DNA Grandma: A Memory

 

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Michael with “GG”       August 23, 1913-April 15, 2005

My grandmother lived long enough (I was in my forties when she died) for me to know her well, and for my son to meet her several times. Not long before she passed away, he and I drove to New York to visit her. This previously published memory is from that trip. 

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We drove east on the Southern State Parkway on a clip out to eastern Long Island to visit my ninety-one-year old grandmother. Traffic backed up by Kennedy Airport an hour earlier, but that all thinned out until finally, after a quick stop at Stanley’s bakery in East Islip, we slipped out along Montauk highway, the October morning sun still in our eyes, and we swept past villages where islanders hosed down sidewalks and set up sale tables all along the main streets of every town from Oakdale to Montauk. In West Sayville my son said he was hungry again, so we ducked into some coffee shop for buttered rolls, crumb buns and juice. Some newbie teen wearing an “I’m hot on the Island” t-shirt gave away free bakery cookies, and Michael waited for those while I bought breakfast. We just wandered east and west until we headed to the hamlet of Oakdale.

At my grandmother’s, I knocked for five minutes, could hear the television streaming out from her second-story window. She didn’t answer so I called her on my cell from the sidewalk.

“Oh, you’re downstairs. You know, I thought I heard someone knocking so I looked out, and I thought it looked like you, but I wasn’t sure, so I watched TV for a while longer.”

“You knew I was coming at this time, right Grandma?”

“Is that Michael next to you? He’s so tall, how old is he now?” We talked from sidewalk to window, looking at each other.

“Grandma, can you buzz us in?”

She buzzed us in. We talked a while and I stared at the same furniture, same knick-knacks, same pictures she had around her since I was a child. She got rid of the plastic that covered the furniture when she lived in Queens, but I sat on the same like-new chair, her and Michael sat on the same sofa she had since the Kennedy Administration.

“How old are you now, Michael?” she asked.

“Eleven.”

She raised her eyebrows. She’d not seen him since he was three. “Is he your only one?” she called to me three feet away.

“Yes. He’s it.”

“Oh, Michael, that’s wonderful. Thank God you’re the only one—you’ll get everything. How old are you now?”

“Eleven.”

“He’s eleven. Oh my, I haven’t seen him since he was, what? Five?”

“Three.”

“Oh! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”

“Yes, he’s it.”

“That’s something, Michael. Thank God you’re the only one at home. You have the house to yourself. How old are you now?”

“Eleven,” he answered, as if for the first time. He has more patience than I do.

“Eleven! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”

“Yes, Grandma, I killed all the others.”

“Oh, Thank God you’re the only one at home—you’ll get everything!” she said, again. Twenty minutes of this. We talked. We remembered. I told her about the time she watched my siblings and me when our parents were away, and how I loved to call her weekly when I was in college. I’m sure she didn’t remember, but she always acted as if she did. She motioned toward the flowers on the coffee table and we said how pretty they were, and a few times I noticed her enjoy the breeze through her window. I looked at pictures on the walls and she told me who everyone was and when the picture had been taken, and I was happy to know at ninety-one-years old she still remembered.

“You’ve got a great memory, Grandma,” I said. “Better than mine!” She laughed and waved her hand.

“Oh there are many things I’ve forgotten,” she said, laughing quietly. Even now I can see her shoulders fold briefly in humility as she laughed.

We ate ham sandwiches on white bread and drank tea. We talked more about my mom, and she asked a lot about how my siblings were doing. She mentioned some cousins, and we talked about Michael and how she remembered being with him at his grandparents’ home in Virginia Beach. It was a pleasant morning and afternoon, and it made me wish I had spent more time with her when I was younger. We do that though, we appreciate people only after the time to spend with them runs thin.

Eventually, we left. Before we did, though, my grandmother asked Michael if he wanted anything.

“Take whatever you want. Anything, just take it.”

“Oh, no thank you though,” Michael answered politely, scanning the room.

“Oh, come on, take something. Take something from that shelf there—there’s some good stuff there,” she called out, sweeping her hand toward the dining room. I gave Michael a nod, let him know taking something in this situation might be a compliment, a way to let Grandma know we appreciate her. He picked up a bowling trophy my mother had won years earlier. Perfect. Later, in the car, he told me he chose that because he wanted to give it back to his own grandmother who had won it.

A few days later my grandmother called my mom and wanted to know who took the Goddamn trophy.

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It is So Hard to Tell, Sometimes

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A steady rain fell throughout the day. The grass and trees remained still, and when the rains let up, birds moved about. It was one of those rains I remember from my childhood, when it rained all day and I spent it stretched out on the floor watching black and white movies or westerns, and I waited for the weather to pass so I could go outside, where a soft steam rose from the wet streets. Today was like that.

Along the river the rain made the water seem as if it was simmering, or schools of fish teased at the surface. Someday when I look back instead of ahead, it will be days like this I will miss. It was a peaceful day.

At an art show today in which Michael participated, across from his display sat a young woman, a girl of about sixteen, sitting alone at a small table with a display for an organization to help women who have been victims of abuse. She sat quietly looking out at the rain, sat there for four or five hours, reading, not checking her phone, just reading, talking to only a few people who stopped by to pick up information or make a donation. She seemed quite relaxed, watching the rain, reading.

