Our guide squinted, trying to make out the names scrawled on the diagram she held as we followed her across the grassy expanse of Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Smith,” she muttered. “Moore. Gonzalez.” She came to a strip of grass where no marker stood, checked the adjoining names against her diagram, then announced: “She’s here.” In the distance, the rumble of a big riding lawnmower mingled with birdsong.
Back in the cemetery office a few minutes later, my brother, Rod, reminded me that it was I who had discovered that our mother’s grave lacked a marker. We were young and clueless when she died in 1980, and although we had managed to arrange an appropriate funeral, and somehow to pay for it, we hadn’t purchased a headstone. I recognized our error a few years later when I visited the grave. Over the years we had discussed the oversight many times and vowed to correct it; once, years ago, Rod had called and received some brochures in the mail. But we hadn’t followed up until now.
A kind cemetery employee named Diane, who was helping us navigate the process, walked into the office clutching a thick binder full of images of various headstone designs. We selected a pattern with flowers resembling roses, Mom’s favorite, in relief, and a simple inscription: “In loving memory of our mother.” Of course the stone will also bear her name, Mary Armenta Snyder, and the span of her life: April 19, 1920, to January 30, 1980. She succumbed to cancer without quite making it to 60.
Our determination to purchase a grave marker after decades of delay was the main reason my only sibling and I had returned to the city where we grew up. It was our first visit since 2003, the year our Aunt Frankie, my mother’s older sister, died; she was the last remaining relative in Corpus Christi we were close to. But there was more to the trip than this unfinished business. Here we were, a pair of retirees, lacking any remaining extended family, struggling with ailments of body and vexations of circumstance. We wanted to spend some time together and to reconnect with our origins.
“You Can’t Go Home Again,” the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, has become a common way to observe that the places where our lives began don’t feel the same when we return to them many years later. As Rod and I prowled the haunts of our youth, I decided Wolfe had been onto something. At age 67 — Rod is six years older — it’s hard for me to get into the head of the kid who walked to school on these South Texas streets day after day, so long ago. The first thing we both noticed as we drove around town was that everything seemed smaller. We grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the city’s south side; when we were children, the distance from one corner of our block to the next seemed vast. Now I realize it’s a five-minute walk at a leisurely pace. Our house, which we sold after Mom’s death, still stands. The exterior is unrecognizable, with new siding, roof and landscaping. But the bones appear to be the same as those of the house my parents bought in 1954, a few months before my birth, when it was brand new and perched on what was then the edge of town. Tax records show that the house has 974.8 square feet of living area. When I was growing up, as many as five people at a time — me, Rod, Mom, our grandmother and a sickly aunt — inhabited this space. It never felt crowded. Today I live alone in a house that’s considerably more spacious.
Rod and I walked around the neighborhood, struggling to reconstruct the routes we took to our elementary (it has a new name) and junior high schools. We drove a few blocks to the supermarket where I got my first job; within these walls, I bagged groceries, stocked shelves and worked the cash register through two years of high school and two of community college. I drank my first beer at a party thrown by an older co-worker. Still standing next door is the hamburger joint where my rail-thin friend Sammy once downed seven burgers in a sitting.
Rod and I were staying in a hotel on the downtown bayfront. On the day we arrived, we took a walk along the water and Rod pointed out another hotel where he had stayed on his honeymoon — the youthful, impulsive marriage had lasted less than a year — almost 50 years ago. Somewhere down the beach was the spot where our father brought me when I was around five years old; he fell asleep, drunk, on the steps of the seawall, leaving me in the water alone. I’ve never been sure if the images in my mind — I see myself splashing happily in the shallow bay, oblivious to any danger — are based on the actual event or on the many times it was gravely recounted by various relatives. I was unharmed, but this episode would become an emblem of my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s resulting struggles. This was the way of things in our family: the men drank, the women suffered.
During our three-day visit, Rod and I visited an art museum and an aquarium that hadn’t existed when we were kids. We went to Padre Island, a half-hour drive from downtown, and took a walk with the Gulf of Mexico on our left and sand dunes on the right. We watched a guy get his car stuck in deep sand; someone came along with a truck and a cable to pull it out. A fishing pier we remembered from our youth was still there, but it was closed, perhaps damaged in one of the hurricanes that had battered the island in the years since we left. We drove to Port Aransas, a town on an adjacent barrier island, and took a ferry back to the mainland. The ride was surprisingly short; even the waterways, it seemed, were smaller than we remembered.
“I’m glad we finally got the headstone,” Rod said. “It’s such a load off my mind.” We were back in our hotel room, thinking about where to have dinner. Diane at the cemetery had told us it would take six months or so for the marker to be made, shipped and put into place; she promised to send a photo. I thought back to the day of Mom’s funeral, more than 40 years ago, and to the other relatives whose death rites I had attended as a kid: my father (he perished in a fire when I was 10); my grandmother (old age); my aunt Helen (emphysema); various other aunts and uncles (assorted afflictions.) In each case, the remains of the deceased were embalmed, dressed up in their finest and set out for inspection in open-casket services that were the tradition in our family. Mourners would file by to pay their respects; sometimes they would touch or kiss the departed loved one. “Funerals aren’t for the dead; they’re for the living,” my mother often said. When my wife, Barbara, died in 2012, she was cremated in accordance with her family’s custom; this would have horrified my mother, but it makes more sense to me.
On the morning of our departure, Rod and I packed our bags and went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, but we balked at the 30-minute wait for a table. We retrieved our car and asked the valet if he could recommend a place we could eat before starting the four-hour drive back to Houston. “There’s a good place called Price’s Chef,” the kid said. “It’s at Six Points. Do you know where that is?”
We knew. This diner was an artifact of our childhoods, one of the few places we had patronized that were still in business. We found our way there, parked on a side street and walked in. A hostess whose face was painted with cat’s whiskers showed us to our booth; that night would be Halloween, and the employees were dolled up for the occasion. As we drank our coffee and waited for our bacon and eggs and hash browns, I watched the young waitresses bustling around, filling cups and taking orders. Customers trickled in — young couples with kids, single guys who might have been construction workers, an elderly woman leaning on a walker. The scene could have been lifted from my childhood except for the smartphones jutting out of the servers’ back pockets and the computer consoles they tapped to record their orders. I could imagine Mom sitting across from us in this very booth, smoking a Kent and leaving lipstick stains on the rim of her coffee cup. This flight of fancy, along with the real-life tableau before me, made me unreasonably happy.
But we couldn’t linger in this diner all day. We paid our bill, left a generous tip, got into our car and pointed it north toward home.