Since our oldest daughter went off to college, the cat started doing his evening rounds in the afternoon. He walks around the house carrying a small stuffed mouse in his mouth and crying mournfully. It’s like he has a ventriloquist mouse that is very upset about something, like maybe being carried around in a cat’s mouth. I don’t know why the cat does this but it doesn’t seem aimed at us. If we look at him or call his name, he freezes until he’s sure we’re not watching anymore and then starts up again. He also leaves the stuffed mouse in various places around the house, like at the top of the stairs, next to the bed, or my personal favorite, on a couch cushion. I like to think this is his version of putting a jacket on the back of a chair, saving a seat for later.
I googled this behavior and found it is pretty common. I did not find a conclusive answer as to why cats do this. Some say mother cats do this to model behavior to their kittens. But our cat is a kittenless male. Others say a cat is offering gratitude by leaving gifts, which can include far worse things like dirty socks or headless real mice. My favorite explanation is that cats bring us mice and other gifts because they think we are terrible hunters.
I wasn’t expecting this cat to be affected by our daughter moving out because they have a tenuous relationship built on mild mutual torment. She has always been somewhat afraid of him and he knows this. When she goes to pet him, he might bite lazily at the air. She might then tap him on the nose, which he totally asked for but looks insulted anyway. Before she moved out, she instructed her little sister to bother him while she’s away. This has not really happened, as her little sister has an entirely different relationship with the cat. She doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or anything, but he would probably let her.
I also hadn’t expected my husband to take it hard when our daughter moved out. I’d been so worried about how her little sister would take it, it never occurred to me he might cry a little on the drive to work after helping her move in two cart’s worth of stuff from home.
It was a little embarrassing how much we sent her with, at least until we saw other kids’ move-in piles. Comforters, mattress pads, body pillows, keurig machines, shower caddies, mini fridges, under the bed storage bins, bulk supplies of mac n cheese. It seemed like we equipped them with more comfort than they had at home, which was maybe the point.
Move-in day went so smoothly, it felt easy and even fun. Parking was plentiful and free. Staff smiled with seemingly endless patience. There were plenty of move-in carts. Elevators waited until after she had moved in to break down. There was a terrifyingly loud fire drill, but even that gave parents peace of mind knowing there is no way a student could sleep through one of those. Her little sister and I helped set up her room and then we had a leisurely lunch. When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged but none of us cried. Driving off, we honked and waved and then got to do it all again after I hit a traffic light and she caught up on foot.
I always have had a delayed reaction to difficult emotions. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when the depression hit a week and a half later. This was after she reported a successful first week and pushed back plans to come home for the holiday weekend by a day. One of the reasons I hadn’t felt sad about leaving her was because I knew she was only an hour train ride away and could come home whenever she wanted. Maybe I thought this would be every weekend. Maybe I hadn’t thought about it at all.
Having her home was almost harder than missing her. When I picked her up from the train station, she looked fresh faced and surprisingly well rested even though she assured me this was not the case. She napped on the couch for several hours that afternoon and it was like old times. I fought the urge to keep poking my husband and saying “Look who’s here!” The novelty of having her home was bittersweet because I knew it was only temporary. We would have to send her back. She said it was weird being home because she’d already gotten used to dorm life. Well, except for the communal bathrooms. Home will always be superior because you never need shower shoes.
The night before we drove her back to college, the cat did his mournful cry thing and jumped up on the back of the couch to drop his stuffed mouse. He left it mostly behind my head but it just as easily might have been for her. Maybe he couldn’t decide which of us needed it most. Maybe he was hoping she’d reach for it so he could snap at her hand. We all show our love and pain in mysterious but equally meaningful ways.
Plotting his next move from an empty bin in her room
When my grandmother calls to tell us not to come see her, we are already halfway there. I tell her this and she sighs. “You’re not going to be able to get home,” she says. “Your credit cards won’t work anymore and you won’t be able to buy gas. Don’t you watch the news?”
She knows I don’t watch the news. But my husband does and surely he would have told me if our economy was on the brink of collapse? I pull over to get gas and check the news feed, just in case. The gas station is swarming with cars, which could indicate the early stages of anarchy or just a busy Monday morning. My credit card works and I get enough gas to get to her house and back with enough left over to siphon for the generator or trade for questionable beef jerky at a post-apocalyptic market.
