Nana and Papa came to visit once a year, in the spring, and stayed for precisely two weeks. They arrived from Florida calm and tanned and wrinkled with small souvenirs and hand knit checkered sweaters each finished with two pom-poms that dangled from the neck. Papa professed that Nana’s knitting was the envy of the ladies by the pool. Every year we received the same gifts - only the colors and sizes changed. I met these stays with ambivalence and fear, not because I didn’t love them. I just didn’t know what to expect. I had never met people so ancient, yet they were to live for another twenty years. I wish I could have known that then.
In my small world, my grandparent’s visit upset the natural order of things. They were an odd mix of stranger and family. My brother and I had to feign familiarity where we had not yet learned the skill of affect. And what was worse, we were appraised not by our cuteness, but by our response to Nana’s butter cookies, dry and stale from their voyage up to New York, tucked in the pretty can, made especially for us. I don’t remember how old I was. Young enough not to know how to turn off the water in the bathtub, but old enough to know I had to be polite. Mommy was on edge, and I had to be nice. I had to pretend there hadn’t been an eruption on the precipice of the visit about something I didn’t understand. The fight was so loud my brother and I cowered behind the open door in his auburn room with the big plaid club chair. I didn’t know quite where my loyalties lay: Mommy or Daddy? Mommy or Nana and Papa?
I laid in wait to pose my most pressing questions. These I hadn’t articulated to anyone, mostly because I hadn’t had the chance. As I absorbed Nana and Papa’s kisses and enjoyed their exclamations, something nagged at me. I just needed to know. How long would they be staying? And when were they going to die?
Nana and Papa were yet to unload their suitcases in the vacant drawers that had been teeming only moments before. The stuff that engulfed the guest room had, by some miracle, vanished. Books found their way from floor to shelf and piles of papers were re-piled somewhere out of sight. In my mother’s thinking room I was not allowed to touch the stuff on the desk. I would later come to understand that this was not chaos – it was her thesis for her Master’s. All I cared was that my mother was busy on Wednesday nights so we were picked up from Hebrew school by Dad and the three of us ate corned beef on rye at Epstein’s Deli and shared Brown’s Black Cherry Soda in red cans.
I approached my grandfather as he delivered the tin of Nana’s cookies to the black speckled Formica counter in the kitchen. “When are you leaving?” I asked. Instantly, I saw I said something wrong. It was my earliest memory of him. From all directions the adults attempted, however much in vain, to drown out my voice like the bells from the church at the bottom of Washington Avenue, “Oh, that’s not what she means…don’t say that, Elise!” I think that was my first lesson in saying too much.
Last weekend, at Rochelle’s Shiva I couldn’t stop weeping - silent weeping, of course. We have our reputations. I’m aware of mine, but I disregard it. How dare I dare to show emotion when it isn’t my turn to take? Leaving the car, I paced behind my husband and broadcast, “Don’t talk to me for the rest of the night!” I had missed the silhouette of the man ahead of us. “Screw him”, I thought as I opened the unlocked door to a den of stillness. Rochelle sat at the head of the room as rows of faces pivoted toward us impassively. Only Rochelle spoke, sitting low to the floor on the special chair for mourners. As I took my place, I wondered if she was talking because she felt obliged to entertain. I should rescue her - airlift her to safety, I thought. These guests were there to comfort, though it seemed a trap. How could they truly feel her heartache? Here she was free-falling off a cliff and they were still up there protected by the barrier.
And then I thought. This could be me.
Once on the beach, Marci, Robin and I sat under the salty sun and mused, “What are you afraid of most in life?” We took turns answering. Mine soaked me in dread, “Losing the people I love.”
In my twenties, Papa’s health spiraled downward after he broke his hip getting off a bus. Ten years later, Nana’s memory slipped away in assisted living, so that the by the time I proffered my two year old, she didn’t know who I was anymore, although she was too refined to show it. She looped about the same conversation like the embroidery stitches she taught me flawlessly as a child.
I needed meat to feed my anxiety so I turned my attention to the next in a succession of people dear to me - my parents. It arose as an annoyance, my fear, like a small flea you wave away. But time passed - a decade - and three children crested into small people, nurtured by Wednesday afternoon visits in which my mother brought chicken soup and turkey and brisket and my father read narratives at dusk while they ate. His voice boomed over mesmerized silence. Mom whispered offerings of second-helpings while slurping grandchildren wagged their tails.
I’ve been a loyal child, but far from a dream one. In random stages, I was a mix of erratic, rebellious, depressed, angry. Above all, I wasn’t that nice.
But it all seemed to wash away with my most redeeming feat - producing grandchildren. My adolescence lasted well into my forties as I continued to cleave to my vision of myself as a free spirit. My mother ignored my woes, in a ‘does-not-compute’ sort of way, stepping in to nourish my family with her necessity. She never stopped trying to harness me to my responsibilities; incessant reminders were all the more frustrating because they were crafted ever so gently. Still, my mother did not wait to be invited to press her indelible watermark on my children. I squandered so much of young motherhood focusing on myself, but it led me to need them in a way I hadn’t as a child. And so I let them in.
I blinked and my parents rocketed into their eighties, seeming no different to me than they were in their thirties or forties. Always I clung to my childishness in relation to them. When I first learned to count, I followed my father into his bedroom reciting ad infinitum. To his MIT brain, such obviousness was obvious. Counting was rudimentary. To me, it was inconceivable that numbers went beyond 100 – ages climbed into oblivion, school would never end and the year 2000 sat on a futuristic horizon as farfetched as climbing into an episode of The Jetsons.
I learned a truism in art school. In drawing, when a line or shape grazes the edge of a page without moving beyond it, visual tension arises. It is bad form to do it, simply not done. Almost needs its resolution. We can’t balance on its border for very long.
Few night terrors have outlived my childhood. In one, I am standing at the curb in my neighborhood looking across the lawn at the red shingled ranch where I grew up. Thunderous silence hangs in the air like I have never known. And there is no one left in the world but me.
I never did share that dream with anyone, disturbing as it was. What was there to do about it anyway? Everybody knows life doesn’t go on to infinity. It was my greatest faux pas as a child and perhaps as an adult, wanting to flesh out what we conceal, when concealing is the very thing that allows us to go on living. It keeps us away from the edge of life.
I suppose I dance on the line.