The restaurant has colored Christmas lights terraced across the windows. The booths line along the two walls, meeting in the corner. Brown plastic looks like leather. Each window is covered with shades, making long horizontal lines of streetlight and shadow. We sit down at the table and the waiter brings us three waters, but my mother asks for bottled. My parents say they’re going to have the buffet. I ask for an order of eggplant. “You want the buffet, too?” I ask for the eggplant. “You don’t want the buffet?” No, thank you, and I ask again for the eggplant. “No, you should go look at the buffet.” This time I point to the menu and ask again. “No, I think you will like the buffet. Go ahead and look.” My finger still points to the broad white menu, mouth – ing the word eggplant, and the waiter gestures to the buffet, half-facing me now. “You will like the buffet. Anything else to drink?” he asks my parents. Eventually, he turns to me and asks what I want. “A Heineken,” I say. “Good.”
You should smile more,
This is similar but not the same as the time an old man sat next to me on the bus. Leaving the restaurant in Cambridge, I took the 77 night bus down Mass. Ave. I liked to sit next to the window, leaving the aisle seat open, just so I could watch the sidewalk and the car blinkers. When it was my stop, he refused to stand up. He shook his head and pointed down as if he had a bad leg, the one he used to walk to the back of the bus and sit next to me. Some others might know this grimy experience of close – ness between strangers while wearing a dress: my bare legs straddling his knees as my body rubs against his. I saw it happen to a friend this New Year’s Eve. An old man just walked up behind her and humped her butt. You know, it’s not the same, but it’s also like the time my college professor said in front of the class that my white dress looked see-through. “That’s your intention, isn’t it?” he stated in front of the room.
You know, it’s not the same, but when I raise my hand in graduate school, I hear in response: “Good girl.” You know, it’s not the same, but at a party, a guy loudly cursed me for not having sex with him the weekend before. You know, it’s not the same, but the man sitting behind me on the train leaned forward between the seats and whispered, “Suck my dick.”
I don’t want to be any smaller. I’m tired of being smaller. I’m tired of trimming and smoothing. After I decided that I was done being smaller, my hips grew out. My white dress once fell loosely over my waist the spring I didn’t eat carbs or cheese, and I ran at least three miles, six days a week. All that running made me tired, so now the dress fits tighter than it used to, and regardless of whether or not it still fits, I don’t feel comfortable in it anymore. How could I? I didn’t even feel comfortable when I didn’t eat carbs or cheese, and I ran at least three miles, six days a week. Those were the days I lived on a college campus. I didn’t understand how important appearances were there, not until I left, and I realized one of the main things I learned is how to behave like an obedient feminist.
On the subject of cars,
I drive around the Hamptons in the month of June, leaving work in the evening and heading west, past the fork. In the evening, the sky is pink and violet where it meets the trees, blue and cool. The same radio ad plays every drive to and from work: “Honey, I’m ready to take my top off,” the sultry voice says. “Oh yeah?” he replies. The ad is for BMW convertibles.
On the subject of sandwiches,
I see my college friends and I marvel at how small they are. Flat hips and little arms. We’re still competing to be the prettiest girl at the party, and trust me, none of us will openly admit to this because we all like to pride ourselves on our independence and feminist thought.
(But my ass is looking good these days.)
For the record, the most liberating thing I did in 2016 was not the day I voted for a female president. It was eating a sandwich. A full sandwich made from two slices of bread, sharp cheddar cheese, sliced turkey, and extra Dijon mustard.
The White Dress:
I thought I would wear that white dress today. After shifting around my closet, moving plastic boxes of packed winter clothing, wondering perhaps if it was buried beneath the heavy wool, I remember. I got rid of that dress in a trash bag.
Light feminism, not unlike Diet Pepsi. I have female friends who didn’t vote in the presidential election. Maybe this is more a reflection of our privilege associated to race. Meaning: it’s safer to be a white woman than a woman of color in this country. Maybe this is more a reflection of our privilege associated to gender-identification. Meaning it’s safer to be a cisgender woman than a transgender woman. Maybe this is: they just don’t care about politics. Maybe this is: they didn’t have the time to make it to the polls? Maybe this is: they’re secure enough in their financial position, it really doesn’t matter, this way or that? Maybe this is: the ineffective cause-and-effect of the suffrage? Maybe this is ________?
Maybe we weren’t really meant to vote at all.