I wondered if people didn’t stop so as not to be recognized as seeking help. It is a very small village and clearly many of the attendees knew each other. I considered perhaps being such a small village in rural Virginia not far from the Potomac and the Chesapeake, abuse was not that common. But I guessed that wasn’t true either.

I wondered if the girl was only a volunteer or was this mission perhaps something more significant to her. She sat so peacefully watching the rain, reading, and talked to the few who came to pick up information. I watched one woman walk away from the table, a brochure in her hand, and it was her last stop before leaving the area. It might be possible the young woman saved someone’s life today. It might be very possible. It is difficult to determine how what we perceive as small actions might be salvation for someone else.

I’m guessing the young woman knows this.

Peace is not easy to identify. Tim O’Brien once wrote of the beauty of Vietnam, staring into the languid green forest, dreamlike in its beauty, before going in to kill or be killed. And anyone who has been near water long enough understands the tow that can drag someone out to sea and drown him lies deep beneath the calm surface.

No wonder tranquility is difficult to come by. Most of us can adjust to the troubles in life so well that we hardly recognize peace at all, so that the slightest relief seems as a tremendous respite. But real peace, the kind that makes us feel safe from harm, is not easy to recognize if it ever comes along at all.

I’ve been fortunate. I have known such peace so often for so long. I have indeed been mercifully fortunate. Sometimes I know where to go to find it, like those early mornings when my son and I head to the water to watch the sunrise; it is a given. Other times it takes me by surprise. Like today, when I walked behind a building, standing under the overhang, and stared across a field of deep green lawn with trees in the distance, and a steady rain fell, not unlike the rains of my youth when worries were still decades away. I was caught off guard; I had been thinking about the young woman, wondering how she came to be at that table, reading, handing out brochures only to those who asked, and then I walked to the back and watched the rain.

Tonight it is raining still, and the steady sound on the skylight has a lulling effect. It was a good day, it was such a peaceful day. But not for everyone.

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Here. Now.

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It is the most sobering of realities that the further from humanity I step into the palm of nature, the more I am aware of humanity’s tragic state.

When I am in the towns and villages, and even more when I am on city streets, it is not difficult to look for and even find value, and without much difficulty or distraction. From the city parks where children play, from the new skyscrapers saving space and housing homeless, from the missions feeding the hungry, from the colleges and universities professing that perpetual discourse, from the street artists given the chance to shine, from the monuments reminding of heroes and saviors, from the church cross, the mosque dome, the temple star, the marches and parades and processions, hope exists and again and always chisels away at apathy, at lethargy. We see it just by looking around.

But then I step away and, from some distance, witness what simmers across humanity’s horizon. Defensiveness shifts to aggression, diplomacy turns toward ridicule, compassion is swallowed by greed, and understanding is absorbed by narrow-mindedness. Insignificant fissures when seen from a distance seem massive crevices no longer navigable. I step into the wilderness and turn back from where I walk and see little more than a conglomerate of desperate attempts to win without compromise. John Nash wrote that we must do what’s right for ourselves only if everyone else benefits, or we are destined toward demise. The voices of the Mother Theresa’s and Albert Schweitzer’s and Martin Luther King’s of this world are suffocating beneath the rising wave of ridicule, resentment, and retribution. We must help others not because of who they are but because of who we are. But from this vantage outside the city gates, winning is no longer defined as progress to benefit humanity, but the defeat of another. It seems the idea that someone must lose in order that one win has shrouded the reality about our species: we are tethered by truth. The progress of one is wholly and unequivocally dependent upon the progress of every one.

So I prefer nature. Its truths are absolute. It relies upon respect, it has no subjective approach, and it shows no favoritism. Its instinctive bend is respect.

I am not smart enough to understand the causes of a crumbling society, and I have not nearly the ability to keep pace with comprehending the effects of racism, ridicule, greed, and power. But from this view in the wilderness, society is slipping away from any ideal it may have once pursued, and the climb back is not easily traversed. Then I turn toward the waters and wild lands still unblemished by the body politic, and I have that hope again that there is balance, that some guardrail of reason will keep us from straying too far.

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Drawn

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Without air conditioning in the house for the past ten days and another seven more to go, nature has been very present. The windows are open all the time, and the bay breeze helps a bit; well, as much as it can in 100 plus heat-index temps. Fans in the house keep things circulating, and it isn’t that bad really.

But the significant result of this primitive life style is the sounds. Birds have always surrounded the house, filling the woods here at Aerie like the nest it is named for, including hawks and the occasional bald eagle. But right here, on the porch, in the apple trees and the shrubs around the back, is an abundance of birds, including Carolina wrens, cardinals, finches of all types, indigo buntings, gnat catchers, thrushes, robins, blue jays, bluebirds, tufted titmouses, and more. I suppose the home has always been the resting spot in this aviary of woods, but with the windows open, the birds are more present, and their songs filter through the screens like the sounds of music from radios on neighboring blankets on the beach.

