bones and roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My great-grandmother’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darling, darling Dixie, my deep sister.

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

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

Unadorned, unkept, untended except by the groundskeeper.

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

I win, Dad. I win.

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

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

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

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

How do you measure a life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Daddy’s Gim

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.

My letter to my mother, when I was 6. I asked about my brother but not my sister. 🙂

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.

The mugs didn’t have the logo on them back then.

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’ll probably cry a lot.

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.

There’s my Big Daddy at a picnic in Fireman’s Park, in Graham, the year before he died.

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.

my own pink cardigan

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.

abecedarian

What are the things from your childhood that brought you such great delight, and that still bring you that same kind and degree of delight? And not just in a nostalgic way, like a sweet memory—ah, I really used to love playing with Lincoln Logs and TinkerToys (I did)—but the same delight now? Mine, quite reliably, are

  • pillbugs
  • trilobytes
  • dinosaur eggs
  • the ABCs

The whole pillbug thing is obvious, given where you’re reading this. I just love them so much, and I do sincerely have this little pretending that I’m their queen, but only [still] in the most benevolent way. People always send me news stories they read about pillbugs. 🙂

trilobyteAnd trilobytes! They deserve that exclamation point! It’s not shown on the cover, but that book actually has an exclamation point after the word trilobyte in the title. (If you want to read it but don’t want to spring for the book, here’s the full text, for free.) Trilobytes are cool, man. So cool. And I don’t know why, but my copy, received as a gift the year the book published, spells the word correctly, with a y, and does have the exclamation point. Hmmm.

eggsDinosaur eggs, my dearest, fondest, most intense dream for myself when I was five was to grow up to be a paleontologist and discover dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. Oh how I longed to do that. I think a big cache had been found in those years and it just dazzled me. The idea that dinosaurs came out of eggs was just so mind-blowing, and I longed to whisper away the sand to see the long curve of one of those eggs. Also: Mongolia? I want to go there so so badly. Ugh. Still do, probably never will get to go.

And it’s not that I like to sing the ABC song, nor is it an appreciation for the alphabet because it makes words and I love words and sentences and paragraphs and books oh books(!), it’s a thrill about the letters themselves, how they evolved, how they came to be, how we use them, how we change them, the way these little squiggles get bent along the way. When I was a kid we had a set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, just like these:

wb

I read every word of every entry in every volume, beginning at A and ending in Z. Examined every chart — and they were clever, like the one that showed cotton production rates in cotton states used a little cartoon boll, one boll represented however many tons or bales or whatever the unit of measurement, so I’d count the bolls for each state and multiply and just have such fun with that. Cow heads for beef production. (Clearly the ones I remember most easily related to Texas.) I studied every picture, read every footnote, every reference citation. Beginning to end, repeat. In between I’d read the dictionary, a never-ending source of joy, a rabbit hole I’d love to get lost in.

But the reason the World Book is relevant here is that each volume opened with an entry about the letter itself. There were drawings of the various ways the letter had been written, by such mysterious people as the Phoenicians and the Sumarians and the Romans and the Greeks, the way each group changed it, how it was pronounced and from what it was derived. Although I loved almost all the entries in the whole encyclopedia (but not the one with the lamprey, I still remember hating that one), it was the ones about the letters of the alphabet that made me feel so excited I almost couldn’t hold it. Literally. I felt filled with electricity and wonder. Phoenicians! They were sea-going people, wow, Phoenicians. Their version of the letter reflected their culture, wow. All that excitement is filling my body just writing these words, it is so compressed in my chest I feel like maybe I need to get up and run in a little circle for a bit.

I follow The House that Lars Built on Instagram, always so inspirational, and it turns out that she does a book club! (Follow here, it’s amazing.) The last book they read was Drew Barrymore’s memoir, and when she announced the next one…. ALPHABETICAL! A book about the alphabet!! It’s a whole book, an expanded version exactly of those little entries in the World Book. Obviously I had to get it. It’s so rare that I buy a physical book, but come on. The alphabet.

abcHow every letter tells a story, the subtitle. I’m just in the A so far, but it’s been thrilling. I meet my old friends the Phoenicians. There is a luxury of time and space, so the information about the letters is much more involved, and he is as twitterpated by the alphabet as I am, so he writes with such wonder about this system we have created.

