In that old building I'd first heard the San Antonio Symphony, conducted at the time by Victor Alessandro. We were excited to sit in the comfy, cushy grown-up chairs, surrounded by lush carpet, and hear beautiful music played for hundreds of area schoolchildren. I recall taking new stuffed animals to the U.S. Marines' Toys for Tots concerts there, the price of admission.
I didn't know the word "foreshadowing" at age five, but it would appear that anxiously watching the rise and fall of the red curtain would be part of a very happy future.Those early concerts began my fascination with the amazing world of live concerts by brilliant artists.
That night staring at the powerful neon lighting in the Tobin Center, I saw the past, present, and future of the lives of my friends and my own life, boundless, multiple possibilities beckoning, new challenges inviting. As girls, now women, and all those along our journey, we were told we could be anything we wanted to be. Convention never defined us, barriers were made to be broken, and we went to the school that insisted we could be more than even we had imagined we could be.
It's strange having to consult a map (or my phone) to navigate downtown San Antonio...I used to know exactly where to go by rote. For the first two decades of my life, I knew every twist and turn by landmark for downtown from anywhere. The freeways and side streets were great to navigate, before all the name changes and new routes and subroutes and boom, you're there. Because there's so much construction downtown and on IH-35, I needed options only my mapping app would provide.
For about two years I've been estranged from Google Maps as I've enjoyed the WAZE navigation app, thanks to the recommendation of my friend Nancy. WAZErs are a friendly lot, and alert you to real-time travel conditions. Starting out from The Tobin Center, WAZE offered me three choices home, the total distance traveled and trip length, so I could choose. Much data, several choices.
From the Tobin Center, the first turns would get me to Broadway and then to...oh my gosh, I knew where I was going, and found myself just 2 blocks away from the historic Witherspoon Building at 320 E. Sixth Street. Why is that magical? It's like many other buildings downtown and it's old; therefore it's historic. The apartment at the far corner of the building in the back was my Great Aunt Emma's residence for most of the years I knew her; there had been a little residence on E. Grayson Street, I am pretty sure...at least from the 1960s...all the way until 1991, when she passed away at the age of 98. Now, this is relevant and sort of fascinating (if only to me) for a number of reasons.
Early on, working at the St. Anthony, Aunt Emma knew she couldn't afford to keep the home she'd shared with Uncle Mitchell, so she decided to rent a more affordable apartment in SA, and one of her coworkers at the hotel, Charlotte, was looking for a room to rent. Charlotte was working as a hostess in the St. Anthony's main dining room. Celebrities traveling to SA always stayed at the St. Anthony, and Charlotte got to meet all of them and they would ask for her by name. Charlotte had been recently divorced from an unhappy marriage and so, as God always seems to know what people need and when, Aunt Emma became a perfect mother figure and Charlotte the good daughter.
Aunt Emma saved everything she could for reuse, e.g., aluminum foil. She shopped at Kresge's (the ultimate parent company of K-Mart), and bought Dak brand canned hams for $2.89 or so in the 1960s. They made four or five meals out of them. As was a member of 75+ years of Farm and Home Savings & Loan...Aunt Emma received a certificate for that notation. As a child, I didn't see how that was relevant, but Mom congratulated her savings talent and I learned then how important it was to save, for when you might not have income you were counting on having. That lesson I'd learn to value sooner than I'd realize. Today's young people walk into Target or WalMart and they're used to just picking what they want. Few have cause to learn to save allowance for weeks and wait with anxious anticipation for something worth saving, and waiting, for. That saddens me, until I see contemporary parents teaching their children that lesson, and my heart is warmed all over again. It's a miracle this photo of Aunt Emma even exists, but perhaps there was a special at Corona Studios (May 12, 1956) for this beautiful photo to be taken. No matter how it happened, it's a cherished photo.
She took no vacations nor did she travel out of town....not even on the bus. Grandma Daisy came to San Antonio for two weeks, once each year and the first week she spent in SA, staying with us, and we saw her sister, Aunt Emma, every day of that week, then we drove to Galveston for every July 4th on the beach there. Great Aunt Bird (Berta) lived there, and she was Grandma Daisy's half-sister, but Bird raised Daisy in a family of 16 kids...eight from the dad and eight from the mom blending together when the widow married the widower...these brief visits kept the 'family' together.
