life can be such a wonder

One thing they often say in AA is, “Don’t give up before the miracle.” Easy to see the relevance for addicts, scooting so painfully through minutes and hours and days, but of course it’s true for everyone — and I’m so guilty of giving up too quickly. It’s one of my most problematic struggles; I hit a roadblock and throw up my hands, and some particular roadblocks are especially hard for me. I deeply admire those who persist, who keep coming back and trying again — gosh, I admire that so much. I can readily call to mind two friends whose persistence is a source of inspiration for me.

Waiting for the miracle requires patience, obviously, but I also think you have to be able to let be what is, without rushing to force it into where you want to be. I do think that’s one of the secrets of life, and of course I think you’ll only eventually get there if you keep at it. It’s not going to happen all on its own. (Although dang it, sometimes it does, and so maybe I don’t know anything after all. 🙂 )

So here’s the wonder, for me. The miracle. This thing with my dad. This thing with old deep wounds — deep, like a puncture, so they produce an ache instead of a wince. This thing with time. This thing with process. Yesterday I was doing some house cleaning, dancing and feeling so happy with the solstice, enjoying the very bright sunshine while we had it, and my playlist shuffled over to “Christmas Time is Here,” from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The vocal version, the one that has, for 47 years, punched me so hard in the heart that I couldn’t not cry. I couldn’t not remember, and feel all those old puncture wounds so deep in my heart. I mean really, who breaks up the family on Christmas Eve MOTHER. Seriously.

I believe this was taken a couple of weeks before my mother left my father — we seem about the right ages. And HOW DECEIVING looks can be. We look like well cared-for children, happy kids. I had no idea what was coming, but my life was already sad and awful then…and I just didn’t know that it would get so, so, so much worse. I remember that dress, my mother made them for my sister and me, red velvet. We wore them with white tights and black shoes. And my brother’s shirt was blue velvet, with a blue and green collar. We were sitting on the coffee table with our legs extended out in front of us, and my brother Sam stood behind us. What we didn’t know, then. Grateful for that. I rescued this photo from a dumpster — Mother called me to say that she’d dumped everything that had me in it and there weren’t many photos, but this was recoverable.

And so I paused in my sweeping, and stood there, listening, and it was OK. I smiled. It’s OK now. I remember without the ache. Now I remember, and it’s OK. It makes me feel tender but not hurt.

OK, you might say, for God’s sake it was 47 years ago for heaven’s sake — and so you don’t understand how deep a puncture wound can be, when it’s made at just the right moment in a young girl’s heart.

One of my first Christmases — I was around 2 years old, and apparently very excited about my watch (what??), a pinwheel, a harmonica, a doll, and a pack of gum. Hell, most of that would make me happy today. I still make that face when I’m given a gift, but I no longer wear the Cromwell haircut.

Thank GOD for time and process. At my age, I hadn’t really thought I could fully heal those old wounds. I’ve been at it such a long time. So much trying, always with hope even if it was small. It’s such a wonder to be able to approach these things that have always hurt, and not feel hurt any more. Such a wonder. Such a wonder to feel real peace — not tentative peace, not partial peace, not an idea that I might one day feel peace, but real peace. The peace of letting it be, the peace of letting be what was.

I believe with all my heart Faulkner’s great line about the past: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” I believe that. But what I learned is that even if it’s not dead, even if it’s still present, it can be OK. It doesn’t have to keep hurting . . . what a wonder! What a wonder. Grief can find its place and be OK, really OK. Still there but really OK. One of the puzzle pieces, that’s all – maybe the black piece there at the edge, or even in the middle, but just a piece connected to all the others. Pain can find its place and not hurt any more, even if it’s still in the puzzle. Just, wow. What a wonder.

And now, to shift the word wonder, I wonder if I can use this learning to help me do something with my mother — I’ve never tried to deal with her because she’s been too mysterious to me, but maybe I don’t even have to. Maybe all that I said in my post on December 20 can apply to her, too. Maybe I can just let her be, too. Maybe that was a huge enough insight to allow me that gift.

I wonder. And I wonder.  WOW.

feasts

NOTHING like this! Yikes/wow!

