The Time of Big Days

Ordinarily, days are ordinary. You make the coffee and make the bed. Do your work. Interact here and there. Make meals. Relax however you do. Turn in for the night. If you’re a small-pleasures-seeking person, you seek them, you notice the moments, the clouds drifting, the shadow on the wall, the ladybug, the sound of the beans grinding and the smell of the coffee. You go through the day in a kind of emotional neutral, interrupted by small spikes of pleasure or frustration, and you’ve learned ways to manage the onslaught of daily trauma by the Republicans. (If you’re me, you’re doing that mostly by shutting out all forms of media that will put it in your face. Ostrich mode.)

My days aren’t ordinary now, and I keep thinking of how unordinary they were when I moved here. How for a month we’d gone through all the terribleness — the shock of the phone call from Katie, Gracie died, we didn’t know why; the horror of Katie’s labor and delivery; the disbelief of their homecoming without her; the numbing arrangement of a funeral; the funeral itself, and a few days later her cremation; everyone drifting home; me leaving and not knowing how I could do that; and then back in New York and the shock of divorce, and moving back to Austin within a month of Gracie’s death, and starting all over, and and and and and. Big giant days, unbearable emotions, each day a tsunami of such intense emotion it was exhausting. As someone told me during those days, you just get tired of feeling so much.

This couldn’t be more different — it isn’t tragic, it isn’t permanent loss, it isn’t unexpected upending of anything, but boy are the days big, and filled with intense emotion. Last night I thought about how one of these days, when I’m settled into my Big Indian palace, I’d return to the more boring days, the kind where small pleasures are sought against a background of ordinary. But first, I have to touch all my places, sit across tables from people I have loved so dearly.

A farewell dinner with Lynn — at the same restaurant where we first met, so special to me that she thought of that. She is one of my DEEP sisters in the world, I have a few, and we will always know and love each other.
This picture was published in the Austin Chronicle, perfect with the capitol in the background. This protest was the most powerful protest I’ve ever participated in, and I’m still being affected by it. There is something potent about dressing in that costume, something very LOUD and yet also it’s self-negating. Protest is not about self, anyway, but dressing alike (and in THAT recognizable costume, especially) makes it even less about yourself . . . which contributes to the confusion I feel about how deeply personal it was, nevertheless. That’s me on the front, right.
Texas Republicans would put us in handmaid garb if they could get away with it. It’s unbelievable what they are doing. Thank God for these women, and all the others who will keep fighting.
We stood silently, pointing at each legislative chamber. Our silence was so powerful, and then we went to the rotunda and shouted SHAME SHAME SHAME for 10 minutes. I still shiver, remembering it.

My first protest as a Texas resident was in support of women’s right to choose; Wendy Davis had just completed her famous filibuster, and I gathered with thousands of women wearing orange, around the capitol. I am so proud that my first and last protest here was for the rights of women to self-determination. That fills me with pride and it means a lot to me that Marnie is proud of me. But oof a big day, because the handmaid protest was in the morning and then my poetry group gathered for what turned out to be a party — and I’m so gullible, and was SO not expecting it, that I believed them when they said the food was in the clubhouse for some other event. My place is in such disarray, and I sold my dining table and chairs, so George kindly hosted us in the clubhouse of his condo complex, a very beautiful setting filled with people who have enriched my life beyond belief. I just can’t even really talk about it yet.

Here we all are — starting from me, bottom center, and going clockwise: George, David, Marilyn, Rebecca, Hadiya, and Nick. These people. <3
Rebecca took some pictures and she just caught the spirit of our time together. Here are David, George, and Marilyn, reading along while someone reads a poem aloud. We really love poetry, and this kind of engrossed experience was our norm.
And here are Nick, me, and Hadiya, engrossed in the poem. Seriously. How much they have given me.

I’m glad Rebecca is in the group selfie since she’s not in the other shots. I wasn’t sure I could say goodbye to everyone, so I just kept trying over and over. A rambly, teary farewell to the group, a hug and goodbye to each person individually, and a clinging by my heart to the wonder of what happened with us, over the last 4.5 years.

Last night was the last meeting I’ll join of a new book club I’d recently formed a few months ago, women who share my politics and who I met in Pantsuit Nation. They will continue on, but it was my last night to sit among them and talk about the book (we actually did that! We talked about the books we read!), to rail about politics, to share information and support in this political insanity, and then to talk about other books we’re reading. It was such a great group, I loved every meeting and I will miss them so much. Today I am having afternoon tea with George, who has been such a good friend to me over the years. I’m sure I will find it hard to get in my car afterwards and drive away. We will always be friends, all these people, it’s not that. But it is farewell to a moment, to an experience, to a specific kind of connection that we had and oh how much it meant to me.

Then tomorrow I get to babysit Lucy while Katie accompanies Oliver on a school field trip, how precious that will be, and Saturday I have a late lunch with Deb, another deep sister. I will be so thrilled to leave this hateful state with its cruel politics, but oh the people. As I say on the About the Queen page, I am rootless, geographically, but I’m very rooted, people-wise. I will never lose these people, and they will stay in my heart with the same strength they have today — but oh it’s hard to have these ‘lasts.’ It isn’t that I mind the hardness; I’ll take it any day, because it’s evidence of the bond. Many still to come, some I can hardly bear to think about, but I’ll cross them as they come.

<3 <3 <3

stuff

I can never use that word ‘stuff’ without thinking of George Carlin’s brilliant monologue about stuff.

