We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I will fare when my mother is gone, how I will deal with her absence, if I will crumble or if I will rise. It does absolutely no good to play this game, because that’s what it is. It’s a game of magical thinking, trying to imagine one’s reaction to a life-changing event. I still play it anyway, believing at some level that it will prepare me for what is to come.

I ponder the word grief a fair amount too, sometimes feeling like everything I do in a day is layered in this concept, except those days where it lifts and the beauty of the moment shakes off my inevitable future without her.  But even those moments are bittersweet, as it feels like I’m cheating somehow or betraying her in those seconds that I don’t look or feel like a person who is losing her mother.

When I think about what I should look like, what grieving looks like, the first person I think of is my grandmother. This is ironic, given the lengths she went to avoid grief and pain. My grandfather died when I was 12 from a heart attack. She was 65.  For years, she told me this: “He died laughing. Can you imagine? He had just won a golf game and was ribbing his friend Chuck in the car, and then he was gone.”

At the funeral, I remember her walking to his graveside stiffly, leading his mother there gently by the elbow. My great-grandmother wore a pink polyester house dress and stood bravely on her thick legs as the preacher put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Parents should never have to bury their children.” I wore a new blue and purple dress and suede ankle boots for the occasion and as the coffin sat in the open air, I held on to my mother’s  hand for dear life.

After the service, because it was what you did in my grandparents’ world, my grandmother hosted what felt like hundreds of people at their house: pigs in a blanket, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini pork sandwiches, gallons of white wine and buckets of martinis. She told us to smile, to greet people, to pass the hors d’oeuvres, because this is what you did in my grandparents’ world.

The strange thing is when I think of those few days, I have no memories of my mother’s grief, only my grandmother’s. I can picture what happened when we found out my grandfather had died, as my dad brought my sister and me home early from our monthly weekend with him.  Our mother told us and we sat on her lap and cried.  My father cried too, but stayed outside, standing just beyond the screen door. We all stayed like that for what seemed longer than possible before my father stepped off the porch and disappeared. Yet from those two days around the funeral, nothing in terms of my mother. Only my grandmother’s face has stayed with me, the sharp edges of her body, the quick moves she made from one room to the next, never standing still, as if trying to outrun her husband’s death. She remained in near constant motion for the next 15 years trying to outpace it, in part by traveling the world. When she wasn’t on a trip in those subsequent years, she drowned her grief in bottle after bottle of chardonnay and an affair with my grandfather’s best friend.

My grandfather’s absence was palpable to me in those years after, but I never fully absorbed the magnitude of her loss until the year I turned 25. She offered to take me to New York for Christmas and my birthday, which was just a few days before the holiday. I was single and trapped in a miserable job at a mutual fund company and jumped at the chance. She had her own reasons for wanting to leave town for the holidays — I realize now it had much to do with the fact that the wife of my grandfather’s best friend had recently died and this hadn’t changed dynamics of their relationship. My grandmother wanted to get married again and cook for someone every night; he wanted to live alone and eat hot dogs for dinner.

Bits and pieces of the story had come out over the years, but what I could see clearly on that trip was that my grandmother was incredibly unhappy. It didn’t matter that he paid for our trip and sent everything from martinis to a miniature Christmas tree to our room that week — what my grandmother wanted, he wouldn’t give her. As the days passed, I realized that what she missed most in that city was my grandfather. They had often taken trips there together, and she showed me the places they had been: the famous post-theater spot Sardi’s, a speakeasy called Chumley’s, the restaurant Josephine.  We went to a drag show in the Village after having dinner with Julie, a woman they had met years ago at a San Francisco Cabaret. She was 75-years-old at the time and invited us to come see her perform.

My grandmother was buzzing with life at 2 a.m. afterwards, laughing like a teenager, telling me what a crush my grandfather had always had on Julie. All week, whether we were headed to see Chicago or coming from a showing of Scorsese’s Kundun, she would tear up in the cab and say, “Bob Greig would have loved that,” or simply, “Bob–” clearing her throat and putting on her dark glasses to hide her crying. She would usually take my hand at some point, squeezing fiercely. I squeezed back, helpless.

