Imagining My Grandfather Eating Samosas at My Wedding

By Claudia Heidelberger/Flickr
By Claudia Heidelberger/Flickr

By Jessica McCaughey

I was twelve when my grandfather told me not to date any Puerto Rican boys. We were sitting across from one another in the Brooklawn Diner in South Jersey, in a big green leather booth in the non-smoking section, which he loudly and distinctly requested each time we walked in.

This was in contrast to the smoking section, where he sat the other six days of the week, when I wasn’t with him. The owner would give him a pronounced nod, and say, “Right this way, sir,” but the waitresses would sometimes blow his cover and ask, “What are you doing over on this side, hun?” He hid his smoking from his family, which was something we had in common for a brief period later on. Fifteen years later, when I was twenty-seven and he was very close to the end of his life, I can remember sneaking out the back door of his house after giving him his medication and getting him to sleep. I sat crying and smoking on his patio, the moon reflecting off of the overgrown ivy leaves in glints like a disco ball. I thought about waking him to come outside with me, but I didn’t.

We almost certainly ordered pancakes and eggs that morning, with a coffee for him and a very large chocolate milk for me, dark and thick from too much syrup. Although it’s possible we were talking about the boy band Menudo, my best guess at how we got onto the subject is that I mentioned Marco, a boy at school who wore very cool black-and-white checkered shorts. Either way, it was 1990, and I was talking to my then-sixty-five-year-old grandfather about Puerto Ricans.

And out of nowhere, he said: “If you dated a Puerto Rican guy, I wouldn’t really come around anymore.”

I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but I felt like I had been pushed, hard, in the back. My grandfather was, at that time, my best friend. And I wasn’t dating Marco (even in the adorable way that twelve-year-olds could hold hands or pass notes and call it dating), but I did occasionally crank call him with my friend Karla on Friday night sleepovers. Because I liked him.

•••

I’m four months out from my wedding. My fiancé, who has been my partner for more than five years, is not Puerto Rican, but his Indian skin is, in fact, similarly dark and gorgeous and Marco-like. Our Hindu-American mash-up wedding has been the source of much family unrest. My partner and I find ourselves walking around in a state of near-constant upset, working all angles of negotiation, throwing emotional and logical appeals at our otherwise delightful parents weekly in an effort to show them what we see as the beauty of two families, two cultures, blending, evolving.

•••

My grandfather’s wife, my grandmother, had passed away when I was nine, three years before we found ourselves sitting at that diner. When she was alive, I didn’t have a whole lot of access to my grandfather. I saw him often, but my grandparents were of the generation where the men rode up front and the ladies in the back on a double-date, and spending time with their grandchildren wasn’t too different. My brother, older than me by six years, spent time with Pop at the arcade, while my grandmother and I would go off on our own to the Ben Franklin to look for doll clothes. We’d reconvene for dinner somewhere in the mall food court, but ultimately, our time was mostly split along gender lines.

And so I didn’t know my grandfather very well until he was a widower in his mid-sixties, which was also around the time that he retired and sold his printing shop, and that my brother, at fifteen, aged out of spending Friday nights riding shotgun in my grandfather’s Baltic Blue Cadillac. At nine years old, though, there was nothing I’d have rather done at the end of a long week of fourth grade than to hit up the Olive Garden and then spend two hours at Waldenbooks in the Deptford Mall, and that happened to be my grandfather’s idea of a good time, too.

He said to my mother, “I never thought I’d find another lady to spend time with, but I have.” He was talking about me.

•••

He evolved after my grandmother died, and in odd, delightful ways. He took up baking, and, to sustain the habit, we sometimes went blueberry picking over in Ocean County. He made fudge and went on trips. He dated. Before my grandmother died, I had what would have perhaps been the chapter headings of his biography—Childhood During the Depression and World War II Soldier and Sunday School Teacher and Active Lions’ Club Member—but after her death, when we began spending time alone together, I learned the more nuanced—and infinitely more interesting—stories.

During Prohibition, while his father made extra money running moonshine, my grandfather had sat on top of the blanket-covered barrels in the back of the car. I heard about his time in Okinawa and Oahu during the war, never stories about combat or death, but about the time he had his head shaved on the beach and his discomfort with the way the women in Japan had walked a few paces behind him. Although my grandparents didn’t have a great relationship, I learned that they had gone dancing every Saturday night of their married lives, even when they hadn’t said a word to each other in days.

•••

I thought about what my grandfather had said in the diner all that afternoon while we walked up and back along the Ocean City boardwalk, stopping for ice cream and to stare at the circling sea gulls. I thought about it all night in my purple bedroom, and the next day at school. When I got home that afternoon, I called him.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday, that if I ever dated—“

“I was thinking about that, too,” he interrupted, “and I don’t know why I said that. That’s not true.”

“It wouldn’t matter?” I was stunned and pleased.

“Nothing would keep me from coming to see you. I’m sorry. Can we forget I said that?”

Relieved, I said we could. But, of course, I didn’t. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that even if we forgive, we seldom actually forget. Words, especially those that are strikingly out of character, stay with us long after reparations are made. The apology-command, “Forget I said that,” is fruitless. It’s something more like a metaphor. At best, “Forget I said that” means, “Let’s please act, please pretend, as if I never said that.”

I’m surprised by how often I wonder what he would make of this wedding. He would attend—our phone conversation twenty-four years ago assures me of that. But I can’t quite imagine his facial expression as I enter the hall wearing my ornate saree, heavy bangles lining my arms, a gold piece hanging from the part of my hair onto my forehead. I try to picture him dancing amid a sea of darker faces, my future husband’s family, in his stiff late-seventies suit. Would he try the samosas? What would he make of the Ganesh statue, or the fire we’ll circle during the ceremony?

