the origin story of the Pillbug Queen

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.

When I lived in this house in 1964, when I was 5, the front door was turquoise/aqua and we had a carport instead of an enclosed garage. The subdivision was brand new, then, so there weren’t big trees, although we had a lovely weeping willow in the back yard.

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.

Whiteway Drive; our house was at the very end of the street, on the right.

But of course there weren’t all those trees, back then, and so there wasn’t any shade to scurry toward on the hot afternoons walking home from school. I remember that Marika, the crazy Greek woman and her unhappy husband lived over there, on the left; and Keith lived on the right — he kicked off the lawn mowing Saturday mornings, because after he started his, all the fathers emerged from their houses to mow their own yards too in a kind of synchronized dance; and the family two doors up from us who had an akita dog with the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and they freaked me out; and Grace and Lyndon Jacquet who lived across the street, and Grace died of uterine or cervical cancer (or maybe ovarian, they didn’t talk about those things back then) because she didn’t like to go to the doctor, ever. And my grandfather killed himself while we lived in that house, my father’s father, and I remember neighbors gathering on our back patio, must have been after the funeral, talking to my father who looked devastated and my mother was laughing at him. I overheard them talking and they changed the subject when I got close. Kids hear and understand. And remember.

Every afternoon, walking very slowly home from school because I didn’t want to get to my scary house, I would keep my eyes peeled on the scorching, melty hot asphalt of the street, looking for pillbugs. The story is on the About page, and if you’ve been around the blog for long you’ve probably heard it. I looked so intently for pillbugs and I rescued them and put them in the slightly cooler grass. It could be hard to collect them because they’d roll up into tight little balls, and I’d have to try to pinch them up from the hot street, but I was saving them for sure death, I thought. I am not sure exactly when it happened, I know I was in kindergarten but I don’t remember the moment, but I do remember imagining that I heard them talking to each other, knowing that I was coming, saying, “Here she comes, our benevolent queen!” In my imagination they had tiny little high squeaky voices. Pitch your voice very high and put a lot of excitement in it…..pillbug voice. It’s funny that I knew the word benevolent when I was five, and I’m glad I saw myself that way. I think I so desperately wanted to be saved, so I saved something weaker than myself. I imagined the street must bounce, to them, as giant me approached. I imagined how my giant hand must look as it approached them. I thought about walking down the old street today, for old time’s sake, but the trees make it too different and I am too different. I’m not scared to go home anymore.

And as I drove through the neighborhood to find my old elementary school and passed through the streets, everyone came back—Cynthia Fox, who lived on Stardust; Katie Davis, who lived on Silverleaf and who was murdered her first year of college; a pair of twins who lived on Skylark. Various boys whose names I no longer remember, but I do remember falling into step in our small groups as we all walked to school.

When I attended Lucy B Read, it was a regular neighborhood elementary school. They’ve since turned it into a “resource center,” not sure what that means exactly, but I can still see the school I went to.

That metal roof over the top wasn’t there, but the classrooms are the same otherwise. That room (#3) was my third grade classroom, my teacher Mrs. Worley, and I will always remember her. The picnic tables weren’t there back then either. I’m not sure why they erected that structure over top of the school, except maybe to shade the sidewalk. Perhaps the classrooms aren’t air conditioned (I know they weren’t back then) and so the super structure helps keep the classrooms a little cooler in the summer heat.

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.



Every other Wednesday morning my friend Marian, who lives in NJ, meets me on Skype for a writing session. I’ve mentioned this before — one of us brings writing prompts and the other brings a piece of writing to read. The writing prompts are usually single words (Marian has brought such words as sageperformanceblessing) and we do free-writing. Usually we do three words and then read our little pieces to each other.

I have a hard time coming up with good prompts, but I started reading Natalie Goldberg’s book titled Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and she includes a whole bunch of prompts designed specifically for people interested in writing memoir. They’re designed to pull up stories and memories, and they’re so pointed that they’re great to work with. I’ve been bringing them when it’s my turn to provide prompts. They’re quite different from the single-word prompts, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. (And I recommend the book too!)

