My Italian grandmother cried easily and often: when she received news of a relative’s illness, when her oldest son walked in the door after a year’s absence, or even just when the Pope appeared on TV. Each time, her crying would go from a weepy trickle to a raging torrent in seconds. Her face, hair, and blouse would soon be wet with tears. Sometimes, during a lull, she would pull me to her, planting salty kisses all over my head and face, saying, “I love you; oh, I love you, belligramma,” her Italian pet name for all her American-born grandchildren. “Don’t be sad like me.”
For a few weeks each summer, I visited my grandmother’s farm in upstate New York. Once a week, we went into town to tend my grandfather’s grave. He’d died of complications from surgery several years earlier, and my grandmother was vigilant about keeping pots of geraniums blooming by his headstone from April to October. We had to fetch water from a distant spigot and haul it up a steep hill to wet the soil in the pots. After we had swept away the dead leaves and watered the plants, my grandmother would fall to her knees and sob inconsolably. Then I would receive her salty hugs and kisses.
Years later, I learned that my grandfather had been alcoholic, and abusive toward my grandmother; during one drunken confrontation in the barn, he’d threatened to kill her with a pitchfork and throw her body in the manure pile so it would never be found. It was tough to reconcile that story with my memory of the sobbing woman who made sure there were always flowers blooming at his grave.
My twin sister, T., had been missing for fourteen years when she was found rummaging in the trash for food on the opposite side of the country. Her apartment had nothing in it but a chair and a big plastic bag full of rubber bands. She had stopped picking up her Social Security checks, and the landlord was about to evict her. The authorities put her in the state hospital and contacted our parents.
When T. and I talked on the phone, the conversation revolved around food. “So, what do you think of food banks?” she said. I asked if she’d eaten yet that day, and she said, “Yeah, I have two meals — and you’re not getting mine!” She wanted to know how many doughnuts I had consumed this year, as if that were a sign of wealth.
Two months after she resurfaced, I went to visit T. at the state hospital. My sister sat squinting at the football game on a TV suspended from the ceiling. Every once in a while, she would glance at me out of the corner of her eye, and her lips would curl into a sly smile.
T. looked like herself, only older, and incredibly skinny. Her hair had grown long and was starting to gray. Her gums were bleeding. We didn’t know what to say to each other at first. “Stop smiling,” she said, and we both cracked up. “Could you take your earrings out?” she asked politely. “They are too small.”
We took a walk to the end of the hall. T. moved slowly and deliberately, like an elderly person. She rattled the door handle to the exit, but it was locked. She told me jokes that only she could understand. I knew they were jokes, though, because we both laughed at the punch lines.
When we went to T.’s room, I saw she had no clothes except the few items they had given her, among them a pink jumper six sizes too big. “I can’t figure out how to put it on,” she said. It was just as well; it would have looked ridiculous. “OK,” she said suddenly, “I’ll just change, and we’ll go out to dinner.” With that, she went into the bathroom and took a shower. When she came out, she left the water running.
“You have to turn the water off,” I told her.
“I’m trying something,” she said.
The shower basin was almost full when I turned the knob.
T. lay down on her bed and announced that she was tired. I covered her up and talked to her, telling her about my dogs and my recent trip to the beach. “I’m going to sleep now,” she said, and she shut her eyes tight and lay very still.
“Are you asleep?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
Watertown, New York
My boyfriend Max and I were camping in southern New Mexico and searching for peyote when we came across some datura plants. We knew from reading Carlos Castaneda that datura also induced hallucinations if ingested. Hippie junkies that we were, Max and I immediately boiled the plants in water to make tea.
I drank two mugs of the potent brew and, after vomiting up my veggie burger, spent the next twenty-four hours in a waking dream: I saw and spoke with childhood friends, an ex-boyfriend, and my deceased dog. The cactuses appeared very much alive. They twisted themselves into perverse sexual positions and begged me to make lesbian cactus love to them. When I refused, they laughed at me and tried to grab me with their fat, spiny arms. I was horrified — and turned on. I think I even rolled on top of one.
