Memorial Day: Remembering the boy who came home

We did not know her, but we cried with her, which is what small towns in East Texas did when the tragedy of war struck.

ON MEMORIAL DAY, I always think of a mother and her boys.

War had separated them.

They would never be all together again.

Her heart had a hole that time could not fill.

Her grief was the grief of many.

She cried until there were no more tears.

Then war sent her home one of the missing pieces.

It was only one.

It would be enough.

My hometown felt deeply the plight of a mother who had fallen as far as she could go into the depths of hopeless despair.

She did not cry alone.

The story of the Tamale Lady can be found in my memoir about fascinating people I’ve met along my way through life.

We did not know her, but we cried with her, which is what small towns in East Texas did when tragedy struck and left gold stars nailed on the doors of those whose World War II sons had been lost forever in lands they had never known or seen before.

Maria Houston was born rich.

She married a mining engineer and left home.

He died too early.

And he left her broke.

She made her living during the 1930s and 1940s pushing a cart through the back streets of the oilfield peddling hot tamales.

Hard work.

She never complained.

She had six boys.

She kept them clothed and fed.

They marched off to war.

None came home.

They all died so far away.

And she was alone.

I heard my mother tell the story often, and she cried when she told it. Those who heard the story cried when they heard it.

It was the saddest story any of us had ever known.

I grew up haunted by a mother who had so little and lost so much.

We grow up and forget a lot.

I could not forget her.

Many years ago, I wrote her story in my weekly column of Westward Magazine, the Sunday Supplement of the Dallas Times Herald.

The story ran.

I shoved it aside.

There was always another column to write.

The phone rang one afternoon.  I heard a strange voice on the other end of the line, which wasn’t particularly unusual. When you write regularly for newspapers or magazines, you field a lot of phone calls and hear a lot of strange voices.

“Hello,” I said.

“I’m not dead,” he said.


I wasn’t for sure what to say.

“I didn’t die,” he said.

“I’m glad,” I said, sounding probably as confused as I was.

“You said I died,” he said. The voice was not hostile. It was friendly but tinged with sadness. He continued, “My mother was Maria Houston, the tamale lady. I was one of the six brothers. We all did go to war. Five of my brothers did die. I was the only one to come home.”

“I never knew,” I said.

“Most did think we were all dead,” he said. “When rumors get started, you can’t stop them, not even with the facts. I Just wanted to thank you for the story you wrote about mama. She was a lovely woman who suffered much, and you treated her with the respect she deserved. I just wanted you to know the truth.”


Finally, “Welcome home,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said.

He hung up.

And I never talked to him again.

Please click HERE to find my memoir on Amazon.

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