Everything was country when I was a kid. Back then, Oak Hill was a brushy, countrified outpost of the capital city made of creeks, woods, and dirt roads. We climbed the oak trees and sniffed the junipers. We stuffed our mouths with sour candy at the old baseball fields while metal bats clanged. We ate hamburgers in the car with the windows down. Bugs bit us. It was hot. We were always sweating. And across from our house was a big greenbelt. We called it “the field.”
In the field, wild blackberries stained our hands with their sweet blood and wild onions stunk up the creeks when it rained. I liked watching the wildflowers that changed color and shape each week in spring. The names I heard for them were from covered wagon times- Bluebonnet, Indian Paintbrush, Indian Blanket. Sticker burrs and speargrass stuck to our socks so we took note of them, but much of what surrounded us back then- the field’s other prickly, itchy, bristly, wiry, spiky plants that brushed us when we played or passed through- remained unnamed. The words we heard for the things that grew there were weeds and trash trees. So we invented our own names.
The city was never mine. We went as far as Town Lake on special occasions, but mostly Oak Hill was enough. Our road didn’t connect to anything but woods for most of my youth- the asphalt just ran into dirt and underbrush where possums, snakes, raccoons, rabbits, and spiders spent their quiet hours. A few years ago, deer and coyotes began to appear in the field on early mornings or as the sun was fading. It was a strange, sad cipher- they had nowhere to go. Oak Hill has grown three times faster than Austin proper in the past decade. The field has stayed mostly the same, but the constant construction around us has made its surface eroded and flat, dulled by fast-moving rain water and trash.
I can still go to some of the old spots- the grocery store with styrofoam chests stacked over the frozen food aisle, the cowboy diner, the old dental office. I remember sitting in the dentist’s chair next to a big window that looked out onto the woods. I was watching a squirrel gnaw a corn cob while the doctor numbed me up, warning me that braces would be the only way to keep my crooked teeth from ruining my wedding photos. I was a teenager, back before so many trees and junky little shops along the creek were leveled for the highway. Now I’ve been living away long enough that my own neighborhood looks foreign to me. But in the spring, everything- cars, walls, streets, old and new neighborhoods- is still coated with neon green oak pollen.
A couple of years ago central Texas was hit with so much rain that people and homes got washed away. The floods cleared sediment from the field in big chunks- rocks, branches, and trash were kicked up and carried off. But the water made way for the most beautiful wildflowers I have ever seen. They were as tall as a wall- our dogs dove in and out of the flowers and came out speckled with petals and leaves. It was as if the ground itself had lifted, and the horizon was now a crest of wildflowers. I went to look at the flowers every day. By then I had gotten word that I’d be leaving the country in a couple of months. You can’t freeze a flower. You can’t even press it without it losing its color. I marvelled at the flowers and I guess other folks did, too, because it took a very long time for them to mow them all down. The summer cicadas were already buzzing by the time the flower world disappeared and the horizon line suddenly came all the way back down.
Our first school was off Fitzhugh Road. In those days it was just dirt, creeks, juniper trees, and the tin-sided schoolhouse run by Sister Leona and Sister Benita. The lady we carpooled with played Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Chattahoochie, and other 90s country music as she smoked Virginia Slims out the window. My parents preferred “Oldies 103,” a radio station with hits from the 1960s. My parents were born in the 50s, so I heard the same music growing up that they did when they were growing up. Songs like Little Surfer and Spanish Harlem make me nostalgic for the Texas Hill Country like they make my dad nostalgic for Ohio, or my mom for Madrid. That’s where she lived back then, and that’s where I live now.
I still listen to those old songs and even dance a few steps now a days at my tiny apartment in Spain. Something about the distance unseals my memories and sends them back to me quick and clear from so far away. The old days come in visions from another time and place. They stop me in my tracks. Meanwhile outside my window, my neighbors come and go. They cross the tiled patio filled with potted plants, singing their own songs sweetly to themselves as the night begins to fall.