I walked with Max through the desert for miles in my bare feet. When we got back to our campsite, I peed inside our tent, then became really scared. Convinced I had finally gone too far and would never return to my normal state, I began to cry. Max freaked out, ripped our tent from the ground, rolled it into a big ball, and threw it into the trunk of his Buick. I climbed into the back seat, and we sped north, not stopping until we were on his mother’s front porch in Des Moines, Iowa.
Max’s mother opened the door and looked at us with confusion and concern. I was shaking, and my feet were bleeding. Max was smoking and pacing. He told her he didn’t know where else to go, that we would stay for only a few hours.
Without a word, Max’s mother hugged him, then asked me if I wanted a bath. I said yes and, still disoriented, mumbled that my bike had been stolen — something that had happened months earlier.
Later that evening, Max’s mom and I sat on her porch swing and talked. She offered me a three-speed bike that was collecting cobwebs in her basement. She also said, in a firm but quiet voice, “You’re going to be OK.”
I didn’t believe her — not yet.
Molly Snyder Edler
My father was a fundamentalist preacher who did not allow drinking, smoking, swearing, card playing, watching television, or wearing makeup or short pants. My mother’s relatives did all these things, and every couple of years, my family would make the long trip from Nebraska to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit them. As we drove through Iowa and Illinois, my father would warn us of our aunt and uncle’s behavior and remind us that they were Catholics and not saved, and that it was our responsibility to save them.
At the time, the ironclad manner in which my father ruled our home was all I knew. I did not question my mother’s passivity and apathy. I assumed all children needed to be beaten regularly with a board and taught to swallow their feelings and be good “ambassadors for Christ.”
Aunt Ruth’s house couldn’t have been more different from ours. A feisty matriarch, she wasn’t afraid of firing off her opinions at anyone — including my father. She wore dark red lipstick, painted her nails, and smelled of exotic perfume. She let me eat and say what I wanted, and would whisper to me that my father was “nuts.”
Uncle Ray, the hardworking breadwinner, seemed amused by his wife and content to let her rule the roost. Each evening, he came home from his white-collar job at Cincinnati Gas and Electric, changed into Bermuda shorts, mixed up a highball, and plunked down in an easy chair, glad to be away from “the goddamn office.” I loved the way he tore open a pack of cigarettes, exhaled smoke through both nostrils while talking, and finally stubbed the spent cigarette out and bent the filter over in half.
I envied my cousins, who were not burdened with prayers, Bible reading, and long hours at church. They didn’t worry about going to hell, setting a good Christian example, or getting caught listening to pop music. They could grow their hair and decorate the walls of their rooms any way they wanted.
My relatives’ house was filled with the sounds of family life. Meals were times for laughter and storytelling and occasional bickering. My father hated the place so much that he would often wander off by himself, especially in the evenings, when my relatives would gather in the living room in their pajamas to watch television and talk.
It was on one such evening, nestled on the couch between my cousins, that I began to question how normal my family actually was. Unlike mine, this family of sinners seemed full of love. I was supposed to be saving them, but, in reality, they were saving me.
La Jolla, California
After a full day at work, a long flight made longer by delays, and a midnight ride down I-95 in a rental car, I pull into my mother’s driveway in Florida. I’m tired, cranky, and wondering why I’ve come.
My eighty-four-year-old mother’s house is beyond messy — more like a health hazard. I can smell a rancid odor before I even walk in the door. By the time I reach the kitchen, the stench is overwhelming. Every dish in the house is lying out — on the counter, on the chairs, on the floor, even stacked on top of the refrigerator. Only the cabinets are pristine in their emptiness. I open a pale blue Tupperware bowl and find the remains of sliced peaches in heavy syrup, now crawling with fruit-fly maggots. I lift the lid of a pan that has sat on the stove for an unknown number of days or weeks, releasing a smell that could peel paint.
