Losing Your Way
The first time I lost my way, I chalked it up to distractedness. Driving a familiar route, I let my mind wander to the day’s chores and wound up ... well, I don’t know where I ended. I did the unmanly thing and asked for directions. Twenty minutes later, my concentration firmly in place, I pulled in the driveway of the home I’d lived in for forty years, slightly concerned about this mind-wandering.
Opening the warped front door, the one that has always stuck, even when Gwen was alive, I walked into homeland territory and my heart soared. Just for a minute, I heard Gwen call, “Jon, is that you?” I almost responded with my usual, “Who else would it be?” It was a regular game that once was cute, then turned routine, and finally just before she was bedridden, became sentimental. Then reality slapped me. I'm the only one in the house now. So much familiarity creates comfort one day, debilitating depression the next. I waffled between wandering amongst the loved items and tending to them or plunking in my recliner. Sitting won. I searched the room for the peace I needed after the scary drive, waiting for it to caress my fears away. I found a piece of it in the chime of the ancient clock.
The grandfather clock still tick-tocks the day away and chimes the hour, as long as I remember to wind. I don’t always remember. But I do remember to dust Gwen’s precious French clock--the one that never has worked but sits on our fireplace mantle--and all its intricate details and ornaments. She considered that timepiece her link to the grandparents she never knew and the French ancestry she was proud to proclaim. Funny how timepieces are my connection to Gwen.
She was late to our own wedding. Gwen and I married in the backyard under the old oak tree in front of fifty friends and family members. She had me in a panic, as the hour of the wedding came and went, sweat building inside me and escaping through my suit jacket. I had assumed she'd stood me up. Like always, Gwen's sense of time was as unreliable as the French clock, but she sauntered down the makeshift aisle as if she'd been waiting to make an entrance. The oak tree has withstood time and remains a symbol of stability. Unlike myself, the magnificent tree seems not to have grown old or weathered or burdened.
My beloved house holds memories and precious items, but now it tricks me. Nightime scares me the most. Shadows cast strange shadings on well-known furniture, confusing me. I have bumped into more walls taking a wrong turn to the bathroom and opened closets that I supposed were rooms. Losing familiarity is like losing a blankie. When my eyes see newness in old places, strange roads on well-worn paths, and newfangled contraptions in solid household appliances, I am scared.
The driving fiasco happened a few weeks ago, and since then, I’ve been careful to stick close to home and ingrained routes. Trips around town have become tense journeys to local stores for necessities only. And I park as far from other cars as possible so I can spot mine easily. My world is shrinking, and I use caution to keep that fact hidden. My daughter calls from across the country once a week, and I’m doing a good job keeping up with the news she gives me. I’m pretty smart--I take notes so I can ask for updates the following week. And it helps gets those grandkids’ names cemented in my mind. Well, cemented until it cracks and they escape.
The answering machine contains too many messages regarding missed appointments. I could swear I never made those, but there are too many to be a fluke. I keep a small notebook and pocket calendar in my jacket pocket to write things down now--doctors’ appointments, service calls, lunches with friends. It helps ... barely.
I’ve the sneaking suspicion that this memory loss will catch up with me soon. I’ve heard of Alzheimers, senility, and general memory loss that accompanies old age. I never thought the “A” word would be a danger to me. No one in my family had the type of memory problems that interfered with life. Maybe forgetting names, or repeating stories, or forgetting where items were placed, but not serious issues like ... how to get from Point A to Point B. Some days, like today, I can write about myself like I’m watching it happen. I can be lucid and quick-witted and completely present. But too often, I wake up out of a lost time frame, and I’m doing something I’ve never thought possible. Just last week I was in my bathtub fully clothed with the water rising dangerously high. Another time, I forgot how to work the microwave and waited hours for the frozen dinner to thaw and ate it cold.
I have survived loss--Gwen’s death was the worst I thought I'd ever suffer. I was wrong. Losing independence is worse. But even that’s tolerable with reliable help. It’s the loss of memory that's the worst of all. I can remember the names of my WWII battalion mates but not what I had for breakfast. I can remember my cousins and all my neighbors from my childhood but not my doctor’s name. I can remember how to start the car, just not where to go. I can remember to get up in the morning, but not always how to shave. So while I can, I’ll share this: losing an item, a job, a person isn’t your worst nightmare. Losing a piece of your identity--your memories, your ability to function in society, your sense of self, that is the most signficant loss of all.
