When I was younger, I thought we made ourselves into who we are, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that we come into the world exactly who we are, and the world does what it will do to us — but who we are was there from the beginning. And so I peer intently into my grandchildrens’ eyes…..Oliver, there from the start, exactly who he is. Ilan, there he is, I will know him always. Lucy, our delight and laughing glory, present from the get-go. And funny little mannerisms, I notice those too — physical examples of the same inner self that’s present. (And for that matter, my own children are who they’ve always been. It’s the most remarkable thing to realize. They were always there, right from the beginning, and I didn’t quite realize this yet.)
And I have always been who I am. Of course. I could be nothing else. I didn’t choose these things, we don’t choose these things, they just are. We just are. I’ve been reading Anne Carson every morning (Plainwater, at the moment, lingering with my morning coffee), and as she is trained as a classicist, there are references to Sokrates [her spelling], and Sappho, and in other works, Autobiography of Red, Herakles and Geryon. I have to regularly read The Odyssey, and I cannot wait to read An Odyssey.If you want to talk about Dante, I have a fondness for the John Ciardi translation, since it was the first one I read when Katie was a baby, but the newer translation by the Hollanders is so remarkable it’s my favorite.
When I was eight years old (-ish), I saw a commercial on television for a set of records that I wanted SO BADLY. I wanted to claw out my thigh muscles, I wanted them so badly. So I begged my dad to order them for me, with a promise to pay him back out of my allowance — which I did, and it took me a couple of years. When they arrived in the mail I was beside myself with excitement. I ran downstairs to my bedroom and played them on my junkie little record player (not a Fisher Price, but not much more than that) and 51 years later I still remember how that music made me feel. How huge. How outside-of-language. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know anything about it except how it made me feel.
Somehow, I have NO idea how, I still have the set.
When I look at the records themselves, I see that I had clear favorites: Beethoven’s Symphony in C; Swan Lake; Peer Gynt (which I would go on to introduce my children to, with a fun game); Die Fledermaus (which I would go on to play in orchestra, on my flute, such a fun little part to play). Those tracks are worn down, and I can close my eyes and remember exactly how they made me feel. I was eight, I didn’t have any understanding of them AT ALL, didn’t know what they were, didn’t know the composers (or that there were “composers”), but they made me feel something big that I couldn’t put in words, and I needed them. I needed them badly enough to endure the cost.
My mother hated me for it, and told me over and over that I was just pretending to like it. That I was just “being that way,” which was so confusing to me because I had no idea what way I was “being” except for myself . . . but it was clearly shameful, and showing off, and acting as if I was something I wasn’t. My love of books was also a shameful thing, and among other reasons she shamed me for it, one terrible thing was that I chose reading over being with her and what pathetic priorities I had. So I became as tiny as I could. I hid my books and crawled underneath my bed with them, pulling myself as far back into the corner as I could, tucking pillows along the edge so I’d have warning if she came into my room so I could hide the book before she found me. Every year I won the school award for having read the most books, and I burned with the shame of that, and was grateful that she never came to the school for those ceremonies. I waited until she left the house to listen to my records, and I felt so much shame. Why did I need such shameful things?
She did her job very well, because it’s something I still, to this day, have to resist. The tug is very small at this point, but it’s always there. When I want to share my love of the kind of books I love, for example, I flinch a little bit at her shaming of me. And then, since I’m fifty-fucking-eight years old and have done a lot of work, of course I talk about them anyway. I don’t care, or judge you, if you don’t like Sophocles and Antigone and Homer. I don’t care if you’ve never read Dante, or Melville. I don’t care if you don’t have favorite passages of poetry, if you don’t have an impulse to name your home after a little phrase from a book by James Joyce. I don’t care! YOU BE YOU!! I just have to be me, too.