Even though it’s after midnight, I set my bag down, put on yellow rubber gloves, and start to work. My goal is to have a cup of tea tomorrow morning, with a clean cup and spoon and a place on the counter to put them. I perform triage on the dishes, deciding what must be washed now, what can wait, what will have to be thrown out.
While I’m working, my mother strolls in and says, “I was going to wash those dishes today, but I ran out of time.” She is totally sincere, seemingly unaware that she has been uttering the same excuse for well over a decade.
Standing at the sink, I am filled with angry self-righteousness. I want to be calm like a Zen master, but instead I wonder how someone can “run out of time” when she has no job, no responsibilities, and never leaves the house. I wonder how my mother — once so immaculate — can live in such filth day in and day out. Still seething, I deposit the most malodorous items in a trash can outdoors and go to bed.
The next morning, back in the kitchen, I hear my mother walking slowly down the hall. “My, my,” she says in her soft Southern drawl, “it is so clean in here I almost didn’t know where I was.”
Somehow, all my effort suddenly seems worth it. I give her a big hug. Her body is still warm from sleep. Then I put the gloves on and get back to work.
D. Ann Peterson
New York, New York
My grandmother’s house in southern India is a colorful concrete expanse framed by palm trees, with saris drying on clotheslines in the yard. The house is large, even by American standards, but my brother and I — the American cousins — generally confine ourselves to one bedroom, where we spend most of our waking hours fighting over the Walkman, reading Indian comic books, and playing cards. Sometimes we go outside to terrorize Grandmother’s chickens, but only if she’s not around, and she’s usually around.
Shiny black metal bars and thin cotton curtains separate us from the relatives and neighbors who come to stare at the visitors from America. Always smiling, they pull back the curtains and observe that “they look like the father,” or “the boy has nice teeth.” They do not speak English, and we pretend we don’t understand what they’re saying. Some reach between the bars, hold our palms up to their noses, and sniff deeply before letting go.
Soondheri, the family servant, whose name means “beautiful one,” is our only friend. She keeps us entertained by shinnying up trees to pick baby coconuts and making toys out of them, or holding us up by our armpits so that we can look into the cavernous well, or teaching us to play games using only rubber bands and tamarind pits. She does all this while managing to cook and clean for twelve people. She can’t be older than twenty-five, but has worked in our grandmother’s house for as long as we can remember. When we ask Soondheri about her own family, she cries. Our grandmother will tell us only that “Soondheri is a member of this family now.”
Soondheri sleeps on a thatched mat beneath Grandmother’s bed. There is string through her ears where earrings should be, and her toenails are mangled from never wearing shoes. She eats alone, after everyone else has had dinner. When we point out to our grandmother that no other “member of the family” lives like Soondheri, she sputters, “My God, even the Americans talk like communists!”
At nighttime, our aunties gather outside the front door. Their wedding bangles make a clinking sound as they massage coconut oil into their thinning hair. Mustached uncles arrive on motor scooters and perch on the cement steps, smoking bhidis, making fun of politicians, and laughing too much when they disappear behind a tree to urinate.
One night, the electricity goes out, and my brother and I stare unbelieving at the sky. The monsoon clouds have given way, and the heavens are overflowing with pinpoints of light, billions of stars bulging the sky’s black-velvet seams. As we crane our necks and point our fingers, the muted sounds of a neighboring family’s evening prayers reach our ears. Now and then, an ant crosses the knobby plateau of our toes.
Soon the power returns, and a cousin yells from inside, cautioning us about the mosquitoes.
“It’s all right,” Soondheri says to him. “There aren’t as many stars in America.” And she turns off the light, plunging us back into darkness. Every place we look yields another glowing giant, another tiny jewel.
I’d just turned thirteen and planned to spend the summer hitchhiking to Cedar Beach, smoking cheap cigarettes with my friends, and making out with Danny. Instead, I spent it visiting a dying aunt.
“It’s very important that you meet my sister in Italy,” my mother said. “She doesn’t have much time left, and you’re the only one she hasn’t met.” I agreed, but I knew as I boarded the 747 alone that I would never get that summer back.