I’ve never been a huge fan of lots of stuff, if only because we moved all the time and I no sooner unpacked some stuff until it was time to pack it again (and sometimes just to flee and leave it behind). Stuff gets weeded out pretty quickly in that life. And what’s so funny to me is that when I moved here in October 2012, I did not have any  stuff at all, just my suitcase with clothing, and some boxes of books that arrived later. So everything that sits in my house right now has been acquired since then. Every fork. Every knickknack. Every coaster. Every doodad, every poetry magazine, every lamp. Everything. And of course 80% of it was bought with my daughter Katie — her in the immediacy of her terrible, terrible grief — her encouraging me to get the nicer thing, not to cheap-ass-plastic myself, for once to have a nice thing. And so all of my things have her soaked into them. Her tiny little smile (how did she even muster any of that, a month after losing her beloved daughter???). Her getting out of bed and going with me, her help making lists of things I’d need, tasks to do. She is so fully a part of almost everything in my house.

Just a very quick shot before the young couple took it away….

I bought a way too big dining table, chairs, and bench. Too big for the space, but in my mind I was buying a very nice set that my entire family would gather around, never mind that the space was too small to extend the leaf. I was buying a very nice set that I could pass down to one of my kids. I was buying a very nice set that I imagined would be the center of wonderful times with my precious family, and when I bought it, I imagined Katie and her husband and the children they would surely go on to have sitting around it.

A mix — poetry folks AND book club women. Cheers, dear Anne! Hi Karyn, and Rebecca, and is that Ben? I always loved having you all gather around my table.

That didn’t happen, and it was really too big for the small space, but that doesn’t mean that the table wasn’t the center of a lot of wonderful times. It has been laden with food for poetry group parties, and book club dinners, and buffets for a cheese group I ran a few times. It held my sewing machine as I made a quilt for Oliver, and then for Ilan, and then for Lucy. It held a beautiful, large glass bowl — red, washed with vivid gold streaks — that I sometimes filled with glass balls, or a tall gold hurricane candle holder, or pine cones, or clementines (and let’s be real: sometimes it got filled with mail and assorted junk).

I’d been thinking about getting rid of the table anyway, and getting a small table that was much more suited to the space, and I would’ve felt the same things watching it go out the door for that reason as I feel today, watching it go out the door in preparation for my move.

just gone.

And now it’s gone, into the brand new home of a darling young couple who want it for the same reason I did, so that at least feels very good to me. It wasn’t my family heirloom table after all, but it will be theirs. That pleases me. The space is empty and swept, and the rug rolled, and I’ll use the space to stage loaded boxes and small furniture in preparation for the move. It’s nice to have an empty space large enough to move the packed boxes out of the way.

It’s inevitable that I’m thinking about Katie with every box assembled, every inch of tape applied, every precious object wrapped carefully. I haven’t even had time, yet, to bear thinking about living so far away from her that I can’t just swing by and see her or help her, or see precious Oliver and luscious Lucy. I can’t think about all that yet, and anyway right now it’s all I can do to manage thinking about her helping me buy all these things I’m taking with me. I honor my promise to myself to take them all with me, and I made that promise in large part to honor her sacrifices made for me, when I had nothing and she had just lost her most beloved dream and didn’t even know how to keep breathing. You’d think there would be tremendous comfort in a kind of “well, I’m taking Katie with me” kind of way — and of course when I place all these things into my new home, I will again think of her as I always do when I touch each thing, or sit on my couch or in my leather chair, or when I look at my beautiful bedroom furniture, or the chair in my bedroom that she encouraged me to get just because it pleased me. I’ll still and always remember her in that way. But at the moment, as I’m preparing to leave, the comfort isn’t there yet. I just touch the ways we both felt when we shopped for them.

Stuff. It’s just stuff and it isn’t at ALL just stuff. (I mean, some is. I don’t have to feel sentimental about the organizer for my silverware.)

always hoping it’s the last one

The time has come to tell some news. I am moving away from Austin on June 22.

I’ve lived here since late November, 2012 primarily because I just needed to be near my daughter and her family. They had just lost Gracie, and I had just lost everything, and I was afraid for my daughter and wanted to help her however I could — and for myself, I needed to be around family. But of course at first she had to help me. I told myself a happy little lie, then: I think it’s good for her, in the immediacy of her grief, to have to shop with me to set up a whole new life. I kind of believed it, until I would look at her shattered face and I knew what it was costing her, the life and energy she simply did not have but was mustering, for me. I made myself a solemn promise, then, that I would never again willingly put myself in a position to have to start over from scorched earth. Never again. I would not just walk away from the things of a life, sell them, throw them away, give them away, leave myself with a suitcase of clothes and nothing else, like Timid Frieda (there she goes / with her valises / held so tightly in her hand).

A few months later, Marc and I started trying to find a way to keep a version of our marriage going. We gradually found our way to the life I’ve been living ever since, the one where I live in two places, here in Austin for 18 days, there in NYC with him for 12. Big travels together three times a year. In most ways it was the best of all worlds: I still had my lovely little home (with time and space just for ME), my beloved daughter and her growing family just right there, my wonderful poetry group and various book clubs, and a host of dear friends, most especially including Nancy, who lives right next door and who has been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. I got to be here through Katie’s pregnancy with Oliver, and then the start of his life; through her pregnancy with Lucy, and now her new life. I got to help them, hang out with them, be easy. I got to be with her and them as they found their way back to life, and as I did, too.

