Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


When irrigation systems developed the farmers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas found that orange and grapefruit groves grew well. New strains of the trees were introduced that were sweeter and hardy. Red grapefruit was first produced here. Besides the citrus groves there were fields of vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, and other crops. As a result the residents called it the Magic Valley in their advertising. One of the early ripening oranges was the Hamlin, which does not ship well. (After we left the Valley it was hard for us to eat oranges we were able to buy in the Nashville stores because the flavor was not as good as the Hamlins.) Even with all the fields of vegetables nearby the prices in the stores did not decrease. It was not very often that we had access to fruit from a grove or vegetables from the fields, although some years acres were not harvested. The Valley was beautiful with the citrus groves and palm tree lined highways.

In June of 1953 Howard received his masters degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He made a decision a few months earlier to look for a job in this new field, "at least two hundred miles from your mother," he told me. Offers came from Florida, and from Savannah, Georgia. He chose to take one as Child Welfare Caseworker in Edinburg, Texas.

In the two years while he did the work required to complete his degree we had been living with seventy-eight year-old Mrs. Blaney on the edge of Madison. Now we waited there for the birth of our fourth son Keith, on July 8, before moving back to Markesan to stay with my mother until August when we could begin our journey to Texas.

In late July Howard's brother Lloyd, and his wife Mary Bess and their children: David, Steven, and Joy Lynn came to see Wisconsin. They came from East Texas pulling a small trailer loaded with watermelons. Lloyd knew the trailer would travel better if it were loaded. The melons were delicious, large round ones. We ate a few and the rest he sold to the local grocery in Markesan. He would load some of our furnishings in the trailer for the return trip.

My mother gave us two bedsteads, three chests of drawers, a drop-leaf table, rocking chair, rugs, dishes and pots and pans, quilts, sheets and pillows. There were two baby beds, the baby buggy and high chairs too. We rented a large trailer to pull behind our car. Howard and Lloyd worked many hours in the very warm summer weather loading the trailers. The one thousand six hundred mile trip required that everything be packed very carefully for the long ride.

Early one morning we said "Good-bye" to my mother. She waved from the back porch as we drove away with the heavy loads. She have been sad that we were going so far away, but after having the eleven of us there a week or so she may have felt relief at having her house to herself and be able to put things back in place as well as resume her associations with her friends and relatives on a leisurely schedule.

My mother, Mabel holds Alan on the back porch of the house in Markesan. Joel and James sitting on step.

Keith, was one month old. His brothers were Joel, six years, James, four, and two and one-half year old Alan. They took books, crayons and coloring books and a few small toys to help pass the hours as we rode. They were interested in seeing farm animals as we passed through the countryside. Windmills on farms especially caught their attention.

Pulling the trailers slowed our travel so that we spent the first night in a motel in Illinois. All I remember about the motel was that at last I learned how to hold a baby on my arm while I gave him a bath in the bathroom sink. Keith had his bath that evening and ever after I found it easy to give a tiny baby a bath that way. I had been afraid to try it with our first three.

The next day Lloyd and Mary Bess wanted to travel by way of St Louis to see the zoo there. We wanted to go as straight south as possible toward Texas. Lloyd wanted to be sure that we made the trip without difficulty. He worked out a plan in which we would leave a note at the first highway sign as we crossed the Texas state line. When he came by he would pick it up and be assured that we were making the trip alright. I thought it was an ingenious plan. Two days later as we entered Texas we left the note under a rock by the first U.S. highway sign. When Lloyd came by he knew we were ahead of him.

In northeast Texas we stopped to spend a few days with Howard's parents at their farm home. Some our things off Lloyd's trailer were stored there and others were added to our load to go on south. On a Saturday morning our family started on the trip to the unknown place where we were going to live in the Rio Grande Valley. At the end of the first day we reached Cuero, Texas. We didn't know how to pronounce Cuero but we found a motel that owned an empty house we could rent for the night. We appreciated all the room to spread our beds on the floor and space to have a picnic supper. Maneuvering the car pulling a heavy load made traveling more complicated. After driving all day it was a lot of work for Howard to unload enough equipment for everyone to sleep, but we did not have to gather wood to build a fire to cook a meal as the early pioneers did.

The next morning we got up early to drive to Alice, Texas in time to attend church. We knew a family who lived there. We appreciated their invitation to eat lunch with them in their home. After that the real adventure began.

