Oh gosh. How many times can I say goodbye to Texas. This is the third and, I hope, last time I say farewell to Texas. (“I wish I could quit you.”) I left first in 1987 when I was 28, when Jerry and I and our three kids moved to Connecticut; second, when I finished graduate school in 2003 and moved to Rochester, with Will; and this time, all alone, as I am en route to Big Indian, NY, 58 years old, thirty years after my first leaving. This will be the 82nd move of my life (they say the 82nd time’s the charm! I swear!), although honestly it could be more; I counted conservatively, because lots of those years are a blur and I just counted “homeless” as one move. None of the other leavings felt so heavy, so filled with something worth noting. I stupidly skipped away from New Britain, CT, without realizing that I’d meant something to people; away from Fredericksburg, VA, with my eyes only on the next place; away from Huntsville, AL, with regrets for leaving deep friends and losing my much-needed full scholarship, but with hope for my education; away from Fayetteville, AR, with anticipation of graduate school and a PhD; away from Rochester with excitement of a new career in publishing; away from NYC with the shattering of my whole life. So they were various degrees of easy or hard, but they didn’t feel so momentous and noteworthy and heavy as my leavings from Texas. I realized I have such a literal idea that my bones are made of Texas dirt, as if I think they are just compressed caliche, shaped into bone shapes. Old timey Texans can understand that. When I die, I want some portion of my ashes to be mixed back into the caliche. Sprinkled over bluebonnets. Drifted over a Texas river.
Thank you, everyone I met in Austin. Thank you for seeing me through. Thank you for picking me up and holding me while I learned a whole new way of being. Thank you for your openness to meeting this new person who was so shattered, to sticking it out with me until I wasn’t. Thank you for the friendship, the happy hours, the evenings in your homes, the times spent laughing in restaurants. Thank you for holding my hand when I needed it. Thank you for all the ways you let me know that you saw me, that you were here for me. Thank you for trying to right my vision. Thank you for offering me hope and your friendship.
Thank you, dear Trey, for everything. I will always remember all you did for me, always and forever. Always. Forever. Your quiet strength and care. Always.
I just can’t name people individually because it will be too hard and I’ll cry too much—but I hope you recognize yourself in these words:
Thank you, friends who passed through my life for a season. You gave me so much and I will remember you with happiness, even if our friendship had its time and moved on.
Thank you, true friends who saw me through all my ups and downs. Who listened to me. Who cared for me. Who made time for me. Who allowed me into your lives and shared yourselves with me, what a gift you have been. Who held my hand when my hand needed to be held. Who sat hard next to me when I was in trouble. Who laughed with me when I wasn’t. Who waited with me through the anxiety of the births of Oliver and Lucy, and shared and celebrated that tremendous relief and joy — and the simpler joy of Ilan’s birth. Who helped me even when perhaps you didn’t understand why I was wrecked by something, like the frightening reappearance of my brother. I’m thinking of you individually as I write these words, seeing your faces, feeling your hands, your arms around me, hearing your laughs and seeing your beautiful smiles. Thank you John Fivecoats for being the very first friend in Austin who gave me hope and deep kindness, and thank you Karan Shirk for being my last-made but not least important friend — my sister. Thank you all for the beautiful gift of yourselves.
Thank you, friends who were in various book clubs, poetry groups, cheese groups, and Meetup groups with me. You delighted me so much in our shared pleasures, and I truly hope you know just what you gave me in those contexts. I think of every meeting with a glad and light heart, and I see your faces with the joy of remembrance.
Thank you, dear sisters I met in the resistance; it was my tremendous pleasure to fight alongside you. You gave me hope, and that was the most precious thing. I will remember you with a tremendous jolt of strength, and we will keep fighting until we win. I will support your hard fight from NY, and I will share my fight with you.
Thank you, Nancy, for . . . your quirt. I can’t say more because I can’t even see the screen, my eyes are too filled with tears.
* * *
People outside Texas who don’t know about Austin often have the worst idea about us — our politics, our nightmare politicians, just so horrible. But I know you. I will carry every single one of you in my heart. I will talk about you, tell people who Texans really are, Texans with big generous hearts and good values, Texans who care about each other, watch out for each other, take in strays . . . and I was certainly a stray. You took me in, and forever, now, you will be part of my life and the stories I have to tell.