I was mindful of this when my kids were little, and tried to encourage whatever they were interested in, but this is a privilege of being a grandmother: I’m that much further down the road with it and now I stare into them and HAVE to encourage them to be exactly who they are, whoever that will be. I want to help them more than anything else in this world. They will be who they are, and that’s the most important thing in this whole world to me. I needthem to be exactly who they are. They need to be exactly who they are. It’s not like I’ll be fighting their moms and dads — my kids are absolutely wonderful parents, encouraging their children — and whoo boy do they have an ally in their Pete. The kids are very little right now, all under the age of four, but when they start needing to be themselves more loudly, they’re going to find me grinning at them, begging them to come out and play.
Lucky me. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.
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So many crossing, parallel lines, so many coming-back-tos, it can be dizzying once you start noticing them. When I left New York in November, 2012, after a couple of weeks in Austin I had to fly back to NYC to pack up my books and ship them to Austin. I was sorry to leave my cozy new place that was still in pupa form, really, not fully created, not fully settled, not all the way mine yet, to return to a painful place that I had painfully left.
The emotion isn’t the same, at all, but I’ve been here a couple of weeks and today I fly back to Austin to retrieve my car — and I’m sorry to leave my cozy new place that is still in pupa form, really, not fully created, not fully settled, not all the way mine yet. The only difference is that I didn’t painfully leave Austin, except for the pain of parting.
And most disappointing, I’m only going to be in Austin for one full day (with a night on either side) and I won’t have a spare moment to see any of my beloveds except for Katie and family….so grateful to see them of course, and to spend as many hours with them, with Lucy and Oliver, as I possibly can. I am sorry I won’t get to see friends, and I will hold space the next time I come to Austin for a get-together. Since I just made the 2000-mile trip, making it again is just kind of mind-numbing, so I’m taking a different route for two reasons: first, to take a different route because for heaven’s sake; and second, to make a pit stop in Chicago to see Marnie and family, which will allow me to soak up a little Ilan and break the trip in half. All in all I will be gone a week, arriving late on Monday night back at Heaventree.
I’m sad to leave this beautiful place so quickly, and I’m so looking forward to hugging and kissing and soaking up babies, and to seeing my daughters and their husbands, and to spending one night with my dear Dixie, and to seeing a different part of the country — up and over to the right, instead of across to the right and then up. But then, when I finally make it back home, all my stuff will be in one place. Whatever I want, it will be available. There’s still some stuff at the apartment in the city, my big Nikon camera and a bunch of baking gear, but Marc will bring that or I’ll fetch it at an upcoming trip. My stepdaughter is coming to the city at the end of July so I’ll drive down for that weekend.
But y’all. Home. Quiet, beautiful home. Since I learned I would be moving here, I started following as many Catskills-related Instagram and FB pages as I could find, and yesterday a caption on an IG photo talked about how lucky the person feels to live in such a beautiful place — still, after all these years — even though it isn’t always an easy place to live. And it isn’t, I can tell already, for all kinds of reasons. I don’t even yet know what winter is going to be like, and I feel all Game of Thrones-ish about it (Winter is coming!!!!). I mean, if you do a Google Image search for ‘winter in the Catskills, you get shots like this, and I somehow think it’s gonna be harder than this great picture suggests:
So today is fly day, and I remember that other fly day when my heart was crushed and my bones felt too heavy to keep moving, and I’m so grateful that today my heart is light and my bones are eager to fly, even though I will miss my sweet home.
