With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I was growing up, Mother’s Day was the day we left church early, got in our 1956 Chevrolet station wagon, and drove two hours to my grandparents’ farm for the annual family reunion.
We’d arrive in the warm May sun, pull off the dirt road into the yard, and stop next to the long tables set up underneath the mimosa trees and covered with soft, slick oilcloth sheets. While the women set out platters — fried chicken, ham biscuits, green beans, chocolate cake, persimmon pudding — and shooed off kids who tried to steal a chicken leg, the men sat on the front porch talking and smoking unfiltered Camels. We kids played hide-and-seek, and new parents showed off their babies. Sunlight played hopscotch over everything, and laughter filled the air.
When the heat had melted the meringue on the lemon pie and the flies had figured out from which direction the rolled-up newspapers would strike, we’d all be called to dinner. Grandpa stood at the head of the longest table and said grace. Then we ate and ate, each aunt insisting we taste what she had cooked.
After dinner, as the women cleared the tables, a few of the men led us children to the family graveyard hidden deep in the woods behind the barn. It was a small plot surrounded by a low stone wall that was held together more by ivy than cement. The graves were marked by cracked headstones bearing names like Horace and Miranda and dates from 1800 to 1925. In a small corner of the yard, a few graves had only large, unmarked stones at the head. “Those were slaves,” our fathers said, and spat expertly through their teeth.
We jumped and danced around the stone wall that encircled our family laid to rest, and no one asked why the slaves’ graves had no names.
Overland Park, Kansas
My parents divorced when I was fourteen, after years of hostility and alienation. Without so much as a goodbye, Dad left our small midwestern hometown for a new life in Florida. I was almost relieved. Although my father was a passionate, creative man, he had a darker side. Opinionated, sarcastic, critical, and arrogant, he had devastated my mother, rejected his family, and burned bridges with his business associates. I remember particularly his scathing remarks about my adolescent appearance and mannerisms. I was hardly sorry when he left.
I grew up, graduated from college, moved west, began a career, and got married. I occasionally thought of Dad and kept track of his whereabouts through relatives, but my memories were painful and bitter.
Then one day, some fourteen years since my last conversation with my father, I received a call from my brother: Dad was critically ill with cancer, scheduled for major surgery, unlikely to live much longer. I had known a moment like this would arrive and had wondered whether I would care; I did. The next morning I boarded a plane for Florida.
After all those years I dreaded facing Dad, but I felt compelled to see him. Our reunion revealed a different man: gone was the brash, outspoken, obstinate father I had remembered, and in his place was someone weak, tired, afraid, and utterly vulnerable. Dad wept like a small child when he saw me. Life had not turned out as he had planned; here he was — deathly ill, nearly penniless, alone. Seeing him like that, I felt only compassion and the need to connect with him again.
My father survived the surgery, but the doctors told us that we could expect him to live only a few more months. I returned home several days later after an emotional goodbye, expecting never to see my father alive again.
After a month, my father had regained enough strength to visit me in Arizona. This reunion was even more emotional because we were able to begin piecing together what had happened between us. We took advantage of his reprieve to get to know each other again and to heal the past.
From that point on, Dad grew stronger and stronger. The doctors said his remission was a miracle, and we agreed. For three years we spent as much time together as we could, taking trips, having adventures, making memories. Dad joined a support group and worked as a counselor with other cancer patients. He became more emotional and sensitive — and more passionately alive than anyone else I had ever known.
Just before Dad succumbed to the illness that had transformed him, he told me our reconciliation had given him the will to live and the determination to recapture what part of life he could with me. I was with him when he died.
After we’ve divided the furniture, cleaned the house, and auctioned off what we don’t want or can’t save, we still find boxes of Grandpa and Grandma’s life to haul down from the attic. We meet at their farmhouse to sort.
Penknife to Brenda, diploma to Michelle, wedding picture to Kathy. We grandchildren bicker and divide. Army ID, warped by Grandpa’s wallet, to me; baseball mitt, formed by his hand, to Jill; brittle love letters, written from Grandma’s heart, to Annette. The boxes slowly empty.