So live while you can, and laugh while you're able.
A Fatal Selfie
This can’t be happening. My mother warned me to stay away from the edge of the canyon. But dammit, the shadows from the setting sun highlighted all the right places. If I could balance a little bit so the fading rays would catch my blond hair, the picture would be awesome. Selfies aren’t so difficult when you know how to position your body. So at the ledge, I arch backwards just a little, to give my hair some swing room. It glistens in the five o'clock sun. Tilting slightly left, the sun's illumination is just right, but I feel my balance shift.
Just a little too much...
So now I’m in freefall mode. The colors of the canyon change as I tumble. I recall thinking how gorgeous the rust reds, sienna browns, and new greens were as I stood eye-level with the canyon’s edges miles from my picturesque spot looking at the canvas below me. Now they whiz past, and I cannot appreciate their beauty. If only I’d stayed still. If only I’d handed my phone to the tourists near me, the ones who offered to take my picture. Sigh. Where’s my phone now? Will they find it? Will my mother see I took a picture as I fell? She’ll be so pissed.
The colors of this natural wonder I so admired from the top ledge just a little while ago aren’t so vivid now. As I race towards my final resting place, the rust reds are streaked with the plain brown of rocks and dirt holding them in place. The sienna browns are overgrown dead grasses in desperate need of the river water. The new greens get brighter and brighter as I near them, showing me that they're really tree tops and shrubs sheltering who-knows-what kinds of critters. I read somewhere that some tribes of Indians actually live somewhere down here. Will they be the ones who find my body?
I hear the air whizzing past me, and my ears pop with the sudden change in pressure. I can hardly keep my eyes open from the wind shear, but I'm aware that up is down, and down is above me. The temperature warms as I near the bottom of the canyon. I read, that somewhere, too. That the temperature fluctuates wildly in different areas.
That river, once below me a few seconds ago, is fastly rising to meet me. It looked like a thin, slithering snake in the deep grooves of the Grand Canyon from above. Now, it’s growing into a roaring force of nature, widening and churning as I fall towards it. Oh, crap. My mother is really going to kill me if I mess up my face. Mother always told me to be careful, look where I’m going, and take my head out of the clouds. I wish my head were in a cloud. I have the sneaking suspicion that once my head hits the canyon floor, it won’t resemble any one body part at all, but rather pieces and chunks of what used to be me. And my face, oh my face, won't look like Mommy any more.
She’ll want to say I-told-you-so, but she won’t. She'll want to drop to her knees and bury herself in the earth. I hope she won't watch as they haul my body parts out. I’ve heard that’s what they do--lift the pieces they can find, if they find any. The alarming rate at which I'm falling increases my desperation. Is there any way I can survive?
It’s almost funny how the sky now looks like a tiny space of blue, and the walls around me a gigantic prison of brown. Hurtling toward the once ocean-covered canyon floor, I’m overcome with embarassment. Oh snap! I’m going to become a statistic! At first, my picture will be in the local paper with sympathetic headlines about my untimely demise. What picture will they use? My facebook profile picture is pretty good--the one at my cousin’s wedding. Then time will fade memory, and only my family and friends will think of me, often at first, less frequently with passing months. Finally I will be remembered with shake of the head and disapproval of my accident, a preventable one.
Closer the ground approaches, and the somersaults I perform are beyond my control. The river, the river shows me its majesty. I see white caps on the waves, fast-moving debris rushing by, and I have a sudden thought. Maybe if I hold my breath when I hit the water, and enter the water like a diver, I can rise to the sur---.
Splash! Silence. The vultures circle, the air settles, and the parting waters return together to claim another life.