* * *
A couple of PS points:
Thank you for your extraordinary kindnesses to me in response to my last post. I wasn’t expecting it, for some reason, even though I know you are always so kind and generous to me. Maybe the “Lori who?” made me feel so small and invisible that I had forgotten that others know me. I don’t know. Anyway. Thank you for all the love and beautiful words (that I insist mean much more about who you are than who I am), and for the big-hearted and very wise advice I got. I’m OK. It’s not echoing in my heart any more. xoxoxox
SO! You know how I’ve talked about bears up here, but I hadn’t seen one yet. There is a house at the tail end of the private road I’m on, and we were invited to a picnic there on Saturday, something they organize every year. It was nice to meet them (excellent politics one and all, including some old red diaper baby connections). At the moment they are just here on weekends, but in a year or so they’ll be moving here permanently. They have a webcam on their house and they frequently catch wildlife on it, including this great shot of “the local big fella”:
I won’t be posting anywhere until I get back to Heaventree, but I’ll be around FB and IG once in a while, probably with pictures of grandbabies and daughters, knowing me. You know. 🙂
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When we moved away from that little house on Whiteway, it was into a house that my father designed and built, and my mother decorated. It was 1968 and the house was the very heightof modern: split-level, sunken living room upstairs, kitchen with black slate floors and countertops and fire engine red appliances (where did she find a fire engine red refrigerator, I have no idea), her giant bathroom with two full mirrored walls lined with Hollywood lights and a custom-built bathtub paved with small hexagonal charcoal tiles, and black vinyl wallpaper with giant white polka dots. The front door was red, and the siding on the front of the house was charcoal gray. It sounds kind of lurid, now, but boy was it stylish then. My dad’s specialty was lighting, and we had this really tremendous chandelier-type fixture hanging in the split-level stairway, a kind of spiral of lights, although about a month after we moved in he shattered the globes in a furniture-throwing rage, so the bare bulbs just hung in the space the rest of the time we lived there, jagged remnants of the globes still in place like ugly fangs.
The house was giant, it was stylish, and I think my mother felt like she had finally arrived. She was 28 years old, ambitious, smart, and savvy, and she steadily traded up and up and up and up: a tiny starter home in Austin, a nicer one, a nicer one, and then a custom built home.
Back when we moved out to Westlake Hills, a now super wealthy area in southwest Austin, it was wild. There were some nice homes, but there were also tiny little houses that were falling down. There were well-off and well-educated upper middle class people, but there were also very ignorant and uneducated lower-class people. The school district was good, and the location was sure to become what it actually did become, but we got out there in the early days of it, when there was so much empty, wild land. My parents built their house at #16 Sugar Shack, a street name that always makes people laugh. I wish I knew who named it; the other streets around are Rollingwood, Ridgewood, Yaupon, Redbud Trail, etc., but we were on Sugar Shack. Somehow I imagine that delighted my mother.
It’s for sale now, $1,345,000 — price reduced by $55,000 — which means it’s also on Zillow. The blurb about it says it was stripped to the studs for a remodel, and BOY is that right. If you blindfolded me and dropped me inside the house, I would never know I lived there (though I wonder if the violence still lives in the air like particulates, and only I could feel its echoes). Rooms are all in new places, spaces have been reapportioned and I can’t get a sense of what I’m looking at. The kitchen is in the wrong place. There is now a wall of windows overlooking the canyon. It’s gorgeous.
When I look at this picture, I remember my dad hauling large rocks up the driveway to landscape the yard, which was kept wild and natural.
But you can see how wild it was, how undeveloped. The only homes on Sugar Shack were ours and the one next door, which belonged to two men who lived together and who were so fancy, with feathers and scarves, and who were — vaguely, and mysteriously — “in the theater.”
When I look at that house from the outside, here’s what I see. I see my mother’s pink Oldsmobile flying backwards down the driveway running over all the new kittens, and I hear them screaming. When I look at that house from the outside, I know the walls inside were full of holes punched into the drywall, either by my father’s fists or by furniture thrown.
When I look at this picture of the new back of the house, I recall the large deck we had that hung out into space, and my father standing on it, shimmering with rage and alcohol, hurling Cleo and Claudine, our cats, off into the canyon. I remember hoping they would die this time, and if they didn’t, that they would not come back, please don’t come back. They did come back, and I never understood why. I remember feeling jealous of them, they had a chance to get away and yet they kept coming back so that was utterly confusing.
When I look at this picture, and at my old bedroom window, I remember the night I saw one of the neighborhood boys standing there in the dark, looking into my room, staring at me. It was terrifying. A couple of months earlier he had come home from school to find his father hanging in their living room, and he was never ever right again. A few years later he tried to kill himself by throwing himself into Town Lake, off a bridge, but I think he survived that attempt. He lived at the corner of Hatley and Riley, and I drove by his house yesterday — which felt so tainted after his father hung himself — and saw that they’d torn down that old house and built a new one. It was one of the older, falling down homes even back then.