When I arrived at my aunt’s house in the hills outside of Naples, my cousins greeted me warmly, though they all seemed tired and older than their years. They took me to meet my dying Aunt Libera, who was sixty-seven, with an olive-colored face and stiff gray hair. She was lying in bed, and when I leaned over and kissed her and told her how much I was looking forward to spending time with her, she hugged me close and uncomfortably long. I felt her missing breast. Tears rolled from her hazel eyes. I wanted to leave.
The days were sunny and monotonous. I helped out around the house, read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and walked to the piazza. And, of course, I spent time with my aunt — when she wasn’t in too much pain. Her cancer had spread to her lungs, pancreas, and bones, but she was given only small doses of morphine, and only at night. Every hour or so, she would scream for about twenty minutes straight, like an animal caught in a trap. My cousins encouraged me to take my walks at this time. I agreed because I didn’t want to be in the way, but I also despised my feelings of helplessness. At night, after coming back from town, I would smoke cigarettes by my open bedroom window, under the star-filled sky, and tell myself that I was another day closer to home.
My sessions (as I began to think of them) with my aunt were pleasant and short. She asked many questions and listened raptly to my replies. One afternoon, she showed me photographs of herself and my mom when they were young. My mom was pretty, but Aunt Libera looked like a movie star. I commented on the beautiful outfits she wore, and she told me she’d made them herself, learning to sew so that she wouldn’t look so poor. Seeing my disbelief, she instructed me to go into the closet and get the dirty white box up top. Many outfits were carefully folded up inside. She told me to pick one out to keep. I said I couldn’t, but she insisted; she wanted to see me in it. I selected a light blue silk dress. It fit perfectly.
One night, I returned from my evening walk to find there was trouble at the house, something to do with my aunt. I could see the worry in my cousin’s face as he took me back to town. I was worried, too. I later learned that the morphine had run out.
By the end of the second month, I’d become accustomed to European small-town life. I was starting to enjoy the way people greeted me on my walks, the cozy cafes that treated me to espresso, the uneven cobblestone streets, and the social gatherings by the humble town fountain, where people told jokes, sang songs, and consumed jolly amounts of homemade wine.
One afternoon, my Aunt Libera told me how, during the Second World War, they could have only one meal a day: baste grease on bread. My mother, who was seven, would cry for more. One day, when my aunt could endure my mother’s cries no longer, she gave my mother her lard sandwich. And Aunt Libera told me about my grandfather, of whom my mother never spoke, and how he’d had a drinking problem and had spent all the family’s money carousing. My aunt had quit school to earn extra income. I was speechless, ashamed of what I’d thought were my hardships growing up.
The story that made the deepest impression on me, however, was about how my aunt had taken care of my grandmother when she was dying of cancer. Libera wasn’t able to go to dances or parties or out on dates. She had to feed and bathe my grandmother, who died in her arms. My aunt said she wasn’t afraid to face death because she had seen how peaceful it was. She had stared deep into the eyes of her dying mother and knew there was a better place, one without fear or pain or struggle. I reached out to Aunt Libera and pulled her close. We both cried that day.
The last few days of my trip, I spent as much time as I could with my aunt. I stayed on through her screaming bouts and no longer felt helpless. When she didn’t have the strength to speak, I sat with her in silence — a powerful silence that previously would have been devastating to me, but which I now found nourishing.
I’d come to Italy an immature, selfish girl who would rather have been anywhere else than visiting her dying aunt. But when it came time to say goodbye, I couldn’t stop hugging her.
New York, New York
My grandfather died during my freshman year in college, and my mother arranged for me to spend the following summer keeping my widowed grandmother company in her trailer out in the country. I was leery of the arrangement, being shellshocked from my grandmother’s beatings and verbal abuse when I was a kid; for a heavyset old lady, she had a fast arm. Nevertheless, I moved into her spare bedroom and found work at a nearby farm.