A Subway Miss
His backpack weighed as much as the worries that consumed him, and Trevor carried those as a second body. He couldn’t shake them if he tried. He jostled with the other commuters down the subway stairwell and looked around at his dingy surroundings. Even the train station was depressed. No amount of colorful grafitti could hide its tired look. Cement gray walls, dull metallic rails, scuffed platforms, and dishwater-colored stains greeted waiting passengers. They plugged their ears with ear buds to drown out the monotone voice of the recorded announcements, eyes burrowed towards their cell phones. Trevor believed that most of them stared at nothingness, lost in their own concerns as they bided their time before their homebound trains arrived. He knew that's how he spent the last few months of subway wait time--thinking--mired in burdens that built and dragged him down to the state he was in today. Around him, the aroma of stale urine and old sweat assaulted him. New users found it offensive, crinkling their noses in distaste and disgust, but the regular commuters he stood with today were immune.
Trevor had always noticed the concentrated apartness each commuter held. No one built a connection with his fellow traveller, and today he marveled at the fact that in this underground subway station, each person had more in common with the other than at any other time in the work day; the train would take everyone home. Trevor knew the subway was like an elevator--everyone was forced to exist together united in a common goal of transportation. No one would make a friend in these circumstances. Smiling made other people suspicious. That was okay. Trevor had no intention of smiling or drawing attention to himself. He came here with a mission, and he would succeed.
Facing the empty tracks and listening for the rumble of the approaching train, Trevor pondered the weight in his head. Getting kicked out of college really did seem like the end of the world. As his grades slipped, he just couldn’t seem to pull them up. The farther he slipped, the closer to rock bottom he came. He thought he finally made it there. His failure would shatter his parents, his reputation, and his image. One year ago, he was a high school star, the baseball player beloved by girls and their parents alike, the popular boy who was invited to all the best parties. Trevor thought he had the world by the tail and would ride it to greatness. No one warned him that as a college student, his professors had little time to listen to his excuses or accept his late work, or offer do-overs for failed assignments. Still, he was as popular with the other students as he was in high school, and that popularity granted him access to beer, parties, and girls. However, he couldn’t govern himself or his time. Over the last semester, girls faded away, searching for boys who could balance partying and school. Trevor was hearing about parties after they had passed, a testament that his immature drink-til-you-barf attitude had staled with his peers. The inability to be the Golden Boy knocked him down, and he couldn't get up. He didn’t know how to be anything else. What did he have going for him if not popularity? He wasn’t the smart kid, the geeky-admired kid, the funny kid, the quietly strong kid, or even the best-looking kid. He was the fun-loving kid. Maybe now it wasn’t enough, and Trevor wasn’t sure he was anything more than that. Honestly, that was the scariest thought of all. What if he had nothing to offer the world? He feared he had no substance. After all, he couldn’t plant his feet on solid campus ground and find his bearings as a young college freshman.
It was these thoughts that weighed him down, more than the treasured trophies his backpack cocooned. The objects reflected who he was, and they would go down with him.
Trevor inched closer to the platform edge, subtly glancing around to make sure no one noticed him. He peered down the tracks, so that his behavior mimicked other commuters who also searched for the now-late train. He could feel his heartbeat quicken, knowing he was only a few minutes away from release. His toes hovered over the cement edge, and he could feel his face tingle from anticipation. At least a death here would mean his parents wouldn’t be the ones to find him. He’d never do that to them.
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he prepared to launch in front of the approaching train. He could see headlights coming, signalling its nearness and could hear the rumble. Before he could fall forward, his head snapped backward and he found himself upended on his backpack on the cement platform, like a turtle resting upside down on its shell. The train barreled safely into the subway station and Trevor found his knees, stood up, and looked around to address whomever pulled him back. He was stunned that someone even suspected his intentions, much less thwarted them. He wasn't sure if he was mad or relieved, but Trevor knew he had to say something to his "savior." He looked around, but no one stood near, awaiting Trevor's explanation. Passengers made their way onto the subway, no one even looking askance at Trevor. None of the commuters registered the strangeness of what just happened or the proximity of a tragedy they almost witnessed. It was as if no one noticed. But someone had to have pulled him back; he could still feel that superstrong tug on his backpack. Meanwhile, the passenger doors of the train closed, Trevor standing on the platform side of them, his moment of impending death long gone. He knew he couldn’t go through with it now.