When I look at those stairs, my heart starts pounding. My bedroom was right at the foot of the stairs, on the lower level, and how many times did I sit in my room, shaking so hard, watching those stairs as he came thundering down them. How many times did my sister and I clutch each other downstairs hoping so hard that the Longhorns would win the football game, because if they didn’t it was going to be so very bad for us.
This is one of the few spaces in the remodeled house that I recognize; they kept the same fireplace, and those small windows are the same. We had pink and orange bead curtains hanging in front of them, and the fireplace was painted purple, I think — or maybe we had a purple couch and the fireplace was painted white. I can’t remember. I look at this space and remember “choreographing” a little dance to the Baja Marimba Band’s song “Coming in the Back Door,” which involved nothing more than tiptoeing around the coffee table with our shoulders up to our ears and our arms at our sides, hands turned out, going around and around and around, until the fast part came on and then it was jazz hand running, then back to the tiptoeing. I loved the song and the dance because it felt like giant joy erupting suddenly out of the quiet, and the joy of it filled me up to bursting. I remember doing the little dance for our mother, desperately wanting her approval, and I remember the look of disgust on her face. When we finished, she stood up without a word and went upstairs. I remember feeling like I must be poison.
But of course when this room was mine, it looked very different. The walls were all painted black and the ceiling had a very ugly wallpaper of black, brown, and mustard wavy stripes. The window had a burlap pull shade. Mother decorated it and said it was what I would want, because it looked like a library. (WHAT??) I’m glad the room looks so different, because I don’t want to remember what happened in that space. My father knocked out my front tooth in that room, and that was definitely not the worst thing that happened there. How many hours I spent hiding in that closet. How fast the furniture flew around in that room. I hear the whizzing of his belt buckle past my ear as he’d whip it at me. I flinch, still, remembering the exploding shattering of glass when the belt buckle connected with a light fixture hanging in the corner, thick frosted glass flying everywhere.
This house — even the way it looked back then, with its gloomy charcoal siding and its red door — is the reason I look at beautiful homes with neverending suspicion. I always wonder if there’s a little girl inside, hiding under her bed and hoping this time they won’t find her. I always wonder if the walls are filled with holes. I always imagine that nothing inside matches the way it looks on the outside, in part because Mother told us that everyone was just like us, that everyone looked one way on the outside but the inside was exactly like us. That I shouldn’t be fooled by friends from happy families, they were just like us, stupid girl what an idiot to think otherwise.
That picture was taken at a party on a houseboat the summer we moved into the house. That’s my mother with the black hair and sunglasses, and my father holding the flag up — both of them so mod, so stylish, and so filled with hate for each other. My father was equally filled with hatred for himself. He didn’t hate us children, but we bore the brunt of all the hate he felt for himself, and all the hate he absorbed from my mother and from his mother. My beautiful, stylish mother hated that she was stuck with children, and with my father. She wanted more. She hated us for keeping her from having it.
When I see smiling, happy people having fun — like my parents seemed to be having on that houseboat party — I wonder what they are like at home. I imagine the stark difference, because I have been on the belt- and fist-end of that stark difference. I have been on the vicious cruel end of that difference. Less than two years after we built this house and moved in, my mother left my father (on Christmas Eve!) and my parents divorced. This house was the end of it all, though I didn’t have any way of imagining just how much worse my life was going to be.
So I had enough courage to get out of the car and walk slightly up the driveway to take a picture of the house. I used the Zillow picture instead, because it’s brighter and clearer, but I had enough courage to do that because the house looks SO different.
What I didn’t have enough courage to do, though, was to walk down Sugar Shack toward the house, as I used to do every day when the school bus dropped me off. I could’ve done that on Whiteway, even though I was always scared in that house. But I hit a brick wall of my courage on Sugar Shack, and sat in the car shaking and crying at the very idea of walking that old walk. Whatever remains of that girl I was on Sugar Shack, she is still utterly terrified.