It was a while before I could set aside my apprehension and recognize that this woman bore little resemblance to the frightening grandmother of my memory. After a big dinner every night, we would sit on her screened-in porch and talk, adult to adult. I was surprised to hear that she had argued with her Baptist minister about Paul’s injunction that women shouldn’t speak in church. And I was touched when she cried over the loss of her husband. She was no longer the monster of my childhood, but a hurting human being, like me.
Before my visit was over, my grandmother told me about her first date, at the age of twenty-one. Her father, a strict Hungarian man with old-country ways, became angry when the boy brought her home ten minutes after her curfew. He punished her that night, and a month later, he arranged a marriage between her and another man, my grandfather, who was ten years her senior.
“When your father punished you, did he whip you with a belt?” I asked, thinking of my own beatings as a child.
“No,” my grandmother said thoughtfully, “he made me remove all my clothes and kneel on peppercorns on the cellar floor. I had to pray like that until dawn. And I never cried out once!” She said this with pride, but all I could hear were echoes of pain and shame.
Bowling Green, Florida
When I was a girl I thought my two aunts were glamorous and daring. They had both left our small farming town in Ohio and married men with colorful backgrounds.
Aunt Biri served as a WAC in World War II and married Bill, a marine who had been raised in an orphanage. At thirteen, my cousin Marie and I went to visit them in far-off California.
One night in bed, Marie and I discovered that our pillowcases were missing. We knocked on Aunt Biri’s bedroom door, and she came out sleepily with her hair all tousled, wearing only the top half of a bright red baby-doll pajama set. When she tugged at the front of her pajamas to cover her private parts, the back rode up, revealing her behind. Oblivious to our shocked and titillated reaction, she got our pillowcases and stumbled back to bed. I thought to myself, That’s what a man and wife must do together: the wife sleeps with her husband while wearing only the top half of her bright red pajamas. I could articulate it no further than that, but to me, it was wondrous.
Beautiful and talented Aunt Ethel had moved to New York City to become an actress. She eventually gave up on acting, though, and married Mario, a Sicilian-born tailor who worked in the garment district. Mario was not like the other men in my family. He was loud and a bit of a braggart, a big spender who liked to visit the racetrack. Some in the family felt Mario was all wrong for my cultured and gifted aunt, but I liked him immensely; he was truly a mensch.
One evening, Mario was driving Aunt Ethel and me back to their home in Brooklyn after a day of sightseeing when Aunt Ethel looked out the window and said, “Mario, this is Coney Island! You’ve brought us here, to Coney Island at night. You wanted to show Joanne, didn’t you?”
And he replied gruffly, “Well, yeah, Ethel, why not?”
She looked at him with her soft green eyes and said, “Oh, Mario, you do have a way about you.” He shifted his weight, and I could tell he was embarrassed. I thought that this, too, must be what a man and a wife are together: that a wife should notice and love things about her husband that no one else does.
The year I turned thirteen was the first time I had any real objections to spending a week with my grandparents. I had discovered girls and drugs and didn’t have time to sit in their living room watching the Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw.
My parents had made up their minds, though, and we drove to meet my grandparents at the halfway point between our homes: a rest stop in southern Kansas. There, we ate a lunch of white bread, bologna, and potato chips, and posed for photographs, during which my mother teared up. I should be the one crying, I thought.
The exchange made, I took my place between my grandparents on the front seat of their pickup. All the way to their house, they rarely spoke except to comment about the weather or to observe how much I had grown. I stared at the dashboard and waited for the week to end.
At their house, I slept in the same tiny bedroom my father and his brother had shared (no wonder they both ended up crazy) and was awakened before dawn by my grandfather. We were going camping in the mountains of New Mexico, and apparently it was important to leave while it was still dark out.
We were nearing the panhandle of Texas when the true purpose of the trip surfaced: I was going to get religion. It began innocently enough, with quiet comments about getting to know Christ. Before long, it grew into a full-blown sermon. My grandfather spoke while my grandmother quietly hummed “Amazing Grace.” They must have rehearsed it. Each time his talking subsided, she would sing louder. This went on for four or five hours. The strange part of it was that I’d never even known either of them to go to church.
