23 November 2007


My parents live in the house where my mother’s parents grew old and died, and where her grandparents grew old and died. The house has been in our family a long time, and our family has been in Goliad a long time. It’s a tiny town — current population is recorded at 1,975 — and it’s the only place I’ve returned to, consistently, all my life. Yet often I feel a newcomer there, and conspicuous. Now that I’m grown, my footfalls on the floorboards make more noise, and I still walk on tiptoe, remembering how my grandfather hated the noise of thundering children in the house. My brother and I used to tiptoe especially in the mornings past the dining room where the old man, obscured by his newspapers and a blue haze from his cigarettes, took his coffee. He has been gone for nearly a quarter-century, but my feet have not unlearned the lesson.

Goliad is a good place to grow old, and as you see three generations of my mother’s family have grown old in succession under the same roof. The weather is warm: for much of the year you can practically hear the heat, a low, throbbing hum that’s echoed by the sizzling cicadas. The cost of living is low, and it’s possible to hire help more cheaply than in other places. This permits the practice of a kind of Southern gentility, a graceful, unhurried rhythm of big meals at midday and long naps in the afternoon, a cocktail hour around sunset and an early supper. And since there isn’t a great deal of nightlife, nobody thinks you’re a fogey or a party-pooper if you’re asleep by nine o’clock.

Time for bed?
Photo by Robin Barnhill

Almost everybody waves at you, whether they know you or not, as they drive around town, and the streets are just broad enough for an old lady to drive her Cadillac to the post office without hitting much of anything. The rare exception is the few old oaks that grow smack in the middle of the road. Goliad streets were laid out in straight lines, and whenever the road crew came to a good-sized tree, they’d pave around it instead of cutting it down.

Locals are unfazed, but out-of-towners are startled, and worse. The sheriff inquired of one poor fool who’d crashed into a tree, “Didn’t you see it?”

“I saw it,” the driver replied. “I just didn’t believe it.”

When I was learning to drive, I was sure I’d be the next crashing fool, and I panicked every time I approached one of those oaks, as if the trees and not I were in motion. In those days there were about half a dozen trees standing in as many streets. Now there are only a couple. Time has done what the road crews would not.

I persist in calling Goliad’s charm a kind of Southern gentility, at least among the retirees. I recall for instance the words of my cousin, Mary Elizabeth McCampbell Gibson, who was distressed when she heard I was going East to college. “I hope they won’t make you mean,” she fretted. “Yankees are always so mean.” My grandfather spoke so often and so vividly about the Civil War that until I was ten years old, I fully believed he fought in it. On the Southern side.

Nice barn: The Mission Espíritu Santo

But Goliad’s gentility has a Texas accent. The town is surrounded by venerable ranchland, and Hispanic culture, especially Tex-Mex food, is nearly dominant. I have relatives who are convinced that there isn’t much on earth that wouldn’t taste better without a jalapeño in it. According to the Census Bureau, half the town’s population is Hispanic; that estimate strikes me as low.

Goliad is proud that the first draft of the Declaration of Texas Independence was signed here, in 1835, and the second siege and massacre of the Revolution took place here, too, at the Presidio La Bahia, in 1836, three weeks after the fall of the Alamo. Across the highway from the Presidio stands the eighteenth-century Mission of Espíritu Santo, which one of my ancestors used as a barn, but which has been beautifully restored and is now the centerpiece of a state park.

Because of all this rich history, folks in Goliad are proud of being Texan, prouder perhaps than other Texans. The battle cry at San Jacinto was “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” And while the rest of the world may have forgotten, people in Goliad do not.

Cattle country
Photo by Robin Barnhill

A tornado in 1902 is still talked about; a hurricane, four decades later, knocked the turrets off the county courthouse, and it took another half century to get around to restoring them. Goliad isn’t far from the Gulf of Mexico, so the town gets its pick of hurricanes, tornadoes, and other “Blue Northers.” I suspect that much of the delay in restoring the courthouse can be attributed not to the weather, however, but to the reluctance of county administrators to spoil the pleasure so many townsfolk took in describing the storm and pointing out the blank spaces where the turrets used to be. Only when enough of those people had passed on, and the reminiscing had slowed (though never stopped), could the restoration begin.

People remember the dry spells, too: the town gets either too much rain or none at all, in violent pendulum swings that long predate Mr. Gore’s warnings. People still remember a longhorn stampede through the town square. This took place in the mid-1970s, but it was a very big deal, and really nothing has happened since to rival it.

Many of the buildings around the square date to before the turn of the last century. My grandfather used to take me there in the mornings, stopping off at the drugstore to catch up on the latest gossip. Hopping barefoot on the hot pavement as I scooted after him, I used to feel like a celebrity. “This is my grandson,” he would say, and I am certain that a prince named William doesn’t get treated any more royally than I was. Nowadays it does me less good to say, “I’m Will Torian’s grandson”; it’s a mercy that most of the town was educated by one of three generations of the women in our family: my grandmother, my aunt Tisha, my cousin Robin. I tell people that, when I’m there. I want to make clear that I am not a stranger — I’m a part of Goliad, too, and Goliad is a part of me.

Yet the road keeps leading me away...
(My parents’ house faces a highway.)

Goliad has meaning for me, one that I can’t quite define. At school, I was mystified when friends didn’t know what Goliad was and what it represented to me, though I found myself unable to explain. Even people who had grandparents in other small towns in Texas felt my gently condescending pity. But when you get down to it, I am a stranger, or near enough. I never lived there, and I don’t visit as often as I did when I was a boy. This was my first Thanksgiving in Goliad since 1978.

And things have changed. Whole buildings have vanished, like the old, ramshackle hotel that stood (barely) just off the square. Even the pavement is gone now that used to mark the site of the Goliad Opera House: built in 1905, the building was torn down long before my time, but it gave me such a kick to see the marker pressed into the concrete there. The cemetery is crowded with people I knew, and it takes longer to pay my respects to them all. My grandmother’s garden, a wonderland of shady trees and colorful flowerbeds when I was small, has fallen victim to time and weather: storms took out the biggest trees, the flowers are mostly gone, and only my parent’s dog, Mac, seems to derive from his romps the kind of enjoyment I used to find there.

Learning to be gargoyles: Alison and Bill
Thanksgiving 2007

Yet this is the nature of families: they keep going, though not always in the directions we expect. I was struck this Thanksgiving by the possibility that my little cousin, Alison Dye, may wind up experiencing Goliad in something like the way that I did. Like me, she’s not from Goliad, and only one of her parents was born and grew up there; like me, she goes to visit doting grandparents who live in a house with many furnishings that are not from this century, in a yard that is animated by flowers and trees. (Not to mention cattle and an alligator — that’s another story.) And because we have these things in common, a few things are clear.

Like me, she will be baffled and a bit annoyed when she visits people who don’t know how to make cornbread the right way or to smoke the sausage they made from the deer or javelina they hunted themselves; people who don’t put a sleeve on a can or a napkin around a glass; people who don’t drive around a tree if they find one in the middle of a road. People who don’t remember.

Like me, she will go to school with kids whose families can point to no one place, no hometown populated by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and fourth cousins once removed; like me, she will feel sorry for people who have never heard of Goliad.