He’d love my future husband; I am sure of that. They are both spiritual but notably private about it. A perfect night in both of their minds is a book and a fire and a Manhattan. They both laugh a lot and tell really good stories, in which they are never the hero, despite often being one in life. They both, I think, see or saw themselves as a character open to change.

The version of my grandfather who was a little boy swimming in South Jersey creeks and riding on the moonshine barrels had to evolve into a uncompromising soldier, eating eggs on the beach in Japan. And that man turned into a husband, and then the father of a little boy, and then the father of a man, and then a father-in-law. He became a grandfather who built elaborate dollhouses for his granddaughter and attempted to skateboard with her on the back patio. When she gave them to him, he read books like Breakfast of Champions and Love in the Time of Cholera.

From 1925 to 2007, he was many different people, and so it is with mostly honesty that I imagine him joyful at my wedding, open to the unfamiliar, thrilled by the love between my partner and I, and dancing in celebration of everything that can happen, everything that can change.

•••

JESSICA MCCAUGHEY’s writing has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Best American Travel Essays, Gulf Coast, and a variety of other literary magazines. Jessica teaches academic and professional writing at George Washington University, and she lives in Virginia with her husband.

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D Is for Daughter

flying
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tamiko Nimura

I am the straight leg of a capital D: leaning towards the curved window and wall of an airplane, insistent, staring at the arc of the horizon. I’m in between deep space and blue sky and white clouds and brown earth. I have to tell myself to stop holding my breath. The sun keeps setting faster as I fly east, towards the hospital where you, my niece, are about to be born. It’s getting darker and darker.

•••

Last week your uncle Josh called me, walking to his bus stop in Seattle after work. He was on his way back to Tacoma, where we live. His voice was uncharacteristically high and tight, and he was slightly out of breath. “My grandpa died,” he said.

“Oh, hon,” I said. Exhaled. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, but he hesitated.

I took a deep breath, too. From the first time I met him some twenty years ago, Grandpa Dave greeted me with an exclamation point, every time, every year: “Hey, Tamiko!” he’d say, and give me a big hug.

•••

What it has meant for me to live in this space where death and birth follow each other so closely? It has felt like both parts of a capital D: the straight rigid line, the soft curving out, both lines working together to create an open space. Something like a mouth. Something like the halves of an ancient chapel door. Something sacred.

•••

I’m flying from Washington State, where I live with my family: your uncle Josh, your cousins, who are my daughters. All of us can’t wait to meet you for the first time. I’ve had your first picture, a fuzzy ultrasound, on my desk in our kitchen. I’m flying down the West Coast to the Bay Area, where your mother and father went to school. From there I’ll take a different plane that travels south over Monterey, where your parents were married, then make a left and head farther south and east into Texas. I’ll return to Seattle after that. The round trip looks like a D on the map. D for death? I think and quickly push the thought away.

•••

The day before my flight, I was on a freeway ramp, racing back from a meeting to pick up your cousins from school. I got a series of texts from your mother. She was going to the hospital to be induced, she said, because a number of risk factors indicated the increased possibility of stillbirth. My anxiety skyrocketed. I started to make myself breathe deeply, calling on every single mind-trick that I knew from yoga to calm myself down.

•••

Maternal deaths in childbirth are much less frequent these days, but somehow I can’t help but project into the very worst-case scenario. Your mother and I already lived through some of the worst together, when our father died so many years ago. She was six years old, and I was ten. If I am facing the prospect of your death or your mother’s, it is because your mother and I met death intimately as children. The worst and unthinkable has already happened to us, and so death never feels very far from me.

•••

During the first part of the trip, I can’t think about very much else but you. I don’t know just when you’ll arrive, but I know you’re really on your way now. On the plane ride I sip plastic cups of ginger ale, refuse the snack mixes. I’ve just turned to a chapter in the book I’m reading. Believe it or not, the chapter is called “It’s A Girl!” But as it turns out, the child in the book is stillborn. I breathe out. I close the book, put it in the seat pocket in front of me. D is for daughter.

I don’t want anything like stillbirth hovering close to your arrival. But the word’s been mentioned by doctors often enough that the specter’s there anyway. Until now I haven’t known that kind of haunting, the specific terror that your uncle Josh felt during both of my pregnancies: the terror of something bad happening to mother or child or both. He hid it well. I was too focused inward to notice, towards growing and welcoming life.

•••

On the plane I’m thinking about a character from a TV show that your mama and I both adore: Downton Abbey. In one episode, a much-loved sister dies of complications from her daughter’s birth. In my mind I am watching that episode, watching a loop of that endless minute, watching that character shudder through a violent seizure and die.

•••

Our grandfathers died before your mother and I were born. Adoptive grandfathers were special to us. So Grandpa Dave was one of the only grandpas I knew, even though he was really your uncle Josh’s grandfather. At ninety-two, Grandpa had lived a beautifully long life. He retired some thirty-five years ago, spent most of his retirement at his own house and at his daughter’s house in the very last few years. He lived to see many grandchildren and even several of his great-grandchildren.

Grandpa Dave and I connected very early after we met, most often through food. Cooking food with him and for him—he loved to watch me cook with Josh, together—was one of the greatest pleasures of our trips home. He cured his own olives, grew and harvested his own avocados. His daughters and grandchildren used to call him every Christmas morning to talk about how many raviolis they’d made together at their houses. Grandpa Dave loved trying sukiyaki and egg rolls from our family’s New Year’s gatherings and he loved my family’s recipe for teriyaki sauce. Food was central to his life as it has been in mine, good simple food. He grew up with very little, but savored so much.