When we arrive, she is still worked up but glad to see us. CNN hollers on the TV in her bedroom while FOX screams from the living room. She insists she got a call that morning from her bank about credit cards not working. We sit at her kitchen table to go over a stack of still impressively organized papers and she taps the side of her head and admits her computer isn’t working so well anymore. She calls her brain her computer.
During our visit, she gets six telemarketing robocalls. One is a pretty convincing spoof from apple support that wants me to press 2 to speak with someone about a data breach in the cloud, which I almost do. In another call, I swear I hear a computer breathing sweatily on the other end. The Do Not Call Registry! I think. Unfortunately I can’t sign her up on account of the government shutdown.
Because it is a federal holiday, I also can’t take her to the bank to get to the bottom of some unpaid interest or to the post office to hand deliver an envelope she could easily stick in the mailbox at the end of her driveway. I wasn’t going to take her anyway because it’s 20 below outside with the windchill. I’m just glad the decision was made for me because she’s very hard to argue with.
We bring up several trash bags filled with pots and pans from her basement. We clean out a small cupboard I never noticed before and I show my daughter how to wrap glasses in newspaper. This feels like a useful, old fashioned skill, like being able to sew a pillow case.
We break for lunch and my grandmother sends us out for Whoppers. She describes it in such a way that it is clear she thinks I have never had one. The more she describes it, the less sure I am that I have. It is, she says, hot, fresh, and comes with a delicious sauce. It also has “all kinds of fresh vegetables” on the top. I order a cheeseburger for myself because I can’t bear disappointment. She eats half of her Whopper and wraps the rest up in neat folds of wax paper to have for supper.
We vacuum her kitchen, living room, hallway and bedroom. She follows me around, holding the cord or standing in the precise spot where I need to vacuum next. In the kitchen, I use the attachment under her cabinets and suck up several cups worth of broken crackers and one small blue pill. When I go in the back bedroom to put the vacuum away, her cat looks up from a spot between a stack of AARP magazines and a lamp base and then drifts back to sleep. His nap spot is safe for now.
Usually when it’s time for us to leave, my grandmother remembers something else she needs me to do. “Take the giant wooden reindeer down to the basement and cover it with a sheet,” she might say. Or, “go in the basement and find the giant wooden reindeer and bring it upstairs.”
Today she seems tired and ready for us to go so she can retire to the couch and her cat. She says she is happy because her house is finally clean. Really all we did was move several bags of stuff from a corner in her basement to a corner in her living room. Crackers that rolled off the counter in daring escape were unceremoniously vacuumed up. It shouldn’t be so satisfying, but there it is, that unmistakable lightness you feel after a haircut or clearing off your desk at work.
I say I’m not going home with anything, but wind up taking two gently used farberware pots, a pair of snot-yellow coffee cups I am nostalgic for with no idea why, a tiny plastic bride and groom from my parent’s wedding cake, and a glossy booklet on Engelbert Humperdink. There is a picture of Engelbert laying shirtless in bed, glaring at an alarm clock. There is another photo of Engelbert shaving, still shirtless, while a mysterious, fully-clothed man stands behind him, smiling encouragingly.
On the drive back, the moon is big and full and follows us home. It teases from the top of a hill, finally close enough to touch, and then ducks behind a patch of trees. I think what would little kid me have thought if I knew how much my grandmother would change. I wonder how it’s possible to miss someone I still get to spend the day with. I look forward to doing it again and bringing my daughters every chance we get.
While sandwiched between my father and a non-English speaking relative I had never met before in the backseat of a stuffy, late model BMW, I saw storks standing in soft rolling fields and neatly tiered cemeteries and had the certain thought this must be a dream. We aren’t really here.
But I have never been uncomfortably warm in a dream nor registered smells like sunbaked dashboard and smoldering diesel. Twelve plus hours of travel and we really were in Lithuania.
At a stoplight, the driver offered my grandmother a dusty tin cup rummaged from the glove box. She said something in Lithuanian and he wiped the cup with a marginally less dusty rag before filling it halfway with mineral water. My grandmother gave a shrug and tipped her head back to drink and I, thirstily in the back seat, thought she’s home again.
We stopped in the town of Trakai and ate Kibinai, a pastry with a neatly fluted crust and meat filling. We waved away bees at an outdoor café overlooking a lake and 600 year-old castle I had only ever seen before in a painting in my grandmother’s house. I’m sure I never thought it was real.
