Chapter One. Meadow Knoll: Getting Here, Alone Together
July 7, 1986. Austin, Bill's house. Early morning sunshine, and already hot, in the 80s. The grapes are ripe. I take a large basket outside and in twenty-five minutes have picked six pounds of ripe grapes, juicy, sweet-tart, purple. The vines are so heavy they have broken some of the lathes of the trellis. The mockingbird scolds me as I pick—these are his grapes—and dive-bombs the cats. They are watching me from the porch, pleased to have my company. Inside, in the kitchen, it's still cool. I wash and pick the grapes over, delighting in their roundness, their silvery sheen, and now they are cooking into juice.
It was late April 1987, when Bill and I parked Amazing Grace at the top of the knoll where the land sloped down to the clear creek that bordered the five acres of Texas Hill Country that Bill had bought some thirteen years before. Meadow Knoll, we were calling it. We spent the warm, bright afternoon walking through the green willows and the cattail marsh and up the creek to the lake, where we sat on the grass under arching live oaks, watching and listening. A great blue heron waded on yellow stilts in the frog-rich shallows while a kingfisher, master diver, sliced cleanly through air and water in pursuit of lunch and an American kestrel hovered over a clump of grass before swooping onto its prey—mouse? grasshopper? nestling? Flocks of barn swallows banked and turned in synchronized flight, as a male red-wing blackbird trilled his brash, territorial oak-a-le-e-e: Outta here! This is my patch of marsh!
In the evening, we walked back through the cooling wind to Amazing Grace, our eight-by-fifteen-foot orange-and-white recreational vehicle. I made soup on the propane stove and sandwiches from what I found in the refrigerator that operated on either propane or electricity, and we took our food outdoors to eat while we watched the red-orange sun splash like a globe of lava into puddles of red-and-purple clouds beyond the trees.
As dusk fell across the land, we listened to the low, breathy who-whoo-whoo of a great horned owl calling from the edge of the woods, like someone blowing over the top of a bottle, and the leaf-rustling blunders of an armadillo under the oak trees. And then, because we were far from the lights of Austin, the sky became very, very dark, studded with thousands of very, very bright stars, while the Big Dipper ladled out the Milky Way. After a long time, we went inside and lay in our double bunk, listening to the sound of the wind brushing the evergreen junipers, the frogsong along the creek, the querulous croak of a green heron. I stayed awake, watching the sky through the window, and in a little while, I saw a star fall like a blazing gift.
We didn't know it yet, but we had come home.
In the seven months since Bill and I married, Amazing Grace had been our home-on-the-road. Grace had lived a hard life before I bought her, and she needed patient attention. Twelve years old, she had a tendency to occasional mechanical misadventures and apparent givings-up-of-the-ghost that Bill, to my utter amazement, always managed to repair. (We joked that I married him to manage Grace, whose automotive peculiarities were beyond my rudimentary mechanical skills.) Wearing a canoe lashed like a jaunty hat up-top, Grace took us from central Texas to the northern tip of Nova Scotia and back again on our September-October honeymoon. Later, in January and February, she took us home-hunting from Texas to California (oh, awesome Yosemite buried in deep snow, coyotes calling out the moon in the nearly empty campground), north to rainy Oregon and wintry Washington and back through Idaho, Montana, and Colorado.
As we drove across the mountains and plains, we talked long and seriously about the kind of life we wanted to make together, the sort of place we wanted to live. We would drive through a valley and try to imagine what it would be like to live there, perched on the side of that mountain, surrounded by forest. Or there, beside that tumbling, rocky stream, or in that green oasis of cottonwood trees, or on the red rim of that desert, or in the countless small towns we passed through along the way.
And often, as encouragement to Grace, when she lumbered up a hill or along a featureless stretch of highway, we sang her favorite song, sang all the verses, always ending with the one we liked best: "Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come. T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far, and Grace will take us home."
And she had. But not to a desert or a mountain. To the small, unspectacular patch of land in the Texas Hill Country that Bill already owned, which had seemed too commonplace, too ordinary for consideration.