•••

Caught one plane, about to catch another, I am still tense. I don’t watch the news on the TV screens. Only later do I find out about the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Instead, I walk miles in the airports so I can walk through some of that tight energy. I am taut like a bow before it’s released the arrow, I am the arrow flying towards you. Are you here yet?

•••

At the end, Grandpa didn’t have any prolonged suffering or hospital stays. He woke up one morning feeling badly. He had difficulty breathing. He just didn’t come back from the emergency room that day. And in the grand scale of deaths, his was as good a death as might be wished.

For the holidays we will go to California to visit our families, as we do every year. But I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to hug Grandpa in his flannel shirt, watch him take off his glasses, see him rub his forehead, hear the exclamation point in his voice.

•••

In storytelling rules, this is where I should probably talk about your mama—my little sister—and how much I love her. I can tell you about her first cries, all the way from the delivery room and in the elevator and into the nursery. I was four years old. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch in our childhood house when I held her for the first time.

I should tell you more about what and who is at stake if she dies. But I can barely write those last three words. There are not enough words to tell you about my love for my little sister. This is where my words leave me.

•••

I am talking about Grandpa’s death as a “good death,” as if I can manage my grief away by talking about his loss as something good. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a terrible aunt for mentioning his death in a letter to you. Death and a newborn baby? As if any mention of the two in the same pages, much less the same paragraph or sentence, will tarnish this new life for you. The hard truth is that they’re not so far apart, after all.

•••

Once I had to say goodbye to a yoga teacher, a teacher that I really loved, without her knowing I was saying goodbye. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved those classes until I knew I wouldn’t see her anymore. I knew she was leaving before anyone else in the class. In fact, I don’t even think she knew I knew. But yoga is one of the best places to hold space, and this teacher was so good at creating and holding space for her students to feel deeply. She talked about the strength it takes to let go. So I sat, allowing myself to feel a deep sadness for an hour and a half. Not trying to escape it, not trying to fix it or numb it.

That hour might have been the first time I welcomed grief. Now I can think back to that class, that teacher, that shadowed room with its pale yellow walls, and I am grateful. I wonder how many are able to hold space for the hard questions. How do we say goodbye to a life? How do we welcome a new life? To keep the heart open enough and long enough to do these things with love? I think part of the answer’s in the breath.

•••

It’s early evening and I’ve left the sunset far behind on the West Coast. I’m here at the Austin airport, texting, trying to find out where you and your mother are. I check Facebook, and somehow, there’s a green dot, saying that your mama is online. “Oh,” your mama writes. “You’re here early. Baby’s not here yet.”

•••

These last couple of weeks have felt like living among the raw edges of death and birth. But maybe this is how we all live, so many of us unaware most of the time.

When you choose to feel your emotions, a wise woman has said, you can’t just choose to feel the good ones. You have to feel the good ones and the bad ones. I am learning how to un-numb myself, then, even as I write this sentence to you. Feeling a deep grief at Grandpa Dave’s death, I can feel that kind of deep joy over you. They are all tangled up together, my grief and joy. I wish you could have met him. He would have welcomed you, too.

•••

It’s Saturday morning, the day after I’ve landed in Texas. Several hours in the waiting room, a couple of hundred feet from where you are. Other fathers are coming out from behind double doors, being greeted by family members with balloons and flowers. Your grandmother and I are still waiting, jumping every time those double doors open.

At last, a picture appears on my phone from your daddy. And there you are, little one. You are all soft curves, sleeping. To see your face: the faces of my babies. A few hours later, holding you, I see your mama’s face: my baby sister’s face when she was a baby. How incredible just to watch you breathe.

On your first day, I am finally bending after so many waiting hours of sitting straight. I am curving towards you. We are breathing together and I am whispering to you: this is life, this is life, this is life.

•••

TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer living in Tacoma, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Discover Nikkei, the International Examiner, and the Seattle Star. Recent writing has appeared in HYPHEN, The Rumpus, and Full Grown People. Find more of her writing at tamikonimura.net.

 

Read more FGP essays by Tamiko Nimura.

Summers of Smoke

smoke
By Christopher Najewicz/ Flickr

By Susan McCulley

Late on a Connecticut summer night, a young man drives home after a date. He smells smoke. But he doesn’t see the fire until he gets to the pond at the bottom of the hill. Across the water a house is burning. Orange flames reflect on the water between the lily pads. He and a neighbor climb through a window, into the blackness, and pull an old man out of the smoking building. It is 1973. The old man is my grandfather.

•••

In early June 2014, my builder husband Frank complains of back pain for several days running. That can happen when he’s busy, and right now has several construction projects going at once. One house is in the last stages so there are thousands of details to track and a string of sub-contractors to direct. As he hobbles across the kitchen, we exchange pained smiles: Frank’s stress shows up in his back. It’s just stress. But the next morning, my beloved Frank crawls to the bathroom.

•••

My father gets a call at two a.m. at our house on Buzzard’s Bay near Cape Cod. His father, probably in a haze of alcohol, has fallen asleep while smoking in his favorite leather chair. The ambulance is taking him to the hospital with terrible burns from the fire that has destroyed his home. Dad immediately starts the two-hour drive back to Connecticut, headed for Middlesex Hospital. An hour later, doctors decide to transfer my grandfather to the burn center at Yale-New Haven. Realizing that Dad is driving in the wrong direction, his closest friend waits for him on the shoulder of I-95. At three-thirty in the morning, he waves Dad down and gets him to Yale-New Haven.