My dad and I followed one of the relatives inside the castle and climbed an incredible labyrinth of stairs leading to warm rooms, always stuck behind a large foreign-speaking tour group. This would become a theme for the week: not understanding what anyone is saying and sweating and thinking I can’t believe we’re really here!
My grandmother was pretty amazing. She will be 92 next month and easily boarded countless shuttle buses and climbed more stairs in a week than she has all year. She visited 9 family graves in 4 cemeteries and climbed into and out of a Volkswagen Vanagon something like 18 times. And she was the life of the party at the 7 mini-reunions we had over the course of 8 days.
She always had an arm to hold onto and help when needed. Her (my) family was so good to her (us). In one of the bigger cemeteries, one of the men we were with turned a collapsible walker with a seat and his leather belt into a makeshift wheelchair he and another man pulled along the paved path.
Let me tell you about the cemeteries. I always thought my grandmother’s preoccupation with visiting graves and planting and pruning flowers and bushes around them was a bit unusual and, well, unnecessary. Then I saw a woman carefully washing the marble border around a graveside shrine after raking the stones inside and understood.
It turns out Lithuanian cemeteries are nothing like US cemeteries. They are like serene parks in heaven or some other majestic planet. It might be a European or Catholic thing, but cemeteries are revered and holy and pristine.
You are never alone in a Lithuanian cemetery, even if everyone has their head bent down pulling weeds or lighting candles. The dead are gone but visited often. Many graves featured photographic images of loved ones, not unlike the kind you can get printed on t-shirts at the beach. I saw a sign at one cemetery with the word Fotokeramika in big letters and worried it prohibited photography. But I google translated the rest and realized it was just telling people who to contract to get photographs of their loved ones printed on graves.
I took a lot of pictures in cemeteries. I photographed relatives’ names and dates on markers for future genealogy searches. I photographed living relatives standing around or behind graves, my grandmother in every picture, no one smiling exactly.
Truthfully, my father and I were a little tired of cemeteries by the third one. But that was the one where my grandmother gave a tearful speech, only partially in English, about why she fled the country, her home, after the Russians had run out the Germans and called it liberation.
She cried again when we drove down a gravel road crammed with houses that used to be her parent’s farm until the Soviets took it. We sat inside the church where she married my grandfather. Their marriage did not last and while the original church survived WWII, it was dismantled and repurposed by the Soviets before being rebuilt in the early ’90s.
I didn’t love the village like I thought I would. The people were wonderful but I expected to feel some connection to the town since my mother was born there. Knowing the dark history – the genocide and suffering – left me feeling a bit heavy and flat.
I was more than ready to move on to the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas. Everyone wanted to understand why it was so important to me. Why have I wanted to go there ever since I was a little girl? I don’t know, why did I buy a small skeleton devil at CVS yesterday? Why not? It’s like asking why you love cats or dogs or musicals. You just do or you don’t.
I almost didn’t get to see the Devil’s Museum at all, but mentioned it as an aside to one of the younger, English-speaking relatives and the next thing I knew all 12 of us were crowded into the lobby buying tickets for 3 Euros each or something ridiculous like that.
It was awesome and so was the Devil’s Museum. I took 5 million photos (all of which I am going to show you right now…) and when I missed a good devil, a cute little 3 year-old spitfire we were traveling with pointed her chubby finger and said Fotografuok and I did. And then I had to show her the photo on my phone screen and she would nod and then we could proceed. It was her first visit to the Devil’s Museum too and she will probably not remember it but may one day want to go back and not be able to explain why.
My grandmother got to see her cemeteries and I got to see my devil’s museum and my dad got to see his KGB museum, which sounds cool and was, but it was also very sobering. When I think KGB, I think eavesdropping room (pictured above), but not necessarily basement prison and execution room for resistors. The execution room had bullet holes in the wall and a glass floor with personal effects like jacket buttons and wire rim glasses on display below.
As an American, I take freedom for granted. When Lithuania fought and regained independence in 1990, I remember a festival in Baltimore I didn’t go to because I was in high school and had to work or smoke cigarettes in the woods with my friends. It meant little at the time except there goes my grandmother with her fierce Lithuanian pride. I was and continue to be an idiot, yes, but I get it now.
And oh, the spirited hospitality of Lithuanians. We slept in comfortable beds (you get no top sheet but do get your own duvet in a double bed!) while one host slept on a bedroll in the kitchen. We were driven a maddening number of kilometers by men who would only occasionally and then begrudgingly accept reimbursement. Even their cats were attentive and sidled up for pets, purring in Lithuanian.
