By Sissy Spacek
By Mary Anne Vollers
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… TEXAS …
… 1 …
Sometimes there's no better entertainment than a town dump. When we were kids growing up in East Texas, my brothers and I would ride our bikes to the dump yard over behind the high school. To us it was a treasure trove of free and wonderful things, and we spent hours there sorting through the piles. At the entrance, people would drop off the better stuff, things that weren't really trash, just used items that families had outgrown. That part was more flea market than landfill. Sometimes we would find old but perfectly good toasters, lengths of rope, used games, old toys, or boxes of paperback books. Animals were dropped off, too, in hopes that someone would give them a home.
One afternoon my brother Robbie rode home from the dump cradling a paper sack as if it was filled with diamonds. I watched as he dropped his bike in the grass and ran into the house, holding up the bag and yelling, "I found a kitten!"
My dad looked up from the newspaper.
"Can we keep it, Daddy?" he asked, still breathless.
I was just a few steps behind, chiming, "Can we, Daddy, please?"
"Yeah, we need a cat!" said Ed, our older brother.
She was a scraggly little calico, newly weaned, with six toes on each foot. After the three of us whined and pleaded for the rest of the day, our parents gave in. Our new pet had two names. Inside the house, where she was quiet and sort of mysterious, we called her Suzette. Outside, she was Cattywampus, a freewheeling mouse- and bird-hunter who roamed the neighborhood in search of adventure.
I've always thought of myself as a lot like that cat. My outside self was like Cattywampus: strong, sunny, competent, compassionate, funny, creative, and optimistic, heading out into the world wearing a smile and a bulletproof vest. My inside self was like Suzette: introspective, observant. The outside me was an open book; the inside me had secrets. Nothing earth-shattering—just the deepest thoughts I kept to myself, like the cigar box full of treasures that I had hidden under my bed. Anyone else who opened that box would have only seen a collection of ordinary objects: old cat's-eye marbles, a tiny Coke bottle, a Jew's harp, school photos of my little boyfriends with their awkward signatures scrawled across their faces. But to me each object held a special significance; they were my most precious things, talismans only I understood. I buried the cigar box in the backyard one day, hoping to preserve a time capsule of my life that I could revisit when I was older. I marked out the steps and drew a map of where I had dug the hole.
A few years later, I decided it was time to unearth the time capsule and remind myself of the past. I dug dozens of holes, but I couldn't find it. Never did. Maybe my feet had grown, or the map was wrong. No matter. I still carry that box around with me in my head, while I collect new treasures along the way. I keep them safe in a part of me that no one ever sees; a storeroom where I sort and process the events of a long and interesting life. My mother's lilting voice is there, speaking words of wisdom. So are my father's strong, capable hands that could play a banjo or build a house; my brother's trusting smile; the laughter of my children. This safe and quiet place—Suzette's world—fuels my work as an actor and filmmaker. I know it's always there within reach, inexhaustible as memory.
On Christmas Day, 1949, my mother got a silver soup ladle—and me. I had green eyes and red hair, and completely ruined the holiday for my brothers. Ed was six, and Robbie was only sixteen months old when I came along. The night before, my mother had been hanging decorations on the tree when she went into labor. She insisted that my father wait until she'd finished decorating and all the presents were wrapped before she let him take her to the nearest hospital, in Tyler, Texas. Daddy's parents were visiting, and he borrowed their brand-new Chrysler for the thirty-eight-mile drive. They say he drove so fast, he burned the paint off that engine and made it just in time. I was born a few minutes after midnight. My parents named me Mary Elizabeth, but my brothers called me "Sissy," and it stuck.