"And Grace will take us home."
Bill Albert and I were married on a crisp, sunny fall equinox in 1986. After the outdoor ceremony at Austin's Zilker Botanical Gardens, everyone came to our house to share the wedding buffet we had prepared—baked ham and my specialty potato salad and quiche and an elegant carrot cake baked by my daughter Robin. My grown-up children were there, Bobby and Robin and Michael, and my brother John Webber and his family and Bill's brother John Albert and his family and Mom and Dad Albert, and a flock of friends, his and mine. And then they all hugged us and wished us well and went away and Bill and I were alone.
Well, almost. There was Grace, of course. And OJ and Eureka! and PK, the cats. But basically, and from now on, there would be just the two of us.
This life was to be very different from the life I had been living. The previous year, in my mid-forties, I had traded my secure position as vice president and tenured English professor at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University) for a tenuous future as a fiction writer. At the time, tenured women and women in university administration were an academic minority (may still be, for all I know), and my colleagues and friends thought I was crazy, giving it all up—or throwing it away, depending on your point of view. Some of them said so to my face; others whispered it behind my back.
Crazy? Probably. In those days, women who were determined (and lucky) enough to get as far as I had usually kept right on going. And if it wasn't crazy, it was undeniably outrageous, a shocking, brazen, ungrateful thumbing-my-nose at the system that had nurtured and groomed and promoted me. But I hadn't gotten where I had by following the rules, had I? If I'd listened to one of my graduate professors at the UC Berkeley, I'd be teaching high school English—that's what Dr. Oliver suggested I do, when he learned that I would be thirty-two by the time I earned my PhD. In his book, that was far too late to begin an academic career, especially for a woman.
Anyway, I had learned what I set out to learn and achieved enough to know that I could have the rest if I wanted to work for it. Yes, I was retiring early from the battlefield. I was leaving major wars unfought, but that would be true whenever I left, wouldn't it? There would always be one more battle, one more curriculum project, one more round of budgets and tenure and promotion. I was divorced and my children were grown and independent, more or less, with families of their own. If I was ever going to do anything different with my life, turn it in any new direction, now was the time.
And that's what I did, through a stroke of amazing, inexplicable, and, still to this day, unbelievable luck. As if it were an unexplored continent awaiting discovery, I happened upon a new life that suited me, and for which I was suited. Before I began my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois in the early 60s, when my children were babies and I was still a full-time wife and mom, I had written and published magazine fiction for children and young adults. When I began to think of ways to earn a living outside the university, I decided to try this kind of writing again, but book-length, rather than short stuff. I studied the market, wrote three sample chapters and a plot outline of a book called Summer Breezes, and (by some magic I still don't understand) sold it—without an agent—to the editor of a young adult mass market series published by Bantam Starfire. (Years later, I was astonished to receive a copy of that little book in the mail, translated into a language I didn't even recognize. Who knew?)
In the year I left the university, I wrote and sold several more novels for young adults. This was "work for hire," and I'd never make a name for myself or amass a fortune doing it. But I didn't care. I'd already earned my share of recognition, and anonymity, even invisibility, held a certain appeal. The writing brought me enough to live on, and that was all I asked. Six or seven years later, after I began writing the books I really wanted to write, under my real name, I would come to see that these short novels had provided a useful apprenticeship in the craft and business of fiction. But when I began (or rather, began again, since I had started writing fiction some twenty-odd years before), the writing was always and only a job, a means to an end: to bring my work home.
And this was vitally important to me, for working at home had become one of the major goals of my new life. When I worked at the university, I was away from home, on the campus, days and evenings and even weekends. In fact, some of us regarded the clock as a badge of honor. Putting long hours into the job was an investment, a demonstration of your commitment, especially if you were a woman. It was how you got ahead in a highly competitive organization. But, in fact, I preferred this way of ordering my life. Burying myself in books and teaching and administrative duties was a way of escaping from some troublesome truths I wasn't able (or didn't want) to acknowledge. This was not a healthy state of affairs, but for a long while—ten years, twelve—that didn't matter.