But it’s hard, it’s been hard. Constantly uprooting my life has taken a toll. An every-two-week reboot, for 4.5 solid years, exhausting. Neither Marc nor I seemed to want me to return to our very small apartment in New York, and I’d made that promise to myself.

My work has been so negligible and my income so unsteady, I was exploring all the possibilities since I didn’t feel like I could keep affording the place I’d rented all these years. Could I move in with Marnie and Tom? We had very sincere conversations about it, and I’ll never forget Tom’s quick, moist-eyed invitation, and the delight in Marnie’s eyes at the thought of a tiny house for me in their front yard. The beauty of getting to be Ilan’s everyday Pete, of being real help to my daughter, of making my own small contribution to her doing her work. Or could I just find a tiny little studio apartment here in Austin somewhere? Whatever happened, my life had to change, I had to move again. It would be move number 82. (I hope I don’t hit 100 before I die.)

Finally Marc proposed the most perfect idea, and it was like a clap of thunder in its clarity and obvious solution: we would buy a cabin in the Catskills and I would live there. He can come up on weekends — lots of people in the city do that — and I can go into NYC whenever I want, for however long, but my place of residence will be that house.

like paradise — I remember the chill in the summer air from the cold stream

When I was a little girl, and then a young woman reading the Foxfire books, I’d read about making baskets, for instance, using materials collected from nature. Only they were never materials that grew in Texas: they were cattails, and reeds, and grasses…..of a kind that grow in Appalachia. And the Catskills. So the place has lived in my imagination most of my life. When I moved to NYC in 2005, Marc and I made very regular pilgrimages upstate to a wonderful little town named Phoenicia, to see the autumn foliage, to see spring starting to emerge. The first time I went to Woodstock I saw that little cabin hanging out on a rock over a stream that I mentioned a short while ago, and oh how I wanted that little cabin. I wanted it into my bone marrow. In the years since, that has been my imaginary home. I’ve never wanted a mansion, never understood that desire: my imaginary home was a cabin, a bungalow, a small place of my very own.

And so I move into the option that feels just about as perfect as can be, my own home in the Catskills, just down the highway from Phoenicia. I can fly to see my Austin family and my Chicago family as regularly as I like and still not be as disrupted as I’ve been. I can make regular pilgrimages to them, stay with them a week at a time, each, and soak up those people I love so dearly…..without disrupting their lives so profoundly. Without having to lean on them when they are at this burgeoning and financially tight stage of their lives. I can drive into NYC, or take a bus or the train, at a moment’s notice. Finally, I won’t always be in the wrong place at the wrong time! I won’t miss the PEN Festival, the New Yorker Festival, performances I want to see. I can see Marc every single week — but as he said, we will each still have our own time and space. He needs that as much as I’ve learned that I do. And we will have an investment, instead of simply setting fire to money, as we’ve done on my rent ($75K while I’ve been here!).

I walk this road every single autumn. Every one, for the last 12 years. It looks like the street my new house is on.

Nearby Woodstock has a very vibrant arts community, and a glance at the Meetup groups suggests that I’ll find people pretty easily. Poets, writers, artists, performers, my tribe lives there too. Cold, snowy winters. Red-orange autumns. Chilly, wet springs. Green firefly-lit summers.

My life, how many different lives I’ve had. I never dreamed I would actually get to live in the Catskills, but here it comes. I never dreamed I could live there and in New York City — not individually, and certainly not both. My life has taught me so many things, including the fact that nothing at all is permanent (except, I think, my love for my kids). Who knows where else my life will take me before it’s all said and done, but while I am having the life I’m about to have, I look forward to eating it up. To watching closely as it changes day by day. To taking pictures, to hiking in the woods, to cozying up on snowy days or cross-country skiing off my deck and onto the trails crisscrossing the forest around our house. To Marc’s garden, that idea makes me giggle with happiness. To learning the names of birds, trees, plants, wildlife. To seeing black bears (lots of black bears apparently), bobcats, weasels, porcupines, coyotes, gray wolves, eastern coyotes, gray and red foxes, river otters, whitetail deer, ravens, crows, wild turkeys, great horned owls, screech owls, bald eagles, lots of songbirds. To the contrast between a real city and the most beautiful country, and to continuing to be dazzled in my beloved NYC. My daily life will be a great many things, including some icky aspects I don’t know about yet but I’m sure I’ll discover, and I look forward to all of them. I look forward to sharing it all here.

one of the two creeks in our back yard
The other of our two creeks
This shot from one corner of the deck shows the woods around the house, and the shape of the surrounding mountains.
The downstairs is a big, bright, open space — deck off the house to the right, the length of the house, a bright living room with lots of windows, a half bath, and a fabulous kitchen — wood burning stove in between. Upstairs, two bedrooms and one full bath. Full unfinished basement. Full attic too, for that matter.
Standing at the closest creek, that’s the back of the house
back corner
the front of the house (on a very overcast day!) — I want to plant flowers around the house, and maybe forsythia
Marc, standing on ground between the two creeks out back

Though I will be 100% thrilled to leave the most hateful state of Texas, I’ll be sorry to leave my friends in Austin, and hope to see people when I come back to visit Katie and family. I’ll be sorry to leave a great many aspects of Austin, and I’m so glad I moved here in 2012. In addition to all the reasons I’ve loved being here that relate to Katie, I learned so much here. I really learned how to make a life for myself, just for me. I learned that I love living alone. I learned how to do that, even. You have a standing invitation to come visit. There are three ski mountains VERY nearby (Hunter, Belleayre, and Windham), it’s gorgeous in the fall, and I have a spare bedroom.