We lived in Quitman, a town of 1,237 souls nestled in the rolling farmland of East Texas, about ninety miles northeast of Dallas. My father, Edwin Spacek, was the Wood County agricultural agent. My mother, Virginia, known to all as Gin, worked for an abstract office in the courthouse when she wasn't home with us. For seventeen years, Quitman was the center of my universe. I always appreciated the accident of my birth into such a wonderful world. As a child, I would lie in bed at night and think, I'm so lucky to be born in Texas, to live in this house with these parents, and these brothers, and…
All the things that are most important to me, I had before I left that little town. My values were formed in a community where material possessions didn't count for much, relationships were everything, and where waiting for something you wanted could actually be better than having it.
My brothers and I grew up together in a small ranch house that my father built on a half-acre lot along the Winnsboro Highway, a quarter mile from the center of town. The house had green clapboard siding and thick redwood trellises propping up the eaves on either side, which were perfect for climbing roses. Our dad, who came from a long line of Czech farmers, had a degree in agriculture, and he could make anything grow. Our yard was always a wonder, manicured and lush with flower beds and persimmon trees, pears and chestnuts. Daddy could never walk by a weed. Whenever one of us kids was home sick from school, he would leave work during his 10 A.M. coffee break and stop by the drugstore to buy us a funny book. I would hear the sound of his car door slamming, and then wait for a long time before he got to the front door. I'd look out the picture window and see him in his suit and tie, pulling weeds from the lawn.
My father was a slim, handsome man with piercing almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones. Like his father, who had owned a tailor shop, Daddy was an impeccable dresser—my favorite picture of him is as a young county agricultural agent, dressed in white linen pants, two-tone shoes, and a Panama hat, standing in a cotton field checking the crop. Our dad pretended to be strict with us. "Gin, you're going to ruin those kids!" he'd say. "Just give me one week and I'll straighten them out!" But even though he made us toe the line, he was really a soft touch. There was a time when my grandmother was sick and Mother had to leave us alone with him for a few weeks. He spoiled us rotten. One morning I woke up to see him standing over me with a dish towel draped over one arm and a breakfast tray in his hands.
He was always patient with me, even though I had quite a temper. When I was very little, there were times when I'd actually kick him in the shins, or slam my bedroom door so hard the house would shake. He told me years later that he didn't spank me because he didn't want to break my spirit. "I figured you'd need that spunk to make it in the world."
Most Saturday mornings I woke up to the sound of a push mower and the smell of fresh-cut grass. I would lie in bed, somewhere between awake and asleep, not wanting to open my eyes. It was getting close to summer, and by eleven o'clock in the morning, mothers who were worried about the heat would be bringing their children inside to play. But right now, the air was fresh and cool and the day was full of possibilities.
The grass in our yard was St. Augustine. I could put a blade of it between my thumbs and whistle loud enough to get the attention of all the dogs in the neighborhood. We had the best yard in town, with grass that was like a plush green carpet and so thick the blades on Daddy's mower had to be sharpened every week or two. I could tell when this needed to happen just by the sound of the effort in his pushing. Daddy's mower was the old-fashioned kind. Our neighbor, Doris Pittman—a nice man with a woman's name—had a new gas mower that didn't need pushing. One day it ran over his toes and cut some of them off. After that, Daddy didn't have to remind my brothers and me never to mow a lawn in bare feet.
Daddy had his rules. He thought that running around barefoot in the cold grass would make us sick with pneumonia. So every spring as the weather turned balmy, my brothers and I waited for him to decide when the ground was warm enough to take off our shoes and socks and go barefoot. It was a yearly ritual. All the other kids in town might be running around like wild animals, but we had to wait.
One morning, we followed Daddy out into the backyard, watched him kneel down, stretch out his arms, and feel the ground. He sank his hands into the fresh-mown grass and pondered for a moment. Then he picked up some old pecans that had fallen from a tree and cracked them in his fist. I held my breath. A ladybug landed on my sleeve, a sign of good luck. Maybe today would be the day. Daddy handed me a piece of pecan. Then he leaned down, felt the ground again, and finally gave us the nod.