•••

We find a pair of crutches for Frank but they are awkward and uncomfortable. He settles on using the gnarled walking stick that he made from a dried Arizona cactus. Doubled over and shuffling along, he looks like a six-foot Yoda. The Force, however, is not strong with him. It is painful for him to sit, stand, or lie down. He goes to two massage therapists and a chiropractor and walks out of each appointment in more pain than when he walked in. We cancel a dinner with friends and then a visit with my family. At eight o’clock on a mid-June Saturday night, I call a friend who had back surgery not long ago and beg for Percocet. She gives me kindness, compassion, and every painkiller she has.

•••

My grandfather’s neighbors board up the fire-smashed windows of his home the next morning. In the hospital, Poppa is heavily sedated and asks my Dad to “clean up the house a bit” to get ready for a visit from his sister and her husband. My father has a long conversation with Poppa’s doctor about his condition, his prognosis, and his personality. The doctor says they can keep my grandfather alive, but he would need constant care and would be completely immobile. Poppa has no living will, so the doctor asks my father how he thinks Poppa would feel about that. Dad tells the doctor honestly about his father’s stubbornness, his fierce independence, and his recent battles over needing an in-home health care nurse. The next morning, the doctor calls to say he is terribly sorry but Poppa has died.

•••

Frank says he knows that the pain will go away. He’s been researching back pain, and he’s pretty sure it is just a matter of time before he feels himself again. It’s also possible that it’s not just stress. Maybe something else is going on. He goes to his doctor and gets some steroids and his own prescription for Percocet. He wades into the health care system to figure out what is happening in his spine. He has an X-ray that shows no arthritis and no bone damage. The doctor submits the paperwork for an MRI but it will take a week to ten days before it will be approved. The steroids make him sleepless and sweaty as a teenager. His right shoulder now has bursitis from his sleeping in only one position. We are at sea as to what to do and how to drag ourselves through the pain: his physical pain and my emotional pain watching him.

•••

My father’s father, my Poppa, was older—both in years and in spirit—than my tractor-driving, sailboat-captaining maternal grandfather. In my nine-year-old eyes, he was scratchy on the outside with a prickly mustache, wool suits, and a wool hat with bristly feathers. He had a bristly personality, too, and scolded me for eating like a bird. But his tender insides showed when I trick-or-treated at his door or when I sat with him on his deep leather chair to watch the Rose Bowl Parade on his color television. He drank more after my grandmother died and he smoked until his fingers were stained brown. My strongest memory of Poppa is his thorny-mustache kisses that smelled smokily of cigarettes.

•••

With a cocktail of painkillers, Frank can sleep but, after a couple of hours, the pain pokes him awake. After weeks of determined optimism, he finally crumples. At midnight, he sobs hot tears of pain, fear, and frustration, “What is wrong with me?” Hands resting on him gently, I am paralyzed with the exquisite anguish of helplessness. I’m in such despair that I can’t even cry, furious that no one can help us. After a time and another Percocet, Frank quiets and lifts his head with irritation, “What is that noise?” A scratching, like a mouse or a bat is coming from the woodstove stovepipe and it is driving my sweet man crazy. I leap into action. I can’t make the pain go away, but I can make the bat go away! Intent on new-found usefulness, I stuff paper into the woodstove and light it—not thinking that it’s late June and hot outside so the chimney won’t draw. In a minute, smoke fills the house and I’m crazily sealing Frank safely in the bedroom, opening windows to the thick, humid air, squashing out the burning paper. In the morning, I’m sure that the whole ridiculous scene was a Lucille Ball nightmare except the smell of smoke lingers in the living room.

•••

When Poppa dies, Auntie Jane, my father’s only sibling, flies in from California. She comes for the funeral, presumably, but my only memory of her visit is of my mother and her at the kitchen table drinking and smoking cigarettes. I have never seen my mother smoke. She sees me staring and mumbles that she shouldn’t be doing it. “You deserve it, honey,” says Auntie Jane loosely holding a glass heavy with ice and amber and leaning against the bright yellow kitchen wall.

•••

Frank’s MRI is finally scheduled but his morning appointment is scuttled. He simply cannot lie flat and still in the tube of the machine. My kind, gentle Frank yells and swears at everyone in earshot. “I feel like a fucking old man!” I don’t argue. In just a few weeks, he’s aged decades. The technician tells him to get as much painkiller as he can from the physician and come back.

Hours later, after a torrential rain, we return to the hospital with Frank double-dosed with Percocet and Valium. We pull up to the main entrance under towering pink-gray clouds like billows of smoke from a nearby fire. Between the drugs and the pain he can barely put two steps together, so an elderly hospital volunteer and I help him into a wheelchair and I roll him to the imaging lab. I do my best to make light of it, slaloming down the hallway, but the sight of my strong fit man withering in a wheelchair breaks my heart. The MRI technician suggests I sit in the waiting area, but I will have none of it. I’m not leaving him. Together, the tech and I slide Frank up to the MRI bed and gingerly he hoists himself up. The tired-looking technician arranges Frank’s legs straighter and he is howling and swearing again. She looks at me. “Do you have any more drugs?” I do: two Percocet and two Valium. Frank takes them down.

•••

The rest of the summer of 1973 is soaked in the smell of wet smoke. Every morning, my parents go to the wreckage of Poppa’s house, pull out whatever they can salvage, and toss the rest. They come home every night reeking of soggy soot. Everything in Poppa’s bedroom is destroyed. The intricate family silver and my grandmother’s cobalt blue glasses are melted and unrecognizable. The leather chair and the color TV blackened and soaked. Mom and Dad find some photographs and the big leather-bound family Bible with the metal clasp. Decades later, it still wafts the unmistakable smell of fire whenever it is opened.