Traveling south from the Justiss home we saw many tall pine trees growing on the sandy soil. Farther south the scenery changed. Trees of any kind were fewer and smaller and the pale blue sky was big. Now, south of Alice an occasional dark green ebony tree was set off by the faded green crooked mesquite trees growing among the prickly pear cactus. Now and then the boys caught sight of a cow grazing in the mesquite brush. Howard said this was ranch country and that the cattle could find enough to eat on the weeds, sparse grass and the mesquite leaves. The highway stretched straight ahead through endless miles of what looked to me like waste land. The afternoon sunlight gleamed off the hood of the car into our eyes. It was very hot but I determined I would not speak of it. (No cars were air-conditioned in those days.) We were pleasantly surprised when a few scattered showers passed over. The bit of rain relieved the monotony of the bright sunshine and the heat.

I began to sing songs: "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "Don't Fence Me In," "Riding Down the Canyon" and "Tumbling Tumble Weed." There were big balls of tumble weed caught in the fences and blowing across the highway. Miles and miles of fencing enclosed land that looked worthless compared to the fertile areas of Wisconsin that I was used to seeing.

Thirty miles south of Alice is the city of Falfurrias. The name in Spanish means hell-fire. It is well named for the temperatures that occur there many months of the year. One hundred more miles would get us to Edinburg. Other names found on the map, Ben Bolt, Premont, Encino and Red Gate, are tiny communities barely noticeable by passing travelers.

We were eager to see the place that was to be our new home. The highway entered the city in a straight line. All streets intersected it at ninety degree angles. There was no reason for a curve anywhere until we reached the courthouse square. The courthouse was a white stucco building with red tile roof - a very Spanish type architecture which made us feel we were in a different land. Palm trees lined some of the streets and clusters of deep blooms hung on the bougainvillea shrubs.

We had no idea where we would live in Edinburg. We knew no one. We would have to search for a house. But this Sunday night we found a motel on the edge of an orange grove. Orange Court didn't cost too much. We could stay in one room while we looked for a house. There were two double beds. Little Keith slept in the baby buggy. There was a gas-burner so that we could cook simple meals. Diapers had to washed by hand and hung out wherever possible to dry in the glorious sunshine. Disposable diapers of that time were not satisfactory and of course, too expensive. As we unpacked the car we found that the new box of crayons we carried on the ledge by the back window had simply evaporated in the heat. The empty paper wrappers were neatly in place in the box.

Early the next day, Howard went out to get information about houses to rent. Then he started looking at them by himself, because it was too difficult to take the small baby on such errands for so many hours. When he started looking at a house the owners often asked an important question, "How many children do you have?" When Howard answered, "I have four little boys," the owner said, "I won't rent to you. There would be too much damage on the house."

After a day or two Howard found a small house and a neat garage he thought he could buy. It was in a nice neighborhood near the end of the street. Its four rooms were well arranged with windows letting in lots of light. The house had been empty for a few months so no grass grew on the sandy yard. A few gnarled and bent mesquite trees taller than the house grew in the front yard. An even larger one spread its branches in the back yard. They looked wonderful compared to the scrubby ones we had seen north of the city.

The Twelfth Street House, Edinburg, Texas. James, Alan and Joel waved to their Dad as he left for his first day of work in Hidalgo County Welfare Office. 1953.

In a few days we moved into that house at 1125 South Twelfth Street - our own home! Until now we had lived in apartments, been house parents in a children's home, and lived with my parents and then with Mrs. Blaney. I felt a sense of relief that I did not have to consult with anyone about menus or my daily tasks. The boys could play more freely without my feeling that they might be disturbing older folks. Alan slept in a baby bed and Joel and James slept together in a double bed in the same room. Keith slept in the other baby bed in our room which was near the kitchen and very handy for taking care of a young child. I could see his bed from the kitchen. He was a smiling, blond baby. One day as I glanced from the kitchen I saw Alan entertaining him as he waked from his nap. Alan said, "I'm making tricks for Keith."

Even though it was only four rooms they were well arranged with closets and best of all a roomy closet in the bathroom with a big space at the bottom for the laundry basket.

As soon as we moved into the house Howard went to appliance stores to try to find a used refrigerator, gas stove and washer. When he found what he thought he could afford to buy he told me about them. On that August afternoon the heat could be seen rising in waves from the sidewalks and streets when I drove downtown to look at the appliances. I bought the refrigerator for $75.00. The stove cost $25.00 and the wringer-type washer, $25.00. All three worked well. Whenever the wringer gave a bit of trouble on the washer, I could take it apart and fix it myself. It was very different from the maze of wires on automatic washers. (Even after we moved to Nashville eight years later the refrigerator still served us well.) We set the washer in the garage which had a raised platform at the back with a water heater. A door opened into the back yard near the clothes line. It was an ideal place to do the laundry in that dry climate. Clothes dried quickly in the warm breezes and bright sunshine. It was my favorite work. Howard once said, "If Zona can wash clothes, everything is going to be alright." The South Texas climate was ideal for living with young children. Most of our clothes could be summer wear. On very hot days at home the boys needed only shorts. In winter the temperatures seldom dropped below 40 degrees. It was easy to change to jeans and add a light-weight jacket.