So I pull away from the curb tonight to drive off to my next adventure, away from you geographically but not away from you in my heart. You meant so much to me, more than you probably know, and will remain ever with me (for after all, you know how I do go on and on about things, and people and places from my life). You were my home, my life raft, my joy, my pleasure, my friends. If we are friends still, friends we shall be no matter where I roam. You have a standing invitation to stay with me at the Big Indian Palace of the Queen of the Pillbugs. We’ll sit on my back deck. We’ll drink coffee, wine, beer. We’ll make some delicious food, we’ll hike or snowshoe or toodle around the Catskills. Mi casa will always be su casa.
I’ll let this picture stand as my last picture in Texas — the last one that isn’t with tears in my eyes, the last one that’s just me and not me with my extraordinary grandkids, or me with any one of you exceptional people. I hope you remember me smiling at you. That’s what I’ll carry with me on the long trip, and when I find myself alone in the Big Indian Wilderness; I’ll carry your beautiful smiles, looking at me. xoxoxoxoxox
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The first time I left Texas for New York was April 2003. I had a job in Rochester, New York, with my new PhD. I’d fly back to defend my dissertation, a necessary formality, but I was finished. Graduate school was behind me, and a professional job waited for me in a place I’d never imagined. My first real professional job. I was 44 at the time, Katie was in college at the University of Texas, Marnie was at Smith College, and Will was living with his dad. I left on a really beautiful spring morning, very early, and how filled I was with hope and excitement. I had done this very hard thing, earned a doctorate, unfathomable, and everything waited for me. I’d made a CD full of songs I really loved, and as I headed up IH-35, and at the exact moment I drove past the apartment complex where my beloved Katie lived, Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” came on. I started laugh-sobbing.
I remember such intense feelings, in two irreconcilable directions, one pulling me to stop, to stay, and the other urging me forward: almost unbearable pain at driving away and leaving my Katie behind, there in her little apartment and without me in town, and almost unbearable joy. NEW YORK. Never mind that it was Rochester; little old me, from where I was from, I had a PhD and I was moving to New York.
I think I pulled my cheek muscles on that long road trip from grinning. My favorite Spice Girls song came up and I started laughing almost hysterically. I think I called one of the girls, laughing like a maniac. I remember laughing out loud again and again, just out of the audacity of my life. My car had a bumper sticker “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” which I didn’t really think about, until I crossed into Ohio and more than once was threatened by a scary guy in a pick-up with a gun rack, trying to run me off the road, and red-faced screaming as he shook his fist at me. I should’ve thought about it, since upon crossing into that state the highways were lined with flags, and they hung on every overpass. (What? I wondered. This is the north, they aren’t ignorant here!)
Flash forward 14 years, and here I am about to make almost the same trip, from Austin to Big Indian instead of Rochester. This time, I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side, the most unimaginable thing ever ever ever. This time, I’m not leaving my beloved Katie alone in a small apartment; I’m leaving her behind with her husband and two precious children in their own sweet home. She is a wonderful, solid, loving mama and wife. This time, she heads a family. This time, when I listen to “New York State of Mind,” I have intimate knowledge of the things he references — the Hudson River Line, the NYT, the Daily News, Chinatown where Marc buys good food for us and where we eat at Nha Trang II (not I, II is better), Riverside, my beloved, beloved Riverside. It’s not just a song anymore. This time, a whole new ‘everything’ waits for me, urging me forward.
And so my mind turns toward the soundtrack for my upcoming road trip. Of course Spice Girls will be on it, and Donna Summer, and Light & Day, and some John Prine and some Nina Simone, and KC & the Sunshine Band OF COURSE, and local goodies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Schneider, but I think the song I’ll play as I’m pulling the truck away from the house will be an old Texas song, since I’ve been busy touching the old version of Texas I used to know, that used to exist. The old Texas dirt that my very bones are made of. The old Texas swing that pushes my blood along through my veins. I think I’ll pull out of town to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It will be after midnight, so I will indeed see the big, bright stars in the sky, deep in the heart of Texas.
That high wailed a-ha! that he does is SO FAMILIAR. It’s as familiar as the grim old hymns we sang at the Loving Highway Church of Christ. Might need some Patsy Cline too, now that I think about it. And a whole bunch of bluegrass. And some yodeling, just for fun. It’s a 27+ hour drive, after all, so I can load up as many of the songs that have played on the soundtrack of my years as my phone will hold.