My hips grew wider and my voice got louder. In my disappointment, I’ve grown angry. Now I’m “that bitch.” A friend once described this readjustment in the world by experiencing a group of liberal-minded friends she was workshopping with: “Oh great,” they would say when she opened her mouth. “Here’s ________ with her ‘feminist talk’ again.” Is it too much to ask to quit it with the air quotes? Is it too much to ask to have people stop projecting emotions onto my body? Is it too much to ask to be treated like a human?
The British suffragists chose to wear three colors: purple for dignity, green for hope, and white for “purity in public and private life.” The Congressional Union for Woman suffrage in America, 1913, declared: “White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose.” When, July 9th, 1978, they marched for the Equal Rights Amendment that never passed, all the women wore white.
We strive for our feminism every day. My white dress is not the same as yours. But with my eyes, I see you. But with my ears, I hear you, sister. I will be quiet for you, to know you better. We ensure the rights of white women are the equal rights for women of color are the equal rights for transwomen are the equal rights of disabled women, free from persecution of religion, and this is when we become free. The very same day we wake up in the morning, and sit down to write and write about the beginning sun settling across the floor over the little lump of sand piled by the door, such a quiet thing.
My thoughts on being a woman writer:
“Politics is a dirty word”:
You know, it’s not the same, but it’s sort of like how Donald Trump said: “Grab them by the pussy.” Remember that everybody? Grab. Them. By. The. Pussy. That one time President Donald Trump said: “Grab them by the pussy.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me. America.
“You know,” my therapist says to me as he places his hands in his lap. “Words are funny things. Have you ever written to yourself?”
I ask him what he means.
“Writing to yourself,” he elaborates, “like a letter. You could find it very helpful in training how to talk to yourself. The tone of voice that you use. You’re a writer. Haven’t you thought about how words sound?”
Have I thought about how words sound?
“Like . . . words can vary quite a lot,” he raises his palms upwards now. “Words can either feel like…oh, I don’t know…. Let’s say, they can feel like you’re naked on a cloud with Brad Pitt. Or words can feel like you’re being molested by Donald Trump.”
In regard to academia,
I’m struggling, you see. I’m wary of my arrogance, but I’m wary of self-censorship. Am I a fumbling pedantic? Am I really so tortured? Or am I just a woman in America. Better to speak softly. Better to simply wonder. Better to write personally. “Like this section here about your breakup, this part here about your boyfriend, we would like to hear more about that.”
I keep getting in trouble, and I’m losing my friends.
“I don’t think it matters what we read,” they said from across the table. “It matters more what all of them read.” They wave their hand around in the air, encompassing all the people outside the small square classroom who might be affected by the sexism of a 1950s Italian novel.
“I think you think it’s a bigger deal than it actually is,” they say.
Has a man ever been critiqued for the simple act of writing idea-driven essays? For fashioning rapidly a jeremiad? Does it even matter? I don’t see how I’m not in these thoughts; I don’t see how my active thoughts cannot be—
maybe I’m just dumb,
better to be smaller.
The part about the breakup:
“This kind of outrage doesn’t harm anyone except the self . . . Breakups thrill on a pitch of outrage . . . It was the moment I stood on the sidewalk next to the ferry and the boy from New York shook my shoulders good-bye, mustered a brief “I love you.”—That was the moment to realize outrage might reside for an extension of time. And it did, and then it didn’t.”
I was drunk and lying across a fold-out table under a white party tent. He asked me if he could, and I said no, and he did it anyway. I pushed him away, but still slept with him after, because I thought I still loved him, and so I overlooked certain things . . . and so, how the whole thing really ended: me pulling out a tampon in the back of his car.
It makes me think about all the times I didn’t want to, but I did it anyway, because something told me I was responsible for it, something confusing love and commitment and care, and something confusing womanhood, and I didn’t have any friends to hold my hand while horizontal, or mothers whispering in my ear be safe. And the breakup never really ended, because I still have to remember how the I man I loved didn’t listen to me when I said “No,” how a man who loved me could still violate me, across that wavering line of intimacy and trust, because it was pleasurable to him.
It didn’t end at a ferry station, not really. So I remind myself that the story people tell is not often the true story, if a true story is defined as a complete story.
