Jonnie Martin is a Texan, born in 1939 into a culture that encouraged its people to grow their roots down to the center of the earth and to stay for a lifetime. Thirty years ago Jonnie upped and left, transitioned from journalism to business, then back to writing. She completed a BA in Literature and an MFA in Fiction and wrote two novels, including Wrangle, set in Hempstead, Texas in the 1970’s. Recently Jonnie came home, to Texas, to family, and to her creative wellspring. This is her rite-of-passage story.
One of the comforting notions of being born and raised in Texas is this: no matter how strange you are, family just has to love you. The fact that I was enamored with great literature and theater and art set me apart from those around me who preferred horses and line dancing and the great American game of baseball.
I am sure I was a particular disappointment to my Dad, who was a fine athlete and a semi-pro ball player. He would take us outside for “flies and skinners” or “pepper” or a game of catch, and yell across the yard, “Jonnie you throw like a girl.” “I am a girl,” I reminded him, and shrugged off the carping. After all, what I considered to be these “down-home” activities were not important to me.
Of course I still participated in the culture – it would have been impossible to avoid it. Texas is one of those states that indoctrinates a child. We are taught about the Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto. Tex-Mex food is a staple. We wear jeans and somewhere in our closet is a pair of boots. We go to rodeos and hear country-western music streaming out of windows.
I have a clear recollection of me walking along railroad tracks in a cotton dress, bare-footed and tan as a berry, and singing a Hank Williams song. Badly, of course, but with gusto, because like everyone else, I knew all the words.
As a young teenager, I used to accompany my granddad to dances – simple affairs in a broad-planked hall above a grocery store. There were fiddlers and families and babies traded from lap to lap. I got to dance with men who worked in roofing with my dad, and they taught me the schottishe and the polka and the side-ways-waltz.
Still, my aspirations lay elsewhere. For a number of years I wrote for the Arlington Citizen-Journal, back when Arlington was a small town. Of course a girl could starve to death as a journalist even then, and I moved on to business, which offered more than its share of challenges and rewards. Eventually I moved away, chasing career through Michigan, California and Washington.
Somewhere in the 1970’s, my uncle (a Houston doctor) bought a quarter horse ranch in Hempstead, Texas. Every Friday night he would head to the ranch and the next morning he would be out on the tractor or in his truck, working the place. He began to breed and race quarter horses, and at various times my dad and my cousin Sharon ran the ranch for him.
Rio Ranch became one of my favorite places to visit – and “visit” was the extent of my interest. I was and still am a city girl with no desire to muck stalls or harvest silage, but there was something that tugged at me to return again and again. There was family to visit, of course, and that was dear. And the horses were beautiful, works of art in motion. But there was something more.
One summer, my youngest son, Shawn, spent the entire school break at the ranch, trailing behind his granddad. He fed horses, pitched bales of hay, ate lunch in the trailer with the Mexican hands, took riding lessons from the horse trainer.
He was 13 and city-bred like his mother, so I left him there for 2 weeks before I came to visit. I did not want him bailing out before he took to the ranch. When I drove in and parked under a stand of pecan trees, he came running up, excited about it all. Standing there a foot taller (I swear) and copper brown, he exclaimed, “I even got to drive the truck!”
There was an echo for me, a reminder of a simpler time when children could roam free and develop strong muscles and the value of hard work. All three of my sons – Bobby, Terry and Shawn – have turned out to be fine young men, but I recall the lump in my throat and thinking, “I wish I could have given this same gift to the other two boys.”
About six years ago I retired up in Washington – a lovely state itself, chock full of woods and mountains and rivers. While I had continued to write throughout my business career, I wanted something different. I completed a second BA, this one in Lit and Creative Writing, and discovered I was a novelist. I polished my craft with an MFA in fiction.
During the four years in school I explored the part of me that yearned to write. Fiction comes from the heart, not the head, and so much of my time in school was spent learning how to breathe into my stories, bring them up from somewhere deep and meaningful.
It should not have surprised me that Texas kept reappearing in my writing. My first novel, Wrangle, is set on a quarter horse ranch in Hempstead, Texas, back in the 1970’s when quarter horse racing was still held on dirt tracks. I remember clearly the day that my dad took me to my first race, sitting on an old set of bleachers in the middle of a ranch, 105 degrees in the shade.
The horses were paraded out on the track so that people had time to bet (illegal back then, but there was always a tout on the fence). Quarter horses are built to be strong, to move quickly and herd cattle; they are the sprinters of horse racing. You sit there in that burning sun for 20 minutes for the pre-and-post-race-prancing but the race itself is over in a matter of seconds!
And yet I cherished the memory and everything about Rio Ranch, and over the four years of contemplation I realized it was time to return to the wellspring, and to write more about the western spirit that continues to live on here. There are ways that I am still out of step with Texas, and that will always be true, but I am also grateful to its people who raised and formed me, those who are honest and hard-working; whose word equates to a promise well kept.
I have settled into Austin because it triangulates with my family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and those in the Houston-Katy-Hempstead area. And you cannot throw a rock in Austin without hitting a rancher or someone who knows one, and so a great deal of my joy in the coming years will be exploring the world they have embraced and writing novels that do them justice.
You can visit Jonnie’s website and blog or connect with her on Facebook.
As an author of a memoir - Out of Sync - a story about the impact of expatriation on relationships, I believe the dynamics of change affect characters in storytelling as much as they do individuals in real life. If you’d like to share a story about what change means to you (or to one of your story characters), contact me to make a guest contribution to this insightful story series.