When my kids were little, I liked to break up our dinner routine now and then with what I just sort of slapdash named a “snacky snack feast,” which was just a cheese platter, essentially (though the quality of the cheeses definitely changed for the better as they got older) — cheese, bread, crackers, grapes, apples, pears, sausage, nuts, etc. Ours wasn’t at all fancy, for sure! When they were little, they loved little smokies, those cocktail style sausages, and I think they still do love them, and maybe not just for sentimental reasons.

Somehow that name stuck; maybe it was the fun of it, the kid-style rhythm of it….snacky snack….and sometimes the word ‘feast’ is included and sometimes it isn’t, but we all know exactly how to make a snacky snack feast.

So you know I was completely making it all up as I went along, as a mother, even more than we all are, since all I knew were the things NOT to do. I had no traditions to pass on, so I had to make them up — and this was before the Internet and Pinterest, so it was a challenge! 🙂 Later I learned that some of the traditions I made up were “real” traditions that others had, like new pajamas on Christmas Eve, although I’ll bet those people don’t call them “Waiting for Santa Nighties.” It was the one gift the kids were allowed to open on Christmas Eve, and it was fun when they didn’t know what it would be, and it continued to be fun after they did. I love to visit my adult daughters’ homes and see their husbands wearing flannel pajama bottoms, because I know those had once been their Waiting for Santa Nighties.

Of the many good things I made up for my kids, these two have really stuck, and you can’t imagine how much deep pleasure that gives me. And the most hilarious thing is the way they spread it around; Katie’s last boyfriend, before she married Trey, tried to make a little fun of it (“are we going to have foodie-food?”) and she was not having it — so even he still calls it snacky snack. (He may smirk inside, but he’s too kind to show that. He’s still our friend.) So when I hear my sons-in-law say “snacky snack” I almost burst of happiness. It’s a REAL thing in the next generation of my family. And I hope with all my heart that Oliver and Lucy and Ilan prepare snacky snack feasts for their children, and tuck WFSNs, as they’re now shorthanded, under the tree for Christmas Eve.

But here’s the most hilarious thing. You’d have to know my husband to appreciate this fully, but this year we are so happily getting to spend Christmas alone together. For the last five years I’ve been overjoyed to spend it with Katie and Trey (and then also Oliver, and then also Lucy), and I was also sad not to be spending it with him. So this year I’ll miss Katie and family a lot, and I’m glad to spend this one with him, here at our new home in the mountains. So of course I wanted us to have a snacky snack feast one day; he’s making a big ham and mashed potatoes for Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day we’re driving back into the city, so we will be having snacky snack feast together Friday night. And he just slid right into that phrase. “Honey, is there anything else I need to pick up for our snacky snack feast?” I almost died from the sheer delight of hearing HIM say that phrase. That’s where the “you’d have to know him to appreciate it” comes in, but it’s a bit of lighthearted child thing, that phrase, and that’s not him — but it can be now. And whether this is right or wrong, I’m taking that as a personal win.

If you love looking at cheese boards, you will LOVE Lilith Spencer’s Instagram account. She’s @cheesemongrrl. Here’s her latest post:

that’s a snacky snack feast I could totally get behind

RELISH your traditions, they are so precious — and oh the joy of seeing them continue into the future. <3 <3

Lori who?

Friday evening a friend (who is some kind of distant family connection) messaged me on Facebook because my mother had contacted her completely out of the blue. My friend is the genealogist of our family, and so many wonderful things I’ve learned from her, photos I’ve seen from her, such a gift! She had written an article about some parts of her family tree and my mother saw it and wrote her for more information. When my friend asked how she was related to me, my mother said, “Lori who?”

her real estate photo — lots of bad plastic surgery since i saw her last.

In one way this wasn’t surprising; at some point in the 1990s, a different friend happened across my mother’s real estate website and told me that my mother said she had two children (she has three….the missing one was me, of course), so my mother has long been in the habit of not claiming me. And while I don’t see or speak to her, or ever want to see or speak to her, and while I feel like it would’ve been much less traumatic to have been raised by a wild badger, I do claim that she is my mother. I was given birth to by her.

It’s very complicated trying to understand how it made me feel to see that “Lori who?” in writing. On one hand, I was grateful that she didn’t put my friend into some kind of uncomfortable spot by trying to turn her against me, which has been another of my mother’s life-long strategies. I was grateful she said that and then moved right on to the questions she had about family. And I don’t want her to try to learn anything about me. But I guess the formulation of that question — Lori who, as if she never even heard the name — still hurt. And I wish it didn’t. Maybe it stung more than it hurt.