•••

Frank sits in the wheelchair with his head is in his hands. The beleaguered MRI tech ushers us into an empty examining room. “Give the drugs some time to kick in,” she says and closes the door on us. I squat down, roll him up close, and press my forehead to his. “I’m right here with you, sweetheart. I’m right here.”

Frank cracks into sobs and says thinly, “It hurts so much. I just want it to stop.”

After a time, all those drugs make his eyes go smoky soft. I put my head into the tech’s office and tell her that he’s ready. We gently slide him onto the machine, straighten his legs, and look at him cautiously. “Okay?” we both say at once. He nods. She hands us both ear plugs like the ones airline workers wear on the tarmac. “You can stand right there and reach in and touch him. It won’t hurt anything,” she says. I put my hands on his head and stroke his hair while the machine sings and groans and zings oddly for nearly thirty minutes. Only after it’s finally over do I look up and notice a back-lit oversized photograph of purple and yellow crocuses on the ceiling.

•••

In the summer of ’73, long before playdates are a thing, a different family takes care of my sister and me every day. Since we had planned to spend the summer on Buzzard’s Bay, we have no day camp or activities in place—only friends. Every day, when my parents go off to dig through Poppa’s burned house, another family has us over to go to the pool or the beach, play in the sprinkler, go out for ice cream. Once, we spend the afternoon with my grandfather’s next door neighbor, the one who pulled him from the bedroom window. He has kids our age and a great swimming pool so it’s a welcome place to be, but the pull of the fire-wrecked house next door is strong. I can smell it across the yard. The kids dramatically tell me not to look, not to go over there, but with equal drama, I sneak to the edge of the yard and peer through the bushes. The plywood-covered windows are like empty eyes. The gray siding above each window is smeared with long black soot smudges like bristly eyebrows.

•••

After the MRI, I drive Frank home, slide him back onto his perch of pillows on the couch, and go to get him tea and an ice pack. When I come back he’s looking at me with tears in his eyes. “How does anyone ever do this alone?”

Up until then, I had made only shy, tentative requests for help from my sister and my closest friends. Gingerly asking if maybe, possibly, would you mind too much, could you please help us? My dearest ones were right there in an instant. Even so, I was ashamed to ask. I felt like I should be able to handle this, that I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. That I shouldn’t need help.

Frank’s MRI shows a herniated disc in his lumbar spine that is pressing on his sciatic nerve. Just as the pain branches out from Frank’s compromised disc, I decide to reach out and ask for help. I send out a group email to friends and family explaining what is happening, what we know, what we don’t. In less than a day, friends start pouring in. Some bring enormous meals with funny, handmade cards and flowers. Some come play cards and Backgammon and watch World Cup matches. One sings him a song about chickens. The love pours in our door like a river.

•••

Frank’s back begins to heal, but the summer continues to burn. Four close friends’ fathers die. Another friend, younger than we, is diagnosed with colon cancer. Yet another friend has abdominal surgery to remove a painful and suspicious tumor. A neighbor is killed in a biking accident. A therapist of several friends commits suicide. The sadness and loss is staggering, relentless. The summer suddenly feels unpredictable, scary, dangerous. I take Frank to physical therapy and to get an epidural shot. I write sympathy cards, bring a bag of bagels to one family, bowls of cold summer soup to another. I feel disoriented, suffocated, blinded by all the sadness.

•••

I’m delivering a platter of roasted vegetables and a bowl of melon to another friend singed by the summer of 2014 when I suddenly remember the smoky summer of 1973. I remember the play date at Poppa’s neighbor’s house. I remember the smell mostly—the rest is hazy, except for how odd and disorienting it was as a child. I wonder what it was like for my parents.

When I ask my father about the summer of 1973, he says that what he remembers is the kindness and generosity of so many people: of the young man who spotted the flames, of the neighbor who helped him pull Poppa free, of my father’s friend who flagged him down on the highway, of the wise doctor, of people who just did what needed doing. “People are pretty awesome,” he says.

This summer has cracked me open. It’s challenged me to do things and be with things beyond what I thought I could. The edges of my heart are sore and aching from all the sadness and disappointment and loss. The fibers of my compassion and empathy muscles have been stretched and strengthened. I hug longer now, look with softer eyes, am gentler with my words. I’ve let go of any illusion that I have control over a single thing.

Memory is a funny thing. My father looks back on the tragic death of his father and it is the support, care and kindness that he remembers. As traumatic as it must have been, for my dad the summer of 1973 was about love.

It’s been forty years since Poppa died, but it’s only been a couple of months since Frank’s been walking without his Yoda stick. The string of memorial services is still unwinding. The soreness and bruising from the summer of 2014 are tender, and it is a tenderness that I hope never goes away. I have been tempted to call it The Summer of Sadness, but honestly, that’s not how it feels. The feeling of the summer of 2014 is love. The rest disperses like the smoke from a single match.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing, traveling, and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. This is her second essay for Full Grown People and others have been published on Elephant Journal. She lives with her (now fully healed) husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

How You Like Them Apples?

apple girl
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Miller Murray Susen

It’s the Morning Hustle. Five things are happening at once. The microwave beeps with the oatmeal. Lily reminds me she needs a note to go home with a friend after school. Max yodels a nonsense song and knocks over his milk with his elbow. The bus will be out front in ten minutes. In the midst of it all, I’m packing the kids’ lunches. Not for the first time, I wonder why I never do it the night before. Or make them do it themselves, for heaven’s sake. I plunk two oatmeals on the table, toss Max a dish towel, and go back to frantically sectioning apples. Lily pauses at my elbow.

