In the 1940s and 1950s, I grew up in central Texas, playing and working about the counties of Brown, Mills, San Saba and Lampasas.
Although born in Brown County, my family spend a great deal of time visiting relatives during the holidays in San Saba and Lampasas Counties. The Colorado River and San Saba River formed the backdrop of my childhood and early teen years. During December, I often stayed a week or two with my grandmother who lived first in Bend, Texas, and then Lometa, a few miles away from Bend where she worked as a telephone switchboard operator for the communities. The switchboard was in her living room. Her name was Effie Morris Parks and she taught me much about living off the land, or at least using nature’s products from the original source, not a supermarket.
Grandmother Effie, as I called her, steered me in the month of December to harvest and collect two things: mistletoe and cedar. Cedar is still harvested, but the gathering of mistletoe with its poisonous berries to frock the door portal seems to have vanished from holiday culture.
She had a green Chevrolet pickup. We would drive the pickup down dirt county roads and pull up next to a tree, usually mesquite, that would have clumps of deep green mistletoe with white berries. We would knock down the mistletoe with long bamboo poles that we also used to gather pecans in the Fall. Either that or I would climb up the tree and break off the fungus. Then we would gather the mistletoe and place it in the bed of the pickup until the pile topped the rails. We had to be careful to preserve the white berries because that improved the price we would receive. We drove to San Saba or Lometa and would sell the mistletoe at the mohair and wool congregating store. We would make upwards of twenty dollars and during the rest of the season, I often thought I saw what we had collected in small, cellophane packages sold in grocery stores in Brownwood. I doubt that was the case, but I felt rather pleased that I had helped make holidays brighter for someone.
I chopped cedar only once or twice as a boy and it was grueling work, but during December the weather was cold and going into the cedar breaks to cut wood did not seem as brutal as it was chopping cedar in the summer. Grandmother’s friends would take my cuttings — not very much, I’m afraid — and I would have a few dollars to spend during the holidays. The cedar choppers I worked around were all muscled and strong and I envied their chopping expertise. I learned how to cut staves versus good thick fence poles.
My grandmother Effie also gathered water cress, pecans, killed and plucked her own chickens, and during the late summer we would take the green Chevrolet and collect wild Mustang grapes that she would turn into jelly to consume on our breakfast table and give to friends. The tartness of the Mustang grape is like no other.
But it is the memory of harvesting and gathering of mistletoe and cedar with Grandmother that stays with me today during the holiday stretch. I scraped my arms and got stuck by mesquite thorns. Despite it all, I grew up knowing nature intimately during the cold of December with my grandmother as teacher.