A few months ago, she helped define grief for me again, albeit accidentally. My mother, step-father and I were headed to the cemetery where my mother will have a headstone. She’ll be cremated, but wants us to have somewhere to go when she’s gone. (My grandmother, gone 10 years now, did not allow us the same. She had an adjoining plot to my grandfather, but because the site wasn’t well maintained and his marker was chipped by gardeners and never repaired, she decided to be cremated and sprinkled out over the Pacific.) My mother recently procured a plot near a dear friend of hers, Christie, who died in 1999. “I couldn’t be happier knowing I’ll be near someone I know,” she said.

Death has always been a part of my mother’s lexicon. She worked in geriatric social work and hospice care for 25 years before she got sick, and has a library full of books on death and dying. She is a straight-up Kubler-Ross junkie. This is, to say the least, a little unusual. I have done my best to confront the issue of death on her terms, brave and clear-eyed.  A topic steadfastly avoided for most of my life, the concept crystallized when my sister was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at 28.   But there was always the possibility (and later, reality) of remission for my sister, which has never existed for my mother. What I mean to say is, after my sister recovered, I put death back on the shelf. There is no more shirking it this time around, so I figured I might as well get the grave site visit over with. I have not, however, taken my mother up on her offer to tour the crematorium.

Just before we left, I was looking through the bookshelf in the living room and saw the title, “Up From Grief.” Given my current fascination, I pulled it off the shelf. It was my grandmother’s book,  inside she had written, “Given to me 20 (underlined) days after Bob died and three months since Edward.” Edward was her friend Edith’s husband; Edith had given her the book. An accompanying postcard stuck inside the book by Edith read, “I don’t like this book, but everyone else does. Read if you want.”

From what I could tell, she’d made it about halfway through the first chapter, arguing with the book’s premise the entire way. On a particularly classic page, she has bracketed a passage about how “grievers are afraid to admit their real feelings to others and often to themselves” and written “Don’t think so.”  Next to the assumption that those grieving feel guilt, anger or shame, my grandmother has scribbled “NO” and underlined it.  Screw survivor guilt and feelings of doubt and confusion. Shirley Greig wasn’t having it. Even though her husband had died incredibly recently, I don’t think her view of this psychobabble changed much over the decades.

How does this change my understanding of grief? I’m not exactly sure, but I read the passages out loud to my mom and we laughed so hard we cried. Her commentary was perfect — entirely irreverent and a direct reflection of how she lived her life.

We visited my mom’s site on Memorial Day, as that is when she always visits Christie. It’s really not such a bad day to go to a cemetery, as the place is full of people and the headstones are bursting with flowers and flags. We drove up there under the threat of rain but the sun was out by the time my stepfather and I wrangled Ma out of the car. We stopped for a second and tilted our heads back, felt the rays on our faces.

She pointed at a spot on a gently sloping hill with sweet little tree just a few feet away. We rolled her over and she showed me Christie’s grave, a reddish headstone with an etching of a mother and three children. The quote there said something about how light shines on anyone who remembers those who are gone.

“So,” I said, after a few moments of silence. “Where will you be?”

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the ground beneath her wheelchair. My stepfather had managed to wheel her directly over her plot.

“You are fucking kidding me,” I said, and she shook her head. And then we cracked up, because we find this type of morbidity mildly hilarious. “Will your headstone look like Christie’s?”

“Yep,” my stepfather said.

“No,” my mother said. “Smaller, level.”

“Close enough,” my stepfather said.

“And what will it read?” I said.

She tried to get it out, but couldn’t find the words. This was happening more and more. My stepfather said, “It’s a beautiful day and I love you.”

As soon as he said it, I realized she’d already told me. Hearing it out loud was almost more than I could bear in that moment.

“So,” she said, “So–” She was stuck on the words, but gestured around her plot with her good hand.

“If we come, you’ll be here.”

“Right.”

“It’s good you’ll be here, Ma.”

“Huh? What?”

“Not good that you’ll be dead, but that you’ll be here. That there will be a headstone. You know what I mean.”  She nodded.