Great Aunt Emma wasn't long on conversation but she was kind....Charlotte was more talkative and fun to be around, but Aunt Emma had lots and lots of stories about their growing up. I remember a few, a very few, but could kick myself for not paying closer attention. When you're 8 and 9 though...you don't think in those terms anyway.
In the day and time of the 1960s, their rent for that one-bedroom apartment was about $50-$75/month. If you had a down payment for a house, maybe a mortgage payment could run $70-$90/month for a small home, $400/month for a mansion perhaps. Hard to know much about pricing when you're in elementary school. Charlotte had the bedroom and Aunt Emma had her big poster bed, armoir, dressing table and sewing machine, all in the back half of the very large living room.
It seemed such a vast living area...and today's rent there, for the same place, I see online, is $895/month. It had (I hope this is a correct memory) 37 cast iron steps and Aunt Emma marched up and down those steps two and three times a day...which is how she stayed in shape. She walked to the bus stop and took the bus to the St. Anthony, as did Charlotte. It was not ever a safe neighborhood by any standards, really. But when you pray for safety, which they did, safety was there.
The Witherspoon Building was home above the Pep Boys garage underneath...the garage saw a lot of traffic during the daytime but shut down about 6 pm. You could park in the lot directly behind the building. I do remember as a kid learning to be aware of who was around when you went to get in the car, and to first walk all around the car before getting in it, lest someone try to enter from the opposite side and drag you and the car off with them. Yet, it didn't deter Mom (and me, in tow) from visiting Aunt Emma. Mom and Charlotte were both concerned when someone grabbed Aunt Emma's purse and took off one day...and they looked for another place to live.
They moved across about 5 miles to "The Rex Apartments" that were not necessarily in a better neighborhood, but it was landscaped beautifully. That lasted 5 days and they moved back to the same building that was being managed by their friend, Mary, widow of Ed, who'd been a night typesetter at the San Antonio Light newspaper. Mary welcomed them back with open arms and there they stayed. All three of them looked out for each other.
Aunt Emma never let you carry her purse, which weighed a good 30 lbs (slight exaggeration, only slight), and insisted on carrying it up and down those stairs...Mom feared constantly that the weight of the purse would send her careening down the stairs but it never did...these days if you asked me to take those stairs once a day, I'd have to think twice about the potential of tripping...but she never did worry....the best attitude.
Final thoughts...when Aunt Emma was a younger woman, early bride, Mom and Aunt Virginia would ride the Frisco Railroad (free) each summer to spend several weeks in both San Antonio and with Aunt Emma. Mom said she was lighthearted, funny, loving and kind. It was those times, I am convinced, that were some of the most special of the very hard life and times Mom's generation had, growing up in St. Louis. Ultimately, Mom would move permanently to SA, where she took a job in civil service, with a government office located on the base at Ft. Sam Houston, very close to where Aunt Emma's original house was.
It's hard to tell what a person is like by one semi-serious photo pose, but among the pioneers of our generation of strong women...you never saw her pity herself and how little she had to live on....she had faith in God, even if she didn't attend church each week, and that's the perfect example of how being in a church each week doesn't make you religious any more than being in a garage every night makes you a car...it's how you live your life and if you trust someone or something outside yourself to have gotten you here as who looks in on you at times when you don't even think you have a right to ask for help. All those thoughts came rushing back into my mind simply by driving down that street (that my Waze GPS programmed me to take) on my way back home from SA...the first hometown I ever knew.
Eventually, I arrived back home, spending those 210 minutes in deep reflection, being alert enough to avoid two standstill traffic jams along I-35 (thank you many, many exit ramps in SA), but the joyful events of the day--seeing a longtime friend after too long, and seeing another longtime friend of ours honored by the most creative and talented artists, academics and dignitaries in San Antonio, had me on the proverbial Cloud 9. WAZE got me home safely, but it took me via a small detour of five decades of my life. I had to forgo the usual Buc-ee's stop with my new route, darn the luck, and I left with no Bill Miller iced tea refills in my car, yet I had a perfect view of my childhood, thanks to a heavenly intervention of memory, and a technological invention called WAZE. Thanks for the memories, WAZE. I owe you one.