The grass was soft and cool, and my feet were tender and white. Soon I would be walking up and down blistering hot oil roads that crisscrossed the town, leaving temporary footprints in the soft tar. Most of the time I ran to keep from getting burned, the tips of my toes barely touching the asphalt. By the end of summer my feet would be as tough as leather and stained black, and it was always a challenge to squeeze into my Sunday shoes. Then, sure as rain, the seasons would change and school would start, and my barefoot days would be over until spring came around again, and Daddy would give us the word.
As far as I know, the first people to settle in Wood County, Texas, were Caddo Indians, who lived in small farming villages along the Sabine River. All that's left of them are the arrowheads that still turn up in the soil of freshly tilled fields. Daddy used to take us arrowhead hunting when he would drive out to look at land. I can still smell the rich dirt as we walked along the furrows, scouring the surface for glints of flint. It must have honed my skill as a spotter of lost objects, because I'm always finding things on sidewalks and gravel roads.
The white settlers who moved into Wood County in the nineteenth century planted corn and cotton in the rich bottomland, and cut and milled timber from the vast piney forests. Quitman, founded in 1850, was made the county seat, and a fine courthouse was erected in the middle of town. But Wood County's agricultural heyday ended with the Great Depression, when the timber and cotton markets went bust. Nobody could seem to keep track of how many people lost their farms and moved away. It looked like Quitman was destined to become a speck of dust on an old Texas road map until, in 1940, a couple of wildcatters struck oil about twenty miles southeast of town.
Quitman still had open sewers when my parents arrived in 1945. But before long the streets were getting fixed, fresh paint was everywhere, and the place was filling up with new faces. To me, the most exciting new additions were Ben Merritt, a physician who became our family doctor, and his wife, Susan. The first time I saw them I was eye-level with steps leading up to the Methodist church parsonage when two of the fanciest pairs of shoes walked by. I looked up, and those shoes were attached to a beautiful young couple who had just stepped out of a green and white Mercury sedan, the likes of which I had never seen. I wondered if I would be lucky enough to ever know such exciting and sophisticated people. Within weeks, that green and white Mercury sedan was parked out in front of my house, Susan and Mother had become great friends, and lucky me got to tag along everywhere with them. Susan was from New Orleans, which added to her glamor, and I loved to listen to her talk. She had a little Cajun dog called Nipper, a name that came out of her mouth as "Nippah."
Quitman didn't have too much of anything, but it had everything we needed. There was a bank and a grocery store, a hardware store, two pharmacies, a doctor and a dentist, three or four churches, and two cafes: Busby's and the Westerner Cafe. On Sunday afternoons, it got pretty busy at those cafes, and there was a bit of a rivalry between the different denominations in town over who got the best seats after services ended. Our Methodist church was practically across the street from the Baptist church, and they always seemed to let out about ten minutes ahead of us. We'd still be listening to the end of the sermon when we'd hear the car doors slamming down the block, and everybody would start squirming in the pews, knowing that once again the Baptists were going to get the best tables for lunch. The rivalry hardly affected our family, because Mother would usually have a roast slow-cooking in the oven while we were in church, or else she would fry a chicken as soon as we got home.
When we needed to shop for good clothes, our whole family would drive to Mineola, eleven miles south of Quitman. The place with the best shoes was Hirsch's store. The Hirsches were small, round people whose voices sounded different than most of the people we knew. Theirs were raspy and high, like they'd smoked a lot of cigarettes or had bad laryngitis, and they talked faster than the slow drawl we were used to hearing. It was a big treat to go to Hirsch's store for better clothes and shoes. Mr. Hirsch was a very good shoe fitter. He would press his thumb near the end of our toes and have us wiggle them up and down. Then we would walk around the store so he could make sure our heels didn't slide up and down and rub blisters.