It’s Thanksgiving. After prayer and pumpkin pie, their sons — their four pigeon-toed boys — sit around the kitchen table and block off acres of black soil into housing lots.
It had been seven years since my mother and her sister Rosa had spoken to one another. Their last conversation had been an argument at my parents’ fiftieth-anniversary celebration. There had always been ill feelings between the two sisters, but it appeared this argument would be the last, unless someone made a move toward reconciliation.
I told Mom that if she wanted to see Aunt Rosa, I would drive her the eight-hundred-mile round trip. Mom said OK. As she prepared for the trip, my father urged her to ask Rosa’s forgiveness.
“Why should I?” asked Mom. “I didn’t do anything that needs forgiving.”
After an uneventful drive, we arrived at Aunt Rosa’s nursing home and were shown to her room, where she was fast asleep. The next morning we met her in the dining room for coffee. She looked much as I remembered her, only more frail. We talked about our trip, about Mom’s grandchildren. Not a word was said about their argument.
After a while Aunt Rosa asked, “Where did you say you came from?”
“Colorado,” I answered.
Aunt Rosa’s eyes lit up. “I have a sister in Colorado,” she said.
“Yes, Aunt Rosa. This is Allie.” I pointed to my mother.
Aunt Rosa looked at Mom, smiled blankly, and drank her coffee.
I first met my friend James’s grandmother Norma when she and his mother visited from Louisiana. James had received explicit instructions from his mother to keep his homosexuality a secret from Norma. “She just wouldn’t be able to handle it,” James’s mother had said.
As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to Muir Woods, James commented on each male bicyclist we passed and winked at his mother, who was crouched low in the seat beside him. I sat in the back with Norma and could see James peering into the rearview mirror as each muscular rider receded behind us.
That day James bought a redwood burl and brought it home, where he planted it in a clay pot and watered it diligently.
A year later, they visited again. This time we went to the Filoli estate, a mansion in Woodside, California. As we walked through the magnificent garden, James told me to distract his mother while he and Norma went off together. I paused near a beautiful bed of roses and commented to James’s mother on the varieties and colors: Crimson Glory, Lavender Girl, Yellow Sunshine.
When James told Norma he was gay, she said she had already guessed. She was also correct in her fear that he had AIDS.
“When she phones now,” James said several weeks later, “we discuss our illnesses. She talks about her arthritis. I talk about my opportunistic infections.” Norma told James that she rubbed holy water on her hands at church and prayed that his herpes would disappear.
“Just don’t let anyone see,” James said.
“I rubbed a little extra on my belly,” she told him.
I saw Norma again in April 1992. She and James’s parents wanted to visit the place on Mount Tamalpais where we’d scattered James’s ashes. Later we went to the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. James’s redwood tree, planted there among a grove of giant redwoods, now reached Norma’s chest. A foot of new, lime green growth rose delicately into the forest air.
We gathered around the tree for a photograph. With a sly grin that reminded me of James, Norma extended her arm toward the small tree. “My grandson,” she said proudly.
I took the first plane from Los Angeles, my brother Barry took the first plane from Mexico City, and we miraculously ran into each other in the terminal at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. His face looked raw and melted down by grief. I had decided before I left home not to let myself break down, or I wouldn’t be able to get on a plane to go back. I hugged him and he cried. My tears wouldn’t come.
By the time we got to our stepfather’s house, it was around midnight. He had tried to clean up the room where Ricky had shot himself, but the wall-to-wall carpet was stained dark with blood. My stepfather, Big Ed, and his wife, Mildred, were lying in their king-sized bed. The room stank of booze, cigarettes, and perfume, both stale and fresh. Their two dogs lay curled up at their feet.
Barry and I entered the dark room and lay down between Big Ed and Mildred. We all held each other. Big Ed had a three-day growth of beard and his sweat smelled sour. Mildred smelled like hair spray, although her usually perfect coif was mashed flat. No one spoke. All at once the three of them broke into deep, sharp sobs that rocked me back and forth. Their tears ran down my face and neck. Finally they quieted, and there was just the sound and feel of their breath. I don’t know how long we lay there entwined.