“Be sure to get all the core out.”

“Yes, yes.”

“You never get it all out. It’s so gross. The texture.”

“Gotcha, now sit down and eat.”

I secure the apple slice between forefinger and thumb and dig with the blade of the paring knife, trying for that perfect angle where the core will pop out in an intact semicircle, leaving only smooth flesh behind. I’m rushing, though, and instead I hack the section in half. I chop out the middle, do the same to the other sections, and quickly pile the bits into a container and cram it into her lunch bag. Well, they are core-less.

“Eat up! Let’s go! Five minutes until the bus!”

•••

My dad doesn’t like to cook. This does not prevent him from turning out stacks of tender buttermilk pancakes, hearty dishes of spaghetti bolognese, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches with a buttery, crisp exterior that shatters delightfully when you take a bite. He feeds me and the kids lunch about once a week, and as I linger over my chicken salad sandwich, made with sweet pickles and celery the way I like it, he effortlessly cores apple slices for us. He uses the battered pocket knife he carries in a leather case on his belt, his rough, square fingers strong and sure. Pop! goes the core, and he slides a few slices my way along the table.

“Thanks for lunch, Dad.”

“It was my pleasure.”

His eyes glint warmly at me from his weathered, smiling face.

“Now take those kids home. I need a nap.”

•••

Lily’s fourth grade teacher is trying to bring a little hands-on fun to the last quarter of the year, a respite from the rampant standardized testing and flurry of final projects. She asks the parents to come in and help kids learn about fractions in the real world via making (and consuming) an apple pie. Which is how I find myself seated at the center of a group of four nine-year-old girls, passing out vegetable peelers and Granny Smith apples.

“Y’all get started with these, and I’ll use this sharp knife to peel some, too.”

“Mrs. Susen, this is hard. I can’t get mine to go.”

“It is kind of hard with a peeler. You just have to press down with authority. Like this.”

I demonstrate to get the peel started, then hand the apple back so the girl can continue to slowly scrape off tiny, unsatisfying flaps of skin. I hope no one peels a forefinger.

“Why can’t I use the knife like you do?”

“I don’t think your teacher would like that.”

“How’d you learn to peel so good?”

“Oh, I’m actually only okay at peeling apples. See? I’m getting a lot of the flesh. But you know what made me want to learn?”

The girls stop their inefficient scraping to listen, glad for an excuse to take a break.

“There’s this movie called Sleepless in Seattle. Have any of you seen it?” They shake their heads. “Well, it’s a little old for you guys. Anyway, in the movie, the main characters are a boy about your age and his dad. And they’re living on their own because the mother died.”

Lily’s eyes widen. “She died? How?”

I smile reassuringly, a little sorry I started on this topic. “She had cancer, I think? I don’t remember. Anyway, there’s a scene where the boy is having trouble remembering things about his mom. He doesn’t want to forget her, so he says to the dad, ‘Tell me about Mom.’ And the dad starts off, ‘Your mom could peel an apple in one long, curly strip.’ And ever since that movie, I’ve been practicing my apple peeling so I could learn to peel an apple in one long, curly strip.”

Lily says with rising pitch, “So that we’ll say that about you after you die, Mom?”

“Uh, well, just because I thought it sounded cool. Anyway! Who wants to unroll the pie crust?”

•••

Every Wednesday I make lunch for my ninety-three-year-old grandfather. He’s rattling around on his own now in the house that he and my grandmother designed, built, and lived in together before her death a few years ago. At first he was looking after himself pretty well, but the dementia he was already exhibiting at the time of her final illness has accelerated since she died. It’s seemed to me that his life without her is so diminished that he’s choosing to let go and drift, to slip away into memories. My uncles hired a live-in caretaker, but our in-town family still takes turns to provide him with some lunches and dinners each week. It gives the helper a break, and him a little company.

I never spent time with Popi on my own before my grandmother died. They had eight sons together, and I’m one of twenty-three grandchildren, so I didn’t spend much individual time with either of them, actually. Occasionally, though, in her later years, when she tired more easily and was home more often, I would run by to help my grandmother with a project, and she’d make lunch for the three of us. Her meals were ladylike and quaint, and delicious. First she’d offer a pitted avocado half with a pool of vinaigrette in the middle, to scoop up together with a silver spoon. Next a dainty glass sandwich plate cupping a cream cheese and chopped black olive sandwich on whole wheat with the crusts cut off. Finally she’d rummage around for a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and offer two on a china dish along with a cup of weak coffee thinned with skim milk.

When I started bringing Popi lunch, I felt weirdly self-conscious. I didn’t know if he’d like my cooking or my idea of a tasty sandwich. So I’d punt and pick up sandwiches, cookies, and bags of potato chips from the bakery. Popi was the original smug health-food fanatic, culturing yogurt and spreading mashed yeast on toast back in the fifties. But since his dementia has taken hold I’ve noticed that he loves junk food. He’d eat every crumb of the bag of chips, and sometimes eat his cookie before he finished his sandwich. Max scolded him for it when I brought him along to lunch. But then Popi’s edema got worse, and the word went out from my uncle that we should all cut back on offering him salty snacks. One week my ungrateful children had picked listlessly at a nice pot of French lentil soup I made for dinner, so I decided to take the leftovers out to Popi to see if they’d suit. His eyes lit up when I offered the hot bowl of soup, along with a buttered roll and a peeled clementine, and he thanked me extra warmly for the “lovely, lovely lunch.” Since then that’s my lunch formula: soup, buttered bread, fruit, and sometimes a little sweet.