One year, Mr. Hirsch bought a special new shoe fitting machine. The marvelous wooden box sat in the front of the store, right next to a large green scale that measured weight and told fortunes. We picked out our new shoes, and I stood behind my brothers as we lined up for our turns at the machine. "Girls first," I heard Mr. Hirsch say in his funny voice. With two older brothers, I was not used to going first. I hesitated. Mr. Hirsch took my hand and pulled me in front of the boys. I climbed up on the big wooden box and slid my feet into the machine while I peered through one of the eye portals on the top. Mr. Hirsch flipped a switch and all of a sudden the bones in my feet lit up inside of my shoes. We could see that this new pair fit me perfectly. When I stepped down, my brothers shoved and pushed each other to try to get on next. Mr. Hirsch was a nice man; he let us use that X-ray shoe fitting machine over and over again, as much as we wanted.
If you didn't want to drive to Mineola for clothes, or have them homemade, the only remaining option was McDade's dry goods on the downtown square. It didn't have much variety or any of the newest styles, but we loved it anyway. McDade's always smelled like sharpened pencils and rubber-soled shoes, and all the merchandise was piled up on open tables where even kids could reach it. They sold overalls and work boots, things like that, and maybe a dress or two. The dresses on the manikins in the front window had been there so long that they were faded on the side that the sun hit, while the back looked brand-new.
McDade's was where we bought our blue jeans. I was so small I stood on a cardboard box to try them on. My brothers got jeans with zippers; I got elastic waists. This was when I first realized that life was not always fair.
My brothers and I were very close growing up spite the fact that I was a girl. All I wanted was to be like Ed and Robbie; I idolized them. After he outgrew it, I inherited Ed's gray felt cowboy hat and wore it sideways. It ended up so shapeless you couldn't tell what it was, but I loved it anyway because it was his.
Once, when I was four, we were playing football in the front yard. It was summertime, and we were all hot and sweaty, so we took our T-shirts off. My mother came outside and told me to put my shirt back on.
"Why?" I said.
"Because you're a girl."
That double standard did not sit well with me. I did not like wearing frilly dresses. I wasn't even that interested in dolls; I cut the hair off of the one fancy Madame Alexander doll my mother gave me. We used another one for target practice. I just wanted to do what my brothers were doing.
Then one of my uncles told me if I could kiss my elbow, I'd turn into a boy.
I spent a lot of my childhood trying to kiss my elbow.
For years, until Daddy built an addition to the house, I shared a bedroom with my brothers. I had a lot of friends, but Ed and Robbie wouldn't allow girls to come over to play very often, especially if they were "sissy" girls. You had to be tough to keep up with my brothers. Of course, sometimes it backfired on me. When I was in grade school, a boy in my class dropped a rock on my head from the top of the tallest slide. I was still seeing stars when the teachers came running and I heard one of them ask the boy, "Now, why in the world would you drop a rock on Sissy's head?"
"'Cause I like her," he said.
My brothers and I were inseparable. I tagged along with Robbie, and he tagged along with Ed. When Mother asked us what we wanted for lunch, I'd say, "I don't know. What's Ed having?" "I don't know. What's Robbie having?" And Robbie would say, "I don't know. What's Ed having?" Pretty soon she realized she only needed to ask Ed. Robbie and I weren't always that much fun for our big brother, but he was a patient, sensitive boy and he took good care of us, in spite of the embarrassment of having his little brother and sister around all the time.
Robbie was a beautiful, sunny child with olive skin, light hair, and a wide-open smile. When he was born, my mother said he looked up into her eyes so deeply that it frightened her. There was always something special about him, but his good nature didn't keep us from fighting. We'd have some real knock-down, drag-outs. Once my mother caught him hitting me in the stomach. "Robbie, you can't hit Sissy there!" she said. She pointed to my leg, arm, and backside. "If you want to hit her, hit her here."
Parents in those days didn't think their children were too fragile for a few lumps. One morning my mother looked out the window and saw our neighbor Bev Benton's two-year-old, wearing nothing but diapers and crawling on the roof of their two-story house. Some workers had left a ladder leaning against the siding, and Matt went exploring. Mother was terrified and called her friend right away.