All I’m saying is that I want the authority to write nonfiction like Borges writes Fiction:
The other one, the one called Zinnia, is the one that things happen to. I walk through the world, and notice things that I’m not sure she sees. Although, at times, I sense a numbness about her eyes, a dozy glaucoma. She says lovely things as we pass the pink and white shivering cherry blossoms on the promenade. Where I feel like I’m taking up too much space along the cross-streets of the city, 46th between 7th and 8th, she physically cannot exist in too much space. She speaks about the future and the past with such ease, they manifest themselves into the expression of the present, and amongst friends, amongst the ingenuous chatter of dinner parties, she quotes writers and thinkers like incandescent music notes: “everything about her was warm and soft and scented; even the stains of her grief became her as raindrops do the beaten rose.” She crawls into bed with dry hair, and takes her showers in the morning, and sips her tea sitting by the sliding glass doors facing the garden, she, looking longingly at the patio furniture for the warmer morning air. Oh, she knows how to walk the length of a tightrope while balancing a toothpick on the tip of her chin and from 300 feet above as she glides like water across the line. On our walks through the city, the bend in the path hugs the sooty river, and we pass the time in stilted conversation that is deceptively imaginative, until I close the door of solitude behind me and face my empty living room with the armchair and tarnished standing lamp with no substantial thoughts to suffice that voracious space. But you see, can’t you? You must know that I notice the cherry blossoms, too. I notice how the sun rises. I notice the thin crooked neck of the Virgo, the stainless demure. I’m more aware on the street of which way the eyeballs switch, watching. Yes, I admit that as I wash the burned chicken fat from the bottom of the pot, my mind resurrects the past into present emotions so that loves lost are loves needed and dreams dreamt are goals broken, and this makes my mind at times move languidly like a Lazarus. At 75 Main in Southampton, over white napkins and dinner plates of black-pepper tuna, I quoted the writers like she does; I quoted the thinkers like she does. But my words were more like ice cubes falling into an empty glass. I do not not have the same reverence in the classroom as Zinnia does, not the same respect or appreciation, but I know the reason for this, because I can see when no one else can how she bites her tongue. In our shared mind, I hear what she is really thinking, and I hear all her arrogance, her intelligence, her anger. Sometimes on a return trip along the LIRR, I see her sitting in a seat next to the window, her forehead tilted against the black glass watching the world smear past in futurist assault, and she will look up and see me and wave. I sit next to her. Her mascara has smudged like the artist’s charcoal, and so I know she is tired, and so in relief, I know our conversation will be true, because what is being if not truth? (And this is why Zinnia is not.) During these short train trips, the whole world starts to swim together, but under me still simmers the sweetest desire to be more like her—to be more lovely and kind. I smell the scent of the Moroccanoil that lingers in the raptures of her wavy hair, as if it, a scent, knows that it is a delicate thing and wishes for the strength to stay to her person. But being so near, only I know the chill rising off her forearm.
And I do think if maybe people listened more closely then we, Zinnia and I, would be happier for it.
[An Article Online]
“Help! My Boyfriend Secretly Taped Me While He Was Away to See if I’d Leave the House. Is it OK for me to be mad?”
[Overheard at a Starbucks]
“What’s your favorite subject in school?”
“Really? Wow. Huh. Wow.” . . .
“What’s your favorite thing to do outside of school?”
“You know how to do that?” . . .
[My boss addressing a freelancer’s late assignments, at work]
“She probably has pregnancy brain . . . I’m not saying that to be sexist. It’s a real thing.”
[Over the phone, 8:30am, at work]
“Are you okay? You sound upset.”
[4:45pm, unscheduled review meeting]
“We hired you because you were supposed to be smart.”
[In conversation with my Grandfather]
Grandpa: “So . . . Zinn, how’s school?”
Me: “Good, I’m thinking about my thesis advisor . . .”
Me: “I’ll be teaching a university course in creative writing . . .”
Grandpa: Hm. Me: “I taught The Second Coming last week.”
How’s your brother?”
There are hundreds of birds in the towering cedarwood two houses over. I can hear their ceaseless chatter; they are so busy making plans. I can’t identify birds by their sounds, and most I can’t even identify by their looks. The only birds I know by look are the crows, pigeons, blue jays, ducks, geese, swans, robins, seagulls, and blue herons, which are my favorite of all the birds, so stately on their tall, thin legs. More of the twittering birds fly in every few minutes. It is a miracle the tree can hold all their weight. I wonder if I knew their names if they’d come to me when I’d call. I want to say, come sit in my tree silly birds. It is me you came for. But I do not call, and they do not come.