Yesterday we met and it was my turn to provide prompts, and when I was reading one of my pieces to Marian it occurred to me that they would make potentially good blog posts! I have a “memoir” category, so I’ll put them there. Since many of you are very roughly my age, perhaps some of my memories will overlap with yours and bring them back to your minds too. With pleasure, I hope…..  so here is one of the pieces I wrote yesterday. The prompt was learning to write cursive:

We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?
We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?

Third grade at Lucy B. Read Elementary School, Mrs. Worley, Big Chief tablets with grainy paper and faint blue and red lines for guides. The paper is so thin it doesn’t stand up to erasing, so our mistakes are visible to everyone. It is so porous it wicks ink, so we are required to stick with our No. 2 yellow pencils. If the pencils are too sharp, the point can tear the paper so we blunt them before the writing lessons. The paper is so dry it leaves my hands feeling like they’d been dusted with powder, the only part of the daily cursive lesson I do not like.

The third grade teachers use the Palmer Method. I love learning to write in cursive, the rules and exact guide lines offering a chance for order. My loops touch but never go over the lines, ever. She says to place two fingers on the paper after a period so we know where to begin the next sentence. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. I want to write more interesting sentences.

“When holding your pencil, hold your hand so a small orange could roll inside it. Your pencil should be pointing over your shoulder.” My hand cramps when I try to write with the pencil that way, so I secretly relax, taking the correct position only when Mrs. Worley walks past my desk. One day Mrs. Worley brings a tangerine to class and tries to roll it under some kids’ hands, but our hands are too small even for the littlest tangerine to fit. I imagine how I will expand my hand as much as possible if she comes to my desk, so the fruit will roll under my palm and please my teacher. I sit up straighter during the imagining, thrilled by the possibility of her praise.

palmer drillsAn obedient girl, I dutifully perform the drill exercises, using my whole arm to draw giant loops, like a tightly compressed Slinky. Then the continuous curve up to a point and back down to a loop, up to a point, down to a loop. I want to get to the exciting part, learning how to form those beautiful letters, but I fill page after page with the drill exercises so I will be able to write even more beautifully.

“To properly write the capital I and J, you must begin just below the bottom line before swooping up, or it won’t work.” Even today I begin the capital I and J lower than the imaginary line. Mrs. Worley has a fancy chalk holder that holds three pieces of chalk at once, spaced evenly. She drags it across the board so she has the same kind of guidelines we have, and then she illustrates the starting point by writing several Is and then several Js. I grip my pencil tightly and try to imitate her letters.

palmer method

I want the capital A and B to be more beautiful. Why is the capital Q a 2? Why are there two ways to write a lower case and a lower case t? Making the capital X requires care — writing the right-hand side makes me nervous because sometimes I don’t exactly connect the two halves. My friend Toby Hines teaches me a trick: write the part with the loops on both ends and then just write the slash. Uncomfortable with cheating, I stick with the way we are taught to make the capital X and still do it that way today, though it still makes me a little anxious. And today I have an attorney whose last name begins with an X, many opportunities to finally make the middles touch.

My favorite letter is the capital L, not because it is the first letter of my name but because it is swoopy and free-feeling. Loop, slide, loop curl. I fill whole pages with capital Ls, sometimes allowing them to go beyond the lines, to be bigger than the constraints, more beautiful and curving. I am secretly happy that such a beautiful letter begins my name, and feel bad for my friends Alice and Barbara, whose names start with such boring letters. I try to imagine a way to make the A and B more loopy and beautiful but I cannot think of anything.

The kids who write with their left hand get a special lesson and have to slant the pad of paper the opposite way on their desks. After the lesson, the sides of their palms are black and shiny from being dragged across their writing, and their letters are smudgier. I am secretly happy to be right-handed. I smile as I look at the day’s exercises, proud of the precision and perfection of my letters, clean and crisp and looking just like Mrs. Worley’s. I am a perfect mimic, and feel exceptional because of it.