Moving to the Valley was a culture shock for me. In my young years in Wisconsin I was secure in the knowledge of who I was. I was part of a large family clan of hard-working, prosperous people, respected by everyone in the community. Now I was an unknown person without an individual identity.

Everywhere we had lived Howard and I centered our social life on the church. In Edinburg the Church of Christ was a group of almost a hundred. After meeting with the congregation three Sundays I said to Howard, "I thought people of Texas were noted for their friendliness." I was disappointed that even in that small group, people seemed afraid to speak to us. Howard's response was, "They are just shy and insecure. We will have to make the effort to get acquainted." We had not realized that the wide spaces between South Texas and the more northern areas acted as a divider. When we knew people better we found that many families had always lived in the valley and some even traced their ancestry back to Spanish land grants. They didn't travel north. Some had never been out of the Valley. We were really strangers from another land. We were transient. They had seen others come and go, especially winter visitors who came to escape cold weather.

After several months four other families with children moved to Edinburg. Howard and I had always made a practice of inviting visitors home for Sunday dinner so we welcomed each new family as they arrived. And even after we were well acquainted it was easy to say to the Herringtons, the Broughs, the Houstons or the Nelsons, "Come have dinner with us." I made a special effort to have a good meal on Sunday noon because it was one time our own children seemed to be really hungry, so it was just as easy to have six more people eat with us, even if space or even plates might be limited.

On September first Howard began work as a Child-Welfare Worker in the Hidalgo County Child Welfare office. A few days later it was time for six-year old Joel to start first grade. We had not thought to take him to see the school - even the outside of the building. On the required day I took the three younger boys along to register him to start school. The line of people waiting to register seemed not to believe that all of us were actually in the registration line so it was awkward but we were finally able to give the needed information. Even then, I made no effort to take Joel through the building to find the first grade rooms or the rest rooms to help him be better acquainted. I was totally unacquainted and also new at being the mother of a first grade child. It did not occur to me that starting school was a traumatic experience. Books and magazines concerning child development had not yet appeared on every bookstore or newsstand. One good feature about Jefferson School was that it was conveniently located. Joel could walk a short distance on Twelfth Street to a vacant lot. There he could follow a path through the sparse grass and small trees to the continued street to the school.

Joel was assigned to a first grade teacher, Mrs. Black, who was as kind and soft-spoken as any teacher could be. As usual Joel was very timid and didn't speak unless spoken to. Since the weather continued hot he went to school dressed in neat little shirts and shorts. He often arrived back home without a spot or wrinkle on them. After a couple of months he was able to tell me that the other boys wore jeans instead of shorts. I was surprised because it seemed too warm to be wearing jeans, but after that he wore blue jeans too. At the end of the year Mrs. Black gave Joel an award - a book - for being the quietest child in the room.

Meanwhile James was the oldest one at home, four years old. Many mornings he helped me by washing the breakfast dishes. He stood on the little red chair that had been mine as a child to reach into the sink. Whatever James did was done quickly so that he could get to more interesting things to do. When the boys were a little older I made a chart each week of summer. Each boy could sign up for listed jobs to do on a day he chose. James quickly signed up for all his work on one day so that he would have all the other days for uninterrupted reading. Alan waited till everyone else had made their choices. Then he had to take whatever times or jobs remained. He did it with an air that he had been put-upon. He made me feel that he had been mistreated!!

Animals, birds, insects and plants were all different in this hot, dry, climate from those I had known in Wisconsin. There were not many birds, but there were jays, mocking birds and especially jackdaws. Jackdaws are like a big homely crow and their voices were homely too. On hot afternoons when I sat holding the baby Keith, I could see clouds of butterflies. I liked seeing them but those flitting painted beauties made me realize I was far from home. I remembered the good tasting cold water from the well on the farm in Wisconsin. Here in Edinburg no rain had fallen in three years. We didn't know that the city was using well-water. Their usual source of supply, the Rio Grande was dry. Well-water in that below-sea level country is full of salts. I had been making Keith's formula with it. When I took him to the doctor he said, "You have to buy bottled water. The baby can't stand the salts in the well water." Buying water in five-gallon glass jugs was a surprising idea to me. Since we didn't have an excess of money the rest of us continued to try to drink the city water. Even lemonade made with it tasted bad. We rejoiced when rains came in winter and spring so that the muddy, polluted Rio Grande once again became the supplier for the city water. After a year or so Falcon Dam was built seventy miles up the Rio Grande River to create Falcon Lake which became the reservoir for the water supply for the cities down-river. We were grateful never to have to use the well water again.

