How do you measure a life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 thoughts on “How do you measure a life?”

  1. This is so beautiful. I’m so very glad that you had Big Daddy in your life, and that you’re taking some time to go back to visit him and your memories of him.

    1. That has always meant so much to me, that we were together for an entrance and an exit. And I think it was a gracious thing that he died while I slept next to him, instead of while I was awake, maybe talking to him. It gave me a gentle experience of the worst loss of my life until we lost Gracie, and the first time I’d ever experienced death. Love to you too, my beautiful friend.

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