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Writing Austin's Lives: More than 800 residents tell their stories in Humanities Institute community project

What I See When I Look At Austin

A reminisce dedicated to my father

By Gina Schrader

Gina Schrader stands in front of the State Capitol holding a framed photograph of her father

Gina Schrader

I rolled down the window of the truck as we drove down a country road late at night, letting the wind hit my face to keep me awake. My Mom asked that I sit next to Dad and keep him company—her traveling vigil was over and she was retiring to the back of the camper with the rest of my brothers and sisters. I listened to the unsettling static of orphaned radio waves as Dad tried to find a radio station in the middle of nowhere. After giving up, he turned off the radio and lit up a cigarette. The truck was very quiet—too quiet. As I sat next to my Dad and he smoked his cigarette, I was uncomfortably aware in that moment that I was no longer “Daddy’s little girl.” Approaching adolescence with my thirteenth birthday in the next few months, created a type of chasm between us that I didn’t know how to bridge. It was getting more and more difficult to talk to my Dad. I identified with the orange end of his cigarette glowing in the dark, as my mind burned feverishly on what things to talk about. I kept coming up blank; after all, we didn’t share much in common anymore. Lately I passed up more and more of those rare bonding opportunities on the weekend. I decided fishing wasn’t for me, one of my Dad’s favorite past times; it required too much patience waiting for the fish to bite, plus I felt sorry for the helpless bait wriggling at the end of the hook. And although Dad tried to instill in me his passion for his other favorite past time, baseball, I determined it wasn’t for me either. There I’d sit, in a trance-like state, staring at the baseball diamond while Dad patiently tried to explain the strategies of stealing base and so forth. The Houston Astros, our team, didn’t follow Dad’s strategies so I’d get confused while Dad got agitated with the players. They’d lose and it was a dismal ride home. The only thing that Dad and I had in common it seemed was our love for playing the piano. My Dad had an extraordinary talent for playing by ear. He would pick out a familiar tune on the piano then embellish it with his own jazz version. “Mary had a Little Lamb” would start out innocently enough until Dad threw in some jazz and suddenly it morphed into “Mary had a Boogie-Woogie Little Lamb.” My brothers and sisters and I loved it when Dad played on the piano with his cigarette dangling out of his mouth. We’d dance around the piano like a bunch of wild Indians around the campfire. Music was my connection to Dad. I can remember how I could hardly wait to start piano lessons so that I could play like him. Unfortunately, I discovered my talent didn’t come as naturally, but I persevered for six years of lessons. Still, what can you say about playing the piano? My Dad started humming—I became more uncomfortable. What can we talk about? Then it hit me. There was one more thing that connected us—our love for the city of Austin. I believe that Austin was our Mecca. Although we lived in Houston, our hearts were turned to Austin. Lots of summer weekends were devoted to trips to Austin to visit Mom and Dad’s friends and take in the hill country scenery. On occasion the trip would include a downtown pilgrimage to the state capitol. Dad loved the majesty of the state capitol and what it represented. Driving slowly by it, he gazed at it like he was under a hypnotic trance. I developed a theory that it appealed to him on several levels: as a small town, west Texas country boy who once aspired to be a police sheriff like his Dad. He became a lawyer instead, but kept his Grandfather’s legacy as keeper of the law. And at the level of being a proud Texan father who wanted to share that pride with his kids. I felt it too when I looked up at the capitol; its pure whiteness illuminated against the bright blue Texas sky.

In my peripheral vision I’d see The University of Texas tower, and although I didn’t know much about the university, I knew the tower stood for something grand and promising. The magnificence of these institutions and how they stood out stirred something inside of me. I felt like there was a magnet resonating inside of me, confirming that I had arrived at my true north destination. Caught up in that reflective moment, I broke the silence. Turning to my Dad I said, “Dad, I wish I could be a little Austin girl.” No sooner then I verbalized my wish; I felt embarrassed—a little Austin girl? Where did that come from? It sounded so childish like asking Santa what I wanted for Christmas. My Dad was quiet so I wasn’t sure if he heard me. I figured the wind from my open window drowned out what I said. Then Dad cleared his throat and said, “I would love for you to be an Austin girl, too. I wish I could move my business here but it takes a long time to get re-established in my line of work. My clients depend on me in Houston, but if the right opportunity comes along, I promise we’ll move to Austin.” I was elated! We connected on something we both loved! He understood and somehow might make it happen. Within a few years, Dad bought a property on Lake Travis for us to vacation at. Those holiday and weekend trips to Austin were so special because Dad granted a part of our wish and we shared a common interest in spite of the awkwardness of my teenage years—our love for Austin.

Fast forward many years later, I became married, had four kids and then went back to college to become a UT graduate. All my wishes have come full circle. I’ve never forgotten that ride late at night nearly thirty-five years ago and what it means to me today. My Dad has since passed away but his memory is kept very much alive. Now, as I drive to work down Interstate 35 and I catch the sight of the downtown Austin skyline in the distance, I reminisce, and I’m that little Austin girl sitting in the front seat with my Dad again.

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Photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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