I had that hollow feeling earlier again. I took a shower and was exhausted by it, as if I had just run a 5k race. I wanted to cry, but that is nothing new. Or if it is new, it is only about four months old. Again, this is probably just another case of me lying to myself. I think I have been crying since I turned seventeen. Maybe when I turn twenty-eight it will stop. A good ten-year run. I came outside to be rid of the feeling, and even though the dog shit hasn’t been picked up in at least two months because Andy’s jaw was broken by someone he called a friend, and I have been so sick and tired that I run out of energy almost as soon as I stand, it is still nice to sit out here. All it takes is the ability to tune out my sense of smell. Then I can hear the birds; I can watch the dogs grapple with each other and do zoomies around the yard. The wind can lift the long grass jutting out in clumps from the recent rains that I wish would come back. It is easy to forget how much I need nature when I am stuck in my own misery loop repeating things I don’t need to rehear.
Suddenly the birds become silent. I look up and they all flush out of the tree at the same time. The dogs feel the overbearing silence too, and they are trying to fill it with barking. I want to cry more than ever now.
Someone in the distance is sweeping something. I don’t trust people who use brooms to sweep their driveways and the streets in front of their houses. One day I watched a man sweep all the yellow leaves off the street in front of his house, and then he proceeded to do the same thing in front of his neighbor’s houses on both sides. If I was the neighbor I’d be mad. Leave my leaves alone, I’d think. As soon as the man went back in there was a gust of wind and a couple leaves trickled into his clear pristine black tar, and I laughed out loud, as if I’m not always trying to stave off death and the death of my loved ones.
A couple days ago I went out to my mom’s house, so Andy could work on her car. We went into her craft room, so she could show me something. She told me the weird vibrations she has been having in her feet for the last year have now traveled to her calves. She said she feels it all the time. She said, “I haven’t told dad yet. But it is MS, I know it is. I can feel it in my body.” And I believe her. Nobody knows their own body better than a woman. It is the same way I knew, all summer long, that something wasn’t right in my stomach, that the center of my abdomen was in some sort of deep, wounded pain. And I was right. When it comes to our bodies, we are almost always right.
I got the diagnosis the other night while we were at a hockey game. The entire time, while young men were brawling on the rink below me, the continual deep ache under my ribcage persisted. Just as I was thinking how I couldn’t do this much longer, how I must have a diagnosis soon or I will split in half, I got the email. You have a small intestine bacterial overgrowth. The email read. And right there, surrounded by strangers my eyes welled with tears. Answers. I had wanted answers so badly. I knew. We always know. That is how I know my mom knows what is happening in her body.
She is in Ireland now, for her fiftieth birthday. Ever since I was a little girl I have known that my mom has wanted to go to Ireland. I am so happy that she finally made it there, and at the same time I am worried sick about her. Each time a picture is loaded by her or my dad I can see it there, the ashen skin, the bags under her eyes that haven’t left since she got really sick about four years ago and discovered that her thyroid had devoured itself, as if it were a lemon scone or jelly donut. I can’t really believe that she is fifty. Or that I am twenty-eight. I mean twenty-seven. Or that my eldest sister is thirty and my littlest brother twenty-five. The dogs keep aging too. Roxy, our almost nine-year-old dog, has three more lumps that have cropped up that we have to get removed and tested for cancer. She already had three removed last winter when she had knee replacement surgery. Two of them were cancerous.
The outside world is breaking right now, as it does over and over again throughout all of history, ever. I should be an active advocate of society. I am a woman. I am part Native American and part Jewish and a whole lot of other white races. I should be out there fighting the good fight. But I don’t have it in me. So many people would call that a privilege. I’ve seen the posts about it on Facebook, how if I am able to not be out there fighting it’s because I have the privilege to not need to. And it hurts, like a deep mortal wound. If things continue as they are, I will lose everything. I will lose my health insurance. I will lose the ability to get my one remaining tube tied so that I will not die from my next ectopic pregnancy. But I just don’t have the energy to fight. Is that privilege, to be so sick that a shower makes me tired? It sure doesn’t feel like it. I waiver in between dropping out of school constantly though I love school, and though it is the only thing that is helping me pay the bills now. But getting to class can be so hard. Sometimes it is hard enough to get off the couch.
