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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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.
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 from 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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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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My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).
One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.
I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”
“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”
I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.
It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.
I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.
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