Since the air inside remains more stagnant, even with the fans, than the open air outside, I spend most of my daylight hours wandering around the trails and along the river. The growth from the rains of this past spring is deep with laurel along with the deep ground cover of fern keeping the woods cool. And the garden has become my preferred place to retreat. There, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant not only grow well on the vine, the unmistakable aroma of the vines from the cucumbers and the fragile limbs of the tomato plants identifies summer to me as much as the temperatures.

 

I don’t need to remind myself how fortunate I am to be here, to be surrounded by beauty in virtually every direction. People spend a great deal of money and time to head out of the cities to places just like this. Yet most of the time I sit here with the windows closed, the ac blowing, oblivious to the graceful presence of life just outside. To be fair to myself, I do spend more of my waking hours outside and I always have, but there’s something about changing the view a bit which awakens in me some sort of new appreciation.

This morning I went to the bay like I always do and watched the sunrise. A line of clouds sat just above the horizon, delaying the sun’s appearance a bit, but also increasing the beauty of the dawn with its red and orange hues. Normally I am not there long before rushing to the gym, but this morning I sat a long time, listening to the water hit the rocks. It was gentle but fast, moved ashore with the help of Hurricane Chris some three hundred miles to the east, far enough away to not affect us except for the pace of the current. Osprey landed nearby and gulls dove for food. And a rare sight this morning, some river dolphins fed just at the mouth of the river. I’m glad I didn’t sleep in. I’m glad I didn’t rush off.

We all seek some sort of foundation, some “cushion” we rely upon for our definition of psychological comfort. Financial advisors come up with numbers for retirement to “maintain” the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. For me, the value of my life has always been and I’m sure will remain how close I can keep with nature, whether it be on the trails of Northern Spain or the paths here at Aerie, to hear a river run, or the call of countless birds, or the breeze moving leaves making for an orchestral accompaniment to the wrens and finches. Yes, I am well provided for.

As I step away from the daily grind of critical thought and argumentative structure, as I turn away from the pointless commentary regurgitating from screens, as I move away from the stagnant presence of prefabricated comfort, I come to life and it is as if for the first time every single day.

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Somebody’s Ringing the Bell

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My uncle would bring fireworks and Dad would grill Italian sausages and burgers on the grill. All our relatives came, and we swam in the pool. I can still smell cut cucumbers in the kitchen, and at night, just around dusk, Uncle Bob would set off fireworks and neighbors all sat on stoops and at picnic tables and on the grass in our yard and watch.

It’s easy to look back fifty years and see events differently, like looking through the smoke from bottle rockets, but some things are clear.

Like the music, which sometimes was probably Sousa and Cohan, but I recall more often it being the thin tin sound of a transistor playing late sixties music of the day, like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. Over at the beaches of Point Lookout the hot sand was spotted with blankets and the smell of Coppertone, and radios played and I lay still with my eyes closed. They burned a bit from the sun as I listened to a dozen different conversations of surrounding ladies in beach chairs. I can hear someone say to someone else she thought I was asleep, and then something about how the sun can tire you out and the waves too can tire you out, but that wasn’t it. I was just listening and smelling the lotions and pushing my heels into the sand.

In the ice chest we had hard boiled eggs and Tupperware with salad, some sandwiches and potato chips. I was young though, very small, and I don’t recall much more.

But on the Fourth at our house we had fireworks at night and neighbors and relatives sat around clapping as fireworks exploded above us. The screen door was in constant motion, and everyone was talking to someone else. It was the Fourth and flags flew everywhere. It had been less than ten years since they added the last two stars to the grand old banner, and the country was not nearly at rest—race riots and war protests ran rampant. Johnson or maybe Nixon was in the White House, but all a kid my age cared about was the food, baseball, the music, and the sounds of friends and family laughing, remembering.

It was as if on this particular day, everything was going to right itself; no one was starving and no one was at war, just for the day. At such a young age it was easy to believe that everyone everywhere was having sausages and hamburgers and clams, and everyone was listening to the Beach Boys and playing ball. What an illusion that was, what a beautiful spin.

And yet it is the very backbone of this day, that illusion, that idea that we might still hold those same truths to be self-evident. And despite a fading memory, it was that belief then which has survived—that we wanted to share this day, this idea, with everyone. We honestly and with declaration wanted everyone to sit at our table and share in that feast, sit back and watch the rockets’ red glare. We were together on that, yes, we were together. Families, sharing the day—together, and we knew, I mean we knew it so well it wasn’t even discussed, that this is how it should be for anyone who wants it to be that way.

Man how I’d love to share this, the idea of this day, at picnic tables everywhere, families together who want to be part of this, sitting together, reunited at picnic tables listening to music, laughing, having Italian sausages and hamburgers and clams, some chips, and knowing no matter the struggles sometime faced, they faced those struggles together, equal, in pursuit of some greater happiness they don’t even know yet but dream of, hope for.

Today I’ll grill, watch some fireworks tonight out over the River above Yorktown, where the dream was secured so long ago. And I’ll listen to music, like Paul McCartney, who right now in the background is singing, “Someone’s knocking at the door, do me a favor, open the door and let ‘em in.”

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