Untended marker


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My heart is heavy with ache sometimes in the summer, when memories of my maternal grandmother are as sharp as the juicy wild berries we picked from the overgrown lots near her home.

Summer memories are a mix of sweaty neon-colored metal cups filled with root beer floats; the hum of the oscillating fan perched atop her ice box; the creaking wooden swing in her yard that made our stomachs flutter; and the bulbous concord grapes dangling from the vine on the back fence.

The deep-purple bulbs fooled us into tasting them every time and then, repulsed by the thick skin and hidden seeds, we leaned over the wooden fence and spat skin and guts into the alley before she caught us. At a certain point in the season we moved into her cool basement, where there was a chalkboard on the wall and an extensive comic book collection to keep us away from the boiling pots on the gas stove. It was canning time, when grandma magically transformed those foul grapes into sweet preserves.

Tradition is the only explanation for the basement kitchen, a standard feature in my Polish/Italian neighborhood. Although my house did not have one, the hub of many a friend’s home was the basement kitchen, often ruled by a wooden-spoon wielding matriarch who spoke little English, stood about five feet tall, and was universally feared. My grandmother was one of those diminutive matriarchs guided by family tradition.

Although grandma probably never heard of the Confucian practice of filial piety, she devoted herself to ancestor worship. She lighted votive candles in church to pray for the sick and the dead, created alters in her home for the departed, dedicated Masses on death anniversaries, and much like the canning process, once a summer we accompanied her to the cemetery to tend to the family plot.

Edged in wrought iron fencing and shrouded by a forest of mature trees, the cemetery’s clipped green lawns and upright tombstones are an anomaly to the urban ruins outside its gates. On those summer mornings, before the full heat unleashed its wrath upon the concrete and brick landscape, my grandma coaxed us into her air-conditioned Chevrolet jammed with flowers, gardening tools, and a tin of cookies and card games to keep us occupied. She navigated those winding cemetery roads that rolled past rows of tombstones and mausoleums until we reached the right spot on the hill. There, grandma spread out an old towel, kneeled, and whispered several rounds of prayer before she began gardening. I waited, swatting flies and squinting against the sun, staring up at the spaces between the branches, where blue poked through dappled green, and wondered what it was like to be under the ground, inside a box.

We talked about the people under the stones, their lives, how they died, and how we all were part of a long, interconnected network.  This is where I first learned of the concept of a “half sister.” No matter how many times grandma explained the same mother, different father thing to me, I envisioned a girl sliced own the center, her bones, muscle tissue and guts exposed. That was no kind of sister I ever wanted.

Seventeen years ago this week, my father’s funeral procession followed the curves of those same roads, past the hill where my grandmother tended to her family plot, and stopped near a massive elm so tall it poked at the clouds. It occurred to me that every stone in this place was the bookmark to a story. I fingered the anti-anxiety pills wrapped in tissue that grandma handed me at the hospital a few days earlier. “It’ll help you sleep,” she whispered. I kept them in my pocket, the inner stoic smirking at my ability to rise above pharmaceuticals. I thought about taking them during one of these long days between death and burial. Would I fall asleep and remember everything?

I stared up at that big tree over the open grave, tilting toward the heavens, bearing silent witness to an endless parade of sorrow, and remembered all those summer afternoons swatting flies while grandma planted petunias and hummed to herself.

Following the graveside service, I turned my back on that tree and the hole beneath it. I got in my car and drove away. In 17 years, I’ve never been back. I think of my grandmother and her traditions. She rests under that hill, almost seven years gone.

I’d always followed the philosophy that our legacies are in our progeny, and the things we owned and created and sometimes neglected. My father doesn’t live under that plot in the cemetery, he lives in the starry night sky he watched with interest, along the river beds where he fished, in the travel journals he kept for decades, and the silly cartoon drawings that revealed his political leanings.

I stay away with the excuse that the cemetery is in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Even with an armed escort, do I want to come upon that untended marker? Would the weeds and dust trigger guilt and a sadness I’ve tucked away for 17 years? Would I feel nothing?   Would I search for pills like those rolled in the tissue paper that I ultimately threw way? Would I wonder why tradition means so little to me?

 

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Welcome to The Nine States

This day is steeped in tradition.

In some parts of the country, it is known as Devil’s Night. Here it is called Angel’s Night.

Today is our Family Day. Three years ago today we opened our arms to Girl from the East, closed them around her slight frame and haven’t let go.

When we met her for the first time, we saw many things. Mostly, we noticed she was sick. We were jet lagged and soon after we were sick as well. Every year thereafter (except for our first anniversary in 2007), one or more of us has been sick. Last year I had pneumonia on our Family Day.

