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.

xo

what is it with me and circles

Apparently I’ve written 20 posts about circles, including one post explicitly titled ‘circles.’ I love closing a circle, and I’m not the only one, of course. I really adored this thing Roger Ebert wrote in his lovely memoir, Life Itself:

“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. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.”

Wheels, echoes, circles figure heavily in my experience, and I touch them regularly — especially the older I get, which is kind of an obvious thing. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin, I keep having these experiences. In many ways, moving back to Austin in November 2012 was a closing of a circle, and as I prepare to leave, I’m closing many circles that opened here. It’s kind of extraordinary.

This was at my birthday celebration with friends November 2015. We somehow always end up like this. Isn’t she beautiful?

Sunday night I will have dinner with my beautiful, beautiful friend Lynn, who I recognized in such a deep way the moment I met her when I first moved here. We didn’t get to see each other very often; she was gone, I was gone, we were busy, but it didn’t matter. She is one of those people I just knew the moment I met her, and we are good no matter what, we are connected no matter how long, how far.

When I moved here, I joined a number of Meetup groups so I could encounter people and find friends. It’s hard to find friends when you’re an adult, anyway, but when you’re 54, and you work for yourself at home, and you’re new in town, it’s SUPER hard. I had no interest in being a professional Meetup-er — plenty of people are, it’s just not my thing — so I joined very specific groups to increase the chance of meeting similar women, including a “women who travel the world” group, or whatever the specific name of it was. I never went to any meetings, but in my profile I listed the places I had traveled to, and that list included Myanmar.

See what I mean? This was my birthday November 2016, and again we were with our big group of friends — all of whom are wonderful — and somehow Lynn and I end up like this.

Lynn contacted me through the system because she wanted to travel to Myanmar, and we arranged to meet at a restaurant called Apothecary. There was an instant connection, and our friendship just was. I never went to a single meeting of that group, and unjoined before too long. So Sunday evening, I am having dinner with Lynn at Apothecary, her deeply wonderful idea to meet at the place we first met, and that just feels so extraordinary to me, closing that circle. Our friendship will continue always, even if we only talk once in a blue moon, but we get to close this circle together.

I moved to Austin when I was 2, from Abilene, and this was my fourth separate time to live here. (I just sketched out those years — 1962 to 1972, 1977 to 1987, 1998 to 2003, and 2012 to 2017 — 10 years and 10 years and 5 years and 5 years, so interesting!) It’s been funny to me, living where I’ve lived this time in Austin, because it was a return to my oldest time here. I live 1.4 miles from where I lived when I was 6, when I became Queen of the Pillbugs. I hear the same trains at night that I heard as a girl. And every time I go to the grocery store, I drive past the apartment complex where I lived when I was 18. Something about this whole time in Austin has been a deep circle, a constant resonant hum. But last night, as I passed the apartment complex on the way to the store, a song came on that I listened to non-stop when I lived in that apartment, just at the moment I drove past the entrance. (It was 1978, don’t laugh.)

Barry Manilow, Sunrise. From the Even Now album.
I still have the album, thanks to my daughter Katie who kept it for me. I bought it Feb 1978.

That converging of music and specific spot threw me back, and if I hadn’t been thinking I might just have pulled into the complex and walked up the stairs to my apartment, which felt so fancy then, a whole apartment of my own with rented furniture and my few precious objects that still sit here in my house — Big Daddy’s hard hat, and his cat door stop — and my old record collection which sits now in my yoga room and there was nothing else there because there was so little of me, then, and time circles in and circles around and there we are lost in it but if we’re lucky we get to notice.

It’s not about a reverence for the ‘old days,’ or a wish to go back, but more an appreciation of how long life is, how mysterious it can be, how nothing really ends but only echoes, and if you get real quiet and listen, you can hear the echoes, too.