When we arrived at the campground, I had not been converted, but I did know all of the words to “Amazing Grace” and could even sing it backward, should the need arise. That night, after dinner (bologna and chips again), we sat in three chairs around the campfire with me in the middle. I was prepared for the sermon to start anew, but there was only silence and the occasional remark about the weather. Then the evening’s concert began: a chorus of loud farting.
The first couple of times, I snickered under my breath, but when it started to draw the attention of other campers, I no longer found it funny. My grandparents went on matching each other one for one, occasionally lifting themselves off their chairs slightly. All the while, their expressions remained straight and the conversation restricted to the weather. I wondered how I would survive the rest of the week.
I was a teen in the late sixties and enjoyed the freedom of the times — until I found myself pregnant and couldn’t decide whether to marry the father. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, and in my upper-middle-class family, college was the only choice after high school. When I started to “show,” my parents sent me to Virginia to live with an aunt and uncle. I would have the baby there and give it up for adoption.
My relatives, whom I’d thought were witty, fun-loving people, turned out to be alcoholics with two bratty daughters and a lousy marriage. The more my baby grew, the meaner my uncle became, criticizing my weight and lack of exercise. I retreated into my room to wallow in loneliness and confusion.
When I learned my parents and siblings were going to Florida for a week, I begged to come along, and they consented. After all, no one there would know I was unmarried. For seven days, I laughed, swam, and played in the sun.
Wanting to postpone my return to Virginia, I convinced my parents to bring me back to New York with them so I could see the baby’s father once more. But after he and I talked, I still couldn’t decide whether I loved him. What was love, anyway? Afraid we would starve — he was a mechanic who changed jobs often — I headed back to Virginia.
Halfway there, I was overcome by dread at the thought of living with my horrible aunt and uncle. In tears, I told my parents I would get married. We stopped at a mall, called the father, and bought some wedding-dress material.
The marriage lasted twenty-five years. I never had any regrets, but I often think of how my life would have been different had I not been sent to stay with such awful relatives.
I awoke one morning when I was three years old to learn that my mother had died during the night. She was only twenty-three, and I would never know whether her death had been accidental or intentional. My father, the only doctor in our small Scottish town, remarried within a year. To please his new wife, he severed all contact with my mother’s family and sent me away to boarding school at the age of five.
My mother’s mother, a small-boned woman whose grief lay on her like a dark fog, wouldn’t give up her relationship with me. She reasoned and pleaded with my father until he finally agreed to let her visit me at school twice each year. (His wife was never to know of these visits.) I was eight or nine by then, a skinny, pale girl with a closed expression, and any memories of my mother were buried deep beneath my father’s silence.
My grandmother faithfully came to see me every year until I finished school. My uncle and grandfather accompanied her, but it was clear that the trips were for her sake. Her ritual never changed. Each time, we drove to a hotel in the country and carried on a strained conversation over tiny sandwiches. After lunch, my grandmother took my arm and led me to a chintz-covered sofa in a deserted corner of the lounge to continue talking.
Over the years, she became quite deaf and used a hearing aid, a black box about the size of a pack of cards that she wore under her blouse, with a cord snaking up to her ear. A self-conscious adolescent, I was too embarrassed to speak loud enough for her to hear me, so she unbuttoned her blouse and placed the hearing aid on the seat cushion between us. This gave me, and anyone else passing by, a glimpse of her sturdy pink undergarment and the soft, pale flesh of her bosom. But she didn’t care who saw her. These afternoons with me were her bridge to her lost daughter.
In all my young life, those moments with my grandmother holding tightly to my hand, her brown eyes brimming with tears, were the only time I felt loved.
My mom and dad never married, and my dad refused to tell his family and friends that he had a son. When, as a young boy, I visited my father in Montreal, he’d always introduce me as his “friend from Toronto.”
He still does this today when I stand beside him, his mirror image: same balding head, dark brown eyes, hairy arms, and cleft chin. Only now I’m his friend from Minnesota.
My wife’s granddad was a solid, ruddy, smart engineer and farmer. He was also a bullheaded political conservative, accustomed to bossing his wife around and getting whatever he wanted.
