I made my first trip back to Houston since Mom died a year-and-a-half ago. Once I left, the day after she passed, I wasn’t sure when I would return. I needed separation from that place, from flying for drop-and-run reasons.
This trip would just be a quick overnight stay. My family was celebrating my nephew’s college graduation from University of Houston with a party at my aunt’s house and I decided to go to support him and show some love. He was actually graduating a year early, which was an incredible accomplishment. I flew in on Saturday morning, picked up the rental car, and headed out.
The party was a lovely, casual affair with the family and some of my nephew’s close friends. My aunt, a former caterer, made a delicious spread and as usual, there was more food than people. There was good conversation amongst all of the guests, including my nephew’s best friend from New York who, coincidentally, goes to school with my daughter, they know each other well, and just hung out a few days before. In addition, more chatting revealed that I graduated from high school with her mom, who was an old acquaintance. We wound up FaceTiming with my daughter and her mom and were amazed by how small the world actually was.
The one notable missing link that afternoon was that Mom was not there. While it had been long enough that people weren’t breaking down over it, there was a palpable sadness and acknowledgement of her absence. For me, there was some awkwardness being there, since the focus of all of my trips prior to that was to see her. I hadn’t seen or really talked to my family since then and I had to mentally readjust to the fact that there was a different reason for being there.
That evening after the festivities had closed and the house quieted, my aunts, my aunt’s boyfriend and I sat on the couches to take a breath. There was some casual conversation that steamrolled into a lively conversation that touched on every aspect in the political discourse. It was me, the Yankee-liberal-centrist, and them, the southern-born-and-bred-Fox-watching Republicans. Yes, they liked a lot of what Trump did as President. Like many New Yorkers do, I think Trump is an ass; and I’m being kind with that description.
Typically, I am not a fan of getting pulled into a political debate with myself as the only one with my viewpoint, especially when their philosophies are so often on the polar opposite end to my way of thinking. However to be honest, the tone was a respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives, sometimes getting loud. My face did become hot at some point, which was noticed by my aunt who gave my cheek a kiss sometime in the middle of the conversation. I told her it was the wine. Regardless, it was all wrapped in an ongoing establishment of love. They understood how it seemed I was being tag-teamed at times, but also let me know I was holding my own quite well and that they appreciated hearing my perspective. I really think they wanted to hear what I had to say, and that some of those things they hadn’t heard in their regular bubble of discourse. We eventually ended the conversation at about 1:30 am, as I was falling asleep on my feet as I pried myself away.
Side note: Randy seems quite entertained by our discussion as he was usually the one to continue the dialogue with “what about this or that.” I had almost escaped, and as I got up to put my wine glass in the sink and head to bed, he brought up the topic of immigration, one of the topics we had apparently missed. So close… There were a few “Randy, you’re killing me” comments, but I appreciated that he had the respect for my thoughts to want to continue to talk.
The next morning, we had breakfast together and, thankfully, enjoyed some non-political conversation. Knowing my trip would be short, I had planned a little itinerary I wanted to follow before I got to the airport. There were a few stops I needed to make. For me, part of processing Mom’s absence was to visit some of the places and people we had shared when she was alive. My aunt lamented, but understood, told me I was welcome anytime and that I always have a second home there, which I appreciated. More hugs, and off I went.
As I started to drive, I took the familiar routes Mom and I took when we’d traipse around on our visits. I cried a few times along the way. They were the roads that I had come to both love and hate. To be perfectly honest, I had always resented the fact that I had to get familiar with those roads, because she had moved so far away. But when I rode them with her, I just accepted that reality. That day, driving those roads solo was a glaring reminder of the fact that she wasn’t there anymore. Ouch. I had to imagine her sitting next to me, chatting about mundane things, sharing stories. I tried to feel her presence, sitting there in her black straw cowboy hat with the RSR rhinestone pin on the front, listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. When she was well, we had a little routine we developed together. When she was sick, we’d sit in her bed and just…be.