A psychopath doesn’t start off telling you, “I know everything you think all the time, and I know everything you do when you are away from me.” They don’t start off telling you that — that’s clearly insane. But by the time they do tell you that, it’s not insane any more. By the time we lived in this house, on Sugar Shack, Mother told us that and I believed her. My father’s violence had ratcheted up by the time we lived here and nothing was safe. No one was safe. No moment was safe, any moment could suddenly shift into a nightmare. Sleeping wasn’t safe. Quiet wasn’t safe. Laughing wasn’t safe. Eating wasn’t safe. Watching a movie late at night with my father wasn’t safe. I was never, ever safe.
It’s OK. I didn’t have to take that walk yesterday. I can put my arms around myself now in a way I wish someone had done to that shivering, terrified girl with broken teeth and bloody gashed cheeks and broken bones and the small red cave of her entered and torn. I sent the Zillow link to Marc, who wrote me back saying, “wow, and so expensive. I like our new house better.” I DO TOO. I love my new home. The walls will never have holes in them. The light fixtures will be, at worst, dusty. Fear won’t hide in dark spaces, and animals won’t be hurled off the deck. Beautiful food will be made in the kitchen. Laughing will be safe, sleeping will be safe. I will be safe. Except, maybe, from ticks.
The first time I left Texas for New York was April 2003. I had a job in Rochester, New York, with my new PhD. I’d fly back to defend my dissertation, a necessary formality, but I was finished. Graduate school was behind me, and a professional job waited for me in a place I’d never imagined. My first real professional job. I was 44 at the time, Katie was in college at the University of Texas, Marnie was at Smith College, and Will was living with his dad. I left on a really beautiful spring morning, very early, and how filled I was with hope and excitement. I had done this very hard thing, earned a doctorate, unfathomable, and everything waited for me. I’d made a CD full of songs I really loved, and as I headed up IH-35, and at the exact moment I drove past the apartment complex where my beloved Katie lived, Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” came on. I started laugh-sobbing.
I remember such intense feelings, in two irreconcilable directions, one pulling me to stop, to stay, and the other urging me forward: almost unbearable pain at driving away and leaving my Katie behind, there in her little apartment and without me in town, and almost unbearable joy. NEW YORK. Never mind that it was Rochester; little old me, from where I was from, I had a PhD and I was moving to New York.
I think I pulled my cheek muscles on that long road trip from grinning. My favorite Spice Girls song came up and I started laughing almost hysterically. I think I called one of the girls, laughing like a maniac. I remember laughing out loud again and again, just out of the audacity of my life. My car had a bumper sticker “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” which I didn’t really think about, until I crossed into Ohio and more than once was threatened by a scary guy in a pick-up with a gun rack, trying to run me off the road, and red-faced screaming as he shook his fist at me. I should’ve thought about it, since upon crossing into that state the highways were lined with flags, and they hung on every overpass. (What? I wondered. This is the north, they aren’t ignorant here!)
Flash forward 14 years, and here I am about to make almost the same trip, from Austin to Big Indian instead of Rochester. This time, I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side, the most unimaginable thing ever ever ever. This time, I’m not leaving my beloved Katie alone in a small apartment; I’m leaving her behind with her husband and two precious children in their own sweet home. She is a wonderful, solid, loving mama and wife. This time, she heads a family. This time, when I listen to “New York State of Mind,” I have intimate knowledge of the things he references — the Hudson River Line, the NYT, the Daily News, Chinatown where Marc buys good food for us and where we eat at Nha Trang II (not I, II is better), Riverside, my beloved, beloved Riverside. It’s not just a song anymore. This time, a whole new ‘everything’ waits for me, urging me forward.
And so my mind turns toward the soundtrack for my upcoming road trip. Of course Spice Girls will be on it, and Donna Summer, and Light & Day, and some John Prine and some Nina Simone, and KC & the Sunshine Band OF COURSE, and local goodies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Schneider, but I think the song I’ll play as I’m pulling the truck away from the house will be an old Texas song, since I’ve been busy touching the old version of Texas I used to know, that used to exist. The old Texas dirt that my very bones are made of. The old Texas swing that pushes my blood along through my veins. I think I’ll pull out of town to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It will be after midnight, so I will indeed see the big, bright stars in the sky, deep in the heart of Texas.
