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Second Chance

Selma 1963I try to lighten my foot as I blast across moonscape. I stay alert with mind-games for the solo road-warrior: I spy, with my little eye: small scrubby growth; a few dried blossoms; a large road kill—is it a young deer or maybe a mangled javalina? Long passed, now. Occasional rocky outcroppings seem special. Whatever drew people here, 250 miles East of El Paso and 100 miles west of Odessa? How did this dry, open place look to my Grandmother’s eyes at fifty-seven.

Selma arrived, arm-in-arm with a husband she barely knew, after her middle years had been torn apart by three and a half years in concentration camps, return to war-torn Germany and salvation in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Was she frightened? Excited? Hopeful? Disappointed? Relieved? Inspired?

Half an hour from the border at El Paso, the guard stops me to ask:
“Are you a citizen?”
“Yes.”
“Where are you going?”
“Fort Stockton.”
“Why—there isn’t anything there?”

But once, Comanche Springs raced from the ground. This precious water revived stagecoach passengers relieved to be out of range of Comanche raids. It allowed Jefferson Davis to dream about fleets of camels patrolling the land. It filled the best watermelons and the old swimming pool. It filled enough pockets of memory for me to need to touch it once more with a slightly wiser hand.

Nathan Winkler founded a dry-goods store in Fort Stockton in 1912. He’d come to the US in 1900 from Austria-Hungary, not yet twenty, to learn the retail trade. There were handfuls of young Jewish merchants sprinkled across miles of dusty, western settlements.

In 1951 the prosperous widower came to market in Fort Worth, where he met and wooed Selma, in a week. She had moved there recently with her two daughters, escaping a world that had torn them apart and put them back together in in the cold and gray of Manhattan.

People were slow, warm and friendly. How different from the tall buildings and green parks she’d barely gotten to know. Now home was these few dusty blocks, where even cactus struggled. Ties were leather strings, shirts had snaps and enormous hats passed through the register at Winkler’s–the store in town–her store, now.

Put aside your nightmares, Selma. Forget the rocks through your windows and the blood sprayed across the walls of the Riga Ghetto. Take comfort in the new and the years-ago familiar: the rituals of married life; lunches; teas; man and wife working and sleeping side by side. Money is made and spent on things you never dreamed of from Nieman Marcus. Here, people have thousands of head of cattle–not the four or five at a time that brother Norbert brokered to Westphalian farmers. People pull oil right out of the ground. And here is safety, healing. You can rest, almost assured that your hardest times are behind you.

Changes aren’t easy at 57: foods; names; weights, measures; language; the way it’s done. Selma wrestled with the English language, laced with Texas drawls and Spanish phrases, into an agreeable mix that offered her the hearts of her neighbors and even the pages of Tolstoy.

Nathan was a silent man, a skillful merchant and investor in companies and people. She relished the role of the merchant’s wife: a life she’d trained for forty-five years before. At the store, she came to know everyone. She licked her wicked wounds and revealed her exotic and disturbing past on occasion at ladies luncheons and rotary breakfasts. She qvelled over her grandchildren. And she quickly learned the ins and outs of the stock market. When she dove into the dust of her back yard she pulled out apricot trees, watermelons, plums, pomegranates and even roses. Selma flowered in the relentless sun that would whip her sheets dry in a flash.

We would go to Stockton for Spring break, flying from Chicago, loaded with the foods Grandma missed. Our route was Dallas, then a hop to Midland,and a speeding hour through oil derricks and tumbleweed. We smelled increasingly of the garlic, anise, salt and rye, from our load of salamies, sauerbratens, herrings, breads, mustards and cookies. The packages would erupt and unravel before they finally spilled across Grandmas table and her delight.

“See, we even brought a little plant.”

A tiny start had grabbed my Mother’s attention on our way out the door and found a hand between us. In Fort Stockton, where even cactus wanted care, that extra spot of green was a precious second chance.