Now and then I want to get a map and just draw a line of my 82 moves, and see what it looks like, a God’s eye view of me moving around on the face of the earth. Sometimes when I’m driving on a long road trip, I kind of imagine that, I imagine God watching me toodling along on the face of his earth (so funny for me to be talking this way, I don’t even really believe it but still I kind of do), knowing that I feel grateful and happy.
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My trip to Graham was even better than I could have imagined, although it was so chilly and windy that my lips got terribly chapped and the drive was difficult. I didn’t want to linger outside the car too much, so I took quick snaps of things I would have otherwise taken time with. But the reason for my trip was completely fulfilled.
After waking at 4, unable to get back to sleep I went ahead and made a pot of coffee and thermosed it and hit the road. I was taking smaller highways (183 and then 281), so I was expecting the pleasures of open fields, little traffic, and big skies — and boy did I find that. That feels like my Texas. A big weather system had come through the night before, spawning some deadly tornadoes, so the sky was especially dramatic as the sun came up.
I’d planned to stop to get donuts in Lampasas at a little spot called the Donut Palace (didn’t really expect it to be much of a palace, and it wasn’t), but when I walked in, there were four old men sitting at a table — their table, I’d wager — just talking about nothing, and my heart caught in my throat. Every morning, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy for a week in the summer, Big Daddy would get up at 4 to “go to town.” He and I slept out on the screened sleeping porch, and I always wanted to go with him, so he’d wake me up and off we’d go, in the dark. We had two stops: the donut shop, and the gas station where he’d buy some milk out of a freezer case outside. When we got to the donut shop, he always told me to wait in the car. I remember sitting on the front seat, leaning forward with my elbows on the front dash and my chin in my hands, gazing at Big Daddy as he sat at a table with three old men, drinking coffee. It’s easy to imagine the view he would’ve had, if he’d looked my way: a smiling granddaughter, eager for a glance. I was too little to have a reliable sense of time — it seemed like he was in there forever — but when he’d finish his coffee, he’d buy a donut for me and then off we’d go to the gas station to finish our morning errands.
And so, I bought my donuts, smiled at the old men at the Donut Palace and off I went to finish my drive.
Driving to Graham, I was surprised to see how much is completely unchanged. The Hico Hill Inn is still in business in Hico, the sign completely unchanged even if the rest has been updated; just outside of Hico, the RV Park and Horse Motel — adjoining lots, one for RVs and the other for horse trailers (I’m not kidding); signs in Mineral Wells saying “Keep Mineral Wells Crazy” which must be their attempt to follow Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan but I don’t think it really works. The same dive bars, the same drive-in restaurants, the same of so many things it felt like I was driving backwards, somehow.
And then I crossed into Young County (Graham is the county seat). I’d noticed, as I was driving, that the accent of my thoughts was thickening; the north Texas accent is its own thing, with very flat vowels and dragging rhythms. Oil, for instance, is awl. Lisle, an old family name in Graham, is Lahl. I could feel it happening in my thoughts, and even as I write this morning, my voice is still thick with that accent.
My plan was to drive to the cemetery, then to Big Daddy’s house, which was a few blocks down the same road, then over to the park, and then to eat at K&N. I didn’t know where he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, and when I drove in, I was thinking that I hadn’t been at his funeral so I thought I had absolutely no idea where he might be. I ruled out a couple of sections that were too new (he died in 1971), but there was still a good bit of ground to cover, and the wind was whipping so hard and fast it nearly blew me over. So I picked a section and started walking the rows, looking. It was so uncomfortable with the wind, I said, halfheartedly and unbelieving, “Come on, Big Daddy, tell me where you are.” My arms were crossed, hands tucked under my armpits and my shoulders scrunched up by my ears, resisting the wind. I thought, I think he’s over there. I glanced at the section and decided I’d better stick with my systematic walking — if I just abandoned the section and went over there, I might have to start all over.
So up and down I walked, and again I said, “Call out to me, Big Daddy, where are you?” and again I thought, I think he’s over there. Finally, I got to the end of a row, took a photo of the headstones so I wouldn’t lose my place, and I went to that other section. I walked one row, turned around to come up the next, and there he was.
Standing there, I realized that I had been to his funeral. I remember seeing the deep, dark hole in the ground and feeling such a terrible panic that my Big Daddy was going to have to be left in that hole. I had completely forgotten that.