Move #82. It’s gonna be OK.

Our home is in Big Indian, at the margin between Big Indian Wilderness and Catskills State Park (Big Indian is part of the park, just a distinct spot of its own….and how thrilling, “wilderness”!).
There it is in relation to the city — Catskills State Park is the large green area at the top of the picture, a 2.5-hour drive to NYC.

And very nearby our house is the trailhead for one of the best hikes in the Catskills, to Giant Ledge — five ledges, actually:

the view from Giant Ledge Trail

Wow. Bring it on, black bears and all.

(*This got real long, but I append a funny story about black bears, in case you’ve stuck it out to the bitter end. So there are a LOT of black bears in the Catskills. A lot. They’re not really a threat except during baby season, and then only if you get to close to babies and a mama gets scared. I was told I’d need to bring my bird feeders in every night, because the bears love them. [really???] And the realtor said that they’ll come right up on the deck; her husband opened the door one night and came face-to-face with a big black bear, and they both freaked out and ran. He said he’ll always remember two things: 1) how AWFUL it smelled, and 2) that its breathing was so loud and sounded like Darth Vader. He could still hear it breathing from a long way away. One woman frequently finds streaks of bear snot on her kitchen window, since she hangs a bird feeder there during the day. (?) So I guess if I’m ever sitting in my living room and see a pair of eyes on the deck and hear Darth Vader, I don’t need to be [too] afraid. 🙂 )

bones and roots

My trip to Graham was even better than I could have imagined, although it was so chilly and windy that my lips got terribly chapped and the drive was difficult. I didn’t want to linger outside the car too much, so I took quick snaps of things I would have otherwise taken time with. But the reason for my trip was completely fulfilled.

After waking at 4, unable to get back to sleep I went ahead and made a pot of coffee and thermosed it and hit the road. I was taking smaller highways (183 and then 281), so I was expecting the pleasures of open fields, little traffic, and big skies — and boy did I find that. That feels like my Texas. A big weather system had come through the night before, spawning some deadly tornadoes, so the sky was especially dramatic as the sun came up.

The sky in Lampasas took my breath away
I pulled over to catch the sun streaming through the hole in the cloud blanket

I’d planned to stop to get donuts in Lampasas at a little spot called the Donut Palace (didn’t really expect it to be much of a palace, and it wasn’t), but when I walked in, there were four old men sitting at a table — their table, I’d wager — just talking about nothing, and my heart caught in my throat. Every morning, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy for a week in the summer, Big Daddy would get up at 4 to “go to town.” He and I slept out on the screened sleeping porch, and I always wanted to go with him, so he’d wake me up and off we’d go, in the dark. We had two stops: the donut shop, and the gas station where he’d buy some milk out of a freezer case outside. When we got to the donut shop, he always told me to wait in the car. I remember sitting on the front seat, leaning forward with my elbows on the front dash and my chin in my hands, gazing at Big Daddy as he sat at a table with three old men, drinking coffee. It’s easy to imagine the view he would’ve had, if he’d looked my way: a smiling granddaughter, eager for a glance. I was too little to have a reliable sense of time — it seemed like he was in there forever — but when he’d finish his coffee, he’d buy a donut for me and then off we’d go to the gas station to finish our morning errands.

And so, I bought my donuts, smiled at the old men at the Donut Palace and off I went to finish my drive.

my standard view
Indian blankets (Gaillardia pulchella), one of our standard Texas wildflowers. They made the fields and sides of the road a brilliant orange.

Driving to Graham, I was surprised to see how much is completely unchanged. The Hico Hill Inn is still in business in Hico, the sign completely unchanged even if the rest has been updated; just outside of Hico, the RV Park and Horse Motel — adjoining lots, one for RVs and the other for horse trailers (I’m not kidding); signs in Mineral Wells saying “Keep Mineral Wells Crazy” which must be their attempt to follow Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan but I don’t think it really works. The same dive bars, the same drive-in restaurants, the same of so many things it felt like I was driving backwards, somehow.

And then I crossed into Young County (Graham is the county seat). I’d noticed, as I was driving, that the accent of my thoughts was thickening; the north Texas accent is its own thing, with very flat vowels and dragging rhythms. Oil, for instance, is awl. Lisle, an old family name in Graham, is Lahl. I could feel it happening in my thoughts, and even as I write this morning, my voice is still thick with that accent.

The moment you cross into Young County, you start seeing all the pumpjacks
I love them, even though I used to think they looked creepy, like praying mantises
I thought this was a skyscraper when I was a kid.

My plan was to drive to the cemetery, then to Big Daddy’s house, which was a few blocks down the same road, then over to the park, and then to eat at K&N. I didn’t know where he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, and when I drove in, I was thinking that I hadn’t been at his funeral so I thought I had absolutely no idea where he might be. I ruled out a couple of sections that were too new (he died in 1971), but there was still a good bit of ground to cover, and the wind was whipping so hard and fast it nearly blew me over. So I picked a section and started walking the rows, looking. It was so uncomfortable with the wind, I said, halfheartedly and unbelieving, “Come on, Big Daddy, tell me where you are.” My arms were crossed, hands tucked under my armpits and my shoulders scrunched up by my ears, resisting the wind. I thought, I think he’s over there. I glanced at the section and decided I’d better stick with my systematic walking — if I just abandoned the section and went over there, I might have to start all over.