Then, unexpectedly and quite urgently, it did matter. I wanted to work at home, where I was not at someone else's beck and call. I wanted to plan my own work, work to my own plan, without interruption, without distraction. Wanted to work in the solitude of my own space, my own place. Wanted to work alone, rather than in a community of fellow workers, where I was continually on call for other people's demands and emergencies. My own emergencies were demanding enough.
And there were other, compelling wants. I wanted time. Time to read something other than the narrowly focused, purpose-driven academic reading I'd done since graduate school. Time to stumble over new books, amble after new interests. Time to explore my self, to learn who I was, in a creative and purposeless way, because setting a purpose would construct perimeters around what I was to learn, who I was to be. Time to garden, to quilt, to knit, to walk in the woods, to learn the names of birds and plants, to be with my grown-up children, to nap with my cats.
But more than any of this, I wanted to live in the country, away from cities, towns, people. Although I'd spent most of my adult life in cities, the country was in my heart, in my bones. My mother grew up on a farm near Milan, Missouri, in the nineteen-teens and –twenties. She took us there for summer visits, dragging my younger brother John and me and all our gear onto the train for the twelve-hour trip across the prairies of Illinois and Missouri.
When I was four, we moved to a farm owned by Raleigh Dawson, near State Line, Indiana. We'd been living in Maywood, Illinois, in the middle years of World War II, and Dad was working at a munitions plant in neighboring Oak Park. He read about the tenant farmer job in the Help Wanted section of a Chicago newspaper. To please my mother, I think, or as a demonstration to her that he actually intended to stop drinking (he didn't), he applied for the job.
Everything about the farm fascinated me: the sunny meadows and mysterious woods, the outdoor privy, the red-painted iron water pump, the kerosene lamps with glass chimneys that my mother washed and rinsed with vinegar in an enameled dishpan. I adored the raucous white geese, the Rhode Island Red hens that pecked my hands when I reached into their nests for eggs, and Daisy, the docile, doe-eyed brown cow. Loved helping my mother do laundry in a gasoline-powered washing machine with a wooden wringer that I was forbidden to touch lest it snatch my fingers. Loved watching Dad milk Daisy, my happiest memory of a man who struggled through all the years of his life with alcoholism and other unknowable demons. Loved watching Mom separate the cream from Daisy's fresh milk, loved turning the wooden handle on the churn until the butter thickened and Mom took over the churn to finish the task. Loved patting the butter into balls with a wooden paddle and forming them with the round butter press that my grandfather's father, James King Franklin, had carved of maple before my grandfather was born. The press left the imprint of a flower on the lovely golden butter. It left an imprint on me, too, on my spirit. I still have the press and the churn, dear possessions.
The farm job had belonged to a man who had gone to fight in the war. When he returned from overseas, he took back the job and the farmhouse and the chickens and geese and Daisy the cow. To my utter sorrow, we moved to town, to Danville, Illinois, where I began grade school. But two town moves and several jobs later (my father's drinking did not endear him to employers), we were back in the country, living on a tenant farm near Bismarck, Illinois, in a landscape of steamy cornfields and fecund river bottoms and wide skies loud with the glorious hurrahs of wild birds.
I was home again. I didn't need playmates, which was a good thing because there weren't many, and my brother had his own interests to pursue. I loved being alone. I climbed the catalpa tree outside my bedroom window and read library books while I listened to Harry Caray and Joe Garagiola call the St. Louis Cardinals play-by-play. I rambled through the woods and rode my bike for miles along country lanes—no thought of danger for a young girl exploring on her own in those innocent days. I dug potatoes and picked peas in my mother's garden and hoed vagrant corn out of orderly rows of beans in fields so big I couldn't see the end of the row. I was paid ten cents an hour, enough to buy the occasional bottle of Evening in Paris perfume and red polish for my toenails (I was forbidden to wear it on my fingernails). I fished for bluegills and crappies and catfish—it took courage to dare those barbed catfish!—in the muddy North Fork of the Vermilion River, under a rusty iron bridge. That bridge was destroyed by a flood long ago, but I can still hear its metallic rattle-and-clank in my dreams.