I was reading up on my new condition. Apparently, I am suffering from malnutrition, because the bacteria overgrowth prevents all the minerals, nutrients, and vitamins I am putting in my body through food and supplements from actually getting into my bloodstream. The treatment for this whole thing takes four months, and if that doesn’t get it all, another four months. I wanted to ask if I would be sick during treatment. Sicker, I guess, is the correct terminology, but my tongue froze in my mouth.
The sun keeps shining, but I am waiting on the rain. I need to be cleansed more than ever, though inside I feel like the ice storm from last winter: lavender bush frozen in place, sheets of ice on everything, crackling under foot, icicles dripping from the benches and trees.
The birds have not come back. Will they ever? The next time I have sex it will probably be June. Andy is learning how to expect so little from me. But that’s the difference between us, I always want more than what the world has to give me. There is a crow outside calling out a lonesome call. Maybe one day I will sprout wings and fly above the land, only to wish that I was a salmon swimming upriver to the sea.
On the front door of my grandmother’s apartment is a small sign that says SHALOM in English and in Hebrew—the greeting used by Jewish people, a salutation that means peace and wholeness. The plaque is simple, white ceramic with hand-painted red and yellow flowers along the edges. Just below is a beautiful tapestry depicting a Russian church; the cupola is made of golden yellow silk, offset by scarlet velveteen. Stiff brown ropes are stitched into the tapestry to represent trees in this landscape. It’s a favorite among her neighbors in the senior apartment complex she’s lived in for almost thirty years. Her hallway is a row of divorcées (like herself) and widows, and a group of them have coffee every Wednesday morning in the lobby in front of my grandmother’s door.
My grandmother is neither Jewish nor Russian, but a four-foot-nine Italian woman we call Nonna, and right now, she wants neither the Shalom plaque nor the tapestry, neither peace nor beauty.
“They mean nothing to me,” she says, hardly glancing at them before she snaps around and walks away in disdain. “You take them.”
So I do.
As soon as her last child moved out, Nonna got a passport. Using money from some smart investments, she spent her fifties and sixties travelling—to Turkey, Croatia, Israel, Moscow, Punta Cana, Egypt. She never took photos because she thought nobody cared to see them, saying, “If I ever try to show people pictures of buildings I’ve seen, take me out and shoot me.”
Instead, she bought art.
Every wall of her home is covered with paintings, photographs, and tapestries; her tabletops are crowded with figurines, sculptures, and pottery. In her tight, cramped script, she has written on the back of every piece the country and year in which she bought it. Together, these pieces make up a timeline of the last twenty years.
Soon, she is moving to a smaller apartment, and I am helping her decide what to take. So far, we have packed a framed doily—a wedding gift crocheted by her mother—that had hung in her hallway and an ornamental wooden birdcage the size of a toddler that had sat in the corner of her living room, holding her extra yarn. Then we unpack the doily because she decided it was ugly, and then we repack it because she says it’s her favorite keepsake.
These moments seem normal now.
The electronic clock in her kitchen is one giveaway of her Alzheimer’s—it blinks the date, the time, and the day of the week. The way it takes up an entire corner of her counter means she cannot miss looking at it. A second tell is that she cannot remember why she has to move. How can we explain?
“Because last month, you got lost on the walk to your friend Terri’s apartment on the fourth floor.”
“Because you called Lucia four times on Halloween to ask what kind of food you should bring to Christmas.”
“Because we don’t know if you’re eating when you’re here by yourself.”
Finally, we sigh deeply and lie to her: “They’re raising the rent, Nonna. You can’t afford this apartment anymore.”
A third tell is that she doesn’t want any of her art.
“Amanda,” she says, picking up a large stained-glass vase that she got when she returned to her native Forlì del Sannio, Italy, in 1994. It was only the third time she’d been back to visit her cousins since she’d immigrated at age five; her mother had packed up her and her two-year old sister, and the three of them boarded a boat to Ellis Island where her father awaited them. The vase is nearly the size of a globe, and delicate, with pastel green, amber, and pink glass color blocks. She never put flowers in it, but sometimes lit a candle behind it so the light was thrown through the sheer panels, watercolor projections flickering on the top of the coffee table where it always sits. The vase has been the lodestone of the apartment ever since she convinced the customs officers to let her cradle it in her arms, rather than store it with her luggage, during the flight back to Pennsylvania, “Take this. I don’t know what it’s here for.”
