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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Apparently I’ve written 20 posts about circles, including one post explicitly titled ‘circles.’ I love closing a circle, and I’m not the only one, of course. I really adored this thing Roger Ebert wrote in his lovely memoir, Life Itself:
“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. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.”
Wheels, echoes, circles figure heavily in my experience, and I touch them regularly — especially the older I get, which is kind of an obvious thing. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin, I keep having these experiences. In many ways, moving back to Austin in November 2012 was a closing of a circle, and as I prepare to leave, I’m closing many circles that opened here. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Sunday night I will have dinner with my beautiful, beautiful friend Lynn, who I recognized in such a deep way the moment I met her when I first moved here. We didn’t get to see each other very often; she was gone, I was gone, we were busy, but it didn’t matter. She is one of those people I just knew the moment I met her, and we are good no matter what, we are connected no matter how long, how far.
When I moved here, I joined a number of Meetup groups so I could encounter people and find friends. It’s hard to find friends when you’re an adult, anyway, but when you’re 54, and you work for yourself at home, and you’re new in town, it’s SUPER hard. I had no interest in being a professional Meetup-er — plenty of people are, it’s just not my thing — so I joined very specific groups to increase the chance of meeting similar women, including a “women who travel the world” group, or whatever the specific name of it was. I never went to any meetings, but in my profile I listed the places I had traveled to, and that list included Myanmar.
Lynn contacted me through the system because she wanted to travel to Myanmar, and we arranged to meet at a restaurant called Apothecary. There was an instant connection, and our friendship just was. I never went to a single meeting of that group, and unjoined before too long. So Sunday evening, I am having dinner with Lynn at Apothecary, her deeply wonderful idea to meet at the place we first met, and that just feels so extraordinary to me, closing that circle. Our friendship will continue always, even if we only talk once in a blue moon, but we get to close this circle together.
I moved to Austin when I was 2, from Abilene, and this was my fourth separate time to live here. (I just sketched out those years — 1962 to 1972, 1977 to 1987, 1998 to 2003, and 2012 to 2017 — 10 years and 10 years and 5 years and 5 years, so interesting!) It’s been funny to me, living where I’ve lived this time in Austin, because it was a return to my oldest time here. I live 1.4 miles from where I lived when I was 6, when I became Queen of the Pillbugs. I hear the same trains at night that I heard as a girl. And every time I go to the grocery store, I drive past the apartment complex where I lived when I was 18. Something about this whole time in Austin has been a deep circle, a constant resonant hum. But last night, as I passed the apartment complex on the way to the store, a song came on that I listened to non-stop when I lived in that apartment, just at the moment I drove past the entrance. (It was 1978, don’t laugh.)
That converging of music and specific spot threw me back, and if I hadn’t been thinking I might just have pulled into the complex and walked up the stairs to my apartment, which felt so fancy then, a whole apartment of my own with rented furniture and my few precious objects that still sit here in my house — Big Daddy’s hard hat, and his cat door stop — and my old record collection which sits now in my yoga room and there was nothing else there because there was so little of me, then, and time circles in and circles around and there we are lost in it but if we’re lucky we get to notice.
It’s not about a reverence for the ‘old days,’ or a wish to go back, but more an appreciation of how long life is, how mysterious it can be, how nothing really ends but only echoes, and if you get real quiet and listen, you can hear the echoes, too.
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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.
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!).
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.
brooks, streams, rivers
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.
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.
And very nearby our house is the trailhead for one of the best hikes in the Catskills, to Giant Ledge — five ledges, actually:
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. 🙂 )
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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One of the rare nice stories my mother ever told about me was this: When I was a very little girl, we would drive from Austin to Graham to visit my grandparents, Mom and Big Daddy. (My mother and grandmother would sit at the kitchen table all night, talking and smoking and drinking endless Dr. Peppers, which is a fond memory of mine.) The drive took five hours, and apparently when we came up over a slight rise and saw the lights of tiny little Graham, Texas, I would start jumping up and down on the back seat saying, “Big Daddy’s Gim! Big Daddy’s Gim!” Which means I was so young I couldn’t even say the word Graham properly. When I was born there, Graham had 7,477 people; as of the 2010 census, it had 8,903 people so it’s holding steady.
A couple of summers I spent a week there in Graham, all by myself with Mom and Big Daddy. It was so wonderful — just me, the pleasure of being the oldest kid in the family getting to do such a thing, leaving the siblings behind. During the day, my grandmother watched soap operas all day and she and I ate watermelon. Once a week, when Big Daddy came home from his job as janitor at the hospital, we three would get in the car and go to the K&N Root Beer Stand. It was the kind of place where they prop a tray on the driver’s rolled-down window.
We’d get hamburgers and root beer, which came in super thick, SUPER frosty mugs. They had several sizes, from one that was so big you absolutely had to hold it with both hands, to a tiny little one for toddlers. I always wanted a bigger one than I got, because I loved their root beer so much. Big Daddy always ate his hamburger so fast, before Mom and I even got ours unwrapped; he would then start the car and leave it idling while we ate as fast as we could, because he was ready to get back home, to sit in his vinyl recliner and watch wrestling. Which he insisted was real. And he’d ask me to rub stinky green liniment on his aching feet, which I did with a great thrill, because I was getting to touch Big Daddy, who was otherwise a kind of silent guy who didn’t interact. He’d let me put fingernail polish on him, and I could dust Mom’s face powder on his bald head — he’d tolerate that silently, with an occasional grunt, but I think the attention made him happy, too. He’d finally get enough, and say, “Here, Pete. That’s enough.” But “here” was more like a harumph, like hnyah.
Sunday I’m driving to Graham. I haven’t been there since January 1987, so 30 years. I don’t know that I have ever been to Big Daddy’s grave, and I don’t think I was allowed to go to his funeral. My uncle, Big Daddy’s son, inherited the little yellow house, but it’s since been sold to someone else and the yard is quite different. So my plan is to go to his grave, then drive by his house, and then — imagine my shock to learn it’s still there, and in business! — to go get lunch at K&N Root Beer Stand.
I remember one time Mom and Big Daddy and I were having lunch at K&N, and it was the day of the week when the Graham Leader came out, the local newspaper. The big headline was something about a local man catching a giant crappie at nearby Possum Kingdom Lake. In case you don’t know — as I didn’t, back then — the word is pronounced like crop-ee. But you know, I was a very little kid. So I asked why a man would catch a crap-ee and my grandmother threatened to wash out my mouth with soap. I was scared and confused, until I noticed a little smile around the edges of Big Daddy’s mouth. Mom was serious, but Big Daddy just thought it was funny, so I got to think it was maybe a little bit funny, too. I don’t think she washed out my mouth, but it was no idle threat with her.
I imagine it will be a very emotional trip for me. I imagine I’ll cry a good bit, and maybe do some of that laugh-crying when I’m at K&N. I only have two pictures of Big Daddy, and this is the only one where I can make out his face. His arms and hands still feel so familiar to me — he was actually my mother’s uncle, so even though she was adopted, she was adopted by family and her arms are like his. I wish I had a picture where his face wasn’t in shadow; in the other picture, I’m standing next to him peeling a banana, but his head is down and his hat hides his face completely.
After my Big Daddy tour in Graham, I’ll drive over to Dixie’s house, a couple of hours away, and spend the night and the next day with her and Karl, so all in all I’m looking forward to Sunday and Monday with a full heart and deep anticipation.
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Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.
Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:
“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.
“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”
Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.
“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.
“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.
Daddy said he would come back. He said.
* * *
In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wave, which you can buy for only $8.
It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.
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