The sun, the flags, standing there looking at my still-alive mother perched on her future grave site provided an odd comfort. I wonder sometimes if my grandmother had been more able to confront her loss, to give in and express all those feeling she so denied, she might have died happier or at least more at peace.

Not long after all of this, I heard a piece of an old interview with George Burns on NPR. He said that even though Gracie had been gone for 30 years, he still went once a month to Forest Lawn to see her. He talked to her about everything and anything on those visits, told her what was happening in his life. He said it helped him miss her a little less. Here’s hoping.

 

I haven’t been to New York for a few too many years.  When my son was a baby we took the redeye from LA to visit my grandparents, Ella and Al, on East 72nd Drive, Forest Hills—a block east of Queens Boulevard. They seemed pleased enough to see us, but there was a sense of unpreparedness to their greeting that took me aback. It wasn’t like Ella to let anyone see her in her housecoat, let alone without her girdle. Coiffed and trussed and with her pocket book at the ready—I’d never known her to face the world any other way. It was only later that I found out what she’d been going through with Al—bearing the burden of his advancing dementia in silence and alone, most of their generation dead and the rest of us blown to the four points. I was shocked at how bony he’d become, and in his watery old-man eyes, not so much blankness as blank panic. But within an hour of our arrival, Ella, at least, was her old self again; busy loading the table with bagels and cream cheese, lox and grape jelly and pound cake and coffee cake and oatmeal and stewed prunes and juice and scrambled eggs with American cheese. And good strong coffee in the old Corning Ware pot that I have in my kitchen now.  And then, slowly, Al began to come around. He began to pay attention, especially to my son, and a light came on in his eyes. It was dim but it was there, as if our visit had opened some door he would do his damndest to keep ajar for as long as he could. A smart, fighting man, my Grandpa Al.

They both fell hard for the kid, a relationship that would sustain them for the last few years of their lives and would continue in San Diego where the whole family would finally converge. I don’t why the three of them—a one-year old and a couple of octogenarians—hit it off the way they did. In one of those strange generational skipping stones, my son got Al’s enormous ears. Maybe that was it—ears like satellite dishes. Whatever it was, the love-fest began in those crystalline moments at the old table in Forest Hills with Al shoveling in prunes and Ella flapping around in her house coat and the baby cruising the one-bedroom flat just as his mom and her sisters and cousins had. Except that none of our generation got our heads stuck underneath the TV cabinet—leave that to my kid.  One minute we’re all sitting around the table and I’m translating my husband’s vowels for the old folks, the next there’s a muffled howl from the living room. Followed by a thin and continuous scream. Ella was first on the scene—tugging at the kid’s legs while her old man looked down with brightening eyes. Who knows what he was thinking. Maybe it was about those big old ears—get you into a world of trouble. Or maybe just that there, writ small, was an extension of his own adventurous spirit, a wanderlust that impelled him to cross the Atlantic back in his own distant boyhood, alone and crowded into steerage on the Holland American Lines Noordam, to start a new life in a new world.

Listed on the ship’s manifest as Aaron, Al got his American name and a shot at the dream at Ellis Island on July 16, 1912. He was fourteen. He was naturalized in 1923, one of the proudest and most memorable days of his life. He used to say he was 200% American, and he wasn’t kidding.  His first home was on the lower East Side. He moved to Hoboken NJ when he got a job at a Hungarian language newspaper and saved up enough to get his mother and father and the rest of the family to New York, living with them in Harlem and then the Bronx and finally— when Al remade himself into a successful American businessman—into an apartment in Forest Hills with rolling grounds and a doorman even. Quite a journey.  And that wasn’t the last stop. Many many years later, in a San Diego nursing home, when his dementia was at its height, he and my little boy ran off together. A manhunt ensued. We finally found them, lost in an elaborate game of hide and seek among a forest of forgotten filing cabinets. Al was rarely compos again after that, but he knew the boy until the end.