I saw Granddad at least once a year, at Christmas. He and I created our own holiday tradition: After the meal, the family would gather in the living room, and Granddad would start casting out comments: a patriotic statement about the Gulf War, a thinly veiled racist remark, a jab at the low moral character of liberals. He was fishing for an argument. The rest of the family ignored the bait, but I would bite.
I’d start by questioning Granddad’s facts, trying to clarify his reasoning and define his terms. At first, the others might offer their opinions, too, giving an appearance of a lively family conversation. But as Granddad and I dug our trenches and started firing words like cannonballs, the crowd would disperse to other parts of the house. They couldn’t escape the noise of battle, but at least from another room it was less deafening.
Finally, our faces red from shouting, Granddad and I would realize that we’d abandoned reason and begun to use any means necessary to prove the other wrong. Then we would lower our voices, and the ritual would be over.
The first Christmas after Granddad’s death, the living room was especially quiet. There was a jigsaw puzzle out, and sports on the TV. Before long, I started making some truly radical comments about slavery, the Holocaust, religion, and education. My father-in-law questioned my logic, and my brother-in-law wondered aloud if I hadn’t gone a bit crazy. I held my ground and attempted to strengthen my argument. They were hooked.
Fair Oaks, California
Growing up in New Zealand, I lived most of the time with relatives. My young mother left us when I was two years old, and my baby sister and I spent weekdays with my father’s older sister and her husband. Uncle Jim was shellshocked from the First World War, but we could calm him by stroking his silky white hair from behind as he sat in his rocking chair. Aunty Vera dripped tears into the tripe and onions whenever he lost his temper.
On weekends, my sister and I were placed in the care of my widowed grandmother, her spinster daughter, and a family friend who had lost a leg after being run over by a tram. The friend put her wooden leg in the wardrobe every night before bed. We never saw her removing the leg, but we would sometimes sneak in and look at it among the old-lady clothes.
We spent holidays with dad’s other two sisters and his three cousins. Many more relatives took us in from time to time. In all, we had seven homes. Our kind and tactful aunts and uncles never once mentioned our absent mother.
One aunt took us to the pantomime theater. Another let us sled down the slopes of an extinct volcano. Grandma taught us to knit. Sad Aunt Vera taught us to sew and play the piano. Aunty Renee took us to the library and taught us to speak execrable French at the dinner table. At bedtime, we climbed into her feather bed, snuggled into her big old-lady breasts, and were lulled to sleep by the sound of the milkman’s cart.
Then our relatives began to die, starting with Grandma. At each wake, our much older cousins remarked on how we had grown. Eventually, our father died, too.
All the family I have left in New Zealand now is an aged cousin with one lung and one kidney. I have moved away and filled my life with younger generations of relatives. I teach my grandchildren to knit and sew and speak very bad French. I still wonder what happened to my mother. She never even visited.
Taos, New Mexico
In December of 1985, when our son was six months old, my husband and I took him to Beirut to see his grandparents. We’d heard there was a lull in the fighting, and some friends who had just returned from Beirut assured us the cease-fire would last.
When we arrived, my husband’s family seemed anxious. They had been receiving telephoned death threats telling them to vacate their apartment, or else. They weren’t the only ones; the family who lived below them had actually been killed and their apartment occupied. My mother-in-law kept saying over and over, “Why did you come now? Oh, you shouldn’t have come!”
That afternoon, the threatening telephone calls started again. Then, in the evening, the power went out, and the shelling began. The whole family sat in the dark, talking and laughing nervously while shells shrieked around the city.
Before my son and I went to bed, I pulled the mattress off the frame and placed it on the floor under the window. For some illogical reason, I thought we would be safer there if a shell should hit. I lay down and thought about the phone calls. Men with machine guns could have burst through the door at any moment. I didn’t want to die like this. I became filled with the ferocity of an animal when its babies are threatened. I would not go passively. I would kill anyone who tried to harm us.