I wrap it up carefully and place it in a box, knowing she’ll ask about it again in an hour. I put the plaque (Israel, 1992) and the tapestry (Moscow, 1999) in the box too, to be taken to her new apartment, so she might have some sense of normalcy. Perhaps she could even forget she’d moved at all.
Nonna avoided tourist spots purposefully—“I want to see how people live,” she used to say, “not how other people vacation.” She always opted to see the real experiences of real people. Growing up, she watched her father and mother struggle as poor immigrants in northern Pennsylvania—he worked in a paper factory and she raised their daughters— and watched them make a life for themselves that was simple and ordinary and, by the nature of their immigration, miraculous. She valued daily life.
This is how she met her friend Ana, a woman she connected with in Punta Cana in 1995. Ana was stringing necklaces with small shells while crouched at a milk crate. Her inventory was spread out in front of her when Nonna approached. Nonna spoke little Spanish, and Ana, little English, so they relied on gestures. This story is a family relic itself, and I have heard Nonna tell it so often over the years that, even now, I can see her recreating it. Their broken conversation went something like this:
Jewelry? Ana waved to her display.
My nonna must have nodded, looking carefully at Ana’s merchandise, fingering the shells. She had chosen one to buy when she saw the long string of cloth beads around Ana’s neck. The colors were bright—textured fabric of golden yellow, teal, and red fixed into balls and strung along a thin cord of burgundy. Motioning toward it, Nonna pointed, I like that one.
Ana smiled and accepted the compliment. She was about to take Nonna’s money for the shell necklace when Nonna pointed again, and then held out the money in her hand, asking if she could buy the colorful beads.
Ana, surprised, shook her head, waving her palm over the necklaces on the crate, No, these are for sale, moving once again to sell the shell necklace.
But Nonna was insistent. Pointing to Ana’s neck and smiling, she admired the necklace Ana wore. Nonna moved her hands to mimic sewing to ask, You made it, too? Ana understood, touched the necklace and nodded, no longer defensive, smiling.
Nonna sat down and pulled a gold bracelet off of her own wrist, pointing to a tiny word etched inside the cuff, Italia. She held it out to Ana, who hesitated before taking it. Nonna nodded her encouragement, so Ana examined the bracelet and slipped it on her wrist, holding her arm out to admire the way the sun made the gold shine.
Nonna pointed from the necklace to the bracelet, and to Ana. Exchange? After a moment, Ana pulled the necklace from her neck and handed it to Nonna, and the two women spent the afternoon sitting behind the milk crate, “talking” and selling Ana’s wares.
Nonna took down Ana’s address and, back home in Pennsylvania, mailed her a thank you card with a picture of her wearing the necklace; she received a full letter back, in Spanish, with a photo of Ana’s daughter wearing the bracelet. For ten years, the two women exchanged cards and pictures every Christmas.
Now, Ana’s necklace is sitting on top of a bag of old clothing and worn shoes, to be taken to Goodwill. Its colors have faded and the fabric is fraying in where it meets the suede, worn thin and sagging under twenty years of touch. I pick it out of the bag and put it in a box. I am over-packing, the plaque, the tapestry, the vase, even the necklace. Her new apartment is half the size of this one and very few of these pieces will fit, but she has spent decades collecting treasures and I cannot bear her to lose them. Even if she cannot remember why, she valued these things, these stories. I value hers.
“Amanda, what is this?” Her voice is high, and flustered, so I drop mine to balance us:
“It’s a mosaic, Nonna. You bought it in Greece.”
I hold on, white-knuckled, to balance, and to these trinkets, because this is my last hope.
These mosaics and paintings and sculptures and photographs and pottery make up her last twenty years, and I have a childlike fantasy that I cannot admit out loud: that these remnants of her life amassed in her new place will force her to remember the rest, like they are puzzle pieces and having them all together will yield a picture of the rich life she’s forgetting.
I cannot help it; I miss the grandmother that her belongings tell me she used to be.
“Oh Madonna, Amanda,” she says like a curse, reverting back to her native Italian. English couldn’t quite convey her frustration. “Why do I have to move?”
I leave the room so I don’t have to explain why I am crying.