Initially during our lunches Popi would reminisce in vivid detail about his childhood in New York City and Long Island or about his time serving in the Air Force during World War II, but in recent months he gets caught in conversational eddies, pausing a moment before circling through a familiar exchange again from the beginning.

I carefully core and thinly slice apples as we cycle through one of his most frequent conversational gambits.

“It’s a very still day.”

“Yes, the weather’s been nice lately.”

“I had a friend who was very well traveled. He used to say that here in Central Virginia we have ‘the finest climate in the world, outside of the Austrian Tyrol.’”

“So, Popi, what’s the weather like in the Austrian Tyrol?”

“Couldn’t say, I’ve never been.”

We both chuckle, like it’s the first time and not the fiftieth, then pause as I deliver the apples and a shortbread cookie.

“Well, doesn’t this look nice? Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

A moment as we both take a bite of apple.

“It’s a very still day.”

•••

Morning Hustle. Max’s milk is in a pool on the floor, again. Lily has soccer after school, and I remind her to pack up her shin-guards and a water bottle.

“What’s the sandwich today, Mom?”

“You know I don’t like to talk about lunch. You only complain about what I’m packing. Go brush your teeth.”

“Fine, but I was wondering, can you just put a whole apple in my lunch bag?”

Max perks up. “Yeah! I want one, too!”

“A whole apple? Will you guys eat the whole thing? I don’t want to waste these apples, they’re organic and expensive.”

“Yes, I will!”

“I will, too. Everyone else just brings a whole apple. Apple slices are for little kids.”

“Well. Okay, then.”

I drop two apples into the lunch bags. Easy enough.

“Guys, go get your shoes on. You’re going to miss the bus.”

•••

I always thought one day I’d feel like I’d really come into my own. I’d feel a sense of mastery, of justified confidence, as I strode through my life. I wouldn’t just look like a grown-up on the outside; I’d feel the way that I assumed grown-ups felt on the inside. My father, in his calm competence, personified the adult I expected to become. But he still seems like a grown-up relative to me, even though I now signify adulthood to my own children. And caring for my grandfather, as his edges soften and calm competence fades, just messes with my head. How can it be that I’ve grown powerful in relation to this proud patriarch? That I am woman enough to cut his food into bite-sized bits? Middle age. I’m in the middle of the process of discovery. Won’t I always be here? Even when I grow old, if I should be so lucky, I’ll still be in the middle of understanding who I am.

•••

MILLER MURRAY SUSEN is the most extroverted introvert you know. She acts and tells stories, then holes up at home and sweats about having done those things. She writes essays and plays, then gets bored in a quiet room by herself. She adores her husband and two children but wishes they wouldn’t insist on talking to her so much. This fall, she’s going to try directing her own adaptation of Little Women, plus take on a part time job as Associate Director of Education at Live Arts. She is super thrilled and super stressed!

What I Know Now

statue
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Elizabeth Titus

Hours after I became a mother at the age of forty-three in a remote city in China, I got a phone call from my brother Kent. Our father had suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was unlikely to live for more than a few days.

It was December 9, 1994. My father was seventy-six years old, living with his fifth wife in Florida. My mother—his first wife—had died eleven years earlier, and in those terrible ensuing years, my father went crazy and kept getting married to any woman who would say “yes.” He was depressed, desperate, defensive. No matter what his three children advised him, he always had a “next in line,” a woman he knew we’d all love.

The women were younger, destitute, uneducated, and amazed that a man had come along to rescue them. They had no idea that money was one thing, but what went with the money was a man who desired to control their every move. Always headstrong and impulsive, he became worse, so much so that my brothers and I wondered if he suffered from a borderline personality disorder. The judge in his second divorce hearing (the divorce after just a month from his marriage to Bert, a woman I never met who left her job as a waitress at his country club to marry him) suggested my father see a psychiatrist, which my father found absurd. He had no need for psychiatrists; in fact, he considered it a sign of weakness. It was whispered for years that his older sister, Anne, had seen a psychiatrist while she was at Wellesley College, because she was so “high-strung.”

The truth of the matter was that Anne had suffered at the hands of an alcoholic, abusive father who was an embarrassment to his family in the upstate New York town where they had lived. A graduate of Hamilton College in the same class as writer and critic and fellow curmudgeon Alexander Woollcott, of Algonquin Round Table fame, my grandfather was a brilliant, spoiled man who got a law degree at Columbia University and then never bothered to work.

“When was Grandpa’s last case?” I’d ask my father.

“Of Labatt?” was always the response.

We’d laugh and laugh at this private joke.

My grandfather would sit in an overstuffed, low-lying easy chair in the parlor of the Greek Revival home purchased for him and his bride Lucile by his father-in-law and smoke cigars and drink Labatt beer all day long, living off the income from a family bakery business that his wife’s ancestors started in 1896. When my grandfather fell out of bed, drunk, in his late seventies and broke his hip, the end was near. As he took his last breath, my father was at his side, and he told people later that he had said, “Good riddance, you son of a bitch.”

The night before my husband Gregory and I left for China in December 1994, I called my father in Florida to tell him we were on our way. I had seen him a few months earlier at the “celebration” of his fifth anniversary to his fifth wife. She had taken me aside and had said she was leaving him because he was crazy and a womanizer and told anyone who would listen about his new penile pump. I’d told Gregory to call Continental Airlines because we were returning to New York City immediately.

During my final conversation with my father that night before going to China, I tried, as I always had, to get him to focus on me, his youngest child and only daughter.

He talked about a cousin I barely knew and his wife’s friend who had gone to China to adopt a child. He relayed every detail of their trip.

