Conservation is a task in which we can all join. We can be proud of the virgin flora of our state and try to see it preserved. Let us save some of the old narrow winding roads, tree branches meeting overhead, birds singing and nesting, an occasional animal darting from cover, and persuade highway builders to have more flowers, low shrubs and trees (and less Bermuda grass) along fence rows where vision is not impaired.
~Eula Whitehouse, 1967
For a long time she was just another of the four crazy great-aunts we saw occasionally: Stella, Verda, Gerte and Eula. Mostly old spinsters, they were nice but not particularly interested in a couple of chunky young boys at the rare family get-together. And frankly, we weren’t that interested in them.
As I got older, I began to appreciate that they had lives and histories, but I was busy growing up and making my own history. Mostly it was hard to keep them separate — weird names, old women, lives of little interest to me.
But Aunt Eula was the exception. She lived in the next city over, taught at a college and was always traveling — often overseas. We received a stuffed toy koala from her trip to Australia, and I remember hearing about her stay at a hotel in the trees in Africa where she could see giraffes and lions from her room.
Eula was the one aunt that the others talked about. At gatherings, we kids would wander through unnoticed, not really participating in the chatter among the adults, but picking up any interesting bits as we went through. Several of the relatives expressed outrage that Eula wore culottes, and had traveled with a man, just the two of them, camping their way across the Texas Big Bend region in the early ’30’s. Scandalous! I learned later that Eula was a botanist and she actually wrote and illustrated one of the definitive texts on Texas wildflowers. The Big Bend trip was one of her collecting and drawing trips.
Over time, I grew to see her as more of a person. She was an introvert and funny (not “funny ha-ha”), in that way that older people get, not quite odd but a little eccentric. As she aged, she often called my dad to complain about things disappearing (gremlins hid her toothbrush), and worries about her cancer. My dad was the nephew who looked out for the older relatives and being an attorney, helped with their taxes and other problems.
About the time I went away to college, at my dad’s advice, Eula began to gift us with some of her things. It increased when I graduated and got married. She gave us paintings she had done, furniture she no longer needed, and books from her collection. For a present, you might get a book or a lamp, a table, overstuffed chair or lawn equipment she no longer wanted. I admit that getting a birthday present of a 1930’s tome on fungi was at first a little strange, but it was also fun in a way. It was always a surprise, and usually interesting.
Busy with my own life, I was only vaguely aware of hers, but as the cancer advanced, she lived more and more within herself. Living out-of-state, I heard occasionally about her from my father, and when she died, inherited her old pink Rambler.
I see now she was a feminist. She obtained degrees in 1918, 1931 and 1939, taught at schools in various Texas towns, at the College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso, and later at Southern Methodist University. She was a registered nurse and taught nursing, served on the Texas State Board of Nursing Examiners, and was in the Reserve Red Cross Nursing Corps.
She was quite a woman.
I regret not getting to know her better. I imagine she had a wealth of knowledge about things I now consider important, such as birds, ecology, wildlife, public health and being a woman in male-dominated academia. However, for me she lives on in her paintings and her books.
Her sister Gerte wrote for her first book’s introduction:
From the pine woods to the prairies,
From the Panhandle to the sea,
You’ll find the Texas wildflowers
In marvelous carpentry.
Such magic tints of colors,
Pale pinks and dainty blues,
No artist’s palette can match them
In all their radiant hues.
The Texas sun has kissed them;
To Heaven they lift their eyes;
Beauty and Peace it brings them,
And Freedom under Texas skies.
By Gertrude Whitehouse
Common Fall Flowers of the Coastal Bend of Texas, Eula Whitehouse, 1962
Texas Flowers in Natural Colors, Eula Whitehouse, 1936, reprinted 1948, 1967