The first stop on the itinerary was to see Tiffany. She was Mom’s mani-pedi gal and they had developed a loving relationship in the years Mom was in Houston.
Mom always found people to connect with who would become “her people.” On several of our trips, I made sure I needed a mani pedi so we could spend a little time pampering ourselves, and I got to treat her to the “volcano pedicure,” where they put a bath bomb in the pedicure station and it fizzed like crazy.
Unfortunately, COVID killed Tiffany’s business, and now she’s servicing her clientele in other salons. I had reached out to her and she was eager to see me. She’s adorable and lovely and really loved Mom. We chatted as she took care of my feet and hands, remembering Ronnie Sue.
Next stop: Javaman
Javaman is a local coffee place that Mom and I would frequent. It was a warm, Nyack-like place where I get a similar feeling as I do when I go to Art Cafe. When I walked in, the aroma of coffee squeezed my heart. I sat down at one of the familiar tables and wanted to cry.
I miss Mom. This pic is from October 2019, 11 months before she died. She was so beautiful.
Often, when I get a pang of emotion, it hits me quick, then washes away. This time, it didn’t wash away quite so easily. Sitting at the table, I saw the deep purple walls with artsy pictures and kitschy sayings about coffee. It took me back a few years when Mom and I would visit and split an order of an Ortaggio crepe and a plate of 3 beignets with a heap of powdered sugar that would spill all over the table if you breathed too heavily. She would get some ridiculously sweet coffee concoction with a gazillion hefty squirts (5) of flavored syrup. I wondered how her teeth hadn’t fallen out after all of the years of sweet coffee, but I digress. I’d just get a coffee or a latte.
This was our order. We’d usually split it, because she never ate that much once she had gotten sick. This time, I’d be going solo.
As I recalled our visits there, the tears started to well up in my eyes. I was close to sobbing out loud, barely holding it together. Then the food came. Taking a deep breath, I took my first delicious bite and instantly remembered how happy I was when we’d visit there. It had become an important place for me, because it represented our time together, just me and Mom, as we would traipse around the area while she was still well enough to go out and play. I ate and cried softly, trying to take a breath through each bite. During each of our visits, she was always in a different state of physical health. Sometimes, she was strong, sometimes, slow and frail. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: cancer is a real bitch.
It didn’t take me long to finish the last of my sweet, snowy-topped beignets (they taste as good as they look). The sweet pillow puffs of fried dough brought me back to Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter where I had my first taste as a child. My parents took us there during our family visits – Mom was born and raised in New Orleans. Anytime I see “New Orleans style beignets” I must give it a taste test to see if they’ve got the right formula. Javaman always does.
After I cleaned my plate, I felt compelled to talk to the owner. He’s a transplant from Pittsburgh, a fellow Yankee, who we had seen and spoken to a few times when we visited. He came out from the back and I told him, through tears and a quivering voice, how much his place meant to me. How when I came down from New York to visit my Mom, we’d always go there to eat and sip coffee. I told him that she was gone now, after a 4-year battle with cancer. He was sad to hear she had passed, and when I showed him her picture to help him remember her, he got a little sadder. He remembered the black straw cowboy hat with the rhinestone RSR pin on the front. He remembered her shining personality.
I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, so I thanked him and went on my way to get back to the airport. Whenever I do go back to Houston, I will always be sure to stop there, remember Mom, and maybe cry a little as I devour those treats.
All in all, it was a satisfying and positive trip. I don’t know when I’ll return, but I know that when I do, I have my Ronnie Sue itinerary to complete.
A year after Ronnie Sue passed, I published a memoir about her influence on my life. It’s called What Ronnie Sue Knew and it’s available on Amazon Books in both paperback and Kindle versions. If you want to learn more about her special, sparkly nature, and the gifts she offered the world, pick up a copy.
2 thoughts on “Returning to Houston”
What a lovely bittersweet trip. I’m glad you had some wonderful memories to go with the sadness.
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Thank you. It was a tough trip, but a good way to continue to move forward.