The image of Texas has been besmirched as of late, from the decidedly not-ready-for-prime-time Rick Perry's fiasco of a presidential campaign to his recent channeling of George Wallace and blocking needy Texans from getting the health care they deserve, all so he can look tough to the mean-spirited and ignorant, otherwise known as the Republican base.
Or, take Ted (I'm a nut-job) Nugent (Pulease!), from his paranoid blather at an NRA gathering to his suggestion that maybe the wrong side won the Civil War. Huh? To an outsider, it must seem that Texas is populated by right-wing, gun-toting, fundamentalist, homophobic, Neanderthal, know-nothings. I can't blame anyone for thinking that, since I live here, and sometimes I think it, too.
Yet the truth is Texas is no cultural or intellectual backwater. We're home to a bevy of top-flight museums, research universities, fine dining, and other accoutrements of cosmopolitan life. The fact is a number of damn-fine writers also hail from our state, Mary Karr and Larry McMurtry, to name two. But the problem is we don't trumpet our best and brightest, just our dumber and dumberers.
A case in point is this past January. One of our best Texas writers, Annette Sanford died, and I've been surprised that not much has been written to honor this gem of Texas letters. Maybe that's because she was, as Clay Smith once described her in the Austin Chronicle, "a deceptively simple writer." Her best stories creep up on you like morning glory vines and before you know it you're surrounded by a kind of rough-hewn beauty often in a place you least expected. As writer Kathryn Eastburn wrote, she was "Texas's Eudora Welty, as fine a short story writer as anyone of her generation."
I didn't know Annette well. I remember only meeting her twice, but for me at least those meetings were important, if not providential. In 1989 I was a newbie high school English teacher at Victoria's Stroman High School undergoing the usual baptism of fire reserved for first year teachers.
I will never forget that first day meeting my last period senior CLA (low-level) English class. Think Welcome Back, Kotter 's sweathogs and you'd have a pretty good approximation of them. But, of course, this was the eighties, and all the girls had their hair teased up to what looked like to me a foot or more. And they all wore black clothes with dark eyeliner globbed on so thickly they looked like a casting call for the Bride of Frankenstein .
On that first day my rookie knees were sure shaking, but, as has fortunately happened to me more often than not in my career, I grew to love my, as I wryly called them, pre-crime class. But, even so, when we started a career unit in the spring, I knew I needed more than divine intervention to get them, in the throes of senioritis, to do anything, much less a research paper in which they had to interview someone in the career to which they aspired. I figured I better to do an interview myself to show them it could be done.
So without a lot of thought, I realized I needed to find a writer nearby because that's what I've always wanted to do. That's when I decided to interview Annette Sanford. She was close, only about 40 miles away, and through my wife's family, I had a connection of sorts. Her brother, the late artist Charles Schorre, was a good friend of my wife's parents.
It worked out, and on one of those beautiful crystal clear Gulf Coast spring days that are so sweet because they're so rare, my wife, 4-year old daughter, and I drove north on I-59 from Victoria to the sleepy hamlet of Ganado, Texas.
There Annette greeted us at her door. She was a little more serious than I would've hoped, even stand-offish. She'd every right to be wary of us, since I was acting like some kind of literary groupie coming to ask that question all real writers hate: how do I do what you did?
But taking my daughter, a 3-year old blond bundle of energy, proved fortuitous. Her presence melted Annette's heart. Annette sat us down and served us lemonade with old-fashioned sugar cookies with such aplomb that my daughter would remember it for years later.
We also got to know Lukey, her husband. He was a big man, a retired letter carrier, equal parts earnest and self-effacing. You could understand how, as Annette explained to me later, he served as a counselor of sorts to some of the less-than centered writers who frequented writing conferences they attended together. I could just imagine him setting some confused somebody straight.
He showed my daughter his huge jigsaw puzzle he was working on on a fold-out table in the living room and invited her to help. Truly, it was like a scene from one of Annette's stories where the older and wiser couple takes care of the younger and decidedly not-so-wise couple.
After awhile Annette and I went back to her study behind her house to talk shop. She admitted she wasn't a quick writer; that it always took her a long time to get everything right. But she did get it right more often than not because her writing sticks with you. It's been years since I've read her stories, but I could never in a million years forget the sassy narrator of a "Trip in a Summer Dress," and Miss Ettie of "Limited Access," who because she wasn't born to let things waste, must watch TV 24-7.
That afternoon Annette gave me some advice that's always stuck with me. She said that a writer had to get used to rejection. Her advice was to put each rejection on the wall, not to be scared of them but proud of them because they were badges of honor. I know that I haven't let my many rejections stop me. In fact, since Annette's been one of the few real writers who has encouraged me, I figure it's because of her that I still harbor any delusion that I can write.
The last time we met was 1990 when she read some of her stories to my juniors. Since car chases or drive-bys was not Annette's forte, I had some trepidations. My usually antsy students, I thought, might get bored and embarrass themselves and me. But instead they acted like angels, sitting quietly as Annette read in her genteel Southern drawl, beautiful, demure, and bitingly intelligent, reminiscent of accents heard in a Horton Foote movie, like something from another time.