His escape from death was a slap in ths face. He had to “man up” and face his failures at school, learn how to grow up and go on. With one last look into the train, Trevor’s eyes locked onto an older man holding the travelling strap in the aisle. The man tipped his weather-worn, stained hat Trevor’s way, holding his fist up in a universal “Be Strong” sign. Then he placed both hands together as if in prayer, pointed his fingers towards his own eyes then to Trevor’s. Message received: “I’m watching you.” An amber glow illuminated his body, and his beaming smile pierced Trevor's heart. Before Trevor’s wide-open eyes, the man just disappeared into thin air, the subway car slowly pulling out of the station, the empty strap swaying with the motion of the train.
A Playdate Unkept
Lucy said she'd meet me at the blue swing "tomorrow." Then tomorrow came, and she didn't. I checked all the other hotspots of the park - the sandbox, monkey bars, and tunnel slide but no Lucy. I even stayed extra long at the playground, hoping she just got held up somehow. Eventually, I had to accept the fact I'd been stood up.
The neighborhood park held a lot of joy for me in an otherwise mundane life that summer. When Lucy was there, the hours just flew by. Her laugh was infectious and her spirit contagious. She viewed life as one big playground, never bogged down with sadness or worry, always a smile ready and energy abounding. I, being the quieter and more introspective one, could live my alter ego through Lucy.
When we met early that summer, it was because we were the only two there. Sure, we had noticed each other before. Only a handful of regular park-goers frequented Hillside Park, so we were attuned to one another. That particular morning, the heat was almost stifling in the early morning sunshine, but the need to expend energy prevailed. We both showed up, eager to run, hop, climb, swing, and slide. Since no others were present, we circled each other, wondering who would make the first move. Of course, Lucy did.
And off we went. It was the start of a best friendship that lasted a whole summer. While we swung, we'd talk about the future: I would be a famous author; she'd be a star. On the monkey bars I'd challenge her to skip a bar (she was tiny and couldn't reach) and puff with pride when I was the only one who could.
Day after day we played. I shed my self-consciousness that usually kept my nose buried in a book in social outings. I wasn't unnaturally shy, just quiet until I got my footing with new people. Reading let me be other types of people in my head. Lucy, on the other hand, instantly commanded an arena of people. She blended in with whatever type of person was around. If someone loved jumping, she'd produce a jump rope; if anyone twirled and leaped, she'd bring music to sing and dance. She was everyone's muse, everyone's blankie. Every single summer day brought fun and memories. It was like the playground was her stage, and we were her audience. Not for any kind of a show, just for ... life. Something powerful and uplifting emanated from her and seeped into my being then. Every day was a day of happiness. She was a force, a magnetic field that pulled the best out of everyone and towards everyone. No one could NOT like her. And I reveled in the fact that I was her best friend. I was never jealous of other kids, nor they of me. We all accepted our roles in this little society.
The day before our Meet You at the Swings date, she was subdued. It's only now, looking back that I can apply that term. At the time I just thought she was getting a cold, or mad at her parents or something. I wasn't receptive, still aren't, to subtle emotional hints. I greeted her with my usual chatting and peppered her with daily activities, the latest book I was reading, and my ideas for playground games. She agreed with all my suggestions, which in retrospect is suspicious, - she always took initiative - and I had a ball that day. I never thought anything would be or could be different. My friend Lucy was a permanent fixture in my mind.
Then "tomorrow" resulted in no Lucy. Not that day, not the next, nor any other summer day after. Nothing felt right at Hillside Park anymore. The swings creaked too much, the slide stuck in spots, and the sand was too clumpy and dirt-like. Other kids ventured over and played near me, but not really with me. I retreated into my usual quiet self, preferring a book under the tree once Lucy was gone. The summer felt unreal by the time school started. I hoped she'd be in my class, a distant hope that got me through the remaining couple weeks of summer, thinking we'd be in school together. I never saw Lucy again.
