It started as some things she wrote for her great-niece Lucille, and the family xeroxed the and passed them around and called them the Lucy stories.

"It was great therapy," said Lucile Watkins Ellison. "It was '74 and I had just found out I had cancer and had a year to live. And I realized that things had happened to me that will never happen again . . ."

We carry these little scenes in our heads, all of us, moments from our lives almost as vivid as when we lived them, and we can never get them out, not really. We can write them down in loving detail, and if we're lucky we may get the feel of them across, but we can never make another person know exactly the way it was.

At the back, underneath the American flag that angled over it, flapping in the breeze, the big paddle wheel was churning the river. Drops of water fell from the wheel like golden beads strung together by sunshine. Moving, flickering, flashing, breaking into maybe a thousand thousand points of light, weaving it into a ribbon of brightness that stretched and waved behind the steamboat. And, to the side, the smooth water was still drowsy and cool, even with the skim of sunlight over it.

It is five years since she was told she would die, but Lucile Ellison is still with us, still writing when she can, now in the hospital, now in a nursing home. And the book has been published by Scribner's: "Butter on Both Sides," and they have options on the second and third volumes, and there are two more, written just since May, at the typist.

She is 72.

I didn't plan to rewrite," she said. "I just dashed them off. I hadn't planned to publish them. And by the time I went back into the hospital I had written the equivalent of two books. That year I couldn't write any more because of the medications and the pain, but I got better again, walked

She turned them into three short books. Her niece Nancy Osius sent them out for her.Scribner's was the fourth try.

"Actually I was six when the stories start, but we made Lucy seem a little older. The first three books take her up to high school, the fourth goes through high school, and the fifth sees her through college and getting married."

All the characters are real, her five brothers and sisters, her teacher father, her mother and live-in aunts, and the landscape is Alabama and the 10-acre farm near the Tombigbee river.

She rembembers the things you rember when you're little, the steamboat trip (and the man who got fighting drunk and had to be put below), the visit to a logging camp, Christmas in July when her father was sick, and the ordinary days around the house, the chores and private games and sun-lit moments, moments of no importance at all execpt that you never forgot them.

You try to pass them on.

Daddy thought everybody should rest awhile after dinner . . . He would take a straight chair to the fig tree or to the shade of the smokehouse. He would turn the chair upside down and rest his head and shoulders on the back of the chair-back while he smoozed on the ground.

The book is about what life was like in the country 60 years ago: making molasses and brooms, braiding mats from pine needles, fetching wood and water, pulling onions from the garden, ironing with the hand-iron.

Especially she remembers the food, the sugar cane and watermelons, homoemade ice cream and fried chicken, Aunt Mab's apple pie with a layer of apple butter at the bottom. And the hot biscuits, attacked with lusty vigor, tastier than anything you could every buy in a store. They didn't need preservatives. They didn't last that long.

Lucy loved Aunt Mollie's sweet potato biscuits and loved those mornings when sweet biscuits were baked for breakfast. At the table when the biscuits were passed, hot from the oven, everybody took two or three and quickly buttered them, so melted butter was not just inside but all over. When, soon as it was cool enough, you popped a piece in, your mouth was already watering for it.

Many of the family are still alive. Leonard Lyon Watkins, 84, her eldest brother is a retired professor at the University of Michigan. Evelyn, Lebby in the book, is an active promoter of the writing venture and offered some reminiscences of her own. The oldest sister, Gertrude, died at 17 of strep throat, a terrible blow to the family, described in another volume.

On the other end there is Nancy Osius' daughter, Lucile Lowrie Osius, to whom the book is dedicated: "Just to show her how it was -- or somethimes how it might have been." When Lucile was 10, her mother suggested that Mrs. Ellison write a story to keep her mind off things. At the time she had been reading juvenile books -- "they were about all I could take" -- so it came easily.

Lucile Watkins was a reporter with the Meridien Star of Meridien, Miss., when she fell in love with her night editor, George Ellison, and married him 44 years ago. They moved to Washington in 1935 when he was press aide for a congressman, but he soon moved into the executive branch as a writer for the Childrens Bureau of HEW. He wrote health booklets for parents, saw his work distributed worldwide.

She became executive secretary of the National Edcation Association citizenship committee, working to politicize teachers. She also worked for the Democratic party. "I'm a very political person," she said.

Both of them tried novels but never were published. They had no children, though they never had to complain about having no family. There was always plenty of family.

"The family when I first joined it," remarked George Ellison, 73, as he sat beside his wife's bed in the nursing home, "was like a Russian novel.Everybody had eight or 10 different names."

In the interview, she kept trying to talk about him, but he wouldn't let her.

"His writing is known all over the world," she said. "He's the best in the country."

"That's not important. We're talking about you."

"He's really a good writer."

"Don't tell about that."

She drew up her bedclothes, gave him a glance. "Well, I have to say these things."

When they retired in 1970 they took a freighter around the world, liked it so much that they traveled in Africa, then South America, before returning to their house in Foggy Bottom.

Then in 1971 the doctor found a nodule on her thyroid. A year later it had grown, so a surgeon took it out. He thought he had removed every trace of it. But she began to have leg pains, and one day at 13th and F Streets she almost fell down in the street because of the darting pains.

"They found a great tumor on my hip. That was when I was told I had a year to live. They put in a steel hip."

Now she is paralyzed from the waist down. Life revolves around the radiation therapy, the treatments at the hospital, the occasional remissions when she can write. She has about a month of work still to do on the last volume.

"I used to be horrified at the idea of heroin and morphine and codeine," she said. "But not any more. As a friend of mine who had cancer said to me, this isn't the way I would have chosen. I couldn't have weathered this but for my husband.

"I knew that I could win some battles," she said in her matter-of-fact way, "but that I wouldn't win the war. You have to take it one day at a time. Of course, we should live that way all our lives, shouldn't we."

Her husband stays with her all day, sitting by the bed. Some days are better, some are worse. On the wall, next to her bed so she can write on it, is a calendar.