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.