I was seven years old then, same as Lucy. I never knew her last name and never knew where she lived. But she brought out the silly in me all those years ago, and no one has matched her style. She might even be a star today; I wouldn't know what she looked like if she was a famous celebrity. The only bad memory that follows me from that summer is the devestating let-down I felt when Lucy didn't show up that day. I tried out so many theories in my head for her disappearance - she was kidnapped by aliens, she was a secret princess and had to return to her homeland, and even that she desperately tried to reach me but didn't know how. In all honesty, I hold that last one still. She mattered in a way few friends do now. She was truly a free spirit, but didn't expect anyone else to conform to her standard. Where can you find that today?
I know that she most likely moved away, but the doubts linger, and my creative juices invent fantastic scenarios of her whereabouts. Lucy makes for good book-writing.
Anytime I go to a playground, I still check the swingset for a blue swing and a girl sitting atop it.
You’re Never Too Old to Learn
Belinda Hartsell eyed the student intern suspiciously. "She looks over-eager, idealistic, and starry-eyed," she sighed to herself. Twenty plus years of experience gave her the right to first impression judgments. Out loud she welcomed the twenty-two-year-old teacher intern.
"Good morning, Ms— " she let the greeting hang, realizing she forgot the youngster's name.
"Oh, Ms. Levitt," the dark-eyed coed gushed. Belinda saw this one as another over-achiever with lofty dreams. Once upon a time Belinda was, too.
"Ms. Levitt, let's head to my classroom where you can observe the students and the typical morning routine," she instructed. The local university claimed student interns were gifts. They would lighten the teachers’ loads as well as grant the students real-life experience. Sometimes the first part was true, but trusting her instincts about this one, Belinda doubted it.
Belinda walked purposefully towards her English II room, hoping the wannabe educator would match her stride. A lot could be learned from a person's walk. Too slowly indicated hesitancy or self-doubt. Too bouncy showed unrealistic expectations. Too softly gave away a fear to take control. What Belinda wanted from these yet-to-be-teachers was a confident stance, a full-length stride, and sharp, staccato steps. In her five years of mentoring, she’d never mismatched a walk and a judgment.
Ms. Levitt almost hopped alongside her, taking multiple baby steps to match one of Belinda’s. The veteran teacher had to hide an eye roll from her. Hopping equaled self-image concerns. The hopper was the one who wanted to make a good impression, to make friends with students, to walk side-by-side with her charges. It never worked. “This one might be a real doozy,” Belinda thought, silently wishing she had refused the “gift” of an intern.
As she opened the classroom door, the sophomore students took their seats and openly admired the fresh meat. Belinda quickly shut down the student leers, introduced Ms. Levitt, and directed the newcomer to sit at the back of the class. As the morning announcements played on the white screen at the front of the classroom, Belinda provided Ms. Levitt with the day’s agenda, highlighting the student objectives and evaluative practices she had planned. The young girl looked overwhelmed, but Belinda knew Ms. Levitt had to jump right into this job.
More than twenty years ago Belinda sat at the back of a similar classroom, and she remembered learning by fire as well. Painful but necessary. She was really doing interns a favor showing them a typical day in the life of today’s teacher. That was her gift to them.
Once the college student was reading the day’s syllabus, Belinda turned to the high school students to begin instruction.
Then, the regular routine was broken.
The school-wide intercom system crackled and squealed, the sound a microphone makes when the speaker is too close to it. “Lockdown, lockdown, full lockdown immediately!” a frightened, shaky voice declared.
It was only 7:15 in the morning. This was not a drill; the principal never called a practiced event this early.
Shouting, screaming, and cursing echoed in the hallways. And a gunshot. Before Belinda had a chance to process what was happening, the intern had jumped up, run to the classroom door and locked it. Belinda was in fight-or-flight mode, with flight not being an option. Frozen, however, was a choice, and that was how Ms. Levitt found her when the girl raced to the front of the room.
“Call 9-1-1,” she instructed Belinda.
Calmly, the intern addressed the panicked students who were beginning to cry and come unglued. “Get away from the door and window. Sit against the wall in the corner. Be deathly quiet.”