Sixteen years later, trying to explain my need to meditate to Barry, I asked if he had ever had a transcendent experience — a time when, perhaps even for a moment, there was no separation between him and anyone or anything else. Without hesitation he replied, “Yes, that night after Ricky died, when we were lying in bed with Big Ed and Mildred.”
My mother, Chris, was two years old when her Polish father was shot through the head during World War II. Her mother was left to raise four children alone in Communist East Germany. A strict woman, her mother neither spoke nor allowed her children to speak an ill word toward the government.
But Chris was as rebellious as a child could be in East Germany. She refused to join the Communist Party at age twenty-one, and as a result lost her well-paying office job. She and her best friend planned an escape. They went to the Berlin train station and jumped aboard a train to West Berlin before the doors could slam shut. Eventually Chris made her way to the United States.
Thirty-one years after her escape, the Berlin Wall came down. The only contact Chris had had with her mother over the years had been through letters screened by the East German government. Chris made arrangements to visit her mother in May 1992.
Flying to Germany, Chris was filled with anticipation. She hoped her mother would be as thrilled as she was and could forgive her for leaving all those years ago.
When she arrived, Chris was elated to see her mother. She hugged her enthusiastically and told her how much she had missed her. But her mother stood there stiff and unsmiling, still the strict, hard woman Chris had left behind.
As a child growing up in the New York melting pot of Elmhurst, Queens, I had the unshakable conviction that every human being was bilingual. One language was reserved for the privacy of the home (Spanish, in my case); the other — English — was for the rest of society. My peers, first- and second-generation Americans, also spoke their own “private” languages — Spanish, Polish, Italian, Yiddish, or Japanese — as well as English.
We learned English virtually by osmosis. It was English that we heard on Saturday-morning Bugs Bunny cartoons and on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” English that was spoken by the Mr. Softee ice-cream-truck driver and the soft-pretzel vendor on the corner, English that was whispered by Santa Claus at the Macy’s toy department as we sat on his lap. By kindergarten we had mastered the language, while many of our immigrant parents were still struggling through night classes in English as a second language.
In the 1970s my family relocated to all-American, middle-class Willingboro, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. Here there were no more “private” languages, except for ours.
Today, at our family reunions, my parents speak to my seven-year-old and six-month-old sons in Spanish. More often than not, my older son responds in English. Yet, he is gradually learning the language of my childhood — as if by osmosis — from the conversations of his loving grandparents.
Susana Rosende Gillotti
I was standing in the snow at the edge of the driveway waiting for Jamie. We had agreed to meet that morning at 10:45 and she was late. Heavy snowfall the night before had made the roads treacherous, and I paced back and forth, checking my watch and straining to see the cars inching up the winding, hilly road.
Jamie was three days old when I gave her up for adoption. Now, four months shy of her nineteenth birthday, we were reuniting. We’d both begun looking for each other on her eighteenth birthday. A data-bank search registry had finally matched us just five days ago, and we had decided to meet at the home of my good friends, who happened to live just ten minutes from the house where Jamie had grown up.
Again I looked at my watch. Jamie was more than half an hour late now. Remembering how I’d barely made it up the incline a half mile down the road, I got behind the wheel of my car and began driving slowly down the icy street. I knew that she could drive right past me and I wouldn’t know it, but I had to try. Two cars passed and I peered into them. After a mile — and three more cars — another vehicle approached. Once more I strained my eyes. Behind the wheel was a young woman. She looked straight into my eyes. My eyes. She had my eyes. We both slammed on our brakes, then stared at each other through the snow and soot on our windshields. The next thing I knew, we were out of our cars and skidding on the ice trying to get to each other. We collided into each other’s arms. “Are you —?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered, “I am.”
Brooklyn, New York
It had been maybe thirty years since we’d last gathered at Grandma’s house. Our reunions had always been at one of the bigger houses in the suburbs since then. But we came to Grandma’s house that year to honor her on her hundredth birthday.