And I spent weeks every summer on Grandma and Grandpa Franklin's Missouri farm. Its garden and chickens and cows and pigs had fed my mother's family well, and its woodlots had kept them warm during the lean years of the Depression. Grandma and Grandpa lived that way long into the 1950s, independent, self-sustaining, needing little beyond what they could produce for themselves. I remember—this must have been 1945 or '46—riding with Grandpa in his wagon, its wooden wheels rimmed with iron, sitting high on the seat behind his team of muscular, heavy-hoofed brown horses, manes and tails brushed and shining, bodies ripe with rich sweat and studded with horseflies, which Grandpa expertly flicked away with the tip of his whip. We were on our way to trade Grandma's butter and eggs for flour and sugar and coffee at the Milan general store on the town square.
I felt a deep admiration for my grandfather, whose strength was dignified by decades of hard, physical work and who guided those huge horses with the lightest touch of the reins. This was just after the close of the war, and tractors were rapidly replacing horses and mules on farms all across the country. But not on my grandfather's farm. His horses pulled the wagon, pulled the wooden sledge that hauled water from the creek or rocks for the road, pulled the plow that turned the soil in my grandmother's garden, pulled the mowing machine that cut the hay, leaving it in orderly windrows to cure. There may come a day, perhaps, when we will wish for horses and horse-drawn implements and the skill to use them.
I felt the same admiration for my grandmother, who made perfect biscuits without a recipe, without even a measuring cup, mixing flour and butter and milk in a white enamel basin, mixing the dough with her hands, flattening it with a hand-carved rolling pin, and cutting out circles with a jelly glass. She baked the biscuits in a wood-fueled cookstove and served them with redeye gravy and smoked ham from their own pigs. Breakfast always included fried eggs, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes and onions, Cream of Wheat, and the last piece of yesterday's pie, saved for Grandpa. Noontime dinner was another hot meal: chicken or pork, sometimes beef; potatoes mashed or fried; vegetables from the garden in season or from the gleaming blue Ball jars with zinc lids lined up on sagging shelves in the fruit cellar; pies made of fresh or canned fruits; more biscuits, with Grandma's jams and jellies. Supper was cold, assembled from what was left of noon's dinner, sometimes simply biscuits and milk.
Electricity came to the farm in the late 1940s, and Grandma bought a refrigerator first and then a washing machine. The refrigerator took the place of the springhouse, that cool and mysterious place covered with orange-blooming trumpet vines, with a cold water spring that bubbled up under a wooden box in the back corner. Grandma kept milk and butter and eggs there, always cool, even in the hottest summers.
The electric washing machine replaced the washboard and hand wringer and must have marked a major turning point in Grandma's life. Grandpa wore bib overalls. Wet, they were heavy enough to sag the clothesline that ran across the backyard. Eventually, a gas stove replaced the kitchen range, and cakes (easier to bake in the even-tempered gas oven) began to appear as often as pies. The crank phone on the kitchen wall came down and was replaced by a black handset in the parlor, and the party line became a private line, much to Grandma's disgust. She always felt more connected when she could ring up Sylvia Search, who lived a half-mile down the road, by simply cranking two longs and a short, and if Mrs. Glidewell wanted to talk too, why, she was perfectly welcome. The party line gone, Grandma had to dial 0 for the Milan switchboard operator, who would then put through her call to the Searches. "Long way around Robinson's barn," she'd say, and frown. And since the line was private, so was the call. Mrs. Glidewell had to wait.
My dream, when I was a girl, was to live as my grandparents lived: in a small white house on a low green hill, with woods and fields and streams holding me in a sweet, enduring embrace through summer sun and winter blizzards, easy times and hard. I didn't try to calculate how this would be paid for, or imagine the kind of living I might earn out there, away from the city. I only thought of being in such a place, and being alone.