Her den is more lived-in than the rest of the apartment— it’s where she’s always sat at night, knitting and watching QVC with her credit card until she fell asleep in the recliner. (One of these late nights a couple of years ago led her to send me a package of 40 granola bars, which I received in an unmarked box with no return address. When I nervously called around asking who had sent them, and why, she told me she’d done it because “the man on TV was very handsome.”) She doesn’t do much ordering anymore.
There’s very little art in the den—just a couple of small figurines of women holding baskets on their hips (Croa tia, 2001) and some painted coasters she bought in Egypt (1997). Mostly, there are photographs.
Every surface is covered with framed pictures of her children and grandchildren growing up. I recognize my parents’ wedding; my dad, smiling and with a full head of hair, is dancing with her, and she is caught mid-laugh because his tie clip is snagging her purple dress.
There is a snapshot of my two-year old nephew, my brother’s son, propped against the other frames. She has written “My Leo—Matthew’s child” on the back for when she can’t remember who he is; her dementia had already begun by the time he was born. I am sad for him, that he will not know Nonna when she could know him too. As I am slipping the picture into a frame, I remember her smiling as she watched him run across the yard before turning to my aunt and asking, “Lucia, whose baby is that?”
I box up all the pictures, taking particular care with the photo taken at my uncle’s wedding six years ago. In it, she is seated on a bench outside in the sun, and all five of her children are standing around her, smiling. Circumstance and Italian stubbornness, a reaction to her bad divorce, have made it difficult to gather all of them together; it’s the only photo of them that’d been taken in decades. She looks beautiful and serene, in control and happy.
In every country, Nonna bought a cross; they hang on her bedroom wall in rows, the very last thing she sees before she goes to sleep each night. She raised her children Catholic, keeping with her Italian heritage, but stopped attending church after her marriage broke up. On her bedside table is a well-worn Bible with several pages dog-eared.
I’m thinking I shouldn’t be looking at the crosses; they’re on display, but only in her bedroom, and their religious significance feels like an immensely private part of her. I wonder what she thinks when she sees them, why she chose the ones she chose, and how personal the decisions must have been. My chest aches when it occurs that she probably doesn’t know now.
“Take them,” she startles me. I turn around, and she is staring at the wall of crosses. Her hands are clasped in front of her waist, and suddenly, I see her wrinkles, her thin grey hair, and her stooped shoulders in a way that never made her look old before. She is beautiful and calm, but lost and unhappy—in a moment of near-clarity, she seems to accept that she cannot remember. “I don’t even know where I bought them.”
I do as she asks, and as I lift each one off the wall, I am overcome by the colossal weight of all of the things I’d packed. These are measures of a life fully lived, of my grandmother—the immigrant woman who raised five children, who helped send her younger sister to college, who came to her granddaughters’ every dance recital. Who still made time to travel the world.
My hands are cupped around these memories, yet the failure of her recollection means they cannot be touched. Her story, erased. I pack to preserve what I can, but it will never be enough.
I pick a cross for my brother, a green stone with rough squares chiseled in. Nonna has written “Dominica, 1998” on the back in her spiky cursive. My sister, an atheist, gets a metal one with smiling people painted on it, which I hope she takes to be a celebration of humanity more than God (Mexico, 2003).
For myself, I take a small one that is just the size of my hand. The cross itself is brass, but around it are small pieces of colored glass, their sharp edges rounded out; deep ocean blue and bright orange and rich magenta, golden yellow and emerald green all strung along a fading copper wire that is twisted around and around the brass.
There is no place, no date, on the back of this cross, and I’m glad. The ambiguity is comforting; the knowing that I will never know which country it was made in. She doesn’t know either, and for a second I feel close to her in a way I haven’t for a long time.
“That’s a good one,” she says, touching my fingers that are closed around the beaded cross, “I always liked that one.” For a moment, we are still.
I wonder what goes through her head, if she is remembering buying the cross, or trying to. She chose these things because they once felt right to her, they suited her taste, they filled a hole she chose to seal with beauty. Whether she knows it or not—and more often, lately, she doesn’t—these things make up my nonna.
After a moment that seems suspended out of time, with her hand on mine, she breaks the silence. “Amanda,” she asks, “Why do I have all this stuff?”
I slip my cross into my bag with the others and begin pulling the rest down off the wall, wanting to say, “Because you experienced the world, Nonna.” Instead, I pretend not to hear.