Occasionally Joel and his brothers found a horned-toad. It was a fascinating little animal with horns on its head and knobs all over its body. It was unbelievably able to withstand heat and dry and unusual treatment, such as being kept in a box a few days.

As the boys played outside in the fenced backyard they often stepped on sandspurs, a weed that grew anywhere without needing water. Since the yard had not been cared for there were lots of them with their stickers gone to seed, just ready for a boy's bare foot or even his socks or jeans to touch. They were easy to remove but it took courage to use fingers to pull the very sharp prickly burrs off. We found tiny patches of carpet grass in the yard. We transplanted sprigs of it beside the front walk and carefully watered it. After a year or two it had spread so that we had a good grass cover everywhere. We usually irrigated the yard twice a year to keep the grass alive. The boys were pleased when the irrigation water was turned on. The standpipe was directly at our backyard fence so that the water was deep as it came out. Soon it was inches deep water all over the yard. As the boys played in it I continually warned them not to put their faces in it or get any in their mouths because it was highly polluted.

An ants' nest disturbed by the flooding water was dangerous. The ants, even very tiny ones were angry and stung anyone who came in contact with them. Other insects had stings as well. A green caterpillar gave an especially painful bite. Even application of baking soda did little to ease the sharp pain. One day Keith reached for his bicycle. Such a caterpillar was hiding under the handlebar. He still remembers the experience. Another time curious Leeta, touched a scorpion. We had shown the children the insects and warned them of the poisonous sting.

That first autumn season the Welfare Office Staff had a picnic at a park. They said it was a park but to me it looked like more of the same mesquite covered jungle. One of the reasons for having the picnic was the coming departure of a young woman of the staff. One of the songs we sang was "Red River Valley." Whenever I hear it I remember the lovely girl who was leaving Magic Valley. The conversation that caught my attention was a discussion of the pros and cons of making south Texas a state separate from the rest of Texas. Making new states was a surprising idea to me. Only once or twice in all the years since 1953 have I ever again heard anyone voice that thought.

A large percentage of the population of the Valley was Latin American. Spanish was spoken in many of the homes and in the stores or places of business. In order to interview foster or adoptive parents Howard needed and interpreter. The secretaries in the Child Welfare office spoke English fluently but they were of Spanish American descent. Guadalupe Rodrigues interpreted for Howard in office visits and accompanied him to the family's home. One day a mother came into the office with a baby in her arms. Howard admired the child. "She is a beautiful baby," he said. Later Lupe told Howard that only because he had also touched the child he avoided a dreadful social blunder. Many Latin Americans believed that it would bring catastrophe to the child if you commented on its beauty.

Because most radio broadcasts were in Spanish we seldom listened to any. We thought we could learn the language but sentence structure baffled me. Howard had two courses in Spanish in college but it was not the same as the dialect spoken in the Valley. Children who entered school without knowing English were not permitted to speak Spanish in the classrooms. How difficult getting an education must have been! Some of our children's playmates were Latin American. We hoped ours would pick up the language from them.

The first year we lived in Edinburg a hurricane came through. When the forecasts were broadcast I scoffed at the idea because we had heard such forecasts when we lived in Florida and nothing happened. But now, in Edinburg we did have heavy rains resulting in flooding on streets and yards. Since the river was higher than the land flooding occurred easily with any heavy rainfall. This time a mesquite tree in the front yard fell when the rain loosened the shallow roots. Howard propped it up and secured it to the other trees. It never showed any ill effects from its experience. In our back yard I had cut a banana tree down to ground level. It was in my path to the clothes line. The flood water was ankle deep. During the few days that it remained that banana tree grew several inches higher than the water level. When I wrote to the family in northeast Texas describing the amazing growth of the tree, my brother-in-law, Anglo said, "She talks like a Texan already." I had learned to exaggerate.

I learned that many trees and shrubs in South Texas have thorns, even citrus trees have them. A puncture by a mesquite thorn is painful and might stay sore for days. Of course, there were cactus everywhere with their sharp spines. A hedge of prickly pear growing six feet tall around a yard made an effective barrier. One day as the boys played Keith fell or was pushed onto such a cactus. He remembers how I had to pull the spines out of his back one by one.

In the spring of 1954 we had the carpenters come to add two rooms to the house. A big room was added to the kitchen with a door opening to the back yard. Beyond that a larger room was built for a bedroom for the three older boys. Large closets were included so that we felt as if we really had space to live and to store clothes. Each room had windows to the south because evening breezes came from that direction. The bedrooms in the original house also had windows to the southeast as did most of the houses of the area in those pre air-conditioned days. At five o'clock in the afternoon it was as if a clock had been set to start the dry breezes blowing. As a result nights were comfortable for sleeping.