But as I grew up, my fondness for country places was overtaken by a desire to get somewhere, make something of myself. I went to a very small high school, in Bismarck, Illinois, and graduated in a class of forty-two students. I married Bob in 1958, the day after graduation, got pregnant immediately, and then again, and again, three children in four years. They were good years, and a good husband and children, and I loved them all and was happy, but time for myself, time alone—well, there wasn't any of it. Every hour of every day belonged to the family. It was the natural order of things, or so it seemed.
And then, in 1963, I found Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in our small local library. (I wonder now what this incendiary book was doing there.) I read it, and the world turned upside down. And then upside down again, when I enrolled later that year at the University of Illinois. And then again, when I earned a graduate fellowship and took the family off to the University of California at Berkeley, where I earned a PhD in English. My first teaching position, in 1972, was at the University of Texas at Austin; my first full-time administrative position was at Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans in 1979, and the second at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos in 1981.
All these were good years, certainly, and there were many achievements, although a certain part of myself always felt vaguely resentful when she looked at the day's schedule, the week's calendar, and saw that—once again, just as it had been when the children were small—every hour of every day belonged to someone else. I was trading personal time for professional achievement, although I didn't put it to myself in those terms. I suppose I didn't dare. If I had articulated it that clearly, I might have had to make a change.
A great deal of what I was able to accomplish in those years came about because I was free to move. "Must be willing to relocate" was a common mantra of the career culture in the 1960s and 70s. To stay mobile and to be upwardly mobile, I couldn't afford attachments. Connections to a person, to a place, would limit the possibilities, tie me down, anchor me. A woman who was free to move on, move up, was ready for success. I had children, yes, but (by that time) no husband, and the children could relocate with me. And later, I had a husband who was willing to live in one city while I lived in another—until that marriage broke up, and I was once again unattached.
I'm not the only one who cultivated nonattachment, of course. Americans, as Wayne Fields has suggested, are "proudly-untethered." We are "more a people of highways than of places," a mobile people, swept along on the many westering waves of exploration that have reshaped this continent since the first Old World pilgrims set foot on the New. My people belonged to that footloose tribe. On my mother's side, my great-great-great-grandfather Conrad Franklin drove a covered wagon west from Mercer County, Kentucky, to Sullivan County, Missouri, in 1849, in the company of his sons and daughters and their families. On my father's side, my great-grandmother Jane Jackson Turnell, an English housemaid, up sticks and sailed to America in 1870 with her husband (a brewer's drayman) and two small children. Another part of the same family emigrated from Germany about the time of the American Revolution. My family tree has lots of limbs and branches, but scarcely any roots.
For me, and for many other women and men, mobility was an essential part of my education, and after that, of my professional development. Just as importantly, it was essential to my personal development. I learned something new in every new place—Berkeley, Austin, New Orleans—and all the places and people in between helped me see who I was, who else I might be. If I had been a homebody, stayed put on familiar ground, lived for keeps in a single place, how could I have learned these things about myself, about others, about the world?
I remember reading John Berryman's poem "Roots" and feeling the slashing truth of his line, "exile is in our time like blood." It was so. To me and many others, exile was heart's blood, mind's blood, life's blood, stronger than any blood ties to people or place. And necessary. Exile gave me the freedom to look back over my shoulder and dislike what I saw. During this robust, roaming, learning, liberating period of my life, I remembered the Midwest of the 1950s with distaste: the parochialism of our neighbors and yes, of my family, too; the prejudice, the narrow-minded ignorance; the insistence on being always morally and religiously and politically right. I understood Carol Kennicott, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis' 1920 novel Main Street, who was oppressed by the numbing conformity, the dull speech, the rigid requirements of respectability. And I certainly agreed with her that dishwashing wasn't enough to satisfy all women.