Grandma sat at the far end of her small dining room, no longer the stately woman she had been thirty years earlier. Still, she surveyed the assembled descendants, neighbors, and friends with a regal air.
One by one the arriving guests approached like subjects before the throne, bending down to kiss her on the cheek. Did she hear clearly? Did she understand? I couldn’t tell. Like a benign Buddha she smiled, somehow above life’s struggles yet loving and affirming all she saw before her.
The room hummed with the energy of fifty Italians assembled in a small space. Northern Europeans who had married into the family escaped to the quiet of the back yard, while middle-aged cousins were drawn by force of habit to the front steps. There we sat once again, talking, joking, one-upping each other in familiar and predictable ways, watching the children in the yard and admonishing them not to come through the hedge. (Did we ever listen when Grandpa told us not to come through the hedge?)
My teenage daughter had brought her boyfriend to the party and I felt some obligation to put him at ease, but all I really wanted to do was play with my cousins and be close to my grandmother. I remembered when all my hurts could be cured by climbing onto Grandma’s lap and resting my head against her “pillows,” as she called her enormous breasts. For much of that afternoon, I didn’t know if I was a child of ten visiting her grandma’s house or a woman of forty-five who is a grandmother herself.
When I was eleven, I rejected my extended family. Nothing was so boring and threatening as a visit with my aunts and uncles, facing what I perceived (erroneously) as disapproval for my failure to live up to family standards.
Until my early twenties, my home was filled with arguments and tension. I needed escape. My real family consisted of friends. We’d hang out at the local playground, in the corner candy store, or on cold winter nights, in building hallways. I was always the first kid out “on the block” and the last to depart for home.
I was liked but never a leader. Clowning and basketball ability brought me what status I had. During my high-school years the group reached its zenith: forty of us standing on the corner on some nights, boasting of exaggerated or imagined encounters, entertaining ourselves with rounds of sexual and ethnic humor.
One night years later, my wife handed me the phone, saying, “It’s your friend David.” I don’t have a friend David, I thought. The caller said, “You’re not going to believe it, but this is David R.” I was astounded. Except for my good friend Bart, I hadn’t seen any of the group for more than fifteen years. David had called to invite me to a twentieth-anniversary Corsa Avenue reunion. From Texas, Florida, and other scattered points around the country, the group was heading for Rockland County, New York.
I remember swapping old stories, laughing, warm hugs from everyone — even those I never liked — and how beautiful Yolanda looked at age forty. And I remember the comparisons and resentments. Most of my friends had more money than I did; many had more prestigious jobs. All I possessed that they lacked was physical fitness. While many of the group had turned to flab, I was a runner and hiker, my body lean and hard. At least I looked good standing by the host’s swimming pool.
Within a year, however, I underwent knee surgery, effectively ending my athletic endeavors. Within three years, I lay in bed temporarily paralyzed. I’ve recovered, but I lack the energy and strength I brought to the reunion.
What did I learn from this? Maybe some humility and a willingness not to judge. On the whole, the crew turned out to be a pretty decent group of people, as did my relatives. Today I’m grateful for every person I’ve ever known. I think how nice it would be to receive a call from David, inviting me to another Corsa Avenue reunion. Or to phone my Aunt Lea and Uncle Hesh to tell them I would love to get together with the family.
New York, New York
No way was I going. My dad must have been kidding. Spend four hours in a hot car, forced to listen to country music, while Dad criticizes every life choice I’ve made? And do all this to go to his family reunion? Not me.
Ever since Mom died, things had been difficult between Dad and me. Without her as our shock absorber, the two of us were like bumper cars haphazardly ramming into one another, leaving irreparable dents.
He was putting on the hard sell for this reunion: pleading, mailing personal letters to my two brothers and me six months in advance so we could put the event on our calendars. Right, Dad. I’m busy. I don’t know your side of the family. I didn’t even know you had a sister until three years ago. They’re all strangers to me, just like you.
Two weeks before the reunion, my little brother called. He’d buckled under the pressure. So had my older brother. I gave in.
