Little more than a week ago we stood in groups along Cesar Chavez, watching Lady Bird Johnson’s funeral cortege make its way to her final resting place in her beloved Texas Hill Country. The funeral route passed near Town Lake’s hike and bike trail, one of many Austin locations where wildflowers thrive, providing colorful evidence of her living legacy of beauty.

For many of us, Lady Bird will always be the First Lady of Texas. That Sunday morning, I thought about another day many years ago in Frost Brothers’ Ladies Dresses at Northcross Mall. I had had wonderful luck that afternoon, finding not one new dress but two, and was standing at the check out counter. Already my mind was moving from “shopping” to “whatever-will-we have-for-dinner.”

Suddenly I became aware that the normal bustle and movement of the store had stopped. Totally ceased. What had been a hub of activity was now filled with — silence. I looked around, and there she was, right beside me. It was undoubtedly Lady Bird Johnson, just completing a purchase.

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On one September morning, in 1977, my mother gave birth to me in a hospital in the middle of the woods of Lufkin, Texas. I was a stark bald baby girl. From her recollection, as well as my grandmother’s, all they can remember is that it was really thick fog the previous night driving to the hospital. Well, that fog carried on for years because I can’t remember anything before the age of about three. I do know during those years I was mainly with three important people, my mother, my grandmother and my Poppie.

All three loved me and took great care of me. In particular, though, I spent countless hours with my Poppie. My grandfather was known by the grandkids as Poppie, and he was the center of the entire family. As far as I know, I was always Poppie’s girl. He was not only my grandfather; Poppie was my mentor and father figure. He also provided me much of my childhood entertainment. It helped that I did live with the man. It didn’t hurt that he loved children, too. In a sense, he was a child. He had a childish love of things. His eyes would light up in excitement. His smile was honest. He held a love in his heart that was precious. This love is the type that has endured throughout my life.

He was huge, tall in stature and big round belly, but there was such gentleness to him. He had a childlike delicateness, too. Not his hands, though, they were always covered in Mercurochrome from cuts. Of course, I easily fit in with him like a glove wherever we would go, but that’s how everyone who knew him felt.

He was very observant. He made sure you were comfortable. All who knew him loved him. All respected him. He was not only big in the literal sense; he was a big presence in our little town. In fact, if you had any children, or were a child, he knew you, because he was the school superintendent. In our little town, that was about as powerful position as you could hold, because you held the whole town’s future in your hands. The future was all we had. He was a great leader and believed that a small town could thrive from great leadership. That was all fine and well with me. However, he was my grandfather first and foremost. It didn’t matter to me if he was the President or a ditch digger.

Poppie was my world. No, he was the axis to my very globe, my one and only father figure. He was the dominating presence in my life. He was this distinction to many. After the separation of my parents before my birth, my mother and I lived with my grandparents until I was twelve years old. Those first years of my life had the most impact on me. I have such happy childhood memories. Most were of my loving family. Some were of the area in which we lived in East Texas.

My family was small and close-knit. It seemed my relatives all looked out for one another. Many members of my family had moved on to the city, either Houston or Dallas, for career advancement or extended family reasons. They always returned on holidays where we would feast on “home-cookin’” at Memaw’s house until our stomachs were full and beyond. Memaw was Poppie’s mother, my great-grandmother. Poppie was always at the center of these events as well.

We lived in a little town called Corrigan in southeast Texas among the pine trees. People lovingly referred to it as the Highway 59 speed trap. The pine needles accented the view in every direction. East Texas is one of those “survival” places, filled with extremes, such as love and hate, friendly and unwelcoming, poor and poorer. There are “survival of the fittest” places, like cities, where life is really competitive. On the other hand, a regular “survival” place was one where if you survived at all, you were going to be a success. To clarify, if you got out of East Texas, that was considered success.

This was an unsaid code, but we all as members of this society of East Texans knew it was a hard place on the psyche. For one thing, the woods were all around you. It was as if you were an isolated entity. Everybody knew everybody else. They knew all your business. So, that made any kind of deviation from the town’s sense of who you were very difficult. You were who your family was, and that was it. I later resented the townspeople for it. The only redemption the town had in my eyes was the sheer beauty of the area where pinecones were as abundant as blades of grass. Really, what I later thought East Texas needed was a good patron saint, a reason for deliverance.
My earliest memory was of the golden sunlight shining through the tops of those giant green Southern pines. The bends of light accented the dark green foliage. Those childhood memories I hold so dear almost always include my Poppie, as the grandkids called him.

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