The push to get Ella and Al out of New York had been going on for some time before I made that final visit to Forest Hills. Life in the Bad Apple was becoming increasingly untenable for folks like them. Ella had been mugged on the subway steps, a gold chain ripped from her neck. The cleaning lady was stealing from them. They were alone, trapped in the apartment. We were in Australia. My aunt, uncle and cousins were in San Diego and my aunt had found some gorgeous senior digs for them and her mom near Solana Beach. My cousins flew to New York to try and talk them into leaving. Al had very little say by that time. The pure truth of it was that everything that Ella loved about living in New York, and especially Forest Hills, was not much good to her any more. Not without Al. So she sold up, keeping only those things that they’d acquired together—the menorah, which was the first thing they bought after they were married, a few old kitchen knives with bottle corks serving as handles, a yellow and white Limoges china set and a Wear-Ever aluminum fry pan and serving tray. I have them both in my kitchen now, as good as new. And on my office bulletin board is the luggage tag that Al attached to the faux-leather suitcase that had been a gift from the bank (he loved those freebies, had a drawer full of shoehorns). The tag says Final Destination San Diego.

At the time of that last visit to New York, my husband and I were in the fashion business—schmatte, Al grunted into his coffee. There wasn’t much you could put over this old guy, even in his decline. Over the course of our visit, he became more and more definitely and defiantly Al. He and my husband got into this thing about shaving—Al had noticed the nineties-era stubble, and had always been big on good grooming. I remember he’d had been mortified when my cousins went to get on the plane back to college unshaven. ‘You look like terrorists,’ he’d said. ‘I wouldn’t be seen on Queens Boulevard with either of you.’ Anyway, so my husband was complaining about having to shave every day, and Al wasn’t having a bar of it. What’s to complain, he said, with these newfangled disposables? Had my husband heard of them? Come here, he said, dragging the six foot three fella who talked funny off to the tiny green and black-tiled head. He showed him a pristine Gillette Blue, demonstrated his rinsing and tapping techniques. Disposable, dishmosable, Al said. He’d had this baby for two years.

By mid morning Al was back in the game and I wasn’t going to miss a New York minute of it.  My husband headed downtown on business, and I took time to retread the old haunts. I headed down to Austin Street, where my mom and aunt—back then just girls themselves—would take us shopping and where Ella and Al would grab a slice at A&J’s joint. Life on the buzzy strip had slowed down a little since the time I remembered as a kid, the smell of strawberry oil and ganga thick in the air and mushroom candles stacked in baskets. The mushroom candles were all gone but I bought myself a little black dress on sale in a tiny boutique, and a slice of pie from A&J’s. Ella loved the fact that great shops and delis were within safe walking distance of their apartment. For them it was a real neighborhood until the mugging, and the family said enough already.

Later that day, or maybe it was the next one, Grandpa took the baby and me on Grand Tour—a ritual he’d insisted on whenever any of the grand-kids came to stay. Grandma didn’t stop him—smart woman. He managed fine. We didn’t talk much, didn’t need to. I knew him and he knew me and we’d been here before—I was his oldest grandchild and always would be.  I pushed the stroller and we ambled past the apartment buildings and across to the grassy knoll overlooking Grand Central parkway and walked along Willow Lake.  When we were kids he’d take us the longer route, west past the big Catholic Church and sometimes to the Fire Station. But we always ended up along the lake. He’d pick the crab apples and tell us to take them home to Grandma so she could make sauce. He’d grown up the son of an employee on a big estate in a village in what is now the Ukraine, and, city-savvy as he was, he’d always had a thing for the open land. He’d spend his final days with views over the Pacific, but back then he considered himself fortunate to be living in a city neighborhood with parks and a real lake and apple trees, even. Maybe they reminded him of where he was born and how far he’d come. My cousins, sisters and I bought the ‘home-made’ apple sauce deal, hook, line, and sinker— even though Ella would come out of the kitchen and serve it up minutes after we got home. Good old Motts.

