Bandera, the little cowboy town on the Medina River, has always held a special place in my heart. It was here, in the summer of 1947, where my mother and father met and fell in love.
Tommy Schexnayder, a tall, handsome, wavy-haired, hazel-eyed ranch hand, was 22 years old. Kathleen “Kitty” Fox was a petite, vivacious, soon-to-be high school senior on her way to being crowned May Queen at Lamar High School in Houston.
My future father spent his summers working at the Joleta Guest Ranch, a dude ranch, where he “taught the neophytes how to ride a horse.” Most summers, my future mother, her parents and sister came to stay at the tiny log cabin that the family owned on the Medina River. Like many others from the big city of Houston, they escaped on vacation to this rustic Hill Country town to engage in such pleasures as dancing the Cotton-Eyed Joe at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon or perhaps heading to the Frontier Times Museum to gaze in amazement at the tiny, two-headed baby goat that stands mounted inside a glass case.
While the tourists played, my dad worked at the dude ranch—hauling hay, roping, bathing and saddling the horses. And he provided a personal service, which, no doubt, made the young women swoon. For only 50 cents a head, he escorted female ranch guests and visitors—including my mother in the summer of 1947—down to the Medina River and washed their hair. A fiscally savvy young man, Dad once told me he had calculated three washes a day were just about right to cover his beer tab that night. In later years, my mom and dad loved to talk about that “silly pastime,” which involved lots of giggling and splashing around by everyone involved.
This hair-washing ritual, however, seemed out of character for a young man who had wanted to become a priest. But just before the summer of 1947, my father, who was in his sixth year of school, decided not to finish his seven-year term at St. Mary’s Seminary in La Porte. Having grown up in a staunch Catholic household, where friends of my grandmother would point at her young son, the altar boy, and whisper, “That’s Margaret’s boy—the priest,” Dad’s destiny seemed to point toward celibacy. But, as he watched the water trickle over Mom’s short, dark bob that special summer day, he must have known he had made the right decision.
I often think his tanned hands, which swept the shampoo from Mom’s forehead into the cool, rushing waters of the Medina, might instead have baptized newborns or anointed dying old men.
One day, Dad reflected about his decision to leave the seminary: “I knew I wanted a family.” This certainly was true, when, after a yearlong courtship, he and my mother married and produced six girls and four boys in 16 years. Large families were common in the ’50s, but our rambunctious, rosy-cheeked clan still generated a lot of attention. We couldn’t go anywhere in the family station wagon without someone pulling up next to us and counting our heads, as if we were prized jelly beans in a jar. Mom always waved and held up the latest baby for a better look.
When I was young, we would return to that tiny, two-bedroom log cabin during summer breaks. I remember the excitement of rolling out the cots and finding scorpions in the bedding folds. At Saturday night square dances in town, my dad tried to educate me on the intricate moves of the swing while I stared at the toes of his big cowboy boots. An innocent hint of romance hung in the Bandera air, as I, an 11-year old, dreamed about someday meeting a rugged cowboy of my own.
Most of the Bandera magic, however, came from exploring the large, open field behind the log cabin that led down to the banks of the Medina. My sisters and I played horses, galloping through the tall grass and rearing our heads high in the air, just like Silver. We swam for hours in the river, letting our imaginations roam free as we soaked in its waters.
Good times have a way of coming to an end, and the log cabin was lost to us when my grandparents, my mother’s parents, sold their property in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s, my parents divorced after 20 years of marriage. Yet, I still believe in the magic of love, as recent events involving my younger brother and the Medina have affirmed.
Scotty, 52, recently moved to Bandera after retiring from a job he held for more than 30 years at a Texas City oil refinery. He couldn’t wait to breathe the fresh Hill Country air. Scotty, like Dad, is outgoing and sports a thick head of hair. And just like Dad, Scotty couldn’t resist the mystical allure of the Medina behind the log cabin where family members once stayed. There, near the river, he convinced his longtime partner, Mary Beth, to join him on his new adventures in Bandera.
They married this year, at an open-air dance hall, just around the corner from Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, where my parents once danced. Scotty and Mary Beth will live their days in a beautiful new home not far from the spot where Dad first washed Mom’s hair.
Thank goodness, love on the Medina is alive and well.
Terri Schexnayder, who lives in Austin, says love is alive and well with her husband, Randall, their four daughters and five grandchildren.