That high wailed a-ha! that he does is SO FAMILIAR. It’s as familiar as the grim old hymns we sang at the Loving Highway Church of Christ. Might need some Patsy Cline too, now that I think about it. And a whole bunch of bluegrass. And some yodeling, just for fun. It’s a 27+ hour drive, after all, so I can load up as many of the songs that have played on the soundtrack of my years as my phone will hold.
Now and then I want to get a map and just draw a line of my 82 moves, and see what it looks like, a God’s eye view of me moving around on the face of the earth. Sometimes when I’m driving on a long road trip, I kind of imagine that, I imagine God watching me toodling along on the face of his earth (so funny for me to be talking this way, I don’t even really believe it but still I kind of do), knowing that I feel grateful and happy.
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If you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s beautiful memoir, Life Itself, I recommend it with a full heart. I read it April, 2013, and there is one quote I keep coming back to over and over again:
I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life.
I sympathize, too. I have the same need for that compulsive ritual — to touch the old places, to pause, to return and witness, and remember. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin I wanted to see the house I lived in back in early elementary school, when I first found myself as the benevolent queen of the pillbugs.
Just on the other side of the highway from where I live now, across the railroad tracks that give the highway its name — Mopac, for the Missouri Pacific — is a little house, number 3304, on a little street, Whiteway.
That window to the left of the front door is over the kitchen sink, and the window on the right side was my bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was at the back, with a sliding glass door into the back yard; I remember birds used to fly into the glass door and die. I remember watching my mother watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and scream and pull on her face. I remember watching her dance around that house, doing the watusi and the twist and watching herself in every reflective surface, even the tiny chrome strip above the oven. I remember feeling bored of the house, bored by being 5 and 6 and 7. I remember reading until my eyes hurt, under the covers of my bed after dark. I remember how long the summer days were.
If you turn right out of our driveway, the railroad tracks are just three houses away, and across the street. We heard the trains every night, as I hear them here, where I live — same trains, same lonesome sound, and now when I hear them I remember Big Daddy, who came with my grandmother to Austin a couple of times when we lived on Whiteway. They would leave Graham very early, make the 5-hour drive, Big Daddy would walk to the railroad tracks and watch for trains, then he’d go back to the house for a cup of coffee and he and my grandmother would drive back to Graham. Of course I would walk with him, holding his hand and hoping it would be a very long time until a train would come.
And that train track….my little brother Sam was almost feral, completely ignored by our parents and acidly unwanted by our mother. The slogan for 7-UP back then was “Wet and Wild” and they called Sam 7-UP for that reason. One day, around lunch, we got a phone call that some people several streets away, down the railroad track, had found Sam wandering along the tracks in his soggy diaper, dragging a giant purple Kotex box he was filling with bugs. Mother was enraged and sent me to get him. I remember that walk home; Sam was too little to be scared of Mother yet, but I sure was.
But of course there weren’t all those trees, back then, and so there wasn’t any shade to scurry toward on the hot afternoons walking home from school. I remember that Marika, the crazy Greek woman and her unhappy husband lived over there, on the left; and Keith lived on the right — he kicked off the lawn mowing Saturday mornings, because after he started his, all the fathers emerged from their houses to mow their own yards too in a kind of synchronized dance; and the family two doors up from us who had an akita dog with the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and they freaked me out; and Grace and Lyndon Jacquet who lived across the street, and Grace died of uterine or cervical cancer (or maybe ovarian, they didn’t talk about those things back then) because she didn’t like to go to the doctor, ever. And my grandfather killed himself while we lived in that house, my father’s father, and I remember neighbors gathering on our back patio, must have been after the funeral, talking to my father who looked devastated and my mother was laughing at him. I overheard them talking and they changed the subject when I got close. Kids hear and understand. And remember.