I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t planned to think a particular thing, or say a particular thing. My plan was simply to see where he was buried. But I stood there and felt that old pain in my chest, the one I can still touch if I think about him, the one that felt unbearable for so many years after he died. I told him a few things, what he had meant to me then, what he has meant to my life, what I’ve done that he never got the chance to do, that I loved him so dearly.
As I walked through the cemetery, it was the strangest feeling. I saw one familiar family name after another, and would say out loud, “Aw, there are the Thigpens — and there are the Lisles — aw, the Orrs, old Bobby –and there’s Hugh Ribble.” Those names, those families, like the dirt I was made from, somehow. I wondered why this place was so deeply home to me; I lived there 3 months at birth, 3 months around Big Daddy’s death when I was 12, and a couple of months in 1987. That’s all. It was never really my home. I never really knew any of the Thigpens, or the Lisles, or the Orrs.
Finally the wind blew me to my car, and I headed a few blocks down the road to Big Daddy’s house.
There wasn’t a carport when I was a kid, and there was a giant swamp cooler hanging out of the leftmost window, which is the living room. There were two tall, nasty juniper trees on either side of the mailbox, filled with writhing bagworms. The screened porch on the back has been turned into a regular part of the house, and they fenced the back yard so I couldn’t see the back very well. How I know that house. There were those little gas burners in each room, set in a stone “fireplace” kind of, and that’s what heated the house. They were always scary to me, bright blue flames at floor level, and not much to keep clothing from catching fire — and in fact, that happened in the bathroom once, so scary.
It was an old way of living — no air conditioning, doors and windows open to catch whatever breeze there might be, the swamp cooler to add a bit of cool moisture to the dry air. Very cold in the winter, with piles of old quilts, and very hot in the summer, with cold watermelon and waiting for the sound of the snowcone man. I remember all that in my bones.
Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted. Don’t forget that.
This house is next door, and they used to let me jump on their trampoline, which I would do with giddy joy, shouting, “Big Daddy! Watch me! Big Daddy, look at me!” Of course he didn’t, but I lived on the edge of that hope that maybe this time he would. A terrible thing happened to me on the day of Big Daddy’s funeral, and my dress was covered with blood — which would have infuriated my mother, that I ruined a dress — so I crawled out of Big Daddy’s house and buried the dress under the trampoline….which is very interesting, if you think about it. I could’ve buried it in Big Daddy’s yard, but I buried it underneath the trampoline. (Maybe it was as simple as not wanting my mother to see a dug-up spot in the yard.) I wonder if that dress is still there, probably not. It was a little cotton dress, peach and white, and that was 46 years ago.
I knew the street my great-grandmother had lived on — Blewett — but hadn’t planned to find her house….until I was driving down Big Daddy’s street and crossed Blewett! I always thought she lived far away, but it was just down the street. So I turned onto Blewett, and there it was.
There used to be a gorgeous, big mimosa tree in the front yard, covered in pink blossoms, but it’s gone now. I know every square inch inside that house, the smell of the rooms, the kitchen. She always saved a jar of pickled beets for me, because she knew I loved them, so I would run in the front door and go straight back to the kitchen. She had a cloth calendar of the whole year, with little sequin stars glued on for each of the family birthdays (all clumped up in November… February in Young County, Texas is cold and bleak so….well…..). I remember her bed, her chenille bedspread, the cut glass lamps, the creaky wood floor with gaps between the boards so you could see the dirt underneath. But to see it now, to see what it really is, left me feeling a depth to the understanding of where I came from.
Then it was time to see the park where Big Daddy took me fishing. He’d make me collect bait — a coffee can that I had to fill with grasshoppers and crickets. I hated touching them, but I wanted to do anything with Big Daddy so I’d gather them as fast as I could, slap on the plastic lid, and off we would go with our little fishing poles. In my memory, we sat by a muddy river with a wild bank, and I do remember a time he saw a water moccasin and jumped up and ran, hollering at me to run, too. And granted, perhaps they have fixed up the park since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t a muddy river, it was a small pond, and the wild bank was just a grassy slope.
That picture I have of him, sitting at a concrete picnic table, was taken in Firemen’s Park. I sat on the ground where we used to sit and held him in my thoughts, and remembered how excited I used to feel, scared that I might actually catch a fish and have to touch it. I don’t remember that either of us ever did — I think the point was just to get away from my grandmother, and to have something to do.