The boys were much interested in watching the carpenters work, but after a day they began to find that they had itching bites. Especially Alan had dozens of them all over his body. They were flea bites. Fleas lived in the sandy soil, especially until they could find an animal or human to jump onto. We continued to have fleas periodically. One year they were really a torment to me. I could feel them in my hair and see them as they jumped down onto my clothes. People prescribed various remedies for getting rid of them but nothing worked as far as I was concerned. I still got bites. We did discover though, that a possum was living under our house. It had its home close to the bathroom plumbing. After much effort Howard was able to evict the animal and close up the space.

We happily moved beds and other furniture into the new rooms after we had painted the walls and woodwork. Then one afternoon I began the redecoration of the living/dining room area which would now be used entirely as a living room. I decided that if I started the job that Howard could continue to paint in the evening after supper. Keith was big enough to creep and crawl under my ladder as I started painting the ceiling. When Howard came home from work I explained my plan. He said, "I can't paint tonight. I have do a foster parent interview." After the boys were in bed I continued painting the ceiling until midnight.

At four o'clock the next morning we heard a loud knock on the front door. When I went to see who it could be, two city policemen asked for Howard Justiss. When Howard came they told him that his brother Leonard had died in East Texas. Since we did not have a telephone the family had figured out a way to let us know of the tragedy. Leonard had been struck by a falling beam as he helped dismantle a building a few days earlier. While we considered the best way to make the 600 mile trip to Daingerfield, I gave Howard a haircut. We made the trip to be with the family to mourn this brother who had been Howard's close companion in their young days.

On our return the ladder and other painting equipment was just as we had left it in the living room. It had to stay there a few days until I washed clothes for all of us and did the other routine work before I could go back to painting.

With none of the signs of winter that we were used to in the north it was hard to believe that Christmas was part of the year in South Texas. The decorations in the stores and city seemed absurd. One of the glories of the season though, was the blooming poinsettias. From our living room windows we had a view of them spreading their blossoms in wide and high display the full length of the neighbor's house. I stopped many times to try to absorb their beauty.

My mother's plans to spend the holiday season with us were interrupted that first year when she became ill in December and had to stay in her home. Although she was 69 years old she seemed perfectly confident to make the long plane trip from Wisconsin, even though it involved changing planes in cities like Chicago, Dallas or Houston. Her relatives and friends were impressed with her daring because none of them had ever been on an airplane. We explained to Joel and James and Alan that Grandma would be coming but just not in time for December 25th. Since our boys were her only grandchildren she indulged in buying gifts for them. We put up a small tree and made decorations to add to those we had brought from Wisconsin. On Christmas morning our neighbor's teen-aged daughter dropped in with candy for the children. She was surprised that there were no gifts under the tree. She was shocked! She went home to tell her parents about this family with all those little boys with no presents on Christmas morning. Her mother repeated the daughter's comments to us. The boys knew that Grandma was like Santa Claus, but she came by airplane and not in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. When she was able to come in January there were gifts. Joel's was a red bicycle.

When we arrived in Edinburg the County Welfare Office was using a temporary building because there was no room in the courthouse. It seemed sad to destroy the old building with its design so suited to the flat country, but Hidalgo County financed a new courthouse completed in 1954. It was a modern building five stories high on the downtown city square. Howard stood in the mud and water from a rare rainfall at the east entrance along with hundreds of other people for the dedication ceremonies. Lloyd Bentsen Jr. Congressman, representing the Magic Valley District, was the speaker. No rain had fallen in the Valley for several years but the county officials spent the taxpayer's money lavishly.

Mr. Bentsen's opening paragraph was spoken in Spanish.

"I congratulate you on your new building. Now, all you have to do is pay for it." The crowd applauded his unexpected poking fun of their debt. (Soon after this event the local newspapers carried the story of Lloyd Bentsen's plan to resign from Congress because he and his family wanted to return to live in the Valley rather than in Washington, D.C.)

Howard's office was on third floor. Occasionally the three older boys could go to meet him there. They thought it exciting to be able to push the button and operate the elevator themselves.

On several occasions we drove to the coast, to the Gulf of Mexico through Brownsville and on to Padre Island. The Island had only one or two buildings of any kind on it. There were miles of empty sand dunes and wide clean beaches. One year we went to the beach on January 2nd. The temperature was 90 degrees. Everyone enjoyed wading into the water to play in the waves. We learned to wait to eat our lunch in the car on the way back home instead of picnicking on the beach. Even the gentle wind blew sand into the sandwiches as we unwrapped them and raised them to our mouths. Getting all the sand out of our clothes and the car required a determined effort when we got back home.

