We leave a half hour earlier than planned and I stop the car in the middle of a road to take pictures of a horse farm. We finally get apple cider donuts at the place I’ve been telling the girls we’ll stop at, someday.
Because we are still early when we get closer to my grandmother’s house, I decide we’ll take a 5 minute detour and drive past my other grandparents’ old house. You know, see if it’s still there, look for the big rock I used to sit and think on, the same one featured in the 11 o’clock news after a bus filled with mentally disabled adults lost control and rolled over in my grandparents’ front yard. (I don’t think anyone died, but the internet wasn’t around then.)
As we’re sailing down the exit ramp, a voice whispers what about Hamilton?
Hamilton is where my still-living grandmother used to live long ago. It’s close enough to Baltimore that you can see the skyline from the front of the church she used to drag us to on Sundays. I didn’t mind the holy incense, but unfortunately it didn’t have any of the scary-garish sculptures like the bigger church downtown. Screw hat-counting for entertainment when you can gape at bleeding stigmatas.
I went the way google maps told me to drive to Hamilton, which was not the same way Dad used to go. I used the time to wax philosophical with my oldest daughter.
Remember that house we drove past in summer, the one where we talked to the old neighbors? That was the house where Amom had a lot, and they were going to build their own house right next door. Can you imagine that…growing up literally next door to your grandparents?
I still could not, though I tried to imagine for years how life would have been different if my mom hadn’t died of cancer when I was still a baby.
Usually I would have been popular and had better clothes in these fantasies, and somehow turned out more attractive. It sounds superficial because I was, but maybe also I couldn’t imagine what power having a real mother might yield…I didn’t recognize the unconditional love I already had.
Google maps dumped us in Hamilton behind the school with the funky 70s sculpture, which frankly I was surprised was still there. My grandmother and many others like her – working class immigrants – fled to the suburbs 30 years ago.
I was surprised by how well-kept the homes looked in her old neighborhood, at the trim yards and Christmas decorations. Time may have passed through this way, but it kept going. We drove past my grandmother’s old house with the front porch with the springy give and tar smell, or maybe it was old oiled wood.
Next door on one side was her mother’s old house, where I used to skip over for honey tea and cookies at a tin side table by the sunny window. I could wave to my grandmother from there, and did so many times.
Next door on the other side was where Porky lived. Porky was a scruffy terrier I used to feed rolls of salami, chunks of bread, and sometimes carrots and grapes through the chainlink fence while his owner, a specter I never saw through anything but sheer kitchen curtains, glared or just watched, I could never really tell.
I miss Porky and my great-grandmother, who are long gone, but it struck me that I was also nostalgic for someone I could still spend actual time with. My grandmother is still alive and well for 89.
At first I wasn’t going to tell her we drove past her old house in Hamilton. Although my kids and husband are used to these spur-of-the-moment side trips, my extended family must find it strange and a little insulting that I’d rather take time away from a visit. Still, the past doesn’t just belong to me.
“We were early,” I said, “so I drove past your old house on Birchwood. It looks pretty good.”
“Oh yeah? Did you go to Holy Redeemer Cemetery and see your great-grandmother?” my grandmother asked.
I spend my time trolling past houses where relatives haven’t lived in years, possibly creeping out the folks who live there now. My grandmother spends her time in cemeteries. We’re a regular modern day Addams Family.
She probably knew I didn’t go when she asked, but she set us up to drive to a different, closer cemetery where my mother is buried. My daughters have been before, but the novelty is still new and interesting, possibly a little tragic.
I am disproportionately proud that I still mostly know the way through the intricate veins of the cemetery road system. There is literally no one around and I think this is what creeps me out most about cemeteries. They seem like a great place to get yourself murdered.
A biting wind yanks our car doors open and we scramble out to straighten the Christmas greenery she put out last month. Everything is knocked down, including a heavy iron urn on my grandfather’s modest unmarked plot across the way. I can’t remember why he wasn’t buried with the rest of my family, but he’s probably happier over there, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking warm cans of Budweiser if I know him.
We pause for a picture because I already told my daughters I want a selfie with all four of us. There’s a generation missing and you can’t really tell where we are, but we snap a cemetery selfie before rushing back to the car for shelter and warmth and the beep beep beep the car makes when my grandmother refuses to buckle her seat belt.
The playlist is up to its old tricks and Que Sera Sera comes on and my grandmother says “Oh Doris Day. Is she still alive?” It doesn’t seem likely, but what do I know. I feel my mother’s presence in the car.
If my mother were still alive, my parents would still live in that old house, my grandmother right next door. I might have been wrong about the more attractive thing, but I am positive of this.
If we’d never moved to a completely different part of the state when I was little, I wouldn’t have met my best friend, who introduced me to my college roommate, who got me a job at the pool where I met my husband, who gave me two beautiful, very specific human beings. Great loss brought angels to watch over us in another lifetime.