I immediately lost my appetite when I got the message, and started shaking a little. It felt like I had been walking around in this Edenic paradise, and then suddenly heard the rattles of a snake nearby, and I hadn’t realized there might be snakes in the garden. The way she can pop in out of the blue in the most random ways . . . and she wasn’t trying to find me or anything, it was just this unexpected appearance . . . unsettles me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this since I got the message Friday evening. I will, it will fade, but for now I am ‘Lori who?’ Negated by the one who gave birth to me.

I mean, it’s OK. I’m 58, a mother and grandmother, surrounded by so many people who love me, and I have collected an assortment of chosen family members over the years, fathers and brothers and sisters, and I know who I am. This will be our relationship to the end of her life, and I don’t want anything else from her. I’m OK. It’s just …. something.

Heinz-ing it

Well, I’ve gone so many miles since my last post, and my flux-ing life has fluxed, so I thought I’d get a little post written to do a quick catch-up. Just as with our travel blogs, I rely on this blog so regularly as a kind of diary . . . when did this thing happen? What was going on then? Where was I?

I love every second with him, and yet the very early mornings might be my favorite. It’s always been our time together.

So I’ve been to Chicago and New York, soaked up my darling grandson Ilan as much as possible, spent spare time with Marnie and Tom, took many a walk, taught him how to give kisses, and got almost enough time cuddling him. Almost. [there could never be enough.] And while I was in New York, we were hoping the title search would be completed and the closing could happen while I was there, because we assumed one of us would have to be present and we needed it to happen as fast as possible, but that didn’t happen. By the time I left on Tuesday morning, it was still just one empty promise after another — surely tomorrow, I’m promised tomorrow, they say it’ll be tomorrow, ad nauseum.

But luckily, it turns out that neither of us needs to be present, not sure why. Maybe because Marc is just paying for the house so it’s not being financed, I don’t know, but the title search was completed and the closing is scheduled for tomorrow and what’s done will soon be done. The sellers need to stay in the house up to 30 days, which sucks, but at least the deed will be ours.

So I’m back in Austin to pack the house and finish all the straggling things there are to get done, and to soak up Oliver and Lucy as much as I possibly can while it’s easy to do that. Next Thursday I pick up the truck and get it loaded, and Marc flies in at almost midnight on Friday for the long, long, long drive. I’ll drive the truck and he’ll drive my car and we’ll get that 1,800-mile trip done. This is nothing about Marc, but it sucks to be doing a caravan instead of just making the trip alone — will we stay together on the road, and constantly manage that? Will we arrange a meeting place and then just both get there? He and I have very different rhythms; he doesn’t sleep a lot at night and needs several naps throughout the day, and I don’t nap and need a good solid chunk at night, so that makes staying together a complicated thing. It’s 27 hours, no matter how we go.

Another way we travel differently is that I kind of make a treat out of it, stopping for snacks, and Marc will be bringing sandwiches and empty water bottles we can fill along the way — that’s such a tiny thing, really, and unimportant, but there’s a different attitude behind the approaches. He’d like to sleep in the back of the moving van when we need to stop but I drew the line on that one, buddy.

I’ve made this kind of trip before, and I’ve always (with one exception) driven the truck full of our belongings, so it’s familiar to me. But Marc has only ever lived in Chicago and NYC, and just hasn’t done this kind of thing. I’m not at all scared of the long, long days of driving, or of driving the truck, but I think it makes him a little anxious since it’s unfamiliar. Luckily the current owners of the house will allow us to unload all my stuff into the basement so we don’t have to get a storage unit, so that’s one less expense.

I’ve sought out circles to close wherever I can find them, even if I just have to note that I’m crossing the same spot in the river.

That’s a difference of 4.5 years, and I have physically aged in between those selfies but I’ve also grown so much, changed so much, and while I absolutely do remember that shattered moment in LaGuardia, 11/17/12, when I was leaving NYC to fly to Austin to start all over, I also kind of don’t recognize myself. That’s not exactly right, of course, but I’m not the same person I was then. When I left JFK on Tuesday to fly back to Austin to leave it and return to NY, I had a light heart, a happy, strong heart. I was not leaving nothing, I was not flying toward nothing like I was in 2012 — no, I was leaving everything and flying toward everything. My time in Austin has meant so much to me, and given me so much, and I’ve grown more than I ever dreamed, but that’s a topic for a final Austin post.