We feasted on garden grown fruit and vegetables and salmon caught on a fishing trip to Norway. We slathered backyard honey on homemade cheese. I never ate so good and craved so little, except maybe water. It started with the dusty tin car cup and an unfounded fear of tap water and ended with me falling in love with the salty mineral water which tasted like warm ocean the first time I drank it but became my favorite thing that I can’t get back home. Our mineral water is a joke.
We spent our last couple of days in Vilnius at the airbnb apartment I wrote about last post. It was excellent, by the way, and I don’t think anyone looked in our windows because they had some special anti-peeping tom coating. It also had metal shutters you could put down at night that were very Get Smart. We never did since air conditioning and fans aren’t a thing over there that I could tell. As for the streets of old town Vilnius, google street view couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing.
On our last day in Lithuania, my dad and I climbed a steep cobbled hill to Gidimenas Tower, where I coughed up at least one lung due to some ailment I picked up just before my trip even though I hadn’t been sick in 2+ years.
That reminds me, I’m glad I didn’t take this trip newly sober. I was offered shots of strange liquor at least a dozen times. I had to put my hand over my coffee cup once to keep a well meaning but not-getting-it host from pouring in booze to help my cough. They like to drink over there and no amount of polite refusal seemed to reduce their bewilderment or suspicion. I insulted them by not drinking and experienced the irony a teetotaler knows well.
Our travel went remarkably well until the final leg home, most of that after we landed at Dulles. There were extra long lines at customs due to new face recognition technology and then some guy took my suitcase and didn’t realize until after he got to his hotel. We were all fried by the time my dad and I dropped my grandmother off and drove home.
I was a little nervous about talking to my grandmother on the phone after a few days of recovery. I wanted her to be as satisfied with the trip as I was.
The first thing she said was my father and I left her house so fast after the airport, it was like we were on fire. We didn’t even sit and have something to drink, which I now know to be a great insult to a Lithuanian.
Also, she couldn’t believe she didn’t come back with any Lithuanian bread or cheese or candy. We didn’t get to see the Hill of Crosses either, she reminded me. I couldn’t tell if she was complaining or trying to prepare me for another trip.
I might be able to find the bread and candy online, I said. I just want to enjoy this trip for awhile. She wanted to know if I ever wanted to go back. Definitely, I said. One day I will take my daughters so they can take theirs, and so on.
He watches us from inside the clothes basket for so long, we forget he’s there. He is not invisible exactly, but he sits very still and the basket is very tall. When he finally jumps out, Audrey and I are always a little startled. This happens at least once a week.
(Photo: That one time he let our other cat in the basket but supervised carefully.)
Years ago, a friend had a tan striped tomcat her children could carry around like a rag doll. The cat had a funny human name, like Julius, and diabetes. I wondered if it was this combination that caused the resigned, content expression he wore when one of the boys, a lean brown 5-year old, tucked him under both arms and lugged him around the room. Oh, I thought nervously the first time I saw him do this. But there was no drama, no biting or blood.
I decided I wanted a cat like that for my own children, though it felt pointless and silly, like wishing to win the lottery without buying tickets. Our otherwise awesome cat at the time gave my daughter a scar running perpendicular to the part in her hair just for getting too close. When I was 5 or 6, my great-granddad’s cat gave me a scratch all the way around my wrist so that it looked like I was wearing a glistening red bracelet. Those were the kind of cats I was used to.
Clothes basket cat is different. He seeks children out, not to torment or maim but to play with or hang out beneath a blanket. He does bite sometimes, but it’s almost always deserved. His name is Sylvester and he has asthma so maybe there is something to the combination of funny name and chronic disease. Every night once we are all in bed, Sylvester patrols the empty parts of the house while crying mournfully around a ratty stuffed mouse he carries in his mouth. If you call out to him, he immediately stops and starts up again several minutes later. I googled what this means and out of all the plausible and bullshit answers, no one bothered to ask a cat.
If you really consider the cat or dog sitting quietly beside you, it may start to feel like an alien that popped in many millennia ago on holiday and decided to stay because it liked the climate or food and no one was checking visas in those days. They are nothing like us, and we are blessed to have each other. I can think of no one, aside from children when they are in a pleased mood, that brings such reliable joy to an aching human heart.
Every night before bed, Audrey gathers up her stuffed animals in one arm and tucks Sylvester under the other. He looks simultaneously contented and full of wonder on the bumpy journey upstairs.