Every afternoon, walking very slowly home from school because I didn’t want to get to my scary house, I would keep my eyes peeled on the scorching, melty hot asphalt of the street, looking for pillbugs. The story is on the About page, and if you’ve been around the blog for long you’ve probably heard it. I looked so intently for pillbugs and I rescued them and put them in the slightly cooler grass. It could be hard to collect them because they’d roll up into tight little balls, and I’d have to try to pinch them up from the hot street, but I was saving them for sure death, I thought. I am not sure exactly when it happened, I know I was in kindergarten but I don’t remember the moment, but I do remember imagining that I heard them talking to each other, knowing that I was coming, saying, “Here she comes, our benevolent queen!” In my imagination they had tiny little high squeaky voices. Pitch your voice very high and put a lot of excitement in it…..pillbug voice. It’s funny that I knew the word benevolent when I was five, and I’m glad I saw myself that way. I think I so desperately wanted to be saved, so I saved something weaker than myself. I imagined the street must bounce, to them, as giant me approached. I imagined how my giant hand must look as it approached them. I thought about walking down the old street today, for old time’s sake, but the trees make it too different and I am too different. I’m not scared to go home anymore.
And as I drove through the neighborhood to find my old elementary school and passed through the streets, everyone came back—Cynthia Fox, who lived on Stardust; Katie Davis, who lived on Silverleaf and who was murdered her first year of college; a pair of twins who lived on Skylark. Various boys whose names I no longer remember, but I do remember falling into step in our small groups as we all walked to school.
When I attended Lucy B Read, it was a regular neighborhood elementary school. They’ve since turned it into a “resource center,” not sure what that means exactly, but I can still see the school I went to.
Hello, classroom, it’s still me. I’m still that girl in so many ways. I still love pillbugs, and trilobytes. I remember every single map I colored in that room, especially India and Japan. I remember learning about weather systems and learning how to write in cursive. I remember making shoebox dioramas, and a construction paper Iroquois longhouse. I remember leaving the class every day for special time with the principal, reading whatever I wanted to him — I especially remember reading a book about salamanders. They didn’t have gifted programs back then but they had to do something with me, so that’s what they came up with. I remember coming back to that classroom with a mouth full of braces, and the kids laughing at me. I remember running out this very door, crying, and Mrs. Worley coming after me. She knelt by me and put her arms around me, comforting me, and then she walked me back into the class and told everyone to apologize to me. I remember that so clearly. I remember being SO PROUD when my very young mother came to pick me up; she was one of the youngest mothers, only 24 when I was 6, and she was so stylish: hot pants, fishnet hose and boots, miniskirts, big giant 1960s hair and that great make-up. She was vicious and cruel, but she was stylish and beautiful and put on such a great show for other people. I remember casually asking other kids how old their mothers were, and then bragging about how young mine was. I’m not sure why that felt like such a big thing, except as I write I imagine it must be that it was a big thing TO HER, a thing she talked and bragged about all the time, and so I thought it was that, too.
That school was erected in 1962, when I was four, and I started kindergarten in 1963 so my memory of it as being shiny and new must be right. And it was so stylish then, the newest style of architecture.
“These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life,” Ebert said, and my own visits are that for me. I make so much of my small touchstones, and they are so very alive for me. Other people don’t do that, I’ve noticed — it’s too ordinary or uneventful or something. Or maybe they just don’t need to remark on it. I’m not sure why it is all so remarkable for me, except it’s that measuring of my life, marking my passage on the wheel. I’ve moved so many times and had so many different lives, but in finding these old places and touching them, I find my continuity. Ah, I’ve been here before, I’m here now, I may be here again. If I go with Marc to Highland Park, Illinois, he doesn’t feel a need to go see, or to show me, where he went to elementary school. Why would he, he wonders. (Though I would love to see.) This is MY MAP of the world. This is the life I’ve had, these are the years I’ve spent, this is what they represent (thank you Annie Lennox), and I’m grateful for every blessed moment of this entire life, even the frightening ones, the hard ones, the scorched ones, the bleak ones, the transformational ones. All of them.
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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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
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.)
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