SO, in my final days, there is much to do and I might not get another post written until I say farewell to Austin. I’ll spend Thursday night at Katie’s house since my house will be loaded into the truck, and I’ll probably say farewell then. It’s an emotional time.  <3

stuff

I can never use that word ‘stuff’ without thinking of George Carlin’s brilliant monologue about stuff.

I’ve never been a huge fan of lots of stuff, if only because we moved all the time and I no sooner unpacked some stuff until it was time to pack it again (and sometimes just to flee and leave it behind). Stuff gets weeded out pretty quickly in that life. And what’s so funny to me is that when I moved here in October 2012, I did not have any  stuff at all, just my suitcase with clothing, and some boxes of books that arrived later. So everything that sits in my house right now has been acquired since then. Every fork. Every knickknack. Every coaster. Every doodad, every poetry magazine, every lamp. Everything. And of course 80% of it was bought with my daughter Katie — her in the immediacy of her terrible, terrible grief — her encouraging me to get the nicer thing, not to cheap-ass-plastic myself, for once to have a nice thing. And so all of my things have her soaked into them. Her tiny little smile (how did she even muster any of that, a month after losing her beloved daughter???). Her getting out of bed and going with me, her help making lists of things I’d need, tasks to do. She is so fully a part of almost everything in my house.

Just a very quick shot before the young couple took it away….

I bought a way too big dining table, chairs, and bench. Too big for the space, but in my mind I was buying a very nice set that my entire family would gather around, never mind that the space was too small to extend the leaf. I was buying a very nice set that I could pass down to one of my kids. I was buying a very nice set that I imagined would be the center of wonderful times with my precious family, and when I bought it, I imagined Katie and her husband and the children they would surely go on to have sitting around it.

A mix — poetry folks AND book club women. Cheers, dear Anne! Hi Karyn, and Rebecca, and is that Ben? I always loved having you all gather around my table.

That didn’t happen, and it was really too big for the small space, but that doesn’t mean that the table wasn’t the center of a lot of wonderful times. It has been laden with food for poetry group parties, and book club dinners, and buffets for a cheese group I ran a few times. It held my sewing machine as I made a quilt for Oliver, and then for Ilan, and then for Lucy. It held a beautiful, large glass bowl — red, washed with vivid gold streaks — that I sometimes filled with glass balls, or a tall gold hurricane candle holder, or pine cones, or clementines (and let’s be real: sometimes it got filled with mail and assorted junk).

I’d been thinking about getting rid of the table anyway, and getting a small table that was much more suited to the space, and I would’ve felt the same things watching it go out the door for that reason as I feel today, watching it go out the door in preparation for my move.

just gone.

And now it’s gone, into the brand new home of a darling young couple who want it for the same reason I did, so that at least feels very good to me. It wasn’t my family heirloom table after all, but it will be theirs. That pleases me. The space is empty and swept, and the rug rolled, and I’ll use the space to stage loaded boxes and small furniture in preparation for the move. It’s nice to have an empty space large enough to move the packed boxes out of the way.

It’s inevitable that I’m thinking about Katie with every box assembled, every inch of tape applied, every precious object wrapped carefully. I haven’t even had time, yet, to bear thinking about living so far away from her that I can’t just swing by and see her or help her, or see precious Oliver and luscious Lucy. I can’t think about all that yet, and anyway right now it’s all I can do to manage thinking about her helping me buy all these things I’m taking with me. I honor my promise to myself to take them all with me, and I made that promise in large part to honor her sacrifices made for me, when I had nothing and she had just lost her most beloved dream and didn’t even know how to keep breathing. You’d think there would be tremendous comfort in a kind of “well, I’m taking Katie with me” kind of way — and of course when I place all these things into my new home, I will again think of her as I always do when I touch each thing, or sit on my couch or in my leather chair, or when I look at my beautiful bedroom furniture, or the chair in my bedroom that she encouraged me to get just because it pleased me. I’ll still and always remember her in that way. But at the moment, as I’m preparing to leave, the comfort isn’t there yet. I just touch the ways we both felt when we shopped for them.

Stuff. It’s just stuff and it isn’t at ALL just stuff. (I mean, some is. I don’t have to feel sentimental about the organizer for my silverware.)

always hoping it’s the last one

The time has come to tell some news. I am moving away from Austin on June 22.

