H-Town Diary

Society of Friends(wood)

For author Rene Steinke, returning home to Friendswood has a way of plunging her back in time.

By René Steinke November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

In Friendswood, there were roads made of crushed shells instead of gravel—and these shell roads ran off the main roads. I had a friend who kept horses in the barn next to her house, and would often see her riding one of them along the shoulder of the highway. I remember one Easter morning church service, held outdoors, when a goat ambled along during a prayer and started eating the lilies. Friendswood is larger now, the shell roads mostly gone, but when I go back to visit, it still feels like a very particular small town. 

I’ve lived in New York City for most of my adult life, and at dinner parties when I am teased about some general notion of Texas (big hair, oilmen, politics), I always want to say that Texas is complicated, that Friendswood can’t be summed up in a phrase, but by then the conversation has rushed on. That’s partly why I wrote a novel set in the place where I grew up. All the broader ideas about Texas miss the textures and music of a place like Friendswood. There’s a stereotype that Texans are always bragging, full of bravado, but as the writer Bret Anthony Johnston recently put it, living in a vast state, with its vast sky, can actually make you feel quite small. That’s the kind of paradox that makes Friendswood its particular self—there’s a lot of hometown pride, sure (go Mustangs!), but also a kind of humility, a reverence for the ways in which people are connected.

The details are important because the integrity of a place comes from the color and cast of all these tiny pieces. It was members of the Religious Society of Friends— Quakers—who founded Friendswood in 1895, and their church (not a meeting house, as it might be called elsewhere), is in the middle of town, its old pale brick and grassy graveyard standing like a testament to the past. When my family first moved to Friendswood in 1978, teachers still had to sign a contract promising not to drink alcohol or smoke, in keeping with local Quaker practices, and the city was dry. Until 1965, no dancing was allowed in the schools, and the first prom was a hard-won battle. The original Friends of Friendswood had come seeking religious freedom and prosperity, and for many years the town’s main revenue came from rice farms and fig orchards. 

Shortly after NASA arrived nearby, in the early ’60s, Friendswood’s population began to grow rapidly, and there was apparently some tension in town as the outsiders started moving in—engineers, college professors, scientists. Through it all, though, the town has retained the disciplined, practical traditions of the original Friends, it seems to me. 

As I wrote Friendswood, several memories seemed key to the essence of the place, and so, in one way or another, they became part of the story. The junior high I attended had once been the only school for grades 1 to 12. There was a particular musty smell to the auditorium, of old wood and decades of children’s sweat. There were ancient wads of gum hardened on the floor and names and initials scratched into the backs of the wooden seats. I used to study those markings and wonder how long they’d been there, if they’d been inscribed by the older brother or sister of someone I knew, perhaps by someone who was already dead. 

We came to Friendswood when my dad was appointed minister at Hope Lutheran Church, a small congregation in town. During services, I would often watch people’s faces in the pews and wonder what they were thinking, if the words in the sermon had helped them through their troubles, or if they were daydreaming. I sometimes stood with my dad in his robes at the door after church, chatting with the police chief, the city councilman, the third-grade teacher, and I felt as if I knew these adults in a way other kids didn’t. Given his station, my dad was often called to serve at funerals, and from a very young age I could feel the possibility of death and grief beneath the sunny, peaceful surface of things.

We lived in a remote subdivision, and it was a long bike ride to downtown Friendswood to see our friends. We wound our way through oil fields on hot, shade-free paths, and rushed to get past that part of the ride, past odd-looking equipment that resembled small spaceships, or fenced-in modern sculptures. 

I discovered country music in Friendswood, and more than anything else, that was the music of my youth. One night on the way home from softball practice, the mothers of two of my friends turned up the radio and sang at the top of their lungs, their cigarette-rough voices cracking at the high notes. They sang along to some outlaw country song as if they were really the outlaws, not Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. I’d never seen women sing like that before. And at every single high school dance, we did the two-step, partly because there wasn’t anything to invent in those steps and turns, and so it was easier for the awkward boys to master. Plus, it wasn’t just a young person’s dance. The two-step came with history. 

There are other legacies in Friendswood, the dozens of homecoming parades and football games that came before. Some of my former teachers are still there at the high school, and they’re teaching my classmates’ children now. People feel rooted to the place in a way that might seem quaint or narrow to some, but in a world where so few people feel rooted to anything anymore, it seems to me a rare gift. 

Sometimes I feel that rootedness even from a distance. My friend Dannielle works in the film and TV business in LA now, but her parents still live in town, and sometimes she calls to catch me up on local news. And the Wranglerettes drill team (I was once a member) was invited to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year. When I saw a photo of a current Wranglerette in costume, I immediately recognized the wide white belt and remembered it cinching my waist like a corset, how it felt to do a high kick wearing that hard leather at my middle.

 A lot of people move to New York to escape their small-town origins, and there’s a pressure to reject anything that’s not cosmopolitan, to ignore it even, but it’s a writer’s job to pay attention to things, and Friendswood merits as much attention as anyplace else. I wanted to write about how it felt to live there, even if some of the stories are sad. 

During one visit, my friends and I talked about the Southbend subdivision just outside of town, where some residents became sick because it was built too near an old oil refinery and a field laden with petroleum-related chemicals, and so had to be demolished. Newspaper articles in the ’90s conveyed the catastrophe in only the most general terms, leaving me to imagine the story’s details, the ghost town of the abandoned subdivision, the worry and guilt of a mother who’d let her daughter play in the field, the willingness of Friendswood neighbors to take in those who’d lost their homes.

Last Christmas, I went to a party in Friendswood with a bonfire in the backyard, beer and Mexican food on the screened-in porch. Thirty of my old classmates were there, some of whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years, but we recognized one another, had things to say. I’d look into the face of someone I’d known since I was nine, and see all the other faces layered there beneath it: the child’s face, the teenager’s face, the young adult’s face, and all the stories that trailed along. 

I saw a friend there who now owns a successful building company, and in a moment I remembered the kind thing he’d said in sixth-grade English class to defend me against the teacher, the day his father died in an accident, the raucous party outside his house when a fight broke out, the photograph he took of my little brother as a bat boy, his witty speech at awards day, and the time, in our 20s, when he defended me against a drunk. His laugh was the same, his smile too, but here he was, a middle-aged man. Being back in Friendswood always plunges me into time. I feel it there as much as the sky or the heat or the shade of the trees. 

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