I’d been looking forward to having a hamburger and a root beer at K&N, but like almost all the restaurants and drive-ins, it was closed because it was Sunday. On Sundays, people in Graham go to church and then go home to have a big Sunday supper. Then they rest, or watch football if it’s that time of year, or read, or talk, and then they go back to church in the evening. They don’t go to K&N. I was disappointed.
As I drove around town, waves of memory passed through me, indistinct but familiar. That large house up on the side of the hill, I’ve been inside it, I remember the furniture and how the house felt — so much of my memories were of how it felt to be there — but I can’t remember whose house it was. The square, around the courthouse, looked exactly the same as when I was a kid. So many of the same stores and businesses, and a few new ones.
I remember my mother bitterly complaining one day, when we were at Boaz. She said you can’t buy new underwear in Graham without everyone knowing your business and talking about it. (Boaz was the only place to shop back then.) I think she chafed at the small town she grew up in; she had bigger dreams, she wanted a fancier place in the world, and she couldn’t really find it. She dropped out of high school and ran off with my father, also a high school dropout, and was instantly pregnant with me.
On my way out of town, I swung by the Loving Highway Church of Christ. We were there every time the doors opened — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings, plus summer revival meetings. I was baptized there by Tommy Thompson, and there were dead scorpions floating in the cold water….not part of the deal, just too unremarkable to worry about. I remember the smell of the hymnals, the hardness of the wooden pews (no cushions, that’s not mentioned in the Bible! No stained glass, also not mentioned, nor musical instruments (which were mentioned, come on you hard people), the sign up front that listed the hymns we’d be singing. My favorites, Softly and Tenderly, This World is Not My Home, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross.
Then it was time to leave. I’d seen everything, I found my Big Daddy, I touched all the old places and saw them with grown-up eyes, saw how small they were, how close. It was surprising, and surprisingly moving. It was an emotional trip, but only in the very best ways. I cried a lot, but only in the most personal ways — this was my home because Big Daddy lived there. That simple, quiet man, and his small, difficult life, made home for me because he loved me.
I was so lucky to get to see Dixie and Karl, there is never enough time with them no matter how much I get. We talked and talked and talked, laughed and caught up, shared our fury and disbelief over politics, ate a wonderful dinner together, drank some red wine, and then after breakfast and a walk together, I hit the road. I cherish every single second I had with them, and I’m so grateful they are in my heart. So grateful. Dixie is the sister I never really had. How lucky I am to have gotten her. (She is the cousin of my first husband, Jerry, and her precious mother Oopie was truly an angel walking on this earth — and Oopie loved me, too, for some reason that must have had to do with her more than me.)
I’d planned to drive straight home, but traffic on IH35 was a complete nightmare, so in Waco I rerouted to the east. I hadn’t even really realized that by going east I’d be going toward Taylor, where my father is buried, and in fact it wasn’t even until I passed the sign to Throckmorton that it hit me. Throckmorton! My dad grew up there….oh! So with no plan, no forethought, I thought I’d just swing by the cemetery to see his grave. Unlike Big Daddy’s, I knew where his was even though I’d only been there twice since he was buried in 1982 — once in 1999, when I planned to kill myself on his grave to “show” him, and once in 2012, with Katie, when I went to “show” him in a different way, to have my triumph over him 30 years after his death. That time, I instead ended up just kicking the headstone over and over, and grinding dirt into it, and collapsing in tears into Katie’s arms. I felt like I said goodbye to him then.
So with no more plan than to see his grave, I parked my car under the lone tree and walked toward his headstone. The headstones were covered with dead grass clippings so I had to sweep them away to see his name.
It was a strange experience, touching his headstone. It was warm from the sun, and I hadn’t been that close to it, ever. It surprised me to feel any kind of connection. So I swept it clean and knelt there, thinking about him. And then, without even thinking about it, I stood on his headstone and said, “I win, Dad. I win.” And I stepped off, walked to my car, and drove away.
I had such a strange mixture of feelings, because they were all there: anger, sorrow, acceptance, distance, empathy for him, sympathy for little me. It’s like the whole thing came to a kind of balance, and I didn’t have to leave any of them out of the story for it to be OK. It’s OK. He beat me and tried to kill me and touched me and shamed me and belittled me and said horrible and horribly inappropriate things to me and blamed me for his suicide and was in so much pain he couldn’t bear it and felt shame and just wanted to die and just wanted to hurt everyone who came close and wanted us all to hurt as much as he did. It’s all true. I understand and don’t understand, and it’s all in balance in some way.