In the morning, I asked my husband if his family owned a machine gun. They didn’t, of course, and he seemed to think it would make no difference if they did have one. Frustrated, I shouted, “I would use it!”
A few days later, the threats stopped, but the fighting kept us in the apartment until we left Beirut. “I’m so sorry,” my mother-in-law said. “I’m so sorry this happened. You’re an American.”
When I was nineteen, my dad and I took our last trip together, making the rounds of the relatives who lived in other states. During that sweltering, interminable car ride, Dad carried within him the illness that would kill him, but he neither told me of the diagnosis nor complained of the pain he suffered.
I was a curiosity in my father’s family, the unexpected child of a late second marriage. I had no siblings and only two cousins, both much older than I. This dearth of cousins puzzled me, as my father had five brothers and sisters. But I shrugged it off, thinking that they were an infertile lot.
The last aunt we visited, Aunt Minnie, had been widowed the year before. To console herself, she’d joined a spiritualist church and regularly communed with the dead.
While my dad was out one afternoon, Aunt Minnie informed me that we needed to have a talk. Hoping it wouldn’t involve a séance, I obliged. The first part of the talk was a pleasant surprise. Aunt Minnie was the keeper of Grandma’s jewelry, and, being the only girl in my generation of the family, I inherited it all. I was thrilled.
But the second part of the talk was even more surprising. “Carol Ann,” Aunt Minnie said to me, with her typical drawl, “you’ve got a bit of the kike in you.”
I learned that day about my Jewish great-grandmother, who’d left traces of her red tresses to some members of the family, my dad included. I suddenly understood the taunts of “Jew!” my mother hurled at him during their frequent arguments. Five thousand years of Jewish history landed heavily on my shoulders.
There was more. I was aware that my German-immigrant grandfather had died young, leaving my grandmother to raise six children alone. Aunt Minnie, however, had more details to impart: “Your grandfather died in a funny way. They found him hanging in the barn.”
I clutched my grandmother’s jewelry, thinking of the horror and grief she had endured.
When my dad returned that afternoon, I showed him the jewelry, but I never talked to him about our Jewishness, nor about his father’s apparent suicide.
Later, after Dad died, I asked my mother why there were so few children in my father’s family. Was his generation infertile?
No, she replied. They just never wanted kids.
We called my grandfather Pepaw, because my mother and my grandmother did. I never knew his given name, and still don’t. Pepaw sat motionless on the porch swing all day, every day, until one of us kids crawled up beside him and demanded to swing. He would push us slowly with one foot, causing the heavy swing to rock as if in a dying wind. Pepaw talked when we asked him questions; otherwise, he was silent, staring at nothing.
Pepaw had a fedora and cane, but he never used them that I remember. They were brown and sad, and he kept them just for my cousin Butchie and me to play “married” with. I would prance along the sidewalk in my grandmother’s knitted shawl, standing tall to keep it from dragging the ground. Beside me walked my cousin, his dark hair covered by Pepaw’s fedora, the cane held high.
“How do we look, Pepaw?” we’d ask as we paraded in front of him.
“Real grown-up,” he would say. This answer pleased us greatly, but I couldn’t say why.
Later, when Butchie had gone back to my aunt’s house and the cane was back in its slot in the hall tree, I would bug Pepaw to play “magic mirror”: I would either mess up his Brylcreemed hair or pat it smooth, then say, “OK, Pepaw, what does your hair look like now?”
He would hold his hand up to his face as if he were looking into a pocket mirror. “Messy,” he would say. Or, “Combed.” He often punctuated his answer with a wet hack. He was always right. I begged him to tell me how he knew. All he would say is, “I have a magic mirror.”
After Pepaw moved to the Veterans’ Home, my mother brought me to visit him. He was usually sitting on a bench on the big lawn, looking thin and worried. He wore pajamas and a seersucker bathrobe identical to the ones worn by all the other veterans hunched on benches around the grounds. Most of them coughed like Pepaw.
I asked my mother why all the men were wearing their pajamas outside during the day. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Because they need to rest.”