"Bev, Matt's up on the roof!"
"Oh, thanks, Gin," said Bev.
Then Mother watched from across the street as Bev calmly put down the phone, leaned her head out the window, and shouted, "Matt, you come down off that roof right now! You're gonna make it leak!"
I'm sure that story spread all over town before the two women had hung up. In the 1950s, Quitman still had party lines and a central telephone operator named Ganelle Rushing. She was a friendly, portly young woman who worked out of a concrete building next to the dentist's office. She was command central and knew everything that was going on in town. When I was little, I'd pick up the phone and hear her say, "Number please?"
"Ganelle, do you know where my mama is?"
"Well, Sissy, let me think," Ganelle might say. "I believe she's over at Susan's. Let me check." And I'd hear her talking on another line, "Miz Merritt? Is Gin over there? Sissy's looking for her mama…"
Quitman didn't need a 911 center; we had Ganelle Rushing. Years later, when I played a WW2-era telephone operator in Raggedy Man, Ganelle was my role model, right down to her trilling, "Number please?"
When I was growing up, Gaston Cain was the mayor of Quitman, the fire chief, and the owner of the local insurance company and, with his brother, Zack, the funeral home. He was also the undertaker, and the father of two of my best friends, Pam and Debra. I guess you could say the Cains were the tycoons of our little town, because Zack also had the hardware store, and he and his wife Imogene—pronounced Eyema-jean—owned and operated the town's only tourist court. It was a one-story, L-shaped motel for the handful of motorist visitors who might be passing through town on the way to somewhere else. All the Cains were hard workers. For years, Imogene cleaned every room of that little motel herself. She also ran a business out back raising chinchillas. Imogene made her own chinchilla collars and jackets and wore them proudly. She was a good friend of my mom's, and her son, Clifford Zack, was my boyfriend on and off since we were toddlers.
They lived in a big pink brick house on the highway next to the motel. I would play with Cliff or his sister Jeanell if they were around, or I would go outside and visit the chinchillas. They looked like large, furry hamsters with big ears. They were nervous animals that would run around their wire cages and hiss if I got too close. I guess the chinchillas knew what was coming and didn't see any point in making friends.
One morning my mother and I stopped by for a quick visit on the way back from the store, where she had picked up a whole bunch of hams to cook for the Methodist church supper that evening. Shortly after we arrived, Mother realized she had locked the hams in the trunk of the Buick and dropped the trunk key in there with them. This was an emergency because, it was summertime and that trunk was heating up fast. Without thinking, she hurried off for the car dealership, where they had a big ring of keys that would unlock the trunk—and left me behind.
I saw her pulling away and chased the car for a little while but couldn't get her attention. I was embarrassed that someone might see me running after my own mother's car, and I was mortified that she had driven off and forgotten me like that. I could hardly believe it! In my child's mind, I had been abandoned. I moped around the tourist court for a while, then mustered the courage to knock on Imogene's door. I called my mother. She was already home.
"Sissy! Where are you?" she cried, as if I was the one who ran off.
"You left me, Mama!"
"Oh, Sissy," she said. "You're so dramatic. You should be an actress."
Maybe we should be careful what we tell our children.
I was my mother's shadow; I went everywhere with her. Well, almost everywhere. I cried inconsolably when I couldn't go with her to the swimming pool during an afternoon reserved for grown-up ladies who wanted to visit and swim in peace. I survived, but I'm certain I ruined all of her fun that day. She was very willing to let me into her adult world, even when her girlfriends stopped by for coffee and a chat. I would sit on my stool in that cozy red kitchen, or find a spot to hide under the table, while I listened to the women talk about their families, church, husbands, or any of the things that were happening around town. I can still hear their fluttering laughter and the clink of cups settling into saucers on the tabletop while I studied their shoes and stockings. I felt welcome and included, until one day one of my mother's good friends, Grace Black, spotted me huddled under the table legs and said, "Sissy, you run on out of here. Your mother and I are talking. I came to see her, not you." I was grateful that my mother stood up for me that day. She said, "Grace, this is Sissy's house, too. So if you have something to say that you can't say in front of her, then maybe it's best you don't say it." (Apparently there were no hard feelings. Years later, Grace Black would be the one heading up the activities at Sissy Spacek Day at the state park in Quitman.)