And yet, and yet. As time went on, I began to be aware of an increasing sense of rootlessness and placelessness, a feeling that the price I paid for exile, however necessary, was a certain homelessness. I belonged nowhere. Partly, this feeling came from spending so much of my time in books about a past (Medieval and Renaissance England) that was so entirely foreign to my experience, so utterly other than the present. Partly, it was due to my commitment to mobility, to my fear of becoming attached, and to a sense that there was always some other where that might be more attractive, more professionally rewarding, more interesting than the here.
Whatever the cause, by the time I was in my early forties, I began to be aware of my rootlessness and feel a new kind of wanting, something entirely unexpected, compelling, disturbing. The rural landscapes of my childhood, which seemed more real and rooted than the abstract ideas and academic politics of my adulthood, now called out urgently. Those old desires began to find a voice, and I began to try to imagine what it would be like to stop moving around and settle somewhere, some where that looked and felt like . . . well, like home.
At first, I dismissed this as mere sentiment, a belated homesickness, a midlife nostalgia. But what is sentiment but an impulse of the heart, a sighed yes, yes? Yes, this is mine, me, where I belong. Yes, this is who I am. And what is homesickness but a desire to be at home, to be in place, to dwell in the here from whence we came?
Before long, my dreams and daytime imaginings were full of remembered landscapes, and I began to think of having a small place in the country with chickens, a garden, fruit trees. I could drive back and forth to the university—many people did, and it satisfied them. But that wasn't what I wanted. I couldn't really live in the country, in a full, whole-hearted way, if I had to divide my day between home and work. In order to have the kind of life I wanted, I had to leave the life I had. And on the day I walked out of the university, I felt astonishingly, astoundingly free—as free as those wild birds—and I could sing my own glorious hurrah. It was only a step, but it was the first, and it was necessary.
I met Bill Albert some months after I left the university. A statistician and computer systems analyst with a degree in Industrial Management, Bill had worked at a variety of positions in state government and the software industry, jobs with ever increasing responsibilities, heavier workloads, greater conflicts, and less and less satisfaction. When I told him my leaving story, he replied that he, too, was at the leaving point.
It was the first of many discoveries of the things we had in common. Bill had done a great deal of technical and analytical writing: software documentation and reports for the Governor's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, the Committee on Aging, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We thought we might be able to write together (an idea that occurred when he helped me solve a plot puzzle in a Nancy Drew mystery I was writing). An amateur historian and archaeologist, he was deeply interested in the cultural impacts of changing technologies. He was an adventurer, too: a photographer, a pilot, a skin diver, a spelunker, a world traveler. A skilled woodworker, he collected and restored antique hand tools, not for the pleasure of acquisition, not for display, but for use.
All this was very nice. But there was more, and better. Like me, he wanted to find ways to work at home. In 1974, he had acquired five acres in the Hill Country, an hour's drive northwest of Austin. The little place had a creek, a knoll, a meadow, and a wood, within walking distance of a small, man-made lake. It was located on a gravel track some two miles off an unpaved county road, and its isolation and remoteness appealed to him. He built a tiny cabin and spent weekends there, learning the seasons of the land, learning how to be at home there, learning how to be alone.
Shared philosophies, a mutual interest in writing, a common willingness to build a life away from the distractions of the city, an increasingly intense personal attraction—well, you can see where this was going. My chief reservation was getting enough time to myself; I had lived alone, or mostly so, for five years, and the solitary hours were very sweet. Bill had the same reservation; he had lived alone for most of his adult life, and he was uneasy about surrendering the freedom that comes with being responsible for (and to) only the self. How we were going to negotiate this issue wasn't clear.
A lot of other things weren't clear, either. The writing jobs I'd been lucky enough to get—how long would they keep coming? Without the writing, what would we do to make money? I had already given up my job; should he hold onto his? Where would we live? What would our lives be like?
We didn't know the answers to any of these questions. We only knew that whatever we were going to do, wherever we were going to live, we would be together, at least for a while. We would be together.
September, 2009 (ISBN 978-0-292-71970-5).