So up and down I walked, and again I said, “Call out to me, Big Daddy, where are you?” and again I thought, I think he’s over there. Finally, I got to the end of a row, took a photo of the headstones so I wouldn’t lose my place, and I went to that other section. I walked one row, turned around to come up the next, and there he was.

My Big Daddy
No friends or relatives around, for some reason

Standing there, I realized that I had been to his funeral. I remember seeing the deep, dark hole in the ground and feeling such a terrible panic that my Big Daddy was going to have to be left in that hole. I had completely forgotten that.

I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t planned to think a particular thing, or say a particular thing. My plan was simply to see where he was buried. But I stood there and felt that old pain in my chest, the one I can still touch if I think about him, the one that felt unbearable for so many years after he died. I told him a few things, what he had meant to me then, what he has meant to my life, what I’ve done that he never got the chance to do, that I loved him so dearly.

As I walked through the cemetery, it was the strangest feeling. I saw one familiar family name after another, and would say out loud, “Aw, there are the Thigpens — and there are the Lisles — aw, the Orrs, old Bobby –and there’s Hugh Ribble.” Those names, those families, like the dirt I was made from, somehow. I wondered why this place was so deeply home to me; I lived there 3 months at birth, 3 months around Big Daddy’s death when I was 12, and a couple of months in 1987. That’s all. It was never really my home. I never really knew any of the Thigpens, or the Lisles, or the Orrs.

Finally the wind blew me to my car, and I headed a few blocks down the road to Big Daddy’s house.

Big Daddy’s house was yellow, when I was a child.

There wasn’t a carport when I was a kid, and there was a giant swamp cooler hanging out of the leftmost window, which is the living room. There were two tall, nasty juniper trees on either side of the mailbox, filled with writhing bagworms. The screened porch on the back has been turned into a regular part of the house, and they fenced the back yard so I couldn’t see the back very well. How I know that house. There were those little gas burners in each room, set in a stone “fireplace” kind of, and that’s what heated the house. They were always scary to me, bright blue flames at floor level, and not much to keep clothing from catching fire — and in fact, that happened in the bathroom once, so scary.

This is one of my precious objects — it’s a heavy doorstop that was always in Big Daddy’s house.

It was an old way of living — no air conditioning, doors and windows open to catch whatever breeze there might be, the swamp cooler to add a bit of cool moisture to the dry air. Very cold in the winter, with piles of old quilts, and very hot in the summer, with cold watermelon and waiting for the sound of the snowcone man. I remember all that in my bones.

Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted. Don’t forget that. 

I have a dress buried in this back yard. There used to be a trampoline here.

This house is next door, and they used to let me jump on their trampoline, which I would do with giddy joy, shouting, “Big Daddy! Watch me! Big Daddy, look at me!” Of course he didn’t, but I lived on the edge of that hope that maybe this time he would. A terrible thing happened to me on the day of Big Daddy’s funeral, and my dress was covered with blood — which would have infuriated my mother, that I ruined a dress — so I crawled out of Big Daddy’s house and buried the dress under the trampoline….which is very interesting, if you think about it. I could’ve buried it in Big Daddy’s yard, but I buried it underneath the trampoline. (Maybe it was as simple as not wanting my mother to see a dug-up spot in the yard.) I wonder if that dress is still there, probably not. It was a little cotton dress, peach and white, and that was 46 years ago.

I knew the street my great-grandmother had lived on — Blewett — but hadn’t planned to find her house….until I was driving down Big Daddy’s street and crossed Blewett! I always thought she lived far away, but it was just down the street. So I turned onto Blewett, and there it was.

My great-grandmother’s house.

There used to be a gorgeous, big mimosa tree in the front yard, covered in pink blossoms, but it’s gone now. I know every square inch inside that house, the smell of the rooms, the kitchen. She always saved a jar of pickled beets for me, because she knew I loved them, so I would run in the front door and go straight back to the kitchen. She had a cloth calendar of the whole year, with little sequin stars glued on for each of the family birthdays (all clumped up in November… February in Young County, Texas is cold and bleak so….well…..). I remember her bed, her chenille bedspread, the cut glass lamps, the creaky wood floor with gaps between the boards so you could see the dirt underneath. But to see it now, to see what it really is, left me feeling a depth to the understanding of where I came from.

Then it was time to see the park where Big Daddy took me fishing. He’d make me collect bait — a coffee can that I had to fill with grasshoppers and crickets. I hated touching them, but I wanted to do anything with Big Daddy so I’d gather them as fast as I could, slap on the plastic lid, and off we would go with our little fishing poles. In my memory, we sat by a muddy river with a wild bank, and I do remember a time he saw a water moccasin and jumped up and ran, hollering at me to run, too. And granted, perhaps they have fixed up the park since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t a muddy river, it was a small pond, and the wild bank was just a grassy slope.

Firemen’s Park, I used to think it was grand and wild.
Sitting in the exact spot Big Daddy and I used to sit, to fish.

That picture I have of him, sitting at a concrete picnic table, was taken in Firemen’s Park. I sat on the ground where we used to sit and held him in my thoughts, and remembered how excited I used to feel, scared that I might actually catch a fish and have to touch it. I don’t remember that either of us ever did — I think the point was just to get away from my grandmother, and to have something to do.