Mabel 1955

In April of 1955 our daughter, Leeta Beth was born. Since she was the first "confederate" among our children we wanted her name to include Lee in someway. We had a friend at church, Mrs. Leeta Reilly. She gave us permission to use the name Leeta. My Mother flew from Wisconsin to help us and to see her grand-daughter. April weather is not too warm so she could enjoy it. But, the next year when our son, Kevin, was born on July 7th it was different. Two weeks later my mother came to see her newest grandson and perhaps to be of help to us. She had had to change planes in Dallas. She tried to describe how the heat struck her as she went from one plane to another. On arriving in Edinburg she didn't mention the weather until after three days. Then she was forced to admit how hot it was and spoke of it with amazement for the rest of her visit. Of course, we maintained the heat in the Valley was not as uncomfortable as that in the more humid Dallas area.

I was happy with our new baby boy. So happy that I sang in the night at the hospital. An amazed nurse came in to see if I needed something. Kevin was an exceptionally quiet baby who slept long hours. He had a ready smile whenever anyone glanced his way.

Leeta and Kevin with Howard

Having a baby daughter was not too different from having a baby boy, except for the cute dresses. When she was nine months old Leeta walked. From that time on she began taking an interest in everything in the drawers and cupboards. She climbed onto the kitchen worktable to get into the high cupboards. Until then I could set the table ready for a meal well ahead of time. But she changed that by getting up to pour salt and pepper out of the shakers. She knew where her clothes were kept and also helped keep track of her brothers'. She put Joel's and James' glasses away if they took them off. They had to have her help finding them.

One Saturday morning I was going to the grocery and leaving the children at home with Howard. I went out to the car in the garage. I got in and started the motor and backed a few inches when a question came into my mind. "Could Leeta have followed me out of the house?" God's Spirit must have been very near us that day. When I stopped the motor and got out, there was Leeta in her cute sunsuit walking away just behind the car. Even all these years later I dare not think too long on what might have happened.

During the five years that we lived on 12th Street the vacant area at the end of the street was made into South Park and a swimming pool was built. Our house was only four doors from the park. All of us went to the park for picnics and to introduce the boys to the pool. When Joel and James and Alan learned to swim they could walk the short distance to enjoy the pool on the hot afternoons. The lifeguard was not always the same young man. Six year-old Alan looked too little to be able to swim across the pool. Each guard would make him pass the test. He enjoyed showing them what he could do and was soon even diving. Keith sometimes went with the boys to play in the shallow pool. We thought he was very mature when he walked home by himself without waiting for the older boys.

I appreciated having a home of our own where I could feel free to take time to sit down to hold the baby or play with all of the children or read to them, without feeling that someone might be thinking I ought to be cleaning house or being more organized with my work.

Many mornings when Keith, Leeta or Kevin were babies I sat on the couch to give the baby his bottle. The older children sat close to me while I read to them. I especially liked it when they were interested in slightly more advanced stories. Schoolboy Joel belonged to a book club which sent such books as That Boy Johnny, The Talking Cat, (a collection of French Canadian tales) and The Flying Arrow. We frequented the library in McAllen so often that when they celebrated Library Week they had us come so that they could take our picture in the library. The ten mile drive was a special excursion for the children and me. We made arrangements with Howard beforehand to make sure he wouldn't need the car to go out on a case. At the end of second grade Joel was reading the Oz books. I had not known there were so many. I was glad he could read them for himself. I didn't care for the repetitious phrases.

Joel enjoyed the music classes in school. Often he sang the songs he had learned to the other boys after they were in bed.

Our next door neighbor's little girls played with our boys. The oldest was about Alan's age. One day Gail was at our house early in the day. Alan had a new coloring book and new box of crayons. He showed them to Gail, whereupon she said,

"I love to color!"

Alan responded, "I love to color, too."

"Why don't we color in your new book," Gail asked?

"Oh, I love to color, but only in the afternoons," was Alan's quick retort. He wasn't about to share his nice unused crayons and book with anyone.

Gail's mother was a six-foot tall younger woman with size to go with the height. I felt intimidated by her. She intimated that they were upper class society but they lived just as we did except that we didn't yell at our children day and night. In the warm climate windows were wide open day and night for months. Often we could hear the scolding mother berating her little girls in the middle of the night. It disturbed me.

As James began school he did not have the same teachers that Joel had had. He didn't talk about any of his days. He did the required work quickly and quietly. One day when he came home from school, I asked,

"Did you get any stars on your papers today?"