As the teens followed this new leader’s directions, Belinda looked around the room at the growing scene. She felt like a fish out of water; she had never experienced this before; fire drills, earthquake and tornado drills were old hat; active shooter drills were not. Questions ran in her head. Do they cover their heads? Am I supposed to submit something to the office on the computer? Do I call anyone? Is this really happening? The questions raced; her feet did not. She was rooted to the spot, almost catatonic as the realization that a school shooting was in progress just outside her room.
Ms. Levitt approached the frozen Belinda in a split second. “Mrs. Hartsell,” she said, “please call 9-1-1 on the classroom phone and do not hang up with them. Keep the phone receiver with you as you sit against the wall by your desk. We want the first responders to hear anything that might be going on out in the hall.”
Belinda simply stared at this girl who seemed so in-control.
“Please move, Mrs. Hartsell,” she urged, not unkindly. In the meantime, Ms. Levitt raced towards a large movable wardrobe cabinet and, with two students assisting, pushed it directly in front of the door, blocking anyone who might unlock the door from actually opening it. Neither the students nor the intern had to speak. It was if they knew instinctively what to do.
Another gunshot sounded.
Belinda called the emergency number and breathlessly explained that the school was on lockdown. The dispatcher informed her that help was already on the way, but Belinda couldn’t even answer her. “Ma’am, ma’am, are you there?” She just stared at the receiver, in shock.
Ms. Levitt took the phone from her shaking hands, and objectively relayed the sounds occurring in the hallway, whispering messages about the logistics of the classroom and the people stuck inside. “We are in Room #122, have twenty-four students present and two adults and have heard two gunshots at this point.”
Ms. Levitt exerted control of the fragile state of the classroom. Aware that twenty-some-odd teenagers, children still, cried silently at various points in her room, Belinda forced herself into action to offer some reassurance from her vantage point. She peeked out at the student closest to her desk. He was wide-eyed, pale-faced, and rocking with his arms clasped around his knees. Bunching his football jacket, he had prepared his version of a missile, a leather snowball. Belinda caught his eyes and using her many years of parenting skills, offered a smile and hushed words of comfort: “Leo, we’re going to be okay. We will all survive this. Pass it on!” She wanted the words to be the mantra of this hodgepodge of students: athletes, artists, arcade lovers, and academic stars. He stared at her, at first like a deer in headlights, then pulling his head up and nodding slightly. He whispered the words to the young lady next to him, the one with the purple hair, cat ears, and tutu over her polka dot leggings. Belinda saw him gently put his arm around her and rub her shoulder. She looked frightened of his motive, but then leaned in to hear his words. She nodded to him, placed her hand on the shoulder of the girl sitting next to her, the one who always wrote stories, and told her the same determined hope. The room slowly took on the feeling of strength.
The young almost-a-teacher beside Belinda had become a leader in a heartbeat. The bouncy, fresh-faced, twenty-two-year-old managed a crisis with the experience of a twenty-two year veteran.
Within fifteen minutes of the morning announcements, police officers ushered the entire school population to safety. Outside, holding arms above her head in the traditional surrender manner, Belinda felt she was in a surreal world. When they were rushed to a safe location, she called her husband to relay the information he was sure to hear on the news. Then she waited with the rest of the students, faculty, administrators and support staff to be cleared. Belinda ruminated on what just happened. She knew the consequences of surviving this ordeal would extend a lifetime. She was vaguely aware that the ambulances she heard, then saw, signaled injuries or maybe even fatalities, and that everyone’s nightmares would be forever littered with the experience of today.
In the ensuing days, chaos morphed into quiet acceptance. Two fatalities, which doesn’t seem like a lot, are two too many in a school. It could have been more. The steadfastness of Ms. Levitt was a by-product of today’s teacher training programs, Belinda realized. Had she not been gifted Ms. Amelia Levitt that day, who knows if her classroom would have remained the composed arena it was. Belinda was forever humbled by that insight, so much so that she continued her profession with renewed vigor for all who want to shape the future of education.
Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. This one was a petite, twenty-two-year-old who proved Belinda’s prejudices, preconceptions, and presumptions wrong. Ms. Levitt became the catalyst for a new Belinda - one who willingly accepted the gift of any intern, especially one with a hoppy walk and an eager spirit. It was a real plus if they shared the name Amelia.