I’d been looking forward to having a hamburger and a root beer at K&N, but like almost all the restaurants and drive-ins, it was closed because it was Sunday. On Sundays, people in Graham go to church and then go home to have a big Sunday supper. Then they rest, or watch football if it’s that time of year, or read, or talk, and then they go back to church in the evening. They don’t go to K&N. I was disappointed.

K&N was closed but it’s *exactly* the same, exactly.
They still sell a tiny root beer! And they have a typo in the hot chocolate. Not that I would’ve mentioned it.

As I drove around town, waves of memory passed through me, indistinct but familiar. That large house up on the side of the hill, I’ve been inside it, I remember the furniture and how the house felt — so much of my memories were of how it felt to be there — but I can’t remember whose house it was. The square, around the courthouse, looked exactly the same as when I was a kid. So many of the same stores and businesses, and a few new ones.

When I was a kid, going to Boaz Department Store was such a huge thing — and I thought it was the biggest store I’d ever seen.

I remember my mother bitterly complaining one day, when we were at Boaz. She said you can’t buy new underwear in Graham without everyone knowing your business and talking about it. (Boaz was the only place to shop back then.) I think she chafed at the small town she grew up in; she had bigger dreams, she wanted a fancier place in the world, and she couldn’t really find it. She dropped out of high school and ran off with my father, also a high school dropout, and was instantly pregnant with me.

Cattle and oil are the reason for Graham’s existence, captured in this large mural on the side of a building downtown

On my way out of town, I swung by the Loving Highway Church of Christ. We were there every time the doors opened — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings, plus summer revival meetings. I was baptized there by Tommy Thompson, and there were dead scorpions floating in the cold water….not part of the deal, just too unremarkable to worry about. I remember the smell of the hymnals, the hardness of the wooden pews (no cushions, that’s not mentioned in the Bible! No stained glass, also not mentioned, nor musical instruments (which were mentioned, come on you hard people), the sign up front that listed the hymns we’d be singing. My favorites, Softly and Tenderly, This World is Not My Home, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross.

The Loving Highway Church of Christ. I was baptized here.

Then it was time to leave. I’d seen everything, I found my Big Daddy, I touched all the old places and saw them with grown-up eyes, saw how small they were, how close. It was surprising, and surprisingly moving. It was an emotional trip, but only in the very best ways. I cried a lot, but only in the most personal ways — this was my home because Big Daddy lived there. That simple, quiet man, and his small, difficult life, made home for me because he loved me.

I was so lucky to get to see Dixie and Karl, there is never enough time with them no matter how much I get. We talked and talked and talked, laughed and caught up, shared our fury and disbelief over politics, ate a wonderful dinner together, drank some red wine, and then after breakfast and a walk together, I hit the road. I cherish every single second I had with them, and I’m so grateful they are in my heart. So grateful. Dixie is the sister I never really had. How lucky I am to have gotten her. (She is the cousin of my first husband, Jerry, and her precious mother Oopie was truly an angel walking on this earth — and Oopie loved me, too, for some reason that must have had to do with her more than me.)

Darling, darling Dixie, my deep sister.

I’d planned to drive straight home, but traffic on IH35 was a complete nightmare, so in Waco I rerouted to the east. I hadn’t even really realized that by going east I’d be going toward Taylor, where my father is buried, and in fact it wasn’t even until I passed the sign to Throckmorton that it hit me. Throckmorton! My dad grew up there….oh! So with no plan, no forethought, I thought I’d just swing by the cemetery to see his grave. Unlike Big Daddy’s, I knew where his was even though I’d only been there twice since he was buried in 1982 — once in 1999, when I planned to kill myself on his grave to “show” him, and once in 2012, with Katie, when I went to “show” him in a different way, to have my triumph over him 30 years after his death. That time, I instead ended up just kicking the headstone over and over, and grinding dirt into it, and collapsing in tears into Katie’s arms. I felt like I said goodbye to him then.

So with no more plan than to see his grave, I parked my car under the lone tree and walked toward his headstone. The headstones were covered with dead grass clippings so I had to sweep them away to see his name.

Unadorned, unkept, untended except by the groundskeeper.

It was a strange experience, touching his headstone. It was warm from the sun, and I hadn’t been that close to it, ever. It surprised me to feel any kind of connection. So I swept it clean and knelt there, thinking about him. And then, without even thinking about it, I stood on his headstone and said, “I win, Dad. I win.” And I stepped off, walked to my car, and drove away.

I win, Dad. I win.

I had such a strange mixture of feelings, because they were all there: anger, sorrow, acceptance, distance, empathy for him, sympathy for little me. It’s like the whole thing came to a kind of balance, and I didn’t have to leave any of them out of the story for it to be OK. It’s OK. He beat me and tried to kill me and touched me and shamed me and belittled me and said horrible and horribly inappropriate things to me and blamed me for his suicide and was in so much pain he couldn’t bear it and felt shame and just wanted to die and just wanted to hurt everyone who came close and wanted us all to hurt as much as he did. It’s all true. I understand and don’t understand, and it’s all in balance in some way.

Taylor has a great BBQ joint, Louie Mueller, so I left the cemetery and headed over for a chopped beef sandwich. They use a LOT of black pepper in the rub, so it’s right up my alley. And somehow, having BBQ after leaving my dad’s grave felt a bit like winning, too. I was OK. I wasn’t torn up, I wasn’t devastated, I just said goodbye.