As we piled into his car, Dad directed us on where to sit and how to act, lecturing us on his rules of the road. I immediately defied one of his rules and opened a bottle of pop and a bag of chips. My brothers looked on in disbelief, pleading with me not to start so soon. There was an awkward silence in the car when we pulled out.
We hadn’t been together for an outing in years, and all of us were still hurting from Mom’s death. Somewhere during her ordeal, we had lost each other. As the miles passed, we stumbled in and out of conversations, forcing ourselves to break the silence that should have been filled by Mom’s voice. I brought up one of our horrendous family vacations, and even Dad began to smile. I studied his face — who was this man?
We were the first to arrive at the park. While Dad waited for other relatives to show up, my brothers and I decided to “check things out” — our code for getting away from Dad. We walked in silence awhile; then, for the first time, we spoke of Mom. Now, two years after her death, we were trying to see what had survived. Whose reunion was this, anyway?
The dinner bell clanged, and we headed back to the gathering. Dad waved us over to the center table he had been saving and introduced us to his relatives. Again I studied his face as he bragged about our various achievements. He looked so proud, distinguished. Loading up the car to go home, I drew a huge sigh of relief: there had been no arguments, no fights, no tears.
As the miles passed by, Dad and I talked about the people I had met that afternoon. Who was this sister of his, and why had she been such a secret? My dad told a tale of poverty, heartache, risky adoption, and courage. He looked vulnerable and afraid as he poured out this painful part of his history to me. A comfortable quiet filled the car. I cranked down the window to breathe some fresh air and laid my head against the door. Dad popped in his favorite country-hits cassette.
The humming began, soft and low. Was that my foot tapping, my lips forming the words “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille”? Gaining confidence, my brothers in the back seat joined Dad and me in harmony. We were trying to find our voices once again.
Mary J. Cashman
River Falls, Wisconsin
I was the first of four children. My parents looked to me to set an example for the younger kids. My father fashioned an adult-apprenticeship program for me, assigning me certain chores around the house, for which I was paid an allowance. I was also expected to get good grades in school and monitor my younger siblings.
I was enthusiastic about keeping an eye on my siblings. I took to it like a seasoned fascist, cultivating a stiff, authoritarian manner, bossing them around indiscriminately, just like my father.
My siblings all resented my new role — none more than my sister Arden, who was only eighteen months younger than I. Arden and I fought viciously.
When I reached high school, I was accepted to a private boys’ boarding school in a distant part of the state — the same school my father and his two brothers had attended. While I was there, I lost touch with my sister; she was like a stranger when I came home for holidays.
One day toward the end of my second year, I was called to the headmaster’s office. He told me he knew that I was growing marijuana. I was expelled.
My dad picked me up at the airport. I don’t think he said a word to me on the way home, but he drove very fast. When we got home, my mom was in her bedroom crying, her eyes the color of cranberries. I went upstairs to Arden’s room. My sister was surprised to see me — she hadn’t heard yet. As I told her what had happened, she looked at me with incredible sympathy. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said.
E. Perrin Bucklin
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The light is changing, the sky turning a pale, faded blue streaked with pink. A few birds glide silently toward their nests, and a slight breeze gently ripples the blanket of heat. Soon the moon will appear, huge and yellow like a lantern. I will watch it through the branches of the tall redwood, and I will get up and walk out to the road, just far enough to stand in the pool of light near the meadow.
I am finally alone. They flew in from all directions like a flock of geese. There was a great commotion, much chattering and fluttering, people scattered about the yard like confetti, the laughter rising from them like bright balloons. The summer night fell slowly, bringing just the slightest relief from the heat of day. Then, one by one, they began to leave. Everyone had to be hugged one more time, the last few pictures snapped against the fading light.
This is how healing works. It is not always as dramatic as a surgeon’s incision or the laying-on of hands. Sometimes it is as simple as feeding people, seeing two relatives talking in a corner, or holding the newest baby cousin and remembering holding his mother.