I’ve lived here since late November, 2012 primarily because I just needed to be near my daughter and her family. They had just lost Gracie, and I had just lost everything, and I was afraid for my daughter and wanted to help her however I could — and for myself, I needed to be around family. But of course at first she had to help me. I told myself a happy little lie, then: I think it’s good for her, in the immediacy of her grief, to have to shop with me to set up a whole new life. I kind of believed it, until I would look at her shattered face and I knew what it was costing her, the life and energy she simply did not have but was mustering, for me. I made myself a solemn promise, then, that I would never again willingly put myself in a position to have to start over from scorched earth. Never again. I would not just walk away from the things of a life, sell them, throw them away, give them away, leave myself with a suitcase of clothes and nothing else, like Timid Frieda (there she goes / with her valises / held so tightly in her hand).

A few months later, Marc and I started trying to find a way to keep a version of our marriage going. We gradually found our way to the life I’ve been living ever since, the one where I live in two places, here in Austin for 18 days, there in NYC with him for 12. Big travels together three times a year. In most ways it was the best of all worlds: I still had my lovely little home (with time and space just for ME), my beloved daughter and her growing family just right there, my wonderful poetry group and various book clubs, and a host of dear friends, most especially including Nancy, who lives right next door and who has been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. I got to be here through Katie’s pregnancy with Oliver, and then the start of his life; through her pregnancy with Lucy, and now her new life. I got to help them, hang out with them, be easy. I got to be with her and them as they found their way back to life, and as I did, too.

But it’s hard, it’s been hard. Constantly uprooting my life has taken a toll. An every-two-week reboot, for 4.5 solid years, exhausting. Neither Marc nor I seemed to want me to return to our very small apartment in New York, and I’d made that promise to myself.

My work has been so negligible and my income so unsteady, I was exploring all the possibilities since I didn’t feel like I could keep affording the place I’d rented all these years. Could I move in with Marnie and Tom? We had very sincere conversations about it, and I’ll never forget Tom’s quick, moist-eyed invitation, and the delight in Marnie’s eyes at the thought of a tiny house for me in their front yard. The beauty of getting to be Ilan’s everyday Pete, of being real help to my daughter, of making my own small contribution to her doing her work. Or could I just find a tiny little studio apartment here in Austin somewhere? Whatever happened, my life had to change, I had to move again. It would be move number 82. (I hope I don’t hit 100 before I die.)

Finally Marc proposed the most perfect idea, and it was like a clap of thunder in its clarity and obvious solution: we would buy a cabin in the Catskills and I would live there. He can come up on weekends — lots of people in the city do that — and I can go into NYC whenever I want, for however long, but my place of residence will be that house.

like paradise — I remember the chill in the summer air from the cold stream

When I was a little girl, and then a young woman reading the Foxfire books, I’d read about making baskets, for instance, using materials collected from nature. Only they were never materials that grew in Texas: they were cattails, and reeds, and grasses…..of a kind that grow in Appalachia. And the Catskills. So the place has lived in my imagination most of my life. When I moved to NYC in 2005, Marc and I made very regular pilgrimages upstate to a wonderful little town named Phoenicia, to see the autumn foliage, to see spring starting to emerge. The first time I went to Woodstock I saw that little cabin hanging out on a rock over a stream that I mentioned a short while ago, and oh how I wanted that little cabin. I wanted it into my bone marrow. In the years since, that has been my imaginary home. I’ve never wanted a mansion, never understood that desire: my imaginary home was a cabin, a bungalow, a small place of my very own.

And so I move into the option that feels just about as perfect as can be, my own home in the Catskills, just down the highway from Phoenicia. I can fly to see my Austin family and my Chicago family as regularly as I like and still not be as disrupted as I’ve been. I can make regular pilgrimages to them, stay with them a week at a time, each, and soak up those people I love so dearly…..without disrupting their lives so profoundly. Without having to lean on them when they are at this burgeoning and financially tight stage of their lives. I can drive into NYC, or take a bus or the train, at a moment’s notice. Finally, I won’t always be in the wrong place at the wrong time! I won’t miss the PEN Festival, the New Yorker Festival, performances I want to see. I can see Marc every single week — but as he said, we will each still have our own time and space. He needs that as much as I’ve learned that I do. And we will have an investment, instead of simply setting fire to money, as we’ve done on my rent ($75K while I’ve been here!).