In an effort to find out if he had failed in someway to do his work, I asked, "Did anyone else get stars on their paper?"

"You ought to know by now that if I didn't get a star, they weren't giving any."

The same kind Mrs. Black who was Joel's first grade teacher also taught Alan. She told us, "I'm finding out more about the Justiss family than you can imagine." Alan talked freely and no doubt interestingly! When he was in third grade his teacher reported to us that one day they were imagining what it would be like to be staying in a hotel. She asked what they would order if they had room service. Alan volunteered, "I'd order champagne." (He had seen enough TV to know that was what some people did.) Mrs. Picketts was highly amused because she knew Alan's parents quite well.

When Howard had to be away from Edinburg for a week or several days our household routine was even more flexible than usual. The older children and I played table games like flinch and monopoly. All six of them danced together with me as we sang "Pop Goes the Weasel." When James was ten he came to me as I was washing breakfast dishes and said,

"Will you play bridge with us?"

"As soon as I finish the dishes, I will," I answered. Suddenly I wondered how James could be asking to play bridge. We had never even mentioned the game. I asked, "Where did you learn to play bridge?"

"I read the World Book." was his answer.

He and Joel and Alan and I enjoyed the game those summer days. I guess my household work waited.

Kevin at the Schunior Street house

When Kevin was two years old we bought a larger house at 417 E. Schunior Street. We thought we needed more space. The two-year old brick house had many windows with plenty of them to the south and east to catch the night breezes. The kitchen was eighteen feet long with large areas of Formica-covered workspace and many cupboards. Some days I just looked at it and marveled that it was my kitchen. A dining area at one end was large enough for our table to seat eight. On a north window a pothos vine grew outside the house. We could watch it climb the window screen as it grew. Although we kept it trimmed back it was interesting to see its rapid growth. Many of its leaves reached a length of eighteen inches. When we moved from Texas I brought slips of that plant with us. The cuttings grew. Parts of them still grow in a pot in our house in Tennessee.

At The Schunior Street House, Edinburg, Texas.
James, Joel, Kevin, Leeta, Keith, Alan.

Even in this larger house Joel and James had their beds in the large den. At the other end of the long room was space for a table for games or puzzles. The living room and bedrooms had varnished hardwood floors. Alan, Keith and Kevin shared the large front bedroom. Our room and bath was at the far end of the house with a door opening to the back yard. Leeta had her own room next to ours. She soon decorated it by drawing stick figures with crayon on the pink wall. Scrubbing wouldn't take them off. I decided they would be a treasure after she grew up. I was happy that now we had room for a piano in the long living room. We bought a refinished used one which I still enjoy. I attempted to introduce the older boys to reading music. It was not a very successful venture.

Hibiscus shrubs blossomed in shades of red, white, pink and peach at the front of the house. Along the carport wall were tall, slim papaya trees. They did produce papayas but none of us developed a taste for the fruit. Keith remembers that he liked to climb the trees. In the back yard were a couple of orange trees and a grapefruit set fifteen feet apart. One morning Joel saw a complete spider web stretched between two of the trees with the large colorful spider in the center. It was a sight to remember in the dewy morning light.

In the early morning and evenings the rasping noise of cicadas filled the air until it seemed I could feel the sound waves. It was then that I felt I was really in a land I had never imagined. Those insects were so large that Keith remembers the Balli children next door could shoot them with a b-b gun.

One winter night a gentle rain was falling. We and the children were sleeping soundly, enjoying the feeling of security that comes when we have shelter against the elements.

During the night I awakened with a feeling that something was different. I lay very still, listening intently. I heard soft, shuffling noises - sounds like muffled footsteps feeling their way toward me. I decided that it was one of the younger boys. I thought the steps sounded like slippered feet on the bare hardwood floor of the hall. He might be coming to the family bathroom just outside our room. Since the night was cool for South Texas we had left the gas wall heaters burning in both bathrooms. The glow from them cast a dim light into the hallway. I fixed my eyes on the framed space of our doorway. I expected to see the silhouette of a small boy. When the shadowy figure appeared against the faint light it was not boy-size. It was tall. It was an adult who was standing there within a few feet of us.

I was unbelieving. How could someone be in our house? Such things happened to other people!

I lay there turning over in my mind the possibilities of who it could be. Howard's work brought him in contact with lots of strangers. At church, he was assigned to check out those who needed help of any kind. I decided it must be someone who needed us.

"Is there something we can do for you," I asked? The figure instantly disappeared. I waked Howard. He got up and went through the house, through the living room and kitchen. And on into the den where Joel and James had their beds on one end of the twenty-foot room. He found the back door into the carport wide open. He had returned in the evening from a meeting and had not locked it. He did not feel it was necessary.

