Family Travel

A Nostalgic (Sad, Loving, Unforgettable) Texas Homecoming

by Cindy Chupack
Galveston The beach in Galveston. All photos by Cindy Chupack.

Cindy Chupack has made a career of turning human dramas into award-winning television comedy on shows like Modern Family, Sex and the City, and Fleishman Is in Trouble. In this recounting of a special family trip to Galveston, Texas, she reminds us why no one should ever feel guilty about enjoying life, even in the face of sadness and death.

As I was checking in at the beautifully restored and renovated Grand Galvez Resort, Autograph Collection in Galveston, Texas, the desk clerk asked if this was a business trip or a vacation. I wasn’t sure how to answer. How do you classify a weekend in a place where you spent a lot of time as a kid and that you’re revisiting with your mother, sister, and brother-in-law to scatter your dad’s ashes? Is it … a nostalgication?

My mom was born and raised in Galveston, a small, romantic island just south of Houston on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a favorite family vacation spot when my sister Jill and I were growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and The Galvez (as it was originally called) was my first “fancy” hotel. I remember feeling like royalty every time we splurged on a stay there. I remember my dad letting me go by myself to the hotel bar to order a Shirley Temple, and the bartender asking if I wanted that “on the rocks.” I think I said, “Um, no, we’re sitting by the pool?”

I now stay in fancy hotels all the time, where I order bourbon on the rocks, provided the “rock” is one large, solid square of ice (otherwise why bother?). I’ve come a long way, is what I’m saying, but I still enter a beautifully designed hotel with that same sense of wonder and awe that I had as a kid at The Galvez.

Grand Galvez did not disappoint. In fact, the hotel has only improved with age, thanks to some flawless facelifts. As general manager Daryl Hill told me, “After 112 years, the old gal earned the term ‘Grand.’”

The moment I entered the palatial lobby, I was standing on an intricate piece of art, Queen of the Gulf by Dallas-based Julie Richie Mosaics. A horizontal, 315 square-foot marble mosaic, it’s like a gorgeous rug made of tiles.

The entrance mosaic at Grand Galvez Resort, Autograph Collection..

I flew in from California before my family drove down from Dallas. Our fourth floor rooms had a perfect view of the Seawall and the sparkling blue Gulf, and we celebrated our first night with a drink under the red Baccarat crystal chandeliers of The Founders Bar, a swanky spot just off the lobby with red velvet and leopard-print banquets and portraits of the hotel’s five original founders. My mom decided she should mark the occasion by ordering the pink drink my dad always made for company, a Pink Cadillac (basically an adult milkshake with Galliano, white crème de cacao, grenadine, and vanilla ice cream). Our bartender, like most people under the age of 80, had never heard of the drink, but after consulting her iPhone, she made a Pink Cadillac that would have made my father – and the founders – proud.

My mom had been dreading this trip, she confessed that first night, feeling like it was too soon, or too final. She and my dad had been married just short of 63 years when he had died about month earlier, at 89. She admitted she felt guilty having fun without him. But by the time we were eating guacamole and chips at The Original Mexican Café, her guilt – and my diet – were things of the past, much like this restaurant. Opened in 1916, the time-honored local favorite proudly bills itself as “the longest continually operating restaurant on Galveston Island still at its original location.” That might seem like a mouthful, but with each mouthful you are reminded what Mexican food tasted like before we all grew up and tried to make it healthier. My mom had a half-order of quesadillas that she was sure was a full order because it covered the entire plate, but it was, in fact, the half-order, and it only cost $6.

My mom had grown up with the kind of loving, close family that my dad had always dreamed of. He had an uncommunicative Air Force officer for a father and a too-young, mentally unstable mother, followed by a stepmother who hadn’t signed up for raising boys who weren’t hers while her husband was off fighting wars. So my dad was raised mostly by relatives, and he looked for outside role models to show him how he could do better with his own family one day. That’s partly why he fell in love with my mom – because he adored her family, especially her parents, and they adored him. That’s also why he wanted his “cremains” near their graves in the Broadway Cemetery Historic District.

When we visited the Jewish section of the cemetery, Jill revealed a garden spade she’d brought in her purse (she came prepared) and dug a little hole near each of my grandparents’ headstones into which we poured … I’m still not sure how to think about this … some of my dad?

Cindy's sister and mother at the family headstone.

It's hard to connect the person you knew your whole life to the bag of ashes you receive once they’re gone. My mom once said she didn’t want a grave because she didn’t want us to feel we had to come visit. (She’s a bit of a martyr in life. So of course in death she doesn’t want to be a bother.) But as we stood at my grandparents’ graves, I could see the appeal of some kind of marker, a specific place to go to remember.

While planning this trip, I decided that when I died, my now 12-year-old daughter Olivia should sprinkle my ashes in the place she had the happiest memories of our time together. But when Olivia overheard Jill telling me how cremains could be turned into all sorts of things including a diamond, her eyes lit up, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be jewelry.

