If the funeral were for someone who died prematurely or met a violent end, the idea of finding one iota of pleasure would be, well, sick. But when you mourn a friend, as I did recently, whose life spanned 82 years, the event can be a magnet, drawing together friends and family members who have drifted apart over miles and decades. Along with the inherent grief, there is joy in the celebration of a life well lived.
That friend was Maury Maverick Jr. His family is legendary in Texas. His father was a stalwart Democratic U.S. representative during Roosevelt's New Deal era. His grandfather, an iconoclastic rancher who refused to brand his cattle, was the inspiration for the word maverick in the American vocabulary.
Maury himself was a lifelong civil libertarian - a lawyer who handled more than 300 pro-bono cases in his career, a former state legislator, and a fiercely principled, curmudgeonly columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. That's where I first met him, when I was starting out in journalism in the early 1980s. And so, it was back to Texas I went to say my last goodbyes.
The Travelocity last-minute deal, (which at $430 cost less than the special funeral rate most airlines were offering to family members on the same route) came with a free rental car.
In Texas, driving is as essential as hot sauce. Distances are long and unhampered. Lynn and John, the friends I was staying with in San Antonio, think nothing of driving 90 minutes to Austin, just for the afternoon.
In the four days I spent there, however, I put fewer than 50 miles on the car and used less than a quarter of a tank. The whole point was rather Buddhist - to be where I had landed. I drove to and from the airport (12 minutes). To the funeral (15 minutes) and a get-together at an old friend's house (six minutes). The supermarket (three minutes). And one obligatory visit downtown to see how much it had changed (a lot).
Normally, all you notice during this kind of necessity driving is the changing of traffic lights and the dust on the dashboard. But having plopped down so suddenly in a city so radically different from Philadelphia, I found myself strangely alert to every detail. The billboard whoopin' "Billy Bob's Mattresses!" The storefront with a bison head protruding from the stucco. The bumper of the white Lincoln Continental, emblazoned with a Texas-sized, gleaming longhorn decal.
What should have been a quick trip to pick up some cheese and bread became a prolonged, goggle-eyed ramble through the Tex-Mex aisles of the grocery store. Oranges as big as canteloupes with the stems and leaves still attached. Ten varieties of dried chili peppers. I couldn't tear myself away from the labels. What exactly goes into a jar of raspberry chipotle marinade? Or a bottle of Bull Snort Texas Tongue Torch sauce? (Which comes with a caution label: "Taste in small quantity prior to general application . . . ")
Out-of-town minds want to know.
With only one carry-on bag, I had to use restraint. But some of this stuff was too good to resist. Cactus salsa. Still-warm, fresh tortillas. Bottles of Bat's Breath Bock and Texas Tornado beer (sold, even on Sundays, in the supermarket).
One of the significant advantages of taking a trip to a place where you used to live is that you can slip back into the secret life of a city, inaccessible to most tourists and travelers.
Regular tourists don't wander far enough away from the Alamo to buy muffins at the Twin Sisters Bakery in Alamo Heights. Or know where to buy vintage belt buckles. And even if they stumbled upon La Fonda restaurant, they wouldn't have the inside scoop on how fine the chicken mole is.
On vacation, you don't take long walks with a friend through her neighborhood, checking out the architecture, horticulture and anthropology.
She filled me in on the history of sweet little cottages with gray tin roofs; new monstrosities crawling right up the last centimeter to the property line. The homes of the divorced, disgraced and decamped.
As we walked along, soaking up the February sun, noticing people's purple doors and cactus bushes, Home Depot leaded-glass windows and desiccated pomegranate trees, people noticed us back.
It is unsettling for a Northerner to be in a place where strangers, unprovoked, are so unnaturally friendly.
A man in a denim shirt, jeans and boots, playing on the front lawn with his yellow Lab, looked up and said, "Hey!"
A woman watering shrubs sees us and waves, "How yew dewin'?"
That evening we went out.
We were invited to a friend's house to raise a glass to Maury.
Her home, down-to-earth elegant, was in Olmos Park, a neighborhood of large windows and Spanish-tile roofs, overhung with live oaks. Inside, the place was warm with terra-cotta, wine and the loping, vowel-tromping rhythms of native Texan jawbone.
I won't try to reconstruct. Yew had tew bee thayre.
Traveling to a foreign country, you expect to run across cultural phenomena that strike you as odd, and prepare yourself not to do the ugly American thing and laugh. People's names, for instance.
Anywhere you don't need a passport, you don't expect this sort of etiquette challenge. But I forgot. Texas is a state that still dreams of secession. Square footage aside, it is, in many ways (like people's names), a nation unto itself.
I was caught off-guard twice.
Example 1: The hostess greets us at the door.
Hostess: "I'd like to introduce you to my husband, Lucky."
Me: "Lucky?" Handshake. Rapid brain wave activity suppressing a response.
Her: "Yes! I was Lucky in love!"
Example 2: Lynn beckons me into the living room. She is standing next to a man in a sport coat and tie.
Her: "Hey. I want you to meet my friend, Banks."
Me: "Hi! Nice to meet you, um, uh. Banks? That's your first name?"
Banks: (With a look on his face like I've got a comb-over, plaid Bermuda shorts, black socks and brown sandals and a Polaroid strung around my neck.) "Yes. It is. My first name."
Fortunately, they understood that being a Yankee is an affliction. I couldn't help it.
And besides, I'd been a friend of Maury. The soul of tolerance.
The funeral was scheduled for 11 a.m. At 9, we turned on the television to learn that the shuttle Columbia had come apart over Dallas, three hours north.
Even the news reports were a reminder that this was closer to Kansas than home. Granted, TV anchors are not known for cosmetic understatement, but the reporters on KSAT-TV were embalmed. Eyeshadow, thick as paste. Lipstick, slick as Vaseline.
And although it was understandable, even appropriate in the wake of such as tragedy, to make references to God's grace and offer prayers for the astronauts and their families, there was a piousness to the reporters' commentary I'd never heard - or perhaps hadn't noticed - even during the worst of disasters in a city like Philadelphia. An assumption of universal and, it seemed to me, overwhelmingly Christian faith.
In the cities of the mid-Atlantic - permeated with Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and atheists, Wiccans and the occasional agnostic - it would have come off as a little presumptuous.
Maury Maverick had friends of many faiths but was vehemently opposed to organized religion. During a walk through the park with a priest, he once pointed to a bright-red songbird. "Those are my cardinals," he winked. "You have yours."
His funeral service featured an African American Baptist choir, a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister, a poet, and later, at his grave site, a jazz band and a hoochie-coochie dancer.
I wish I could have made the trip back to see him more often when he was around to share his polemics, his scruffy dogs and ambling stories. I will miss knowing he was there, 2,000 miles away, going about his daily routines.
But I wouldn't have missed this last trip for the world.