The next day Howard was able to trace the widely spaced footprints of a man across the vacant lot and on an adjacent plowed cotton field. The muddy ground made it easy to see the running tracks. When Howard talked with the police they were quite content to tell him that, "Yes, a poor man and his family lived on the opposite end of the cotton field." There had been other incidents like the one we experienced.

In 1959 when Joel was twelve he took on the responsibility of a paper route. James helped him which made it easier to face the dogs regularly encountered by boys riding bicycles especially on the early Sunday morning route. Other days the paper was delivered after school. They kept the route until we left the Valley in 1961.

My favorite family experience was for all of us to accompany Howard on supervisory trips he made to Laredo, one hundred fifty miles west. We saw country that was mostly space. If we went by way of Hebronville we might not see or meet another automobile the whole distance. In Laredo we stayed in a motel with a swimming pool. Although I did not swim the children could enjoy the pool, with the little ones safely on the shallow end. I sat on those deck chairs under the umbrellas and wrote letters as I watched the children. I marveled that I had an opportunity of that kind. When Joel was thirteen and James eleven we even left the group alone while we went to a Webb County Child Welfare Board annual dinner. We explained to the motel manager what we were doing. He was a bit surprised that six children could be trusted to be responsible for themselves. They had already spent the afternoon in the pool. They could entertain themselves with the picnic supper we supplied and then spend time reading. It would soon be bedtime for the younger ones. All went well. In those days there were fewer dangers.

One of the best features of Howard's working in Edinburg was that he had to make trips to Austin to the state office. In summer when the boys were not in school we planned trips around his trip to the capitol. We rode to Austin and spent the day in Zilker Park on the banks of the Colorado River. After the flat terrain of the Valley any hill, even a slope was exciting. It was fun to roll down the steep grass covered river bank. There were swings and other playground equipment and we had a picnic lunch. At the end of the day Howard picked us up to travel to the hill country where we had reserved a cabin for a couple of nights. Our favorite was Cypress Acres, a group of stone cabins set in a grove of trees on the Guadeloupe River. There were cooking facilities and plenty of rooms for all to sleep. When we woke in the morning we saw a flock of wild turkeys, dozens and dozens of them in the field nearby. We had our swimming suits and a rented boat. Howard and the children played in the water. The boys tried to fish. Alan caught a small one. He brought it into the cabin in a bucket of water for the night. My feelings were that there was no need for such a small fish to die. In the morning, I told him that if he poured the fish back into the river it could tell all its friends how it had narrowly escaped being eaten. Alan agreed to the plan and I took a picture of him while he poured the fish into the water.

In 1960 we continued our trip from Austin across Texas to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Before we reached Midland, Texas we saw a sign that said, "Midland, 26 miles." I was amazed that we could see the only tall building, about seven stories, in the city from that distance. That told us how flat the country was. (In 1987 when we passed through Midland that building no longer stood out. It was surrounded by similar buildings.) Carlsbad, the city itself, had lovely green trees. They were a pleasant contrast to the countryside around. At the Cavern we took the walking tour down into the cave where we were promised we could eat our lunch where picnic tables were set up in the cavern. Four-year-old Kevin found the sight of stalactites and stalagmites losing their charm during the long walk. He said, "It sure is a long way to the dining room."

We made a number of trips into the hill country. It was a change from the regular duties at home and possibly a bit cooler away from the Valley. In our last summer, 1961 we had Gary with us. He was a thirteen-year-old foster boy from Child Welfare. He accompanied us to the San Antonio Zoo and a ranch in the hill country. He was intrigued with our game of seeing how many miles we could travel north on the straight road out of Edinburg before one of the six children asked for a drink of water. When we moved from Edinburg he went to stay with our friends, the Houstons. They came to our house for a minute on the morning that we left. As we got into the car, Gary said, "Let me know how far you get before someone needs a drink." From Nashville we let Gary know at what point in our trip we broke into the water. It was to be the last time our family covered those miles together.

By the end of eight years I felt more comfortable in Edinburg. Although my own social status had not really changed, I reveled in the respect that Howard's co-workers showed him. He regularly received promotions from the State in the Child Welfare Office, but beyond that everyone who had contact with him treated him as one of worth. Everyone who changes jobs or leaves an area has experienced farewell gifts and parties. A card from the staff in the Edinburg office expressed feelings eloquently with a hand-written line, "We watch you leave with tears in our hearts."

Alan, Keith, Kevin, James, Leeta, Joel

Thistles Cut, Ironing Done          HOME     PREVIOUS   NEXT  

Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.