(Photo: an old one…he looks 25% more contented these days.)
When I first mentioned that I might be going to Lithuania with my 91-year old grandmother, my husband thought for a moment and said “don’t come back with any more amber.”
Like a person told not to think about a white polar bear and only able to do so, immediately I pictured a chair with smooth, gleaming lines of bubbled translucent gold. There would be at least one fearsome bug preserved within. Even though it would not be feasible to check an amber chair on an international flight, let alone procure and afford one molded from the prehistoric resin of long extinct trees, I could not stop myself from thinking about it.
I have taken amber for granted most of my life. I have never paid for it (nor stolen it), though possess so much I sometimes discover amber rings or broaches in random drawers. Most of it was passed down from Baltic-raised relatives, though at least one piece, ironically, is from the same husband who forbade me to buy more. (Maybe he wants to buy it for me? Probably.)
I own hand crafted “lucky” amber earrings with darker stones of varying size. I wear these on special or difficult occasions, though recently noticed several of the smaller pieces are missing. This means random bits of luck have fallen out and been ground into dust. I have amber rings I can’t wear because they were made for slimmer fingers and bold necklaces that should never come back into fashion. It is not a particularly valuable or sought after gem, but still my eye is drawn every single time to the only amber jewelry in craft stalls or hippie head shops. Amber steeps in my blood.
International treasure hunters still search for the Amber Room. It’s easy to lose a few lucky stones from a pair of earrings, but imagine misplacing an entire room made of amber, worth about $500 million today. A Prussian King gifted it to a Russian Tsar in 1716 and it was embellished and added to over the years. In 1941, Nazi troops looted Catherine Palace and disassembled the Amber Room, packing it into 27 crates. These crates were last seen in Konigsberg in 1945. Maybe the crates were destroyed in the firebombing of Konigsberg. Maybe not. I do not think even the Amber Room contained a chair made of solid amber.
I am planning to travel to Lithuania in August with my 91-year old grandmother and my father. We plan to visit the village where my mother was born and hopefully the pine forest my grandmother swore was so clean she would lie down for a nap and not have to brush herself off afterwards. I feel like an eight-year old a month before Christmas, equal parts excited and terrified the big day will never come.
The last time my grandmother proposed this trip, I didn’t take it seriously and got pregnant within the year. I could not take a baby and young child on such an adventure, nor could I leave them behind. Also, my grandmother was too old, we thought. We never thought “let’s wait 10 more years so she’s even older” but that’s what we did. She told me if she doesn’t at least try to make this trip, she’ll be really, really sad. As I looked at her old, unstamped passport and the application for a new one, I saw a path laid out so clear there was nothing left to do but start following it.
This trip is a treasure within reach but never guaranteed. A lot can go wrong any given day, exponentially more when one traveler is a nonagenarian. It will not be an easy trip (I have never thought this). Still, we see this as a chance to do something we will never be able to do again with people who won’t always be around. If we make it, how can I not bring home at least one amber-encrusted souvenir spoon or paperweight with a perpetually stunned wasp inside?
I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.
“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”
“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.
“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”
“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.
“We’ll see,” I said.
I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.
She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.
“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.
“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.
The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.
When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.
They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.
This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.
Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days
The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.
Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.
“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.
Unlike The Pond’s Institute, The National Christmas Center is a real place. You don’t need a fancy undergraduate degree in skin rejuvenation to get in, though you do have to pay $12.50. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it, especially since The National Christmas Center will close its doors forever on January 7.
When I heard it was closing, I knew we had to go one last time. I wondered if it would feel anticlimactic or disappointing. Was it as magical as I’d remembered? I am happy or sad to report I feel new levels of anticipatory grief, which is maybe not surprising since Christmas is built around anticipation and nostalgia.
I had to describe nostalgia to my nine-year old daughter because she didn’t understand what it was. My teenaged daughter understands it and has for some time, so maybe it first occurs naturally between the ages of 9-13. It becomes a sweet, sad burden we alternate between trying to ditch at every turn and cuddling to sleep at night.
I viewed a lot of our final visit to The National Christmas Center through the screen of my phone. I know this is sad, but I wanted to preserve every last wax curmudgeon and animatronic weasel. One day I will hopefully have grandchildren and we will hover around a screen so I can show them pictures of their mother making a non-camera ready face around the Belsnickel exhibit.