“What about my trip?” I almost screamed into the phone. “What about me?”

I told Gregory that I hoped my father would drop dead.

And he did.

Did he die because I willed it? Did I kill my father?

“There’s nothing you can do,” my brother, a doctor in Richmond, Virginia, where my mother had grown up, told me. “You could never get back in time.”

I knew that I couldn’t leave China without first going through the legal adoption process, which would take place at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou in a few days. So I didn’t even think about leaving. A DES daughter, I had endured years of infertility, IVF, a stillbirth, and two ectopic pregnancies; nothing was going to stand in my way of becoming a mother now. I told Gregory that I didn’t want anyone in our group of twelve adoptive families to know about my father. I wanted to keep this separate from the joy of becoming a mother. I would file it away somewhere deep inside my brain and deal with it later.

And so we went on as we had before the phone call from my brother, delighting in our happy, beautiful baby girl. We have photos of the three of us, laughing and clapping our hands, in the hotel restaurant.

When my brother called two days later to say my father had died, never regaining consciousness, I cried, for the first time. And then we prepared for our long trip back to America with our baby girl, Wei Xin-Fei, renamed Lili.

I flew to Florida for the funeral, which took place on a golf course. Golf was his only real passion, so this was fitting. The master of ceremonies, if you will, was Patty Berg, the winner of a record fifteen women’s major golf championships and a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. My father had become friends with the five-foot-two powerhouse Patty Berg because she was the pro at his golf club. After one of his divorces, he had nowhere to live, so he moved in with Patty. I had a hunch that she was
a lesbian, although she never came out, which is the only explanation I had for why he didn’t marry her. I’m sure he asked, as he always did. But she was not his type; she was smart, successful, independent, tough. He liked the thirty-year-olds he met at shopping malls and bought televisions and VCRs for, the ones who had
 been mistreated by men. He was there to save them. His mission in life.

Patty Berg told funny stories about my father, like the time he got a hole in one and then tried to duck out of having to buy drinks for everyone. A notorious cheapskate, we had many family stories about how he’d put rotgut vodka in Smirnoff bottles. There was never a brand name in his cupboards; he was the king of store brands. Heinz Ketchup or Crest Toothpaste? Forget
 it.

He was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, and not a very good one. He cut his own grass and hair, did the family laundry, whites and colors all together, and mended our clothes. My father prided himself on his sewing ability. When I’d visit him in Florida, I could see him eyeing my jacket to see if there were loose buttons.

“Take that jacket off, and I’ll sew that button back on right now,” he’d urge me. Or rather, order me.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d respond.

But he was a dog with a bone, and in no time, he’d whisk out his olive drab sewing kit, which he received during World War II, where he had served in North Africa soon after graduating from Yale. He had everything he needed in that frayed kit: small Wiss bandage scissors; a tape measure; some hooks and eyes; a thimble; sewing needles; a safety pin or two; and a couple spools of Coats & Clark’s Boilfast fifteen-cent thread. He had two colors of thread, forest green and blue-grey. Oblivious to matters of fashion, he paid no attention to matching his thread to the item in need of his attention.

When my father’s widow/almost ex-wife asked me to select a few items from his desk drawer in their condo in Florida, I came across the sewing kit.

 

FROM

AMERICAN RED CROSS

BEAVER CO. CHAPTER

NEW BRIGHTON, PENNA.

“I’d like to have this,” I told her.

“Oh, that Rex,” she laughed. “He did love to sew. And he was terrible at it.”

That Rex. Rexford Walker Titus Jr. My father. A lunatic, in so many ways. He drove me crazy, and then he died, before meeting his granddaughter. I rarely discuss him with her.

But now, days after she has turned twenty, I think I’ll show her the World War II sewing kit. And maybe I’ll tell her about Patty Berg and the funeral on a golf course and the grandfather she never knew.

I may also tell her a terrible truth of my own life: hours after she was brought to our hotel room, her father and I called his parents and my brother Kent to tell them we were parents. This was before Skype and Instagram, so there were no photos.

I planned to call my father in a day or two, but I didn’t, and it was too late. So he never knew of our joy. Why, oh why, was I so damn stubborn, such a child, at the age of forty-three? Why did I still feel the need to punish him, a confused, frightened man who lost his bearings when his wife died?

I return often to the final paragraph of a 1954 story by Harold Brodkey, called “State of Grace,” that I first read when I was an English teacher in Philadelphia in 1974. It left me speechless then, and it still does, forty years later. The author looks back at his arrogant, guarded thirteen-year-old self, filled with guilt and self-blame at his lack of tenderness toward a younger boy:

“I’m thinking of all the years that might have been—if I’d only known then what I know now. The waste, the God-awful waste. Really, that’s all there is to this story. The boy I was, the child Edward was. That, and the terrible desire to suddenly turn and run shouting back through the corridors of time, screaming at the boy I was, searching him out and pounding on his chest: Love him, you damn fool, love him.”

•••

ELIZABETH TITUS has been a journalist (Gannett), an English teacher, an advertising account executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), and a communications director (fifteen years at American Express). She has a BA in English (Skidmore), an MA in English (University of Pennsylvania), and an MBA (Wharton). She left the corporate world in 2002 and has not looked back, dedicating her time to freelance writing, traveling to places she always longed to see (Africa, Russia, Turkey), taking courses at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and volunteering for two nonprofits devoted to educating Afghan women, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (awwproject.org) and The School of Leadership Afghanistan (sola-afghanistan.org). She is the mother of Lili, age twenty, and the legal guardian of Sabira, an Afghan woman, currently at a boarding school in New England and hoping to attend Middlebury College in 2014.