How to Ruin Thanksgiving: by Grandma
Turkey isn’t the only item devoured at our family’s Thanksgiving feast. Someone’s dignity will be bitten to the quick as well. Last year it was my brother Simon’s, the year before, my mother’s. My grandmother is the culprit; it’s anyone’s call who the victim will be year to year. Dad says her actions are the result of dementia. Maybe. She certainly speaks without a filter or a kind bone in her aged body. But I wonder. She gets a lot of merriment out of others’ weaknesses or struggles. In truth, I don’t remember her any other way. She’s been critical, condescending, and cold for as long as I’ve known her. So… forever. Every November when the days shorten and the stores display their holiday wares, Dad tells me this might be Grandma’s last year. “Winter is hard on old people,” he says, alluding to the possibility that Grandma’s days are shortening too. “This might be her last Thanksgiving, Carly,” he warns. I don’t see it as a warning, but more of a hope. I’ve been hoping for a long, long, time.
We were in the midst of heaping our plates full of turkey when Grandma brought up a painful memory from my brother’s middle-school years. Typical Grandma. She’s got to get under someone’s skin every year. Topic of the day: the time everyone in his class went to Disney World except him. Now, why would she do that? Who dredges up bad memories on Thanksgiving? Better yet, whose grandmother does that?
When Simon was in the eighth grade, he didn’t sell his share of raffle tickets for our school and had to spend Field Trip Day in the library. You’d think a grandmother would want to shelter her grandson from remembering hurtful events, but not mine. Dementia, my ass. I see the gleam in her eye when she brings up uncomfortable accounts; she likes to make people squirm. And she did.
Mom has always felt guilty for not allowing Simon to stay home that day. She had to relive that guilt when Grandma harped on about how Simon wouldn’t go out and pester the neighbors to buy. And how he should have been tough enough to keep up with the other eighth graders in sales. Mom sighed and told Grandma, “It was seven years ago. Everyone still feels badly for Simon.” She’s always the peace maker.
Dad’s regret lingered long after Simon’s eighth grade year ended. He says he should have walked with him around the neighborhood or taken the tickets into work. Once again, his conscience (and Grandma’s opening the can of worms) makes him feel obliged to restate his apology. “Son, if I could do that over again, I’d have bought them all myself.” He could never apologize enough. He’s the problem-solver.
I always feel emotional pain the strongest. I remember how miserable Simon was that day, and that depresses me for the rest of dinner. I’m the empathizer. I can still see my older brother’s slumped shoulders as he sat alone in the cafeteria eating his lunch at his usual table devoid of any other kids. Then he made his way back to the lonely library, feet scuffing the hallway floors, fingers dragging the walls as if to mark his passage into “The Worst Day of My Middle School Life.”
Grandma’s choice of victim that year was prime. Simon had just started a new job, fresh out of high school and was unsure if he was suited for it. I swear my Grandma could tell. “Are you any better at your job now?” she asked, disdain dripping from her fake-smile face.
He met her eyes briefly, and I hoped for a minute that he’d confront her nastiness. The moment passed. I recall he hemmed and hawed, leaving me to sympathize with his discomfort. Mom jumped up to get more food, and Dad over-sold Simon’s job strengths to a grandparent who didn’t hear a word. Grandma smiled at everyone’s obvious efforts to deflect her punches.
Grandma is no Alzheimer’s casualty; she’s just mean.
To the outsider, we all present as middle-of-the-road people, typical in our dress, mannerisms and interactions. Then the doors close on our family Thanksgiving, and we morph into neurotic, caustic-tongued, or passive family members. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not weirdos … I don’t think. From what I understand all families have issues. Ours just gets exacerbated on this holiday. Not Christmas, or Easter, or any other holiday, just Thanksgiving. I think it’s because the other ones have a focus, but the November holiday’s focus IS family.
Two years ago
Grandma decided to comment on all the food choices. Granted there was a lot of store-bought sides and desserts, but my mother had to work the day before Thanksgiving. “That’s no excuse for doing things differently,” according to Grandma.
“Sue, what’s with these mashed taters? They’re gluey,” she said as she dumped them off her fork onto her plate over and over.