Want to know about A?

‘A’ starts its life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of that letter’s original name, ‘ox,’ or ‘aleph’ in the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand side. The ancient Greeks called it ‘alpha’ and reversed it, with the point on the right-hand side, probably because, eventually, they decided to write from left to right. Between around 750 BCE and 500 BCE the Greeks rotated it to what we would think of as its upright position. The Romans added the serifs which you can see on inscriptions like Trajan’s Column in Rome.

I wish there were more drawings, I’d like to see that A on its side, first to the left then to the right (the World Book showed all the variations), but that’s OK. His own delight in the material is happy-making.

And of course he speaks more broadly about these issues. I loved this line: “It seems odd to think that the reason why I say a ‘j’ sound and that there is a letter for that sound is because, nearly a thousand years ago, in the wars between the tribal warlords of northern Europe, a French-speaking group got the upper hand in the part of the world where I happen to live.”

I don’t know why my tiny-girl delight still lives in me so purely at the age of 57, but isn’t that a gift? You probably don’t have this thing with the alphabet, but I’m sure you have your own things like this. Of course as always I’d love to hear about them. I think these things, especially, are tremendous gifts to us, and they tell us something about each other. I can also see that my childhood delights are indicators of the grown-up I would someday become. Add in donuts and I am complete. 🙂

exotica

While I am mute and trying to recover from the atomic bomb that hit me, I thought I’d pull a post or two from my previous blog, Thrums. This one was from this day, 2012:

When I was younger, I was always envious of nearly everyone else — it seemed like other people had interesting heritage (not me), interesting cultures (not me), or interesting places of origin (not me). I felt like the antithesis of exotic: a plain old white girl from Texas, mutt heritage, store brand white bread and store brand bologna. With Miracle Whip. I remember lying in the front yard watching planes fly overhead and just wishing, with all my heart, to be on any one of them, going wherever they were going; wherever they were going would be better than where I was.

But every place is exotic to someone from another place; it’s just hard to see one’s own exotic context, because kind of by definition exotic means otherness. When you’re the default – a plain old white girl – very little feels otherly. Some time in my last decade, I realized that I may not be Moroccan (pick your exotic other of exotic choice), but I do actually have an interesting heritage that’s exotic to other people. Meet Molly.

molly lisle ribble, my great-great grandmother

Her name was Molly, but of course she was just known as Mrs. Sam Ribble. This photo accompanied her obituary, and you notice how she seems to be wearing a nightgown? I’ll get to that.

Molly was one of Young County’s oldest pioneer citizens, according to her obituary in the Graham Leader. She was the daughter of a pioneer family, born June 9, 1866 in Nebraska. She married Sam Ribble when she was 16, in a small church in Gooseneck, just outside Graham. They rented land for several years before Sam bought 160 acres of school land, and acquired 160 more that he traded for a wagon and horse and a six-shooter. They built a log cabin on the land — the lumber came by wagon train. When she died, she was survived by 4 daughters, 4 sons, 23 grandchildren, 39 great grandchildren, and 13 great great grandchildren.

So here’s the funny thing about the nightgown. Sam always wanted to have a baby in the house (as you see, they had 8 kids — actually, she had 11 but 3 died). I don’t think Molly was as keen on always having a baby in the house, but I also don’t think she had much say-so. The last baby, Etheline, had down’s syndrome (that’s how I’m referring to it; the family always just called her a mongoloid). So Molly delivered Etheline, handed her to Sam, and said “there you go, now you’ll always have a baby in the house. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”

Molly stayed in bed for 50 years. She was just fine, perfect health (she lived to be 94, after all), I think she was just making a point and boy she stuck with it. She’d sit up if a visitor would take her picture — “a polaroid,” as she’d say — but otherwise she couldn’t be bothered. If any little thing happened to fluster her, she’d pat her chest over her heart, in a kind of circle, and say “get me an aspereen I’m having a heart attack.” She never did have a heart attack, of course, and she finally just died in her sleep of being 94 years old.