Taylor has a great BBQ joint, Louie Mueller, so I left the cemetery and headed over for a chopped beef sandwich. They use a LOT of black pepper in the rub, so it’s right up my alley. And somehow, having BBQ after leaving my dad’s grave felt a bit like winning, too. I was OK. I wasn’t torn up, I wasn’t devastated, I just said goodbye.
It was a magnificent trip, and I’m so glad I went. I felt like I was saying goodbye to Texas, in some way — to my old Texas, the landscape I’m made of, the dirt and sky and hardship I came from, and I have a place for it all in my heart, in its proper place and size.
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Don’t you just love Jeff Bridges? He played The Dude, of course, who was mighty close to his actual self (those were his own clothes that he wore in The Big Lebowski), but he’s always interesting in his movies, and he’s often the best part. I just listened to an interview with him on Fresh Air, and hadn’t realized how often he plays a Texan. His stand-in, who has worked with him on 70 films now, is a Texan and he said it has rubbed off on him, how to be a Texan. I have to agree.
So. Have you seen his latest movie Hell or High Water, which is set in Texas? I’m bringing this up for a reason I’ll come back to. Here’s the trailer:
I’d been wanting to see the movie since it first came out, and only saw it yesterday and of course the setting was extremely familiar . . . AND THEN in a scene Bridges asks someone to check with ’em over in Young County. I was born in Young County. This was an extraordinary experience, because I never see my place represented anywhere — at least not Young County. (Nearby Archer City was famously the setting of The Last Picture Show, which Bridges was in too.) It’s the kind of place where you indicate where you live by naming the county.
The action in Hell or High Water centers around a couple of brothers who rob the branches of a local bank, and in one scene the Texas Ranger (Bridges) talks to a bunch of old guys sitting in a diner, across the street from a branch that had just been robbed. The gist of it was that they weren’t too upset about the bank being robbed, because they all felt the bank had robbed them, or family, or folks they knew. The small towns, the people in them, had suffered terribly; the oil fields had shut down, no one was drilling, and there was no other work. They felt left behind, screwed by the bank and all it represented. It’s very easy to understand how people in places like Young County feel left behind; it isn’t that I don’t get that, I do. I just can’t figure out how they see an orange narcissist who literally sits in gold rooms, on gold chairs, in a penthouse in Manhattan, as their savior. Can’t go there.
But the familiarity of the landscape, and the homes and trailers, and the people and their laconic ways of talkin, their easy droppin of their Gs, gosh it was so familiar. And so it led me to take a look at Graham, the little town where I was born, where Mom & Big Daddy lived, and where I spent summers when I was 5 and 6. (Thank you, Google Maps.)
There has never really been much to do in Graham, although it’s relatively close to a big lake (Possum Kingdom Lake), but kids mostly hang around and get into small-town trouble. My mother once told me that she and her brother and their friends broke into the courthouse one weekend night and one of them went to the bathroom in the corner of the lobby. #2. Scandalous.
In that way art can show you the truth of something more clearly than a plain representational photograph, I share the trailer for The Last Picture Show. It was shot in Archer City and it looks so familiar my teeth ache and my body is drawn into the shot because I’m from that place. There’s a scene where Timothy Bottoms’ hard hat gets knocked off, when Jeff Bridges hits him with the bottle, and that’s an oilfield hat for roughnecks. I have Big Daddy’s. One line from the movie is that nothing much changes there, and I would bet my bottom dollar it still looks the same (especially since Larry McMurtry sold off everything from his great big old bookstore — 300,000 books). That store was the only thing keeping the town alive.
Real people live in those places, and I know the way their homes smell. I know what their living rooms look like, their kitchens, their scrubby yards. I know what they eat, and what they say when they visit. They’re my people, fair and square, and they are so loud in me, they’re one reason I always feel like a stranger in Manhattan, shocked and surprised that I also belong there.
If you’re interested in the Fresh Air interview with drawly old Jeff Bridges, it was a great show:
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While I am mute and trying to recover from the atomic bomb that hit me, I thought I’d pull a post or two from my previous blog, Thrums. This one was from this day, 2012:
When I was younger, I was always envious of nearly everyone else — it seemed like other people had interesting heritage (not me), interesting cultures (not me), or interesting places of origin (not me). I felt like the antithesis of exotic: a plain old white girl from Texas, mutt heritage, store brand white bread and store brand bologna. With Miracle Whip. I remember lying in the front yard watching planes fly overhead and just wishing, with all my heart, to be on any one of them, going wherever they were going; wherever they were going would be better than where I was.