Louie Mueller BBQ, in Taylor, TX
Traditional, in every way.

It was a magnificent trip, and I’m so glad I went. I felt like I was saying goodbye to Texas, in some way — to my old Texas, the landscape I’m made of, the dirt and sky and hardship I came from, and I have a place for it all in my heart, in its proper place and size.

How do you measure a life?

Tomorrow morning I’m up and out at 6am to go to Graham, the tiny town where I was born, in far north Texas. I’m curious to see Graham, but obviously the reason I’m going is to reconnect to Big Daddy, who died of cancer in July, 1971, when I was 12.

Everyone who knows me for more than a minute knows about Big Daddy. And if they know me for more than an hour, they know the outsized force Big Daddy had on my life, relative to the amount of time we got to spend together and to the depth of our interactions. He was a man of almost no words, and he was not one to show any affection, but my picture was the only one in his wallet, and it was there when he died. He’s the one who nicknamed me Pete. His name was Harvey Estes Stone, and I gave my son his middle name, William Estes.

Big Daddy was born in a rural area just outside Graham, and lived in Graham his whole life. He lived his entire adult life in that little house on Colorado Ave (the top right yellow circle), and now he’s buried a few blocks away, in Pioneer Cemetery. His big dream was to go to Galveston one day, on the Texas coast, and he never got to do that. He and my grandmother made occasional trips to Austin to see us, when we were very little kids, but they rarely even stayed overnight. I don’t think he ever went anywhere else.

Five spots to see — and Graham is so small, they’re all very close together.

I’ll go to his house, and his grave. I’ll go to Firemen’s Park, the top left circle, where he used to take me fishing. I’ll have lunch at the K&N Root Beer drive-in, and then I’ll go by the hospital, where I was born and where he died. He worked there as a janitor when he could no longer work as a roughneck in the oilfields.

I don’t think Big Daddy finished elementary school. When he and my grandmother married, their first home was a chicken coop with a dirt floor that she raked every day. Their wedding gift was an iron skillet. His life was so small, really, contained in this tiny place — even his big dream was a small one. I can almost never think about Galveston without sobbing; why couldn’t he ever fulfill that tiny little dream? He just wanted to see the ocean once. Galveston is only a 6-hour drive away from Graham.

Graham is that yellow star, west of Fort Worth, and Galveston is the red pin, on the coast.

But Big Daddy saved me by loving me, and perhaps because of his love I was able to survive. And since I was able to survive, and hang onto his love for me, and mine for him, I was able to keep going and find another kind of father, Mister Rogers, who taught me how to be a human being. And because of those two men, I was somehow able not to hurl along the violence I grew up with to my own children. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, I had a rudimentary enough idea of love that I was able to feel it and give it to my children. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, I was able to find a happy life, to see the ocean for him, to get a big education. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, my kids were able to move into the world and create their own circles and ripples of love out into the world.

I have my own set of memories of Big Daddy, but one of my favorite memories is just a story I was told. When I was born to my 18yo mother, she and I lived with Mom and Big Daddy for a few months. When I would cry at night, Big Daddy walked me around the house. I can easily imagine tiny little me resting on his big shoulder. When my parents were able to move away and get their own little place as motel managers in Kilgore, the day finally came when it was time to go, and the story is that Big Daddy stood on that small front porch, holding me on his shoulder with tears in his eyes. He said to my mother, “Pete don’t want to go to no Kilnegorster.” (inserting syllables like that was his humor) The story she told me is that he held me tightly, and went in the house instead of watching us pull out of the driveway. She says I cried, too.

He held me when I was born, and I was with him when he died, though I had fallen asleep next to him in his hospital bed. We’d been watching Creature From the Black Lagoon, and I dozed off. When I woke up, he had died.

I often wonder what sense Big Daddy would’ve made of my life, but I think I would’ve always known that he loved me. <3

Not the Big Pile

I’m sure your To Be Read pile (TBR) is tall/long/extensive, like mine. There are 387 books on my kindle, stacks of books by my bed and various chairs and tables, collections of lists in every possible place, and a separate to-read list on GoodReads. I need to get better about taking care of myself if I’m going to live long enough to make any headway. In my various book clubs, I’ve always been surprised when someone had no idea what book to suggest when it was their month…..for me, the question is which one of all the ones I’m waiting to read. Assuming our so-called president doesn’t get us nuclearly annihilated, of course.

But in addition to the full TBR pile, there’s also the Currently Reading list, which is far shorter. One good thing about GoodReads is that it keeps the list for you, if you log a book when you start reading it. Right now that list shows seven books I’m currently reading, even though a good five of those are kind of in a permanent suspension (Nox, Jitterbug Perfume, U and I, The Art of Memoir, and Glass, Irony and God. Oh, also Minds of WinterI want to finish all those, I mean to, they’re just kind of….on pause). It’s funny how that happens — I really DO want to finish all those books! For each one, something happened to pause the book and then I just never got back to it.