(Unlike Santa Claus and Krampus, Belsnickel can go either way depending on whether the child was good or bad. He carries cakes and candies in his pockets, but also birch switches. I’ve been thinking about him lately when I look at my childrens’ wish lists.)
One thing about nostalgia is no two people wear it the same. It also fits us differently over time. I used to be more nostalgic for things I never experienced. This is why a place like The National Christmas Center appealed in the first place.
One room is set up to look like a Woolworth’s from the 1950s, two decades before I was born. I never owned a wind-up monkey or menacing marionette. For awhile I used to buy toys from my own childhood on eBay to feed nostalgia. Then I realized I could go to antique malls and take pictures on my phone and it would bring as much satisfaction and require less storage. This is around the time I started becoming nostalgic for people and places.
In my late 30s, I began having terrible pangs of loss for grandparents and other family members who were long gone. Still, the nostalgia wasn’t always personal. I missed spinning the lazy susan on my grandparent’s kitchen table and how it was always sticky from spilled sugar and King’s syrup. I missed the big rock in their front yard that I used to sit on for what felt like hours for no other reason than it was there. Did I miss the rock or my grandparents? How well did I know them anyway?
The next phase of nostalgia involved scanning a box of slides from my dad’s side of the family. My husband’s family had another box of slides, so we combined them for a bulk rate and to confuse whomever scanned them.
My family’s slides captured the wholesome ’50s with Gee Whiz smiles and party dresses. Joe’s family slides were early ’70s in every sense and included what looked like ragtag pirates but were actually hippies on a sailboat. His parents were hippies. I swear I never realized until I saw those slides. I’d be more jealous but my grandparents once hosted a luau in their Baltimore row home, as well as a series of odd costume parties. I have the baffling photos to prove it.
I am entering a new phase of nostalgia in my 40s. The pain is unfamiliar so a bit exquisite. I am nostalgic for the things I haven’t done or that I did do but would probably still do or not do again. It is not the same as regret, but more aligned with that than anything else. I’m nostalgic for the way my teenager and I used to get along just last year, even though I know she had to grow up and often that means apart. I am sad to know the same thing will happen with my still-cuddly nine-year old. I miss the days before my husband and I had kids because I remember more time and less weight, both literal and figurative. If I could go back in time, would it feel that way? As Joe said long ago, nostalgia is a liar. This is what I remember, anyway.
The National Christmas Center will close its doors, probably forever, on January 7, 2018. They are looking for a buyer, but I can’t imagine the price. The collectible value of its contents alone must be over a million dollars, plus it brings in literally busloads of patrons in Christmas sweaters year round. Each room will be probably be divvied up and sold at auction or else a reclusive billionaire will buy it to know what it feels like to live inside Christmas’ belly. I wish I was a reclusive billionaire.
One thing I enjoy about life is how you constantly get to reinvent yourself. The older I get, the less anyone seems to care how or why I do this. Time lends a gentle cloak of invisibility, which leads to its own kind of freedom in how we remember and honor the past. I don’t mean we should make shit up or distort the facts, but why not write a short story about a billionaire recluse who sleeps in a fiberglass burrow formerly occupied by a rabbit in a striped nightshirt? A useful byproduct of nostalgia is creativity.
Some of us feel compelled to preserve and even mold the past to make some sort of sense out of it. I like to think this will help future generations do the same. They may one day pour over photos and screens or memory scans and wonder who were those hippie pirates and who took all the pictures of wax figures inside The National Christmas Center. And what does it all mean?
If you can’t make it to The National Christmas Center before it closes and aren’t a billionaire, here’s a 360 google tour. God bless the internet, every one.
As a good detective, your first job is to secure the scene. This involves shuffling to the curb in pajamas at dawn to drag the garbage can back to the side of the house. The aroma of litterbox looms heavily in the humid air. You are filled with hope and disgust.
You interrogate each potential witness separately. Your husband texts “I don’t have it!” The exclamation mark might normally arouse suspicion, but his alibi is airtight: he’s out of town. You get to the perpetrator/victim’s younger sibling before she’s even out of bed. No, she hasn’t seen it either. The cats both look guilty but they always look like that. Actually, the one cat looks guilty while the other probably looks hungry. You release them and they slink off to stalk the fish tank and eat a little kibble.
Your key witness is pretty sure she last wore the retainer the night before last. She isn’t sure where she was when she took it out. The hot pink case you couldn’t miss if you were blind sits on the bathroom counter empty, like a missing child’s shoe found by the side of the road.