Today, the entire family is possessed by a respiratory virus. I am particularly disappointed because we had a costume party to attend this evening. I’ve spent quite a bit of time pulling it together, practicing the makeup and even painting my fingernails black. (I hate fingernail polish and haven’t painted them since the 1980s.)

In light of my lack of energy, I am reposting what I wrote last year with a few updates:

familyday

Three years ago today we awakened very early in China and rode a bus to the provincial civil affairs office in Nanchang. We were a bundle of nerves. During the bumpy ride, I clutched a stuffed bear in my hands to keep me from wringing them excessively. Two years of preparing and waiting and wondering were about to end.

Soon we would meet our Girl from the East, who’d been a plan, a hope and a dream for so long. Her referral picture was posted everywhere in our house. We looked at it constantly, held it up to the light, tilted it and stared at it in search of answers:  Who are you? What does your laugh sound like? Will you be happy with us? Will we know you when we meet you?

Then, it all happened so fast.

Our normally chatty group silently disembarked the tour bus. Our guide led us down a crowded alleyway, through glass doors into the marbled lobby of a high-rise, loaded us onto several elevator cars that ascended to a crowded, smoke-filled room. The din of voices in Chinese and English, the squalling of babies, the mixture of laughter and tears of newly formed families all blended to become a high-pitched babble. The sounds, the haze of cigarette smoke, the heat, all were almost too much to bear. I feared I’d cry on this day. Instead, I retreated to a bench and sat with my head tucked between my knees, praying I wouldn’t pass out. Girl from the West sat next to me and rubbed my back, assuring me that all would be OK.

Then, I heard our guide call out our family name. I sat up to see a cluster of orphanage workers rushing toward us with the tiniest living doll I’ve ever seen. And then she was in my arms. Smaller and lighter than I’d imagined. Her eyes wide, brows raised as if to ask: What’s all this about? Suddenly all the commotion retreated from the room and we were alone, living the moment in slow motion.  She let me hold her, but did not meet my gaze for more than a second. She wiggled and twisted around to face outward, content to look at the world around her.

Today, that tiny doll who was smaller than any 10-1/2 month-old I’d ever seen is now a robust, soccer-playing girlie-girl who knows she was born in China and waited for her family to come and take her home to “The Nine States.”

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Top secret

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.   

 

— Frank McCourt

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“Why are you so secretive about everything?”

My husband asks me this question all the time.

He does it when someone asks  ”So, what’s new?”

He does it when I answer, “Oh, nothing …. ”

He wonders why I lock it all up and throw away the combination. Why I write anonymously. Why everything is in code. 

My husband doesn’t wear a wedding band. He wears a decoder ring. For me.

decoderring

So, why am I so secretive? 

Conditioning. Culture. I’m Irish?

I wasn’t always so reserved with information. But a few blurt -and-regret incidents shut me up.

You learn through conditioned responses what’s acceptable to share with family and what needs to remain in the vault.

The way my husband and I react to new experiences in our lives tells the tale of our vastly different childhoods.

This past Sunday we tried something new. 

Later that evening I heard my husband on the phone. He was giving his long-distance family a recap of the day. 

This is so different from the way I operate.

Here is all anyone needs to know to understand my family dynamic: I had a grandmother who died before I was born. She died young. End of story.

Not until I was filling out adoption paperwork and had to complete several physical exams did I pry a bit to learn that my grandmother had colon cancer. That she was in her 40s. That she had been continuously pregnant for all of her fertile years. I don’t know if one thing has anything to do with the others. I don’t know if she could sing. I don’t know her favorite perfume. I don’t ask.

My father, who was the first-born of the brood, was just old enough to order a Tom Collins when this happened. I understood this was tragic. Not that he could legally drink. But that his mother was dead. My grandfather had a household full of children who needed a mother. This was not the era of  Mr. Mom. Apparently you picked yourself up and moved on. You did not dwell.

Dad never spoke of his mother’s illness or her last days. I once thought the information was withheld because I was young. Later I learned no one knew anything because it was understood that you did not ask. You waited to be told. If nothing was told, you accepted that. They were not told.

This approach has carried on for decades. Things happen in the family. Maybe you hear about them. Most likely you do not. People have married into and divorced out of the family without comment or announcement. People have life-threatening medical conditions and don’t tell their closest relatives. They die, allowing their survivors to uncover their deep secrets, begging questions that never will be answered.

Recently I learned someone in the family had a Facebook account. I asked this person to be my friend on Facebook.

“No, I’m not friending any family. I don’t want you to read what I put on Facebook.”

I’m not surprised.