Mother had lovely manners, which she'd learned from her parents, and she tried her best to pass them on to her own children. But the three of us subscribed to only one table rule—one foot on the floor at all times. Mother would set the table properly for every meal and instruct us on the correct use of silverware, which seemed kind of useless to me. "Why do we have to learn stupid manners?" I'd complain. "It's just gonna slow us down, and we're hungry."
"Because I want you to be able to dine with the President," she'd say.
"Oh, Mother, that's crazy."
But sure enough, an invitation came one day from the White House, and I was ready. Thanks, Mother.
I never heard my mother say a harsh word about anyone. "If they knew better, they'd do better," she'd always say. She even had kind words for the town drunk, a poor soul who we'd see staggering around town, looking like a bum with his scraggly hair and dirty clothes. "Now, don't say anything bad about that man," she told us. "He was a talented young boy who wanted to be a concert pianist, but his parents didn't support him. Now he's a drunk and a house painter." I never looked at a drunk or a house painter quite the same way after that.
Both of my parents were careful with their money, as were most people who grew up during the Depression. My mother could cut up and fry a chicken into so many pieces that you'd think it was a feast for an army. Neither of them wasted money on junk, but they would save up for good-quality things that would last a long time. My dad was a true conservationist, and we were careful not to use more than our share of water and electricity. He did his best to train us to cut off the lights every time we left a room. Years later, the habit landed me in trouble with the director Robert Altman on the set of 3 Women. We were doing a very long scene and I had to walk from room to room while the camera followed me. I was still relatively new to the acting business, and I kept ruining the shot by hitting the light switch every time I walked through a door. After the third or fourth take, Bob was exasperated and wanted to know why I kept doing that.
"I'm sorry!" I told him. "I do it automatically. My father wanted to save money on the electric bill."
"Well, the next time you see your father, please tell him that he cost me more money in one day of filming than you saved him in a lifetime!"
Daddy earned a modest salary but invested wisely, and we lived a comfortable middle-class life. My brothers and I always got nice presents for our birthdays and Christmas, but never anything extravagant. That made each item more precious.
- "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life is the book version of Sissy: warm, heartfelt, and very real. Perhaps most remarkable is that Sissy's life--from the ordinary experiences of growing up in and raising a close-knit family to the extraordinary thrills of starring in some of the most iconic roles in Hollywood--unfolds as gracefully on the page as it does on the big screen and, as all of her readers will soon learn, in everyday life."—Kathryn Stockett, New York Times bestselling author of The Help
- "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life describes a remarkable woman's journey from a baton-twirling East Texas gal to an Academy-Award winning star. Sissy Spacek tells her story with warmth and grace, never straying far from the small-town roots that shaped her."—Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses
- "[A] warm narrative Like a folk song, Spacek's storytelling is tender and unhurried."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Sissy Spacek writes with the same bright animation and verve as she has lived her, indeed, extraordinary life."—Sally Mann, artist and writer
- "I took this book to heart, for in the end, there is no more devoted friend, no more faithful friend than Memory, a friend who commands you to interrogate and lay bare the sweetness and its opposite, of your everyday existence, the unexpected turns of it, the mystery of your origins. My Extraordinary Ordinary Life is not only a splendid example of that, but it reminds us of Sissy Spacek's true voice, a voice that we first come to know in a uniquely American way, through a character in a movie. But the soul of this dear book is not a fiction, it is shaped and infused with truth and love."—Jamaica Kincaid, award-winning author
- On Sale
- May 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Books