Your witness isn’t sure when and where she last saw her retainer. It might have been on her bedside table. It might have been on a placemat. You’ve been at this game long enough to know grabbing her by the collar while crying why in god’s name don’t you remember?Why?? won’t get any answers, though it might make you feel better.
When you re-read the victim’s statement, you keep going back to the part where she said I hope I didn’t throw it away in the bathroom. You didn’t get this far ignoring hunches. You can no longer put off the garbage like the snakes in Pee-Wee Herman’s heroic pet store rescue scene. You must go in.
The garbage does not disappoint. You don’t find the retainer, but it is even more disgusting than anticipated. What even is that one thing and where did it come from? You check under the bed, in drawers the victim clearly hasn’t opened since 2011, the top of the refrigerator, the mailbox. You frisk the cats but they misinterpret and purr.
When you get to work, you fight the urge to check the garbage can beneath your desk because the only way it would be there is if you were in on it the whole time.
You clear the schedule for the weekend. You plan in your head how you will sift through each bag of garbage, plus the recycling bin, wearing purple kitchen gloves and a handkerchief over your nose to stifle the stench. You make a note to do this somewhere private so the neighbors don’t send someone by with a butterfly net.
You scribble notes in your steno pad: check the lego bin; strip the victim’s sheets and wash them, killing two birds with one stone; look over by the fireplace, which is where you saw a cat batting something around the other day and assumed it was a bug but now you are not at all sure.
You are a very good detective and you will find it. A retainer doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, maybe that one time in 1988 when you put your own retainer on a plate for safekeeping while eating a sandwich on the back deck and then, for reasons unknown to anyone, shook the plate over the bushes and stones below. As one does.
You never got over that, obviously, but it helped make you the great detective you are today. You’ve told this cautionary tale to your daughter many times, assuming only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. You do not recall your parents looking for your retainer as obsessively as you did then and now, those maddeningly translucent white whales.
Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. After giving the blanket a good shake, you’ll hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! The vexing, useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down to at least one of your offspring, after all.
My grandmother leaves a brief and mildly worrisome voicemail asking me to call her because she doesn’t feel well and wants some advice. She ends her message with “I don’t want you to get in a panic.” I am sitting at my desk when I listen, trying not to count how many times the young mechanic across the street slips behind a dumpster to vape or the minutes to lunch and now returning this phone call.
By the time I call back, my grandmother is not really sick. Whatever the problem was, it already resolved with prune juice and something stronger if mysterious due to a language barrier I’ve long given up on trying to deconstruct. Now she craves milk and also eggs but is too weak to drive to the store. I tell her to call her saintly next door neighbor, Lois, but my grandmother is, as usual, three steps ahead. She will call when she knows Lois’ granddaughter is down for a nap.
My grandmother says “If I had died from this, no one would have had any idea what killed me.” Maybe this is why she called, not for advice or reassurance but to pass along information that might prove useful post-mortem. This is what it must be like to outlive all your friends, your spouse, your child. My grandmother has become dramatically stoic while still engaged and interested in the day-to-day. She grills the middle-aged man who cuts her lawn on why he still lives with his parents. She has a much younger friend who takes her to buy a rotisserie chicken every Wednesday. She even has a cat on loan from another neighbor.
The cat thing bothered me for awhile because she was borrowing it surreptitiously. One day it showed up on her back porch and she opened the door and let it in. I guess it was like having a good friend over and not having any cake to offer because she went to the store afterwards and has been buying cat food ever since. I worried the cat’s real owner would notice and accuse my grandmother of catnapping, but as usual none of my worries play out and it turns out this cat is one of eight and hogs all the other cats’ food so I guess everyone (and cat) benefits from the arrangement.
My grandmother insists on calling the cat a she even though it is stocky and male. When you go to pet his head, he stands on hind legs to meet your hand faster. My grandmother and I both agree it is dangerous to invite a cat into a house without a litter box and to let it nap on your couch, possibly teeming with fleas, while you watch Fox News through equally droopy eyelids. But a part-time pet brings great pleasure and at regular intervals my grandmother shuffles to open the door and let the cat that is not hers outside.
Recently my grandmother told me she saw a strange creature in her backyard. At first she thought it was a cat, but its tail was striped with bold black and white rings and so long it dragged on the ground like a monkey’s. A week or so later, she saw another creature with a similarly droopy tail, only this one was cream colored and the size of “a very large squirrel”. She said the striped tail creature looked just like an animal she saw on the news the other day, but she could not remember what it was called. I know what you’re thinking and she knew too because she told me Lois saw the creature lounging on the driveway and snapped a picture with her phone.
