placed clear sequins over every pink and red rose petal and green leaf. That trip was my first time on an airplane, so of course I had to have two new wrap skirts made to wear on the flights – a navy one with a bright, whimsical crayon print, one in tropical pastels.
In researching my family history, I learned that Auntie’s auntie was a pattern maker, and her great-grandmother did professional needlework and embroidery for the community in the early 1900s. I didn’t inherit any of that. I did poorly in my Home Economics sewing unit, somehow stitching a needle into the pillow I was making. (My FHA success came through its public speaking components.) Once, I thought I’d sew a sundress for my little cousin and was feeling pretty good until my mother walked by, sighed and rolled her eyes. “Make something she can wear,” she said.
But still, I think about stitches, piecing together, making something plain just plain prettier. As with my prints, never obscuring or transforming, always honoring and enhancing. So, stitch by stitch, something new begins.
When Auntie and Pete-o died, it fell to my mom and my cousin to clean out their house. There isn’t much in there that I really wanted. An oil portrait of my mother and a matching one of my cousin, if she or her child don’t want it. A framed 1993 Youth Fair needlepoint project depicting the million little things that make up a sewing room: thread, a sewing machine, scissors, spinning wheels…it was so big and complicated that I pulled tearful all-nighters to complete, sometimes working on one corner while my friend Jake worked on the other. It lost to a scene of a teddy bear eating an apple. A teddy bear! But that’s fine because Auntie liked it, and I liked it, and now I want it back.
But, what I really want is her sewing kit, a lidded basket in the shape of a beige house edged in blue and green. It sat by her machine for as long as I can remember, there with everything she’d need for each stitch and sequin, snip, button and flourish. There was never one thing out of place in that house, and yet that sewing kit is nowhere to be found. My other family members aren’t interested in it, and if they were they would just tell me. It’s simply not there.
Maybe it will turn up, but if not, that’s okay. I have a theory, or maybe some magical thinking. Perhaps she came back for it, took it with her to wherever she went. Her greatest joy was in her sewing, the satisfaction that can come from fixing a stitch, making something pretty, making something right.
There is a lot that is wrong right now. Who’s to say that the other side is so cut off from us that they can’t feel it? Maybe they feel helpless, too. So many gone, in such short time. To them they’ve arrived en masse somewhere entirely new with lingering, fuzzy memories of voices through smartphone speakers, unrecognizable shapes in hazmat suits, blinding lights. Who’s to say that they too, wouldn’t like to return to the comforts of old joys, to attempt to set something right, perhaps stitch by stitch. Who’s to say they can’t?
Almost one month into 2022, I am finally able to get back in my studio and make fresh monotype prints. Because this process must be completed in one go, it needs more dedicated time than other types of art. And time is something that has been in short supply!
For the my first print of 2022, I chose a vintage photo of my great-grandparents in the 1920s or 30s. Doing the math now, I realize this would make it close to 100 years ago. That seems hard to believe. While Beatrice died at 68 in 1978, Charlie, aka Grandy, lived into his nineties – almost to the year 2000! So, I knew him quite well.
What I like about this photo – other than the people in it – is how stylish she looks. I was too young to have memories of Beatrice before she passed, but I have always been told about her fashion sense and desire to keep current on trends. I see her angular 1920s bob and her shoes and think this was a person who had a sensibility beyond her rural environment.
Not sure if Grandy shared her fashion sense, but I remember that he didn’t like being gifted jogging suits at Christmas. So, maybe.
I spent the past weekend in and around Lufkin, conducting research and visiting family. I added an extra day to my usual weekend visits to fit everything in, and I still didn’t fit everything in!
Due to the size and complexity of the Pine Curtain Project, I have divided it up into a multi-year roadmap and what I hope are small, manageable chunks. The last time I visited for this work, I focused on some cemetery tours and family oral history. For this trip, I chose two local history centers and narrowed down my research to Old Homer History and the beginnings of a Huntington, Texas history that I am pursuing.
Researching takes a long time, longer than expected and longer than people realize. When I look through archives or do field interviews, I usually have one or two main points I want to explore, but I also have to leave time and “brainspace” for other ideas and topics that I encounter along the way, to either fit them into the narrative or file them away for later. Especially when I am interviewing or consulting someone. This is why you may notice that sometimes my art production goes dark for a few weeks – it is just hard to do everything at once. The past few weeks have been devoted to launching the podcast and preparing for this trip.
Because the Ora McMullen Genealogy Room hours aren’t compatible with my non-resident schedule, the Kurth Memorial Library team was kind enough to pull stacks of requested materials and set me up in a study room on Friday. I stayed for nearly three hours and only made it halfway through. I spent my time going through three large file folders: One on the historic role of the Masonic Lodge in Homer; one on general Homer history; and one on Huntington, Texas around the 1930s-40s. I have 347 photos from my trip, and most of them are of documents found in these folders, if that tells you anything.
Saturday morning, I woke up early and drove out to Huntington, to spend some time talking to Darrell Bryan of the Huntington Genealogical & Historical Society. Darrell is a longtime Homer, Huntington and East Texas historian whose work focuses on armed conflicts, cattle rustling, racism and land disputes. He is also a friend of my father’s, and very nice.
Darrell gave me a tour of the historical society building in Huntington’s Centennial Park, and then spent most of the morning sharing his research finds and opinions; and helping me understand the bigger picture around the incidents I am learning about. I came away with a better idea of the “whys” around the “what happened,” and also new, bigger mysteries to contemplate.
Since most of my work was in Lufkin proper, I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott. I’m a frequent guest there, and this time they upgraded me to a suite! Score! So, I spent the evenings with lots of space to spread out, organize my notes and snack from the giant bag of gummy candy I bought at Target.
When I wasn’t working or in the hotel, I was at my parents’ house catching up with their animals, and that was pretty cool, too. Less cool is the blighted field across the street from them, that used to have horses, goats, tall grass and trees. Soon, the field will be an all-night gas station and truck stop. An infuriating but important lesson that nothing lasts forever.
This is another large piece in progress, inspired by a photo from The History Center, of Lufkin Dunbar High School’s marching band performing at a Christmas parade in 1965. So much to like about this photo that I wanted to capture – the uniforms, the mod-looking building behind the crowd. and while it is hard to see here, the Christmas decorations in the background.
This photo was taken in 1965, whenLufkin was still a segregated school district, and Black students attended Lufkin Dunbar High School. The school, named for *poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, was known for excellence in academics, athletics and leadership.
After integration, Dunbar became the district’s middle school, and it now serves as both Dunbar Primary and the Lufkin ISD education center, as well as hosting the Dunbar Hall of Honor.
As with so many other subjects I have researched, this photo was a valuable if much, much belated opportunity to learn more about Dunbar High School and its legacy.
*Note: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1899 poem Sympathy inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s bookI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings!
The first two episodes of Pine Curtain Confidential Season One, Ghost Story, Ghost Town are available now!
These two short east Texas history podcast episodes introduce us to Homer, Texas and one of its haunting mysteries, using folklore and community stories to tie a Texas ghost story to real events. New episodes drop the week of Oct. 11.
If you have been connected with me for any amount of time, you know I am a cat lady. Here is the kitty that started it all, Baby Kitty in my arms, in this print based off of a 1979 photo. Baby Kitty was a gray striped tabby who lived in the barn between my house and my great-grandmother’s house. I don’t remember her being an inside cat, but she was always around and a really good sport while I learned to love animals. Baby Kitty was a beloved member of our family, to be cherished and pampered as such. As has been the case with every cat, dog (and in my cousins’ cases – horse, snake, parakeet and Galapagos turtle) since then.