* * * * *

It’s funny how much I remembered when I started writing — and I remembered a lot more, which I’ll keep writing for myself. Third grade came back to me in full, the sounds and smells, the feeling in my bones, the pride at being good at something at a time when I needed that so desperately. If it had occurred to me to try to remember learning to write in cursive (which it wouldn’t have), I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, I remember that.” But free-writing — just hearing the prompt and beginning to write, and then writing without stopping — allows the memory to unfold, like one of those pop-up cards.

I’ll bet you remember learning how to write in cursive. Maybe you learned with great excitement because it was “grown-up” writing, no more little kid printing. Maybe you learned a different method. Maybe you were dyslexic and the process was so painful. Maybe no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t write like the teacher, so you decided it was stupid to write like that. Maybe like me, you lived in complete chaos, and the precision of touching those lines in just the right way gave you a bit of refuge in order. I’d love to hear about your memories too.

Thursday, the week is flying by! I hope it’s a good one and spring is really and finally landing, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, after our unusually bitter winter. xo

up close and personal

I know, right? How much more personal could I be, than I already am?! I’m pretty open and share so much of myself and my life, because I am the boss of me and I get to decide those things. That hasn’t always been true, so I relish my freedom. This little post is a mash-up of several things, reflecting my fragmented head these days. A video, a bit of handwriting, a poem, and some links. Something for everyone. I’ll start with a little howdy-do:


Actually, what got this started today was that I got a handwritten letter and was so thrilled to see my friend’s handwriting, which I’d never seen. I’ve received typed letters from her, and lots of email, but this was the first time I ever saw her handwriting and I felt like it fit her so well, and also showed me something else about her.


I don’t know if they even teach cursive any more. I learned the Palmer method, and I remember our teacher walking up and down the rows of desks, positioning our hands as they held the pencils. We were supposed to keep our hand curled so an orange could roll into our curved palm as we wrote, and the pencil was supposed to point over our left shoulders. We were supposed to move our whole arm, not just our fingers. I remember we practiced making loops, connected spiral-type rounds, and sharp up-and-down lines, before being taught the specific way to create the letters. I remember that the capital I and capital J had to begin just below the line. I remember wondering why the capital Q looked like a 2. I remember feeling like a secret rebel as I practiced different ways of writing the capital L, since my name begins with an L. I remember the beautiful special lined paper, with the pale red and pale blue lines, some dotted, showing us exactly where those upper and lower loops were supposed to hit. The rag-like texture of the paper, the Red Chief tablet, the yellow pencils. I remember all that like it was yesterday. Do you?

Here’s a poem I rediscovered this morning, and it makes me so happy. Read it out loud:

The Order of Things (Bob Hicok)

Then I stopped hearing from you. Then I thought
I was Beethoven’s cochlear implant. Then I listened
to deafness. Then I tacked a whisper
to the bulletin board. Then I liked dandelions
best in their afro stage. Then a breeze
held their soft beauty for ransom. Then no one
throws a Molotov cocktail better
than a buddhist monk. Then the abstractions
built a tree fort. Then I stopped hearing from you.
Then I stared at my life with the back of my head.
Then an earthquake somewhere every day.
Then I felt as foolish as a flip-flop
alone on a beach. Then as a beach
alone with a sea. Then as a sea
repeating itself to the moon. Then I stopped hearing
from the moon. Then I waved. Then I threw myself
into the work of throwing myself
as far as I can. Then I picked myself up
and wondered how many of us
get around this way. Then I carried
the infinity. Then I buried the phone.
Then the ground rang. Then I answered the ground.
Then the dial tone of dirt. Then I sat on a boulder
not hearing from you. Then I did jumping jacks
not hearing from you. Then I felt-up silence. Then silence
and I went all the way.

And finally, some links, just to complete the random potpourri of this crazy post:

Happy [excessively hot and humid] Tuesday, y’all. The year is more than halfway over, that’s so bizarre.