Here I go again, on the way back to Sweetwater. Not to get a donkey but to shoot Sunshine, My Only Sunshine.
Driving down the highway, Aunt Nolie doesn’t talk much, at least not with her mouth. She clutches that steering wheel like she’s about to squeeze all the Texas sand and Grit out of it and that’s a whole conversation in itself.
We finally get to Sweetwater and park in front of the Lucky Star Bar.
“Cono, ye wait right here.”
“OK,” I say, since I’ve already met the woman, who’s about to be shot anyway.
I sit in the car, again. I watch the people come and go, again, except this time, the ones that had been going were coming and the ones that had been coming were now going. I wait for the sound of a gunshot, the sound I’ve become familiar with when I hunt with my dad. I wait alright ‘cause there’s nothing else for me to do.
Jim Dennis, my great-grandfather, bought the ranch in 1904. When he decided to retire to a simpler life other than cowboying, he told Ike he could run the place. Great Grandpa Dennis took Granny Dennis and moved to town.
Jim’s recountings of his younger days were filled with pioneering stories and Indian raids. “After the Civil War, the country was full of unbranded cattle and it was customary for cowmen to brand everythin’ in sight. We sorta Tapered off, though, when the cattle brandin’ law went into force. In the free branding days there was grass enough for all, and plenty of cattle but the cattle had small market value. In 1881, fencing became general, and free pasture was a thing of the past,” he told us great grandkids. “I remember the days when Fort Griffin was a boomtown,” he’d said, “The center of buffalo hide and bone business. Hunters outfitted their parties at Fort Griffin and brought their hides and bones there to be sold. When the buffalo were all killed and the Indians had been put on the reservations, Fort Griffin’s businessmen moved to Albany and the old fort was soon a ghost town.”
Great Grandpa Jim also told us that doctors were few and far between, but not many people got sick. “Couldn’t afford to get down with doctors twenty-five miles away. There weren’t any dentists and teeth seemed to last nearly as long as the folks did. Maybe the pioneer diet of beans, syrup, bread, meat, and coffee wadn’t so bad after all.”
When Jim and Granny Dennis first got married, they moved to Nolan County and spent twenty years on Bitter Creek. Their first ranch home was a dugout, twelve feet square. I didn’t know it back then, but me, Delma, Mother, and Dad would be living in a dugout before too long.
God almighty, they had a total of twelve kids. I can only imagine Granny Dennis raising those kids, taking a break every so often to sit on the front porch to chew her tobacco and spit it back out into her brass spittoon. “Ping!;” like she probably did, when Dad took Delma that time. “Now Wayne, ping, she belongs with her mother, ping. Ye take her back right now, ping.”
Their son, Henry, died in 1898. And Boxley died in 1918 while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France. That left James, Sid, Maggie, Ike, Bertie, Lawrence, Thurmond, Florine and the twins, Raymond and Rubie. Uncle Sid is ranching in New Mexico, Uncle Thurman is the foreman of the Martin ranch, Uncle Raymond ranches too. While the other kids were off doing other things, thirty-two hundred acres of pure Texas sat in the capable hands of Ike.
The ranch sits at the base of Double Mountain about fifteen miles outside of Rotan just past the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Mesquite trees, scrub brush, and red dirt were pure and raw Texas. In 1941, the land that spoke to itself and made the people who lived there a little stronger, would be out of our hands and in the hands of the famous football player, Mr. Sammy Baugh. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I’d get to be with Ike and not with Mrs. Berry and, at the time, that was all that mattered.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and training with Ann Wolfe, known as possibly the greatest female boxer of all times. She was tough, no-nonsense. Three of us had the chance to get inside the ring with her. Of course, she wasn’t going to punch us. It was all about our own offense. Needless to say, in that small ring, she was so fast, I couldn’t get even close to her.
After I was commissioned to paint her portrait, she told me that it reminded her of her mother — a wonderful compliment since she loved her deceased mother with total abandon. She told me she hung the original above her mantel.
Here is a great, short documentary on Ann Wolfe and her struggles to become a boxer. If rough language offends you, don’t watch. But if you like seeing how a woman survived the murder of her father, the death of a beloved mother and rose to the top, then watch.
A long time ago, when I wore these tiny boots, I didn’t know who or what I would grow up to be.
What I did visualize at a young age, was that, no matter what, I would be a mother.
But life doesn’t always listen to the script you write in your head. It teases you, tricks you, and leads you astray.
I fought hard for my babies. Basil thermometers, weekly blood tests, in vitro fertilization, the drug, Clomid, that gave me a cyst on an ovary. And on it went. Each time I left the doctor’s office, I cried.
At the age of 32, after a long, painful struggle, I received a phone call. “How does a boy sound?”
We picked up our son when he was five days old. My life was complete, joyous, perfect. My son taught me how to be a mother, and, for that I will be eternally grateful.
And then? Four years later, my infant daughter filled my arms.
Now? Both of my children have given me a grandchild. And, on May 18th, I will have my third. I feel like the luckiest mom in the world.
Life is a beautiful, wonderful mystery. Don’t give up on it. Just stay tuned for the magic that will happen.