For most people, this is a story about Texas, for some, a story about architecture. And to a few who know about both Texas and architecture (I am thinking here of the late “Texas Ranger” John Hejduk), it is a sort of myth: an intersection of human beings with place, grounded as much in our imaginations as it is in reality—as such places inevitably are. When I tell the story to my students, I tell it for all three of these reasons. It is also a coming of age story: the story of my first job and my first project.
As most stories do, this story has an ending, and the ending is so strange that I will break with convention and reveal it now: They buried her in a martini shaker…and a Dixie-cup.
Mid-way between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland was peculiar even by Texas standards. The land it rested upon had once been an ancient seabed, now lifted up to become the Texas High Plains. It is full of tumbleweeds, high winds, and dust storms—and, at that time, oil: lots of oil. A small city of sixty thousand, Midland had more millionaires per capita than any other city, more private planes, more Rolls Royces.
Like others in the fifties, architect Frank Welch found his way to Midland as part of a phalanx of Texans and northeasterners who traveled to West Texas to find success. He was handsome and talented, and he had married a kind and gracious banker’s daughter. He was also a favored protégé of O’Neil Ford, the granddaddy of Texas architecture, and was as likely to give his staff lectures on architecture as on a Picasso show at MOMA. A good architect and a bon vivant: Frank was exactly the kind of person I wanted to work for.
I had been in the office two weeks when Frank came to me and said that his best friend had called to tell him that the wife of one of his several brothers had passed away, and his brother wanted us to design a gravesite for her on the Soren family ranch in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. Frank wanted me to design the gravesite and—in what must be one of the oddest combinations of tasks—to turn an old adobe chicken coop into a guesthouse.
I set to designing and laboriously rendering what I hoped to be a minor de Stijl masterwork: a set of finely proportioned, low, gray granite slabs in contrast to the rough exposed red granite of the site. In my view, the scheme was elegant and artistic; I was happy with the results.
The Soren family apparently was not. I eliminated some of the slabs; they sent back an untrained sketch of a lone star that filled a sheet of oil-company stationery, dimensioned to fit into a twelve-foot diameter circle. I thought, “Were they going to visit in a helicopter?”
A few years earlier, Frank had struggled with the design of his own son’s grave, and he understood the exaggerations of grief. Somehow, he talked them out of the star. The minor de Stijl masterwork was, however, never to appear again; instead we settled on a non-descript, simple, rose-granite square within a square about two feet on a side. Our thinking was: “At least its not the star.”
During all this time, several trips were made to the ranch either by car, which took several hours, or by private plane. Mr. Soren would sometimes fly up to Midland from San Antonio to meet us, and then we would fly down to the ranch together. We would land on the ranch’s own landing strip and then drive up a single-lane asphalt road to the ranch. The main house was big and straggled a hill and full of western art. Cowboys worked outside, mirroring the art inside. On some visits, we would arrive early enough to eat cabrito that the Tejana cooks would prepare for lunch. The ranch had a gritty romanticism to it and struck me as its own world.
Charlie O’Donnell, the ranch foreman, in his sixties, was tall and slim and really did look like John Wayne. When young, he must have been what some women called “a tall glass of water.” He was an admirable man; he would go out to the campsites along the migrant trails that crossed the ranch and leave food for the illegal workers. He did this because it was the right thing to do and because he knew their lot was terribly harder than his—it was a different Texas back then.
Charlie was in love with two women, Mrs. O’Donnell and Mrs. Soren. His love of Mrs. Soren wasn’t romantic but out of a bond they had made through generosity and respect. Some of the other ranches in the area were merely weekend retreats, but Mrs. Soren had instructed Charlie that he was a ranch foreman and not a caretaker. He was to make the ranch a working and profitable one, and he did. He dug her grave himself, blasting a hole in the rock with dynamite.
Somewhere around the time that Charlie was blasting this hole and not long after we’d been asked to design the cross, Frank came to my drafting table for a talk. He understood that the project had not gone as either of us had expected, and I understood that he had been doing his best to finish it with understanding and grace. Grace was important to Frank. He had been wise and carefully empathetic. But what he was about to say was clearly too much.
He had just finished a telephone conversation with Mr. Soren. The family would have a memorial service on the ranch in two weeks. Mr. Soren wanted us to drive down and place Mrs. Soren’s remains in the site and seal it before the memorial service. Standing by my desk, he said, “Jim, Mr. Soren is putting Mrs. Soren’s cremated remains into a martini shaker. It was an anniversary gift to him from Mrs. Soren.” He looked weary and dismayed.
The day before the memorial service, Frank and I arrived at the gravesite early in the morning. Charlie was already there with one or two ranch hands. It was almost mid-day for them, and they had come on horses. A slightly befuddled stonecutter from San Angelo was there, too. We gathered around the grave. The granite slab and plaque lay next to the hole on a portable lift. The atmosphere was sad. Not much was said after the handshakes and hellos.
Then Frank turned to Charlie and told him that Mr. Soren had wondered if Charlie would like to place Mrs. Soren’s remains in the grave. Charlie’s eyes welled up, and he silently nodded. Frank reached into a cardboard box he had received the day before and brought out the shaker, which was wrapped in brown packing material, and began to unwrap it.
And we stared, blindsided by a small, unexpected epiphany. The shaker was startlingly and exquisitely beautiful. It was simple and unadorned and subtly shaped in a way you could only call feminine. It was 24-carat gold. It was gleaming. The treasures from an Egyptian tomb had just toured the country, and it looked like it would belong.
Charlie took the shaker in his rancher’s hands and placed it gently in the grave. Frank looked happy and relieved; I felt a thickness in my chest; somehow, something made a kind of wondrous sense. We had entered some unpredictable and paradoxical place where beauty trumped all. And where architecture doesn’t have much of a stake.
The slab was glued to the concrete, the grave sealed, and we started to say our goodbyes. And then Frank reached into the box again and brought out something else wrapped in brown packing and turned again to Charlie to say, “Charlie, they were not able to put all of Mrs. Soren into the martini shaker. Mr. Soren was hoping that you would take what is left and take them someplace on the ranch to spread them out.”
He unwrapped the packing and pulled out something that looked too much like a Dixie-cup not to actually be one.
He handed it to Charlie, whose eyes had watered up again. Charlie nodded. He took the cup from Frank.
Frank and I, the stonecutter, and the one or two ranch hands left Charlie at the gravesite and drove or rode away. I am not sure what happened next; I know that Charlie got on his horse and rode out to some part of the ranch to spread the rest of Mrs. Soren’s ashes. But I also imagine that he returned a few hours later for the lunch that he had every day with Mrs. O’Donnell, carrying with him an empty Dixie-cup.