When I visited my grandmother, I asked if she’d seen either creature again and she said no and added “Lois isn’t home right now, but next time I’ll have her show you the picture.” There were three cars in Lois’ driveway and I wondered how my grandmother was so sure about that.
The first order of business was digging up Saint Joseph, the patron saint of sold condominiums, whom my grandmother buried head down in a garden area by the parking lot. It’s unclear if Joseph helped sell any other condos in the building or if the $500 “marketing fee” my grandmother paid had more to do with her finally getting a decent offer. I talked it up to my kids before we left – how their great-grandmother buried the statue of a saint because she thought it would bring good luck and how we had to find the exact spot and dig him up, like lost treasure – but I guess they were expecting a full-sized statue and seemed disappointed when they saw he was plastic and fit in the palm of her hand.
My grandmother bought this condominium with my grandfather many years ago so they would have a place to stay at the beach. They rented it out a couple months out of the year, which paid the mortgage with enough left over for gas and tolls . She tried to get my brother and I to buy it from her but it’s too far and we have another place to stay when we do make it down. Also, I don’t have that kind of money, though it troubled me that she was only a few years older when they bought this place. She tells me they never went out to eat or took vacations when they were young.
It felt like we were on vacation, I guess because I’d taken a couple of days off work to drive her down for the settlement and so she could say goodbye to her place. I spent many nights there myself, so the closure was just as much for me. That was the bed where I slept one night while grape gum dropped from my slackened jaw and snaked relentlessly around my long hair, I thought to myself. There’s the pool I snuck into another night to fool around with a boy I barely knew. This is the carpet where my great-grandmother actually spat after they caught me and made me come back inside. Actually, it was shag carpeting back then. I still remember the gold and yellow pile from the time my brother and I both spilled overly full bowls of Fruit Loops with milk, accidentally and almost simultaneously, while my grandmother hurried to get her condo ready for a rental.
This was a bittersweet goodbye visit, for sure. I asked my grandmother a couple of times if she was sad, and she said she was mostly relieved. She posed around the condo while I snapped picture after picture. She didn’t ask what I planned to do with all of the pictures and I wouldn’t have had an answer anyway. Maybe I’ll make up another photo book like the one I did after her 90th birthday party. She carries it around in her purse to show her realtor or the woman behind the deli counter. If I do a photo book for My Grandmother’s Last Trip to the Beach, I have enough pictures to tell a story, though it will only be mine. Too bad I didn’t get a photograph of the men power washing the halls of her building and how they popped their heads out and yelled down to me in the parking lot at the exact moment my grandmother and daughter yelled other things at me from another floor. It was so funny looking – four anxious heads peering down from different spots with their mouths all moving and not one noticing the other – but that can’t go in the book because I neglected to capture it on film or whatever you call it these days.
I also don’t have a photo of the new buyers, who dropped by for their walk-in inspection just as we were getting ready to leave for the settlement. Oh what a gift that was. You know how when you meet someone and something about their tone or expression zaps all the tension from the air and everything feels lighter? It was like that with this couple, and not just for my grandmother but for all of us. Even their realtor looked visibly relieved at the unplanned meeting. The new buyers chatted with my grandmother for a good 15 minutes instead of pulling out all the utensil drawers to make sure they worked properly (and thank goodness for that). Before we left, they told my grandmother she was welcome back any time and she told them God Bless You and I know she meant it because she wouldn’t have said it otherwise.
The settlement occurred around a large oval table in a room decorated with ink and watercolor drawings of festive legal scenes set in the ’80s, judging by the outfits and hair. There were massive, serious looking legal books that I think were just for sure. At first the presiding attorney seemed all-business, curt even. But he softened with my grandmother and repeated instructions when necessary and did not rush her along. Her hands were very shaky and each time she had to sign her name she did so with painstaking effort.
I caught a few glimpses of the capable, determined grandmother I grew up with. I will forever remember her big cars and hair and how she was always ready to challenge an unsuspecting store clerk or family member who forgot who they were dealing with. She seems so much smaller now and walks slowly with a cane, her hair soft and snow white. But still she is sharp as a tack in unexpected ways. She got what she wanted and, I believe, deserved with the help of Saint Joseph, family who loves her and a charming couple eager to turn her old place into decades of new memories.