But there’s a hot short list bubbling around at any given moment, the “which one, which one, which one to dive into right now” list. Mine includes:

  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. This one’s getting so much attention, and it’s supposed to be so funny and wonderful and beautiful. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I think I’d like to read something light and funny. And beautiful.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. For personal reasons having to do with my upcoming life change, this was recommended to me. And to be honest, while I really love Solnit’s activism and scholarship, I find her writing hard-going. Not clenched, exactly, but certainly not light and dive-in-able.
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. I started reading this one and it’s fascinating, and on the edge of catching fire. It’s about the rediscovery of a nearly lost manuscript 600 years ago (On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius) and the way that manuscript sparked the Enlightenment, and changed the whole world. It’s well written, and interesting, and maybe it’s time for a bit of non-fiction?
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders is, of course, one of our great humans. His compassion shines through everything he does, and heaven knows the world (and I) need him desperately. I started trying to read it and this one’s kind of hard to get into; but I know and trust him as a writer, so I want to push through the resistance.

All four of those are pushing on me real hard in their own ways. Have you read any of them? Any words, if you have?

It’s Tuesday, so poetry group meets in my house tonight, looking forward to that so much. I’m going to bring a couple of poems by Sharon Olds — not this one, but this is a gorgeous Sharon Olds poem:

Rite of Passage 

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

Olds has long been a favorite poet of mine, and she was recently included on a list of five female poets who are doing good work in the resistance.

The world feels extremely scary right now. Every day, scarier than the day before. I gaze at this beautiful child and hold my breath.

potluck

Just an assortment of things, almost all beautiful:

  • Since I won’t be here on Oliver’s third birthday because I’ll be in Bali that day, I spent a few hours with him yesterday. I had some kind of seriously awful gut thing going on so it wasn’t as long as I’d have liked, but it was so wonderful being with him. He and I went to one of the neighborhood parks, the one on the elementary school grounds where he will be going in just a couple of weeks. He played on the equipment, we blew bubbles even though it was too breezy to make chasing them much fun, he ate lunch, and he ran around. I watched him wandering around, running, talking to himself the way he does, and my heart ached so hard. Oliver has something going on — the current educational diagnosis is in the autism neighborhood — but most difficult is his pretty profound speech delay. So I watched that beautiful, darling boy running around, in his own world, and I cried pretty hard because I so want to know him. I so want to share things with him, know what he thinks without guessing, hear his wonderings and his wants and his needs and his funny. At the moment that’s not how it is to be with Oliver, but I know it will be one of these days. I don’t think he feels lonely; he seems keenly aware of how much he is loved. One fun thing to do with Oliver is to look at the phone together. We had the camera on and turned to selfie mode, and he was grinning as he held down the button for dozens of long bursts. He caught the really beautiful shot I included here. See the delight on his face?
  • My dear, dear friend Becci (hi darling Becci!) sent me a Crazy Zauberball. I have always wanted one, and somehow she chose a colorway that I always wanted, too. The other day I opened my mailbox, expecting the usual day’s allotment of junk mail, and instead there was a nicely wrapped box, fit snugly into the mailbox with my name facing outward. I had no idea what it might be, even when I saw Becci’s name and address in the top right corner. I literally ran into the house and unwrapped it (even more nicely presented inside the outer brown wrapper, with a “just because” note) and when I pulled out the ball I jumped up as if I’d been electrocuted. It was the last thing I expected, and I instantly started crying with all the joy — the joy of having a friend who would do such a thing (and just because), the joy of her thoughtfulness and knowing, the pleasure of the long-wanted yarn, and the delight of finding just the right project for it. I decided on a project that others have made with the yarn, a scarf called Baktus, because it looks amazing and it’s a simple knit—I want to make it on my upcoming trip. In the way these things work, forever more I’ll feel all the love and joy when I wear it, remembering Becci, remembering making it in Indonesia. That’s one thing I love about knitting, it holds the space for all of that.
  • I can’t properly talk about how humiliated I feel over having that hangover on Tuesday. I feel such shame about it. I’m 58, I have so many ways to manage upset, and I drank enough to have a hangover? It’s hard to talk about it but I feel like I must — maybe this is some kind of self-flagellation, maybe I shouldn’t, but shame and humiliation is exactly what I feel. I mentioned that feeling to Nancy, and she looked puzzled, which puzzled me. Shouldn’t I feel shame? I talk relatively often about AA, which I only know about because of my husband; I know that they believe self-loathing doesn’t get you anywhere, and certainly not to the same place that self-compassion will take you. I’m trying that, trying to have compassion for myself that evening, acceptance of myself and what I did. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again; I sure learned a lot, including the fact that a hangover can be a really terrible mood, which I didn’t know. I’m sorry I did that — I say that out loud, and to myself. It’s funny; I even find this beautiful, even though it’s such a dreadful feeling. But it’s beautiful to stumble along, fall down and get up, bruise yourself, heal yourself, and be helped along by others. I think that’s really beautiful.
  • We just lost Derek Walcott, a poet whose words have meant a lot to me over the years. I first encountered him in 2001, when I knew a poet who loved him. I’m sorry this is in a jpg instead of text, but I can’t find it copy-able and I don’t want to type it all out. This poem relates so beautifully to the end of my last bullet point:

  • Tonight I will sit with the women in my book club to talk about this month’s book, which I didn’t like at all I’m sad to say (The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood, review here). But I will love being with the women, who share my political world view and who are SMART, screamingly smart, and compassionate. We meet at Joyce’s house tonight — she picked the book — and she’s making us a vegetable pie and salad, and I’m bringing Topo Chico and dark chocolate, and I look forward to the communion with all my heart. For now, though, I pack for Indonesia. Happy Sunday, everyone.