Hiking the craggy terrain of my sister-in-law’s ranch in Texas hill country, it is easy to imagine this land looking much the same hundreds of years ago.
Live oaks, Ashe juniper, and Texas madrone trees thrive in the rocky soil, despite frequent periods without rain. Likewise, the patches of grass, colorful wildflowers and other plant life that stake their place in the layers of eroded limestone.
From elevated positions there are vistas that stretch for miles, with nary a house in sight. Land is a finite resource and the acreage increasingly expensive, but despite the efforts of developers to transform this topography into an Austin exurbia, there remain stretches where the gate to a neighbor’s fenced spread may be a quarter mile or more down the road.
And indeed, as the song says, the stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.
We came to visit my in-laws, whom I have known for more than four decades, back to the beginning of my professional career, when they lived in a city on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
I choose to remember my mother-in-law as the woman who welcomed me from the first and would make rice pudding because she knew I liked it; who lived for her three daughters and son, and doted on her grandchildren; and whose paintings hang in their homes and have also brightened hospital corridors.
Dementia has silenced her voice and stilled her hands. Whether she recognized me when we visited the facility where she now lives, I do not know. There was a momentary gleam in her eyes, but then they closed.
Meanwhile, little by little, physical ailments have reduced my father-in-law’s independence. The man who ran a family business manufacturing mattresses and who enjoyed (for the most part) a round of golf and playing tennis now moves mostly with the aid of a walker or wheelchair and is reliant on caregivers who come to the ranch, where he lives in what once was his grandson’s bedroom.
Seeing them in their present circumstances was sobering.
There is an undeniable cruelty that has come with advanced years, as their living space has shrunk from houses to apartments and then, as necessary, to a room. With that circumscription has come a reduction in the furnishings, clothing and memorabilia that have made these moves.
At my sister-in-law’s, we sifted through boxes, including one filled with scrapbooks that tell the family’s story over several decades. My wife brought home a photo album from our wedding, which now joins our scrapbooks and as-yet unsorted or digitized photographs.
The theme of impermanence is reinforced when we eye the stacks of a previous generations’ dishes in our cupboards, or give a thought to furniture that came from our parents’ and grandparents’ homes, or take inventory of the books that line shelves or are packed in boxes in my office closet and the basement storage room.
We have a corner sofa that came from my wife’s paternal grandmother, a dining room table and chairs from the home where my wife grew up, and rattan chairs and a tea table from my maternal grandparents’ home. We have china, silver pieces, and a wooden case of flatware we rarely display, though a few of my mother’s kitchen utensils are still in use.
Then there are the books. A former sister-in-law once joked that, in my family, the idea of a good time was everyone having their own book.
I have books that belonged to my paternal great-grandfather, a rabbinic scholar with a reputation for “borrowing,” but forgetting to return books. There are also slim volumes that my paternal grandfather carried in his haversack during World War I, and countless journalism-related books that my father gifted me, some bearing sticky notes with his handwritten messages.
We — the children of aging parents and the parents of adult children — are coming to grips with the transitory nature of possessions, even family heirlooms and mementoes of our own lives. We have room for all of this now, in this house, but what about in the future?
Measurements of time, personal and geologic, were ever-present during our visit to the Texas hill country. What stayed with us was an enhanced appreciation of the independence and capabilities we enjoy today.