Al especially liked the big occasions—the holidays or a birthday or anniversary—when both his sons and their families would be crowded into that apartment and he’d sit at the head of the table and love was literally in the air, in the smell of Grandma’s brisket and my aunt’s perfume, and the faraway grind of the city below like the sound of a dream. All five cousins in the one place. Al could sometimes be a little withdrawn, a little serious among adults, including his own sons.  But with his grandchildren, he’d let down his guard and we loved it.  There was that slow smile, and big ears, and teasing games that never got old, and he’d have us crawling all over him.  Still, for Al life was a serious business and he was, in the end, a serious man. Grandma would eventually call us off and he’d retreat to the no-go zone of the lawn chair he kept by the window (don’t ask) in the plastic-covered splendor of their living room.  Get out the Times and that was it. We didn’t mind. There was always the tiny kitchen with its window overlooking the tree-lined street, and Ella moving from table to refrigerator to stove and back again, slicing bagels in thirds with a cork-handled knife, fishing for a pickle, unscrewing a jar of Motts.  As a girl, she had been an accomplished secretary helping to support her parents, earning $30 a week in the Depression. According to my uncle, when they decided to get married, her folks resisted and his parents said that, because of her prematurely white hair, she was too old for him. Both sides blew it. Al took over taking care of the old folks and Ella never worked another day in her life for a paycheck. My uncle likes to say that both he and my dad were work enough and she was grossly underpaid. Anyway that was the deal and for Ella there were plenty of compensations. Limoges dinner sets, Venetian glass knickknacks, and eventually a black fur coat that she’d proudly wear out to Hunan Chinese on Northern Blvd. With her white coiffure, generous bosom and well-turned ankles, my tiny grandma in that coat was something to behold.

I grew up in Aurora, a few hundred miles up state. But at the time of our last New York visit I had been living for some time in Sydney, and Grandpa’s Grand Tour had taken on epic proportions in my memory. As had the green and black tiled bathroom where my cousins famously smoked weed on vacation from college, first having to pry open the tiny window that which had not been opened in fifty years, if ever. I remembered the annual visits to Radio City with Grandma, the shoe sales and Alexanders with my aunt, or Chinatown with my mother and years later, cruising the Village with my sister, a couple of teenagers lost in the city.

I didn’t have time to do all that the last time in New York. But I’m glad I was there, with them in the apartment one last time. A few years later, in 2001, I was in charge of running the American table for the International Food Fair held annually at my kids’ school here in Sydney. In the early hours of that September morning, I watched the towers burn and felt, like expats everywhere, unable to breathe. It was mostly grief, but partly guilt. I should be there, I kept telling myself. How can I stay? How can I run an American food table—what’s relevant about that? But stay I did.  The International Food Fair went ahead with all flags at half mast. I kept the decorations in the box—the bunting and the flags. There were tables from every nation but the American food table was mobbed, quietly and respectfully. I stood between my daughter and my mom—we cooked the wieners and poured lemonade until it was gone and the brownies were all sold out. I kept thinking what Grandma had said to me back in San Diego when I was heartbroken about having to move again. Stand by them, she’d said, by your man and your children. It’s your job. I never saw her alive again. She died in 1995, four years after Grandpa. She was ninety-three. I flew back, wore the dress I bought on Austin Street to her funeral. My cousins and I watched her being laid to rest beside Al, the F-14s from the Miramar Air Station roaring overhead. Final Destination San Diego. How far they’d come. It never seemed to matter where they were, or how far from home, as long as they were together.

I don’t know why I never went back to New York. After our fashion gig went bust there was a lack of money, I guess. A lack of guts. I go back to California because that’s where the family is now. No ghosts in California. But I have a new family of fellow writers and artists forming in New York, where my first novel is being sold. So I’ll be back soon. I’ll be a ghost on 72nd Drive, get a slice of pie on Austin Street and look for crab apple trees in Flushing Meadows Park. They say you remember smells but for me New York is sounds. Lying there at night high above the city in my grandparents’ room listening to New York sing her siren song. This time I’ll follow her call. Hit the shuttered streets. Take in some basement jazz, go dancing, maybe stop at an all-night diner. This time I’ll be an adult.


 

 

 

 

Suicide and I have a relationship.

I would not say we are friends, but we go way back.

Way back to that day in 1975 when I was four years old and my father took the rope of a robe and tied it around his neck.

It’s the relationship I just can’t shake. It’s always there.

It was there when my mother moved us, not just from the house he died in, but the state.

