Friday, 5 November 2010

The Earth's Curvature

Penny drove us all the way from Fredricksburg out into West Texas. The roll of the land settled and the horizon grew in all directions. Near Big Spring, a town that boasted of having its own symphony orchestra, we saw a few open ponds, but otherwise the ubiquitous scrubby plants and dry river beds spoke of the lack of water. Wind generators, perched on the tops of mesas turned slowly. Not many people live out there. Once it had been a land of ranches but we didn’t see any cattle. The only inhabitants dotted throughout the landscape were the oil pumps, nodding their heads rhythmically. Some were no longer operating. My eye was drawn to the sky that with every mile grew overhead to where it encompassed the land. The horizon where Earth and Sky met was not flat but curved as you often see from an aeroplane. From that curvature you can tell that you're on planet Earth. A globe. If you're mathematical, you can even work out the Earth's circumference. The feeling of vast space left me breathless. Amber and I have our home among the Scottish mountains, a place of outstanding beauty. A beautiful view means vertical relief. I never expected beauty in a land that was so flat. Perhaps the feeling of expanse, or space , evoked in me the feeling of the numinous.

While driving, Penny related to us in great detail many stories of her mother's family --- the eleven brothers and sisters from Crane Texas, the youngest two being Edith whom we were about to meet and Joyce, Amber and Penny’s mother.

Several single houses each surrounded by bright green lawns, announced our arrival into Andrews. We pulled into one of the first driveways. Entering the kitchen we found Aunt Edith sitting by the table waiting for us. She greeted us with a broad smile. Her eyes, clear as an eagle's, looked at us through her large spectacles, seeing more detail than you could imagine. Her warmest smile was for Amber whom she hadn’t seen for many years. Aged 94, Edith still lived alone. The elegant furnishings and carefully chosen colour combinations spoke of a proud heritage --- the West Texas landed gentry. Every day Graciella cooked for her. Graciella spoke no English and Edith spoke no Spanish, yet their relationship was more than 30 years old. Anna would also stop by, pick up bills and handle the finances.

No sooner had we sat down at table when a Texas sized ham roast as large as a Thanksgiving turkey appeared from the oven. While we took bites of ham and roasted potatoes Edith asked us so many questions that we were left bewildered. She wanted to know everything about us. All our life stories. At first I could barely hear her over the blaring television --- tuned apparently all day to the Money Channel. I muted the sound. Edith didn’t appear to notice the difference. I suspect the TV was on only for background sound. Responding to her questions I talked about how I arrived in California almost forty years earlier, my astronomical research, teaching in elementary school, and of the odyssey that brought me to Texas. She listened carefully, interrupting if something I said wasn’t clear to her.

Amber pressed her aunt for stories about Joyce, but Edith did not want to talk about her. I suspected that Joyce’s mental illness cast a long shadow on the family. Neither did she want to talk much about her own past, which disappointed us as we hoped to learn some family history and scandals. We tried to force the issue by requesting to look at some family pictures. With one hand on a walker, Edith rummaged through various files in a closet, produced a few scrapbooks but only a handful of pictures.

“What do you think of Obama?” she asked me out of the blue.

She’d already sized me up as a liberal and wanted to hear my piece. I protested that living in Scotland, I wasn’t interested in the actions of the US President --- as long as he didn’t go off and start another war that involved Europeans. I pointed out that very few wars since 1945 ended in anything but stalemate. That remark ended our political discussion.

After lunch Edith retired to her bedroom for her afternoon rest but she asked us to sit with her. Hanging opposite her bed was an oil painting of a villa amid arid hills that reminded me of the Tuscan villa where Amber and I had spent last summer. Later, I asked Edith about the picture.

“Which one?”

“The one that looks like Italy.”

“A New Mexico painter did it.” After a short pause she added. “It’s yours. I want you to have it after I'm gone.”

I protested that this offer was extravagant, but Edith was not to be dissuaded. Once her mind was made up, that was that.

The next morning Amber asked Edith where we could stretch our legs before our long drive back to Frericksburg. Edith directed us to a small lake, but advised us to bring bread for the ducks, advice we should have taken. Arriving at the lake we found several ill-tempered geese that pursued us. Amber crossed the street to give the geese a large berth. They evidently felt cheated because we hadn’t brought food.

As we prepared to leave Amber found a cookbook on Edith’s bookshelf, a cookbook long out of print and which contained the Four Seasons Hotel recipe for “Stuffed shrimp in mustard fruit.” Vincent Price, because he was a celebrity, had been able to filch the recipe from the chef. I copied it down, but not fast enough before Edith spotted me and asked what I was doing. She demanded to see the book. After looking it over, she presented it to Amber, saying, “Take it home.” Amber protested that the book was valuable --- online copies sold for a few hundred dollars. Surely Edith’s daughter who loved to cook aught to have it. As with the picture on the bedroom wall, Amber’s protestations fell on deaf ears. Edith wanted Amber to take the book away immediately. Amber felt she’d been given the keys to the Kingdom.

We said our good-byes. Several of them, and then left. Soon we were once again out in the open land with the sky above dotted by fluffy clouds, and the curved horizon before us.

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