My grandmother Eastland liked to talk, and she considered it her duty to share family history with me, her only grandchild. So whenever we visited her down in Hillsboro, Texas, she and I would sit at her kitchen table in chairs stiff as pews, and she'd speak late into the night.
I was too young then to appreciate her tales of soldiers from the American and Texas revolutions and the Civil War or of belles like Lillie Lee Lipscomb. But I could tell she loved her subject, and her energy charmed me. I liked the way her tiny cowbell earrings rang whenever she shook her pepper-colored curls or stomped her foot to make a point. It seemed to me delightfully peculiar that she had such a vivid romance with the past. In her mind people didn't die with the grave; they kept on, looming large in her imagination.
When you went into her house, with the pecan trees out back, the first thing you saw were oil portraits of William Harrison "Howdy" Martin and his wife Martha Gallimore, her grandparents. They had died before her birth, but she knew the details of their lives in full and kept their letters, as far back as their courtship in the late 1860s. I suspect she talked to their likenesses when others weren't around.
One of her favorite characters from our family tree was Edward Müegge "Buck" Schiwetz--pronounced Shuh-witz--who married Howdy's granddaughter, Ruby Lee Sanders, in 1926. Buck was an artist who worked as an ad man and freelanced on the side, and the other day I took down a book of his work and leafed through it for the first time since childhood. There, in Buck Schiwetz's Texas, I revisited his lithographs, etchings, drawings, and watercolor sketches of the Lone Star State.
I first heard of Buck from my grandmother in the room where the portraits hung. She'd beckon me to sit beside her on the white chintz couch, and we'd go through the book page by page.
Knowing my bent for art, she thought I'd like Buck. Maybe I'd even take after him and become the next chronicler of Texas buildings, bluebonnets, and coffee-colored longhorns. It would have been a supreme achievement in her estimation. She wholly agreed with a line from the inside flap of the book jacket: "No state has ever received a more beautiful token of devotion from a son than the one E.M. Buck Schiwetz has given to Texas."
Buck, like my grandmother, cared for things of historical significance. He rendered iconic buildings but preferred the ones that weren't well known--what he called "the unheralded buildings." He sought out stray courthouses, like the one crumbling in Helena, and the oldest churches of every denomination, then drew each brick, stone, plank, and blade of grass with care. He worked to support his family, of course, but also to raise the profile of those early buildings. If there was one thing Buck hated, it was the sight of them "destroyed either by neglect or by progress," as a friend of his wrote.
In 1965, the Sons of the Republic of Texas bestowed on Buck their highest honor for upholding the state's cultural heritage: They made him a knight of the Order of San Jacinto, founded by Sam Houston in 1843 to gather and acknowledge the sons who had sacrificed for a greater Texas, at the time an independent republic.
Buck worked hard for what he achieved. In school he took on extra tasks and was the art editor of his high school yearbook, The Longhorn. After college, he worked for various companies, among them Humble Oil (now Exxon). Once he retired, he rose at five in the morning and drew for 8 to 10 hours. When he faced troubles--among them alcoholism and the loss of his studio and work to a fire--he pressed on, resolving to create more than he had before.
Looking through Buck Schiwetz's Texas, I noticed some things in his pictures for the first time: men in fedoras on their way to and from the office, long-nosed cars parked outside courthouses, inky crosshatching borrowed from the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of Roseate Spoonbills caught up in the ecstasy of flight. And then there are the place names jutting out like elbows--Varner Plantations in Brazoria County and Zorn House in Seguin. And there, on page 95, is the Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro, still standing in my grandmother's hometown.
I try saying all those names aloud, but I'm a Washingtonian, and my version sounds flat. Martha Leila Martin Eastland's voice, I recall, had just the right lilt.