But every place is exotic to someone from another place; it’s just hard to see one’s own exotic context, because kind of by definition exotic means otherness. When you’re the default – a plain old white girl – very little feels otherly. Some time in my last decade, I realized that I may not be Moroccan (pick your exotic other of exotic choice), but I do actually have an interesting heritage that’s exotic to other people. Meet Molly.
Her name was Molly, but of course she was just known as Mrs. Sam Ribble. This photo accompanied her obituary, and you notice how she seems to be wearing a nightgown? I’ll get to that.
Molly was one of Young County’s oldest pioneer citizens, according to her obituary in the Graham Leader. She was the daughter of a pioneer family, born June 9, 1866 in Nebraska. She married Sam Ribble when she was 16, in a small church in Gooseneck, just outside Graham. They rented land for several years before Sam bought 160 acres of school land, and acquired 160 more that he traded for a wagon and horse and a six-shooter. They built a log cabin on the land — the lumber came by wagon train. When she died, she was survived by 4 daughters, 4 sons, 23 grandchildren, 39 great grandchildren, and 13 great great grandchildren.
So here’s the funny thing about the nightgown. Sam always wanted to have a baby in the house (as you see, they had 8 kids — actually, she had 11 but 3 died). I don’t think Molly was as keen on always having a baby in the house, but I also don’t think she had much say-so. The last baby, Etheline, had down’s syndrome (that’s how I’m referring to it; the family always just called her a mongoloid). So Molly delivered Etheline, handed her to Sam, and said “there you go, now you’ll always have a baby in the house. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”
Molly stayed in bed for 50 years. She was just fine, perfect health (she lived to be 94, after all), I think she was just making a point and boy she stuck with it. She’d sit up if a visitor would take her picture — “a polaroid,” as she’d say — but otherwise she couldn’t be bothered. If any little thing happened to fluster her, she’d pat her chest over her heart, in a kind of circle, and say “get me an aspereen I’m having a heart attack.” She never did have a heart attack, of course, and she finally just died in her sleep of being 94 years old.
My great-aunt on my maternal grandfather’s side shot her husband as he was crawling through the kitchen window to kill her. My other great-aunt’s husband went to the store for smokes and never came home. I have a relative named Homer who was a hermit who lived in a hollow near the river outside of town (one of Molly’s sons); he’d be spotted now and then, skulking around the edges of town.
The Last Picture Show, Midnight Cowboy, those versions of old Texas are my old Texas. Unlike my kids, I spent a lot of time in very rural parts of the state. In the summers, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy in Graham, they’d send me out to Bunger for a few days, to stay with Mom’s sister Mazie and her husband Ben. Bunger was just outside Graham, and comprised ~20 people, all kin. I’d ride out on horses with Ben early in the mornings to collect the livestock; we’d turn the calves in to their mamas before we’d milk them — by hand — and then we’d carry the pail of milk into the house. Mazie would strain it, and that’d be our milk. Once Mazie and I were in the kitchen and we heard a shotgun go off in the living room; Mazie hollered at Ben, asking him what happened, and he said a copperhead was in the living room and he just killed it. I always felt so bad for Uncle Ben because he had to ride out and check on these rusty old things that went up and down, old-looking machines. When I grew up I realized I didn’t have to feel so bad for him — they were pump jacks. Old Uncle Ben had oil. Now and then Uncle Ben would teach me how to shoot a rifle. I was 6.
That’s all pretty exotic. ?
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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:
If you are lucky, life is long enough to surprise the hell out of you. If you are lucky, life drops beautiful little treats and treasures at your feet, gives you experiences that leave you slack-jawed and changed forever. Some of these will be terrible and some will be out of left field and some will be better than rubies. For me, one of these better-than-rubies surprises is that I’ve been lucky enough to travel. I left Texas for the first time when I was 22; my then-husband and I went to Cozumel for a long weekend.
