If you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s beautiful memoir, Life Itself, I recommend it with a full heart. I read it April, 2013, and there is one quote I keep coming back to over and over again:
I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life.
I sympathize, too. I have the same need for that compulsive ritual — to touch the old places, to pause, to return and witness, and remember. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin I wanted to see the house I lived in back in early elementary school, when I first found myself as the benevolent queen of the pillbugs.
Just on the other side of the highway from where I live now, across the railroad tracks that give the highway its name — Mopac, for the Missouri Pacific — is a little house, number 3304, on a little street, Whiteway.
That window to the left of the front door is over the kitchen sink, and the window on the right side was my bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was at the back, with a sliding glass door into the back yard; I remember birds used to fly into the glass door and die. I remember watching my mother watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and scream and pull on her face. I remember watching her dance around that house, doing the watusi and the twist and watching herself in every reflective surface, even the tiny chrome strip above the oven. I remember feeling bored of the house, bored by being 5 and 6 and 7. I remember reading until my eyes hurt, under the covers of my bed after dark. I remember how long the summer days were.
If you turn right out of our driveway, the railroad tracks are just three houses away, and across the street. We heard the trains every night, as I hear them here, where I live — same trains, same lonesome sound, and now when I hear them I remember Big Daddy, who came with my grandmother to Austin a couple of times when we lived on Whiteway. They would leave Graham very early, make the 5-hour drive, Big Daddy would walk to the railroad tracks and watch for trains, then he’d go back to the house for a cup of coffee and he and my grandmother would drive back to Graham. Of course I would walk with him, holding his hand and hoping it would be a very long time until a train would come.
And that train track….my little brother Sam was almost feral, completely ignored by our parents and acidly unwanted by our mother. The slogan for 7-UP back then was “Wet and Wild” and they called Sam 7-UP for that reason. One day, around lunch, we got a phone call that some people several streets away, down the railroad track, had found Sam wandering along the tracks in his soggy diaper, dragging a giant purple Kotex box he was filling with bugs. Mother was enraged and sent me to get him. I remember that walk home; Sam was too little to be scared of Mother yet, but I sure was.
But of course there weren’t all those trees, back then, and so there wasn’t any shade to scurry toward on the hot afternoons walking home from school. I remember that Marika, the crazy Greek woman and her unhappy husband lived over there, on the left; and Keith lived on the right — he kicked off the lawn mowing Saturday mornings, because after he started his, all the fathers emerged from their houses to mow their own yards too in a kind of synchronized dance; and the family two doors up from us who had an akita dog with the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and they freaked me out; and Grace and Lyndon Jacquet who lived across the street, and Grace died of uterine or cervical cancer (or maybe ovarian, they didn’t talk about those things back then) because she didn’t like to go to the doctor, ever. And my grandfather killed himself while we lived in that house, my father’s father, and I remember neighbors gathering on our back patio, must have been after the funeral, talking to my father who looked devastated and my mother was laughing at him. I overheard them talking and they changed the subject when I got close. Kids hear and understand. And remember.
Every afternoon, walking very slowly home from school because I didn’t want to get to my scary house, I would keep my eyes peeled on the scorching, melty hot asphalt of the street, looking for pillbugs. The story is on the About page, and if you’ve been around the blog for long you’ve probably heard it. I looked so intently for pillbugs and I rescued them and put them in the slightly cooler grass. It could be hard to collect them because they’d roll up into tight little balls, and I’d have to try to pinch them up from the hot street, but I was saving them 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.
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.