My great-aunt on my maternal grandfather’s side shot her husband as he was crawling through the kitchen window to kill her. My other great-aunt’s husband went to the store for smokes and never came home. I have a relative named Homer who was a hermit who lived in a hollow near the river outside of town (one of Molly’s sons); he’d be spotted now and then, skulking around the edges of town.

The Last Picture Show, Midnight Cowboy, those versions of old Texas are my old Texas. Unlike my kids, I spent a lot of time in very rural parts of the state. In the summers, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy in Graham, they’d send me out to Bunger for a few days, to stay with Mom’s sister Mazie and her husband Ben. Bunger was just outside Graham, and comprised ~20 people, all kin. I’d ride out on horses with Ben early in the mornings to collect the livestock; we’d turn the calves in to their mamas before we’d milk them — by hand — and then we’d carry the pail of milk into the house. Mazie would strain it, and that’d be our milk. Once Mazie and I were in the kitchen and we heard a shotgun go off in the living room; Mazie hollered at Ben, asking him what happened, and he said a copperhead was in the living room and he just killed it. I always felt so bad for Uncle Ben because he had to ride out and check on these rusty old things that went up and down, old-looking machines. When I grew up I realized I didn’t have to feel so bad for him — they were pump jacks. Old Uncle Ben had oil. Now and then Uncle Ben would teach me how to shoot a rifle. I was 6.

That’s all pretty exotic. 🙂

just real tired

hillbillyI’ve been reading J. D. Vance’s excellent book Hillbilly Elegy, in part because it’s supposed to provide a window into the angry, poor white Trump voter. Another reason I wanted to read it is because I suspected it would feel very familiar to me, and it does. The immediate and easy violence; the shouting rage and broken doors, windows, dishes, faces; the threats of murder that aren’t always just a threat; the ‘with us or against us’ mindset — yeah, it’s all just so very familiar.

And coming squarely on the heels of my re-encounter with my past, and my fear, now, that things are going to explode in that old violence and some or all of my childhood family are going to get caught in it, I just feel so tired. (I seem to have a knack for reading exactly the wrong book at exactly the wrong time — A Little Life when I was suicidally depressed, and Hillbilly Elegy when I’m dealing with this stuff. Hmm.)

When I was first involved with Jerry, who I would later marry in 1979, he was once complaining about his junker of a car. It needed work, and it would still be a junker. Without even thinking about it I said, “I can get someone to steal it for you and set it on fire.” I didn’t look up because, you know, this is just how things are done! Perfectly ordinary, every day, the clear solution to his simple problem. I did look up when he remained silent, and I saw that he was pale, and his eyes were big and he was licking dry lips, swallowing hard. Huh? Why? What was wrong with him? Later he told me that my remarks had scared him — what if I got tired of him, what would I have done to him? (I didn’t tell him the answer that would’ve been obvious to me.)

But his response was an eye-opener for me. Huh. What’s that about — he seems to be horrified. And that began my re-education, at the age of 20. I remember being so bewildered, and having to ask him tentatively what would be a normal response to this thing or that, for a very long time. Years.

My long-lost family member who just contacted me has not been re-educated, and in fact he has more than 50 years of that life under his belt, all with this kind of framework and reinforced by years in prison. And I’m so tired. Because it feels like no matter how far I go, no matter how far away I run, no matter how much I change myself and my life, no matter how many years I put between us, this family I came from is going to win in some way. I’ve completely forgotten how to live watching over my shoulder, taking a big breath before leaving the house and dashing to the safety of the next place, watching parked cars with suspicion, scanning all perimeters and all people, and fearing that it won’t matter because it’ll come from the person or place I least expect it. I used to know how to live like that, to the point that it was just second nature. I forgot that, and I’ve forgotten how to tolerate the constant fear.

I also no longer live among people who understand any of this, so people respond to me with bewilderment, with a version of “buck up!” or with a side glance that says they believe I’m being overly dramatic, crazy paranoid. They don’t know, and so I feel all alone with it. I never lived in a hillbilly holler, but I did live among people who all knew the rules, as insane and unstable and explosive as they were, and that’s at least something. Now I live among straight people, and as I have always felt, I feel the outsider standing in a bleak world, looking in the windows of Technicolor rooms of calm, sane people doing ordinary things.

And it’s exhausting, it really is.