We recited the Mourner’s Kaddish at the cemetery, after which my amazingly patient brother-in-law Mitch took directions from one front-seat and two back-seat drivers as we directed him toward the historic Victorian homes on lower Broadway that the city has managed to preserve despite significant storms throughout the years.

No matter how old I get or how many beautiful homes I see, nothing compares to Galveston’s 32-room limestone and red brick Moody Mansion … except Galveston’s over 50-room Bishop’s Palace, which has been cited by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America and classified by the Library of Congress as one of the fourteen most representative Victorian structures in the country. Every time we’ve visited Galveston, we’ve done this drive and marveled at the Victorian gems along this strip. Then we turn down side streets to see what’s become of the modest homes where my mom and her sister grew up, her Aunt Rosie’s grocery, Uncle Jake and Aunt Mamie’s jewelry store, and Rochkind Insurance, which a cousin still owns and is conveniently located right next to the legendary Star Drug Store.

In the 1920s Star Drug Store’s distinctive horseshoe-shaped soda fountain counter became the first desegregated lunch counter in Galveston. Tested by fire in 1998 and by Hurricane Ike in 2008, it rose from the ashes and tides even better and stronger, which is truly the story of Galvestonians, who seem to be tested – but not defeated – time and time again. (A poignant exhibit at the Rosenberg Library Museum about The Great Storm of 1900 proves this point.) Although Star Drug Store is no longer a drug store (it was a working pharmacy for most of its history), the chocolate ice cream soda of my mom’s youth (chocolate soda with chocolate ice cream) was still as delicious as she remembered. Jill had a Coke float (Coca-Cola with a scoop of ice cream in it) that made me wonder why root beer floats are still cool in Los Angeles but Coke floats are not. (I have no evidence to back this up, but I blame Pepsi.)

Cindy's mom savors a chocolate ice cream soda.
Cindy at Star Drug Store.

Jill and I stopped for a short stroll on the beach where we had fond memories of going shelling and building drip castles with my mom — just as my mom had fond memories of walking the same beach with her sweet sister Marcia (also now gone), who always found shark teeth by spotting the V-shape way the water went around them as it receded. At 85, Mom wasn’t feeling up for the stairs that lead down to the beach, but she was happy to watch us trace past family footsteps. The beach looked, to all of us, cleaner and more inviting than ever.

Next was a boat ride in the Gulf to scatter the rest of my dad’s ashes, as he requested. We found charters for burial at sea ranging from $350 to $750, but my accountant father would have never approved those prices, so a kind friend of the Rochkind family took us out on his boat for free instead. Jill, worried how we would avoid having the ashes blown back on us, wondered if she would need to lean way over the boat or wear a swimsuit and get in the water. The key, we discovered, was testing to see which way the wind was blowing before doing anything. Scattering ashes off the back of the boat while it was moving left a winding trail of ash and memories in our wake.

We spent the afternoon in the hotel’s luxuriously warm saline pool and jacuzzi surrounded by palm trees, pink lounge chairs, and pink and white striped cabanas. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit Grand Galvez Spa, though the swim-up bar and pool felt just as pampering.

Of course, no trip to Galveston is complete without a dinner at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant. It’s worth a stop just for the highly Instagrammable giant blue crab on the roof, but who can resist warm bread with seasoned olive oil, Brooks gumbo, a deluxe seafood tower, jumbo lump crab cakes, and fried shrimp stuffing balls.

A family portrait outside Gaido's.

We swore we’d never eat again. Until 11 a.m. the next morning, when we were told we COULD NOT MISS the Grand Galvez Sunday Brunch, and we’re so glad we did not. It’s a Sunday Brunch to end all Sunday Brunches in a gorgeous space with soaring ceilings and oversized windows and servers who made sure we never got to the bottom of our bottomless Mimosas before they were refilled.

One note under the “do as I say, not as I do” category: When travelling to Galveston by plane, do not fly into Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) as I did. William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) is much closer to Galveston and will not cost almost $200 by cab to get to the Grand Galvez. (Had my dad still been alive, watching that meter would have killed him.)

Happily, Mitch offered to drop me off at the airport on their way back to Dallas. As we approached the Causeway, we could see the exact area of the Gulf where we’d scattered the last of the ashes. It is nice to imagine that every time we drive to or from Galveston, my dad will be there to greet us and send us off.

Although this trip was about Dad, I loved that my sister and I had time with our mom while she was still young and healthy enough to enjoy it. It was a good reminder not to wait until too late to make new memories with the people you treasure. And that you should never feel guilty about enjoying life after a death.

The love my dad found in Galveston, the inspiration for the family he wanted to create, came full circle on this nostalgication. In his honor, we were back where it all began — laughing, sharing stories and drinking ice-cream filled drinks, some of them alcoholic, none of them on the rocks. If he was watching, I would like to think he could finally see that he had succeeded – and his success had nothing to do with how big his house was or which car he drove or how much money he did or didn’t make. It was the tight-knit family he left behind. He left us with more than he had had as a child. He left us with love … and Galveston.

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