It was there when I slept in my mother’s bed next to her for several years. She would buy me colorful new bedding hoping to lure me back to my room, but the sheets went unused.

It was there as I sat in our back room watching videos of my father over and over until the tape wore out and his image went missing.

It was there when each new school year I secretly hoped he hadn’t really died and had just lost his memory roaming the world aimlessly. He’d be my new math teacher and during attendance he’d see me and snap out of it.

It was there when my mother made me take down a photograph of him from my bedroom. And wouldn’t explain why.

It was there when I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s features. And there when my mother would tell me to stop making a certain face, so closely resembling him in that moment, upsetting her with just my smile.

It was there as I saw her huddled on our couch reading, alone.

It was there as I asked my friends each night on the phone if they were really my friends. Did they think I was funny? Pretty? Smart?

It was there when as I grew older I kissed more boys than I should have. And there when I excused those boys who turned out to be liars or cheats, and let them back into my bed.

It was there when I worried, at the end of my own rope, if it was my time now. The words would whisper from deep within and I knew that these same words spoke to him. I thought about following the sounds.

It was there when my grandfather after a few Grey Goose and tonics would grow quiet and sigh, “stupid kid” under his breath, but loud enough for me feel each word.

It was there as I traveled from place to place seeking out information. I went looking for his thesis at his college, now my college. I got his autopsy report and held it in my hands. I had dinner with his friend and felt jealous at his memories of him.

It was there when I got married and he didn’t walk me down the aisle.

It was there when I made my husband promise that if we had a son we would not name him after him. I did not want to chance being sad each and every time I called after my child.

It was there as thirty years later I found myself in a Survivors After Suicide group therapy meeting pleading and hoping to no longer be so burdened by his action.

It was there when I swore I did not want it to be there any more.

I was more than just the girl whose father killed himself.

It was there when determined to do good work I signed up to be a grief counselor. I cried as I toured the facility for the little four year old girl that I was that did not have a place like that. And it was there when I sat during the first day’s training and knew I would quit. I had a secret. I was two months pregnant and there in that moment I realized I was no longer interested in being so enmeshed with death, with suicide. I wanted to concentrate on this new life, not the one that I had never really known.

It was there when my son was born in an emergency, dire situation. “No. Why me?” I thought. “I have already had my tragedy.”

It was there when as my son got stronger, I realized I too had great strength from many years of practice.

It was there when we named our son after each of our grandfathers. And it was there, but by my invitation, when we gave him my father’s Hebrew name, needing to connect them. I needed to honor him.

I am determined to share with my son how my father lived. That includes how he died. But it will no longer be the first and only information about him.

My father was charming.

He made people laugh for a living.

He proposed to my mother in Italy.

He struggled with his weight.

And he killed himself.

My son will know these things.

My father’s baby picture hangs on my son’s bedroom wall along with all of his other grandparents’ baby pictures. Each night, I tell my son how much they love him. I have come to refer to my father as Grandpa Daddy. He holds equal weight each night with the other grandparents. But when I scan the pictures, it is Grandpa Daddy who my son most resembles.

Sometimes I get sad as I say our goodnights and place my son in his crib.

I am sad that they will not know each other. Sad that he is just a photograph to him.

I am sad that I never really got to know him, except through other people’s memories.

I am sad that he died, but not as sad for how he died.

There in that moment, after thirty years of hard work, how he died does not seem as important.

It does not go away. It is always there.

But now more like just a little bit over there.

Not right here.

The house on Cornwall Avenue was two blocks from the beach. It was large and white and perfect. Out front were lilac bushes. In the back, on the driveway, we would ride our bikes and drag our red wagons and wash our sandy feet with the hose. The house had three stories, several balconies and room enough for most all of us. For kids and grandkids and friends dropping by. The neighbors had a pool, but we had the carriage house. We held birthday parties there. Fourth-of-July celebrations. It smelled of wet sand and must and sweat and memory.