St. Helena, California
Grandma met Henry when she was out dancing at the Eagles’ Club. A few days later, he moved into her house. The family was shocked. His tall tales were notorious and we were annoyed by his know-it-all attitude. During the twelve years he lived with Grandma, we never knew what to believe.
But Grandma loved him, and he treated her like a queen. As her health declined, he did everything for her: cooking, cleaning, shopping, and lighting her many cigarettes — a sore point for us because we had been trying to get her to quit. We learned to tolerate him.
When Grandma died, we were left with Henry. As the extended family arrived for the funeral, we tried to console and include him. My mother and her two brothers did so grudgingly. It was hard to be patient with him when he started passing out Grandma’s rings the day after she died.
Grandma didn’t have a fortune, but she did have some money and the house. Her will split the money evenly among her three children and Henry, and he got to stay in the house as long as he wanted, although the children retained ownership.
One month after Grandma’s death, Henry let a woman move into the house with him, and all the resentment and anger of the past twelve years began to surface. The children planned to gather one last time at Grandma’s house to divide up her things and claim the family heirlooms. It was shaping up to be a showdown between Henry and the family. My mother was rehearsing all the things she was finally going to tell Henry after years of repressing her feelings.
Living a thousand miles away from all the drama, I felt guilty at not being there to help my mother through this crisis. So I wrote her, “I know you feel a lot of anger and resentment toward Henry, but if you don’t forgive him, you will never find peace. You may feel free to say things now that you could never say when Grandma was there, but remember that her spirit is still in that house, and she will be listening to every word.”
The letter really got through to my mother, and to the rest of the family as well. They decided to be civil toward Henry and to honor their mother’s memory during this last visit to her home.
It was a hard, emotional day, but everyone treated Henry with as much courtesy and kindness as they could muster. It became clear that the woman who had moved in was just a roommate to help him pay the bills. Henry said, “You take anything you want except Nellie’s picture.” For the first time my mother saw him without the veil of anger, jealousy, and resentment — a grieving, frail old man, scared and very much alone. In losing Grandma, he had lost not only his loving companion and best friend, but his link to the only family he had.
Pamela K. Greer
Del Mar, California
Mom had been reading Zen and had gotten the idea to rid herself of all her worldly goods. Dad didn’t seem to mind when she called the entire family together: the five of us kids (all in our forties), three or four spouses, and about ten grandchildren. We were each given five thousand dollars in Monopoly money for a silent auction of all the family heirlooms: Dad’s gold watch that had belonged to his father; Mom and Dad’s wedding crystal; many silver pitchers, dishes, and boxes; paintings, statues, and stained glass; art books and objects; lamps, tables, and jewelry.
Mom and Dad were — and are — in perfect health. But Mom thought it would be wonderful to settle all the questions about inheritance while all parties were still alive.
The rules were explained, the time set. Each member of the family behaved in character. One brother bid exactly one dollar higher on everything, whether he wanted the item or not. My sister just wanted everything that was Dad’s; she paid dearly for his gold watch. My son promptly bid on all the silver. No one else was interested; now he owns a collection of art deco silver and engraved vases and boxes from the 1940s.
My eldest brother and I went back and forth on several avant-garde art projects our mother had created in high school a half century ago. I suggested to him that we were costing each other far too much money. Couldn’t we each just choose the piece we really wanted and keep the price low? But he really wanted the same thing I did, and he was the big brother.
It was a fast-paced night of family relationships in full chorus. There were screams of delight, bargaining, begging, pleading, and dealing. It went on and on until we got the five-minute warning. Then the pace got even crazier.
At exactly eight o’clock all bids were closed, the auction papers collected, and the Monopoly money paid. Mom was now freed from her many possessions. She’d solved the complexities of fairness and inheritance in one evening we all enjoyed. The only ones who thought the whole thing ludicrous were the spouses. But what can one expect from a spouse?
La Habra Heights, California
Several months ago you published my piece in the Readers Write section. When I told my father I had been published, he dutifully read the article, then asked, “Did you get paid?”
Yes, Dad, I most certainly did.