“Sue, the dressing’s dried out. Did you get microwaveable or something?” This as she’s stuffing bites in her mouth.
“Sue, you got any ice cream for the pumpkin pie? It’s got no taste.”
Mom tripped over herself apologizing, trying to explain how she didn’t have a lot of time.
Dad asked for seconds to end the conflict and give my mother support. But he didn’t say a word against Grandma.
Simon stared at each food as Grandma castrated it and pushed it to the side of his plate.
Me, I just watched Mom with desperate eyes, wishing someone would tell Grandma she could bring the food next year. I’d never say that of course. I’m not the aggressor; I’m the silent worrier. When possible, I avoid.
The food smells delicious, with aromas of roast turkey mixed with hot gravy wafting into the dining room as we all take our places. Grandma is quiet, so that’s a good sign. Simon unfolds his napkin, placing it on his lap and sits straight up. He’s had a good year in sales, and his confidence is blooming. Grandma’s got nothing on him!
After the dinner prayer, the first sounds are the clanking of utensils to plates. Conversation is limited to complimenting Mom (Phew!) and the unseasonably warm fall. The leaves have just changed color, about two weeks later than usual, and the whole town’s been debating if it’s a sign of global warming. We all keep our comments benign, hoping to be spared Grandma’s wrath.
I see, out of the corner of my eye, Grandma staring at me, looking me over. What? Okay, don’t panic, I tell myself. She rarely asks about my life, she’s never met my boyfriend, and she can’t read my mind. Nonetheless, my heart starts to race, my pulse quickens, and I can just tell she’s going to turn her attention to me. I force a casual expression and remind myself my grandmother can’t be clairvoyant; she can’t spill a secret she doesn’t know.
“So, Carly,” she begins, a scheming glint in her eye. I suck in my breath, silently praying she’ll just ask me a normal grandparent question. Sure. Fat chance. “You look … different … older … than your seventeen years.”
Oh no. Here we go. Something about my make-up or haircut or clothing choices. I breathe a little easier knowing I can handle these kinds of jabs.
She leans in and points to my stomach, hidden under the tablecloth and my loose-fitting sweater. A slow, knowing and somewhat evil, smile builds. “When’s the baby due?”
A Gift for Aging Women
No more violent outbursts,
No more irritating words,
No more eye-roll glances,
No more than I deserve.
No more "poor choice" foods,
No more counting carbs,
No more thickening waistlines,
No more dieting barbs.
No more bursts of heat,
No more fiery flashes,
No more sweaty sheets,
No more temperature crashes.
If I ruled the world,
Because there's no just cause,
I'd have to abolish the lifechange,
The world calls menopause.
The Dance Ahead
The big band music starts and I leap to my feet...leap! My poodle skirt swings and my little white tennis shoes twist me, Jitterbugging with Ted at the soda shop. I twirl, twist and shake my torso like I'm twenty-five years old. No gnarled hands grasp Ted to prevent falling, no shuffling feet fear losing their balance, and the only reason my head is shaking is to keep the music's beat. This is who I am. This dancing, laughing, carefree barely-an-adult girl who loves life. I see this through my rheumy eyes lying in my hospital bed.
In and out of this dream-reality state I go. When I see my young self, all the worries and sadnesses that occupy my current days recede. I know the next world holds all that was beautiful in this world. When Ted was dying, the cancer took his eyesight before it took his voice. But he saw and described uplifting moments. Our children saw a father hallucinating and talking nonsensibly; I saw hope, excitement, and purpose in the eyes and words of my husband. I know now that what he saw was genuine-real people in real situations experiencing real events and being part of them in his finest form. Now, it's my turn; my kids surround my bedside, fearful of my departure, but I look forward with anticipation. Relief and excitement dance in my eighty-five-year-old bones: the next life will be an eternal environment of all that I love. Peace, joy, and contentment course through me even as arthritis, Parkinson's Disease, and clogged arteries do, too.
Death ends life on earth, but it doesn't end life. I have so many glimpses of the joy that lives beyond. Ted saw it and tried to describe it to me. I feel almost giddy when I see that young girl dancing on the floor; she intrigues me, and I want to join. I will... when it's time.