We’d walk the two blocks to the beach in flip-flops, carrying fold-up chairs and coolers of water and boogie boards. Aunt Nomi would tote along peaches and plums in plastic bags and some other aunt or uncle would bring money for the ice cream man. The cousins- bolder than I- would jump waves, venturing deeper and deeper into the murky froth of the Atlantic. I, who was not-so-brave, stayed by the shore building sand castles and hunting for snail shells with my father. In the afternoon the ice cream man would ring his bell and we’d go running after him, hankering for fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches and chocolate tacos. Our mothers would rub sunscreen onto our sandy backs as we dripped chocolate down our fronts. 

At 4:00 or 5:00 we’d start back, hopping from foot-to-foot on the hot late-afternoon sand. Our feet burned and blackened, we carried our shoes clutched in our small fists, limping our way back to the house on Cornwall Avenue.

* * *

It is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed. Me, I imagine mine in Super-8 film. Like an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Like a Ford ad, circa 1972. I remember thin legs in terry cloth shorts sticking to the leather of the car. I remember the view from the back seat. My parents’ voices rising and falling musically from up front. My sister faking sick next to me. Windows down. The smell of sea-salt. Tossing quarters into the toll booth. Downtheshore. All one word.

This was where my grandparents lived. My Bubbie and Zadie*. But it was more than that. Downtheshore was my grandparents. The dark blue of the kitchen carpet. The porcelain tea sets and cat figurines in the living room. Ketzie** the cat, gray and cranky, hissing at us kids from underneath Bubbie and Zadie’s bed. Oreo cookies dipped in milk. All of us cousins, one multi-legged creature with 18 tanned arms.

Like I said: it is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is still beautiful. She no longer has the tremendous breasts of her youth. Cancer got those. And she can’t walk these days. Her feet are enormous: swollen to the size of melons, fit only for special-order shoes and thick support hose. But she retains that sexy Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. A killer smile. Eyes that sparkle and perfectly arched brows. An enviably thick head of hair. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though. I am 55 years her junior but all I have over her is youth.

In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is 16. In profile. She is wearing a fur headpiece and staring pensively away from the camera. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. She hasn’t yet been introduced to my dark and handsome grandfather. She hasn’t yet given birth to her four children. She doesn’t yet know that her beloved father has only a year to live. She doesn’t yet know that in three decades she will lose her sister- her best friend- to breast cancer. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is losing her memory. This is a fact, though I choose to believe it is merely conjecture.

If we don’t use the A-word then it isn’t real.

She has good days. Days when she can reminisce with fluency about yesterday and last year and thirty years ago. Days when she cracks jokes. Days when she tries to press her jewelry on me, saying, “you like this? Take it!” She has good days and this makes it easier to forget that she has bad days too.

* * *

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the house on Cornwall Avenue over a decade ago. The house was too big so they downsized to a small yellow box of a house five blocks from the beach. It didn’t matter much. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore. Couldn’t. Some years later, they built a ramp for her wheelchair. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore so neither did we. We sat on the porch and ate dried fruit from candy dishes and watched the roses grow into maturity. We still held birthday parties. Fourth-of-July celebrations. We still stopped for soft-serve at the Purple Penguin on our way home. Downtheshore.

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the little yellow box on North Union last year. To an apartment in a retirement community. They are in independent living. There is, however, the option for assisted living. Nursing care. But Bubbie still has good days and Zadie is still only 83 and we still have 15-year-old sand lodged in our toes and our tans haven’t faded completely. This is merely conjecture but I choose to believe it is fact. This is merely grasping at straws. But I’ll take it.

* * *

One night not too long ago, Bubbie woke Zadie up in the middle of the night. “What’s Debbie?” she asked him urgently. “What’s Debbie to me?” “She’s your daughter,” he said.

* * *

My mother doesn’t believe that there was blue carpet in the kitchen of the house on Cornwall Avenue. We ask my father. He has no recollection whatsoever. “What’s for dinner?” he asks instead. I remember it distinctly though. Blue carpet in the kitchen. It was there, I think, even if it wasn’t. Blue carpet in the kitchen downtheshore in the house on Cornwall Avenue.

 

*For those of you who aren’t Chosen- you get your Easter eggs and we get circumcision- Bubbie and Zadie are Yiddish words for “grandmother” and “grandfather.”

** Ketzie is Yiddish for cat.  Go figure.