The first time I left the United States (except for that Cozumel trip) was when I was in graduate school, in 2002, and went to Paris and Glasgow. I was 43. That was the most amazing thing to me, since I love Paris with all my heart. I went immediately to Notre Dame and stood there just crying. I was jet lagged and goofy, but my joy and tears were real. As a literary location, Notre Dame has meant so much to me over my life, and I never thought I’d get to see it in person. I stood: across the Seine from it, in front of it, inside it, I walked around it, I touched it, I bowed my head and cried some more. I was in PARIS. Me. Me. I walked and wandered. I touched the old wall, I wandered in the great neighborhoods, I lounged at sidewalk cafes and drank many an espresso and watched elegant Parisians do their elegant Parisian thing. I went to the Louvre, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Picasso Museum. I ate beautiful food. I was too shy to speak my Texas French. In my rental car, I drove through brilliant yellow fields to Chartres and cried in that rose-windowed cathedral. I was dazzled.
My people never traveled, except for their on-the-run life. All our moving was just around Texas, and we didn’t take vacations. My family did once, but I was living with my father and missed it (they told me it was so much better since I wasn’t there . . . jerks). They drove to LA, I think. That was their big travel. So I didn’t grow up with traveling, didn’t have it in my mind as something that could happen for me, not something I could even dream of. The Paris and Glasgow trip was a gift; the man I was seeing at the time had to travel for his work and invited me to come along. He dropped me off in Paris and he went on to Germany, so I had that glorious city all to myself. Still, that seemed like a one-off, a surprise present, not the beginning of a new way of thinking about the world.
When I met Marc in 2005, in March, I hadn’t done any traveling since that Paris trip and I was astonished by the world traveling he had done — but again, didn’t think it was in the cards for me and my life. That August we went to Vietnam and the die was cast for me. I can’t not travel now, I can’t not eat up the world, I can’t stay put while there is so much world to see. Traveling has been a whole treasure chest of gifts.
The world includes Marfa, and Palo Duro Canyon (“The Grand Canyon of Texas” and the next home state place I want to venture), and places I’ve already been and those still to be seen. Of all the ways my life is kind of strange and unimaginable to me, getting to see the world is the most mysterious. I often forget I have a PhD and got my education, and I don’t dismiss it but somehow it’s not as wondrous. It was a tremendous accomplishment, and it was very hard since I was doing it while raising three kids mostly by myself, and I’m grateful for it and never thought it would happen for me, but it’s this travel thing I can’t wrap my head around in terms of my good luck.
When we lived in Connecticut — right in the middle of the state — people in our neighborhood had never even been to the CT coast. Which, you know, in such a tiny state is practically within spitting distance. I know a woman who never left her hometown in PA because she’d have to go over a bridge and she didn’t like that idea. I know a lot of people who just have no interest in traveling, and a lot more who like traveling but don’t want to veer away from familiar comforts so they stick to Europe and the Caribbean. I wasn’t in any of those groups; travel was just not even conceivable. I didn’t have opinions about it because it wasn’t even among the possibilities I could think of. Now, though, in addition to my deep love of Paris I add my deep love of Hanoi, and Phnom Penh, and Luang Prabang, and Bagan and Nyaung Shwe, and Varanasi, and Cusco, and Ubud, and if only there were several of me, I’d send one copy to each of those places to live forever. And then I wonder how many other places there arein the world that I’d love just as much? And the people — oh, the energy of the Vietnamese, among my favorite people in the whole world, and the charm of Cambodians, and the gentle warmth of the Lao, and the wonder of the Balinese people. I might never have known about that.
Those places in the world now belong to me. When I hear terrible news from any one of them, it’s personal. I care very much and can now be heartbroken in a different way by tragedy that hits those people. Travel does so many things: it jolts you out of thinking that the way you live is the way people live; it shows you a lot of different ways people live and organize and think about life; it shows you how very lucky you are, and how rich (even if like me you aren’t rich at all by US standards); it shows you how impoverished you are by the limited ideas you started with about how life is meant to be lived. And you get to see beauty and ugliness and strength and courage and the effects of badly used power and cruelty. And you have to face the policies of your own country, and I promise you will hang your head as we did in Laos and Vietnam. Travel makes it a lot harder to keep your head in the sand, and that’s both good and bad of course.
Even though I’m terribly jet lagged and kind of goofy still from the Indonesia trip, I’m already scheming and planning for where to go next, what to see next. I’d love to go back to Marfa, or to Big Bend, but I’m really kind of thinking about going up to Palo Duro Canyon. It’s an 8-hour drive, more or less (like anywhere in Texas, it seems), and I haven’t seen it since 1980 so I think it’s time, don’t you? Maybe you’ll go along with me…..