I walk this road every single autumn. Every one, for the last 12 years. It looks like the street my new house is on.

Nearby Woodstock has a very vibrant arts community, and a glance at the Meetup groups suggests that I’ll find people pretty easily. Poets, writers, artists, performers, my tribe lives there too. Cold, snowy winters. Red-orange autumns. Chilly, wet springs. Green firefly-lit summers.

My life, how many different lives I’ve had. I never dreamed I would actually get to live in the Catskills, but here it comes. I never dreamed I could live there and in New York City — not individually, and certainly not both. My life has taught me so many things, including the fact that nothing at all is permanent (except, I think, my love for my kids). Who knows where else my life will take me before it’s all said and done, but while I am having the life I’m about to have, I look forward to eating it up. To watching closely as it changes day by day. To taking pictures, to hiking in the woods, to cozying up on snowy days or cross-country skiing off my deck and onto the trails crisscrossing the forest around our house. To Marc’s garden, that idea makes me giggle with happiness. To learning the names of birds, trees, plants, wildlife. To seeing black bears (lots of black bears apparently), bobcats, weasels, porcupines, coyotes, gray wolves, eastern coyotes, gray and red foxes, river otters, whitetail deer, ravens, crows, wild turkeys, great horned owls, screech owls, bald eagles, lots of songbirds. To the contrast between a real city and the most beautiful country, and to continuing to be dazzled in my beloved NYC. My daily life will be a great many things, including some icky aspects I don’t know about yet but I’m sure I’ll discover, and I look forward to all of them. I look forward to sharing it all here.

one of the two creeks in our back yard
The other of our two creeks
This shot from one corner of the deck shows the woods around the house, and the shape of the surrounding mountains.
The downstairs is a big, bright, open space — deck off the house to the right, the length of the house, a bright living room with lots of windows, a half bath, and a fabulous kitchen — wood burning stove in between. Upstairs, two bedrooms and one full bath. Full unfinished basement. Full attic too, for that matter.
Standing at the closest creek, that’s the back of the house
back corner
the front of the house (on a very overcast day!) — I want to plant flowers around the house, and maybe forsythia
Marc, standing on ground between the two creeks out back

Though I will be 100% thrilled to leave the most hateful state of Texas, I’ll be sorry to leave my friends in Austin, and hope to see people when I come back to visit Katie and family. I’ll be sorry to leave a great many aspects of Austin, and I’m so glad I moved here in 2012. In addition to all the reasons I’ve loved being here that relate to Katie, I learned so much here. I really learned how to make a life for myself, just for me. I learned that I love living alone. I learned how to do that, even. You have a standing invitation to come visit. There are three ski mountains VERY nearby (Hunter, Belleayre, and Windham), it’s gorgeous in the fall, and I have a spare bedroom.

Move #82. It’s gonna be OK.

Our home is in Big Indian, at the margin between Big Indian Wilderness and Catskills State Park (Big Indian is part of the park, just a distinct spot of its own….and how thrilling, “wilderness”!).
There it is in relation to the city — Catskills State Park is the large green area at the top of the picture, a 2.5-hour drive to NYC.

And very nearby our house is the trailhead for one of the best hikes in the Catskills, to Giant Ledge — five ledges, actually:

the view from Giant Ledge Trail

Wow. Bring it on, black bears and all.

(*This got real long, but I append a funny story about black bears, in case you’ve stuck it out to the bitter end. So there are a LOT of black bears in the Catskills. A lot. They’re not really a threat except during baby season, and then only if you get to close to babies and a mama gets scared. I was told I’d need to bring my bird feeders in every night, because the bears love them. [really???] And the realtor said that they’ll come right up on the deck; her husband opened the door one night and came face-to-face with a big black bear, and they both freaked out and ran. He said he’ll always remember two things: 1) how AWFUL it smelled, and 2) that its breathing was so loud and sounded like Darth Vader. He could still hear it breathing from a long way away. One woman frequently finds streaks of bear snot on her kitchen window, since she hangs a bird feeder there during the day. (?) So I guess if I’m ever sitting in my living room and see a pair of eyes on the deck and hear Darth Vader, I don’t need to be [too] afraid. 🙂 )

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