I thought I knew a lot about my parents. I know their favorite ice cream flavors, even if it’s by the ice cream company.
I know that my father likes leaving vacuum cleaner tracks on the carpet so my mom knows that her home has been cleaned recently.
I know that my mom loves her coffee with milk and no sugar.
I know about their wedding but not their reception. I know about my mother’s wedding dress and her garter.
I know the shape and contour of their faces on their wedding day and how they essentially look the same even now. My parents aged.
Their love hasn’t.
Going to Chicago was walking into my history which includes my parents’ history. I have always felt like the odd one looking in, that standing on the edges and watching the world spin was easier than engaging and likely making a fool of myself.
I am the triangle in a square peg, circular hole or circular peg and square hole kind of world.
Until a week ago when I sat with my aunts and found that my edges blended well with their edges and that I finally could breathe just right because they breathed just like me.
I am known for knowing exactly what not to say at just the wrong moment. My “slips of the tongue” are hurtful and horrible and make me live within a never-ending shame wormhole. I thought I was crazy.
I thought I was bad.
I thought that I was just doomed.
Nope. I inherited it. From my grandmother. I don’t remember her “Juanitaisms,” her ability to mean well and say everything wrong. I remember feeling intimidated by my grandmother because I thought I annoyed her so staying away from her was easier than trying to understand what I did wrong and making amends, especially when I didn’t think I had been offensive in the first place.
Oh, my beloved Grandma Jay, I really wish, now, that I had spent more time talking with you, had relaxed all my walls and prickly boundaries when being with you because it turns out I am just like you.
I have inherited a tiny amount of your musical talent.
I have inherited your desire to be kind and good only to fall flat on my face because my words are my worst obstacle.
In Chicago, my Twin-Aunt drove me around my parents’ lives and the worlds they inhabited. On Thursday, my last full day of vacation, I sort of lived inside-out in my parents’ worlds and reacquainted myself with my family.
In the morning, a time that symbolizes new life and birth, I stood at the graves of my grandparents and wept.
I haven’t seen my great-grandfather, Grandpa L, since 1979, before we moved to Germany. I have forgotten his voice, but I can still see his smile. I can still feel the tautness of his love.
I haven’t seen Grandma Dot since 1982, when I, in my playful exuberance, charged up to her to hug her. However, she was so fragile and old that I accidentally knocked her over. Feeling her body slip from my embrace I did my best to guide her to the sofa directly behind her, trying to lead her to safety.
I was so humiliated I avoided her for the rest my time during the 1982 Chicago visit. Shortly after that, she her mind started deteriorating and I avoided phone calls with her because she wasn’t my great-grandmother, my Grandma Dot, anymore. She was a stranger with a family member’s voice.
I haven’t seen Grandma Jay, my mother’s mother, since 1998. My piano playing, piano-teaching grandmother had a disease that I thought was Parkinson’s (it wasn’t) but it robbed her of the fluidity of her piano-fingers. Instead, her body stiffened and she became so enfeebled she lived in adult diapers and my mother’s desperation to give her mother a normal life. My grandmother loved Florida, loved walking the shore line and searching for sea shells, loved the water that lifted her body from the weights of gravity and life events that I think were exhausting.
I haven’t seen my Grandpa Connie since the mid-80’s, when I visited him when I was sixteen and exploring the world on my own. I loved my grandfather; he was the core of my joy, the brilliance in my world. He was playful and loving, kind and compassionate. I desperately wanted to be his favorite.
And on that last Thursday, that last day of my vacation, the last day when I was not a Gracelesscurran but a woman of another name, of another set of names, I stood above my grandparents and wept because I hadn’t seen them and hadn’t spent the time with them that I should have. I wept because I loved them and knew I loved them but the time to speak to them was decades in the past and all I could do was whisper to plaques and slight indentations in the grass.
Oh Walt Whitman….I should have brought my copy of “Leaves of Grass.”
But my Grandma Jay must have had a a trick up her sleeve…
My Twin-Aunt had illegally parked…or at least we think we had illegally parked. On the left side of the cemetery’s access road was a “No Parking” sign. But we were on the right side…and we were only going to spend a few moments at the graves.
Of course, a few moments stretched out into many more minutes because weeping and story-telling are timeless….
As we compared memories, as we talked about the purring sound Grandma Jay could make that no one can duplicate, we noticed a funeral procession, turning right, as if about to turn into the cemetery we were standing and illegally parked.
Tears were flung away and we galloped over the graves, whooping with laughter. Similar to a comedic action movie, we sped away, looking over our shoulders for the funeral procession that never entered.
We went to Flips, hot dog dive where my parents loved to go for dates. I snarfed down two hot dogs covered in a chili, onions, relish, cheese, and a host of other condiments that were rich and wonderful.
We went to Wheaton College where my father went to school, where my parents were engaged, where my parents were married, where my father’s house used to stand and where my mother buried a meal that was deemed inedible.
She claims it was pizza dough.
Twin Aunt and everyone else swears it was meatloaf.
I like the idea of it being meatloaf since Mom prides herself on her meatloaf.
Twin Aunt showed me the stop sign where my father’s house used to stand.
And then she took me to a special museum housing the artifacts of the Inklings, a group of British Christian writers.
gods of writing who loved God and who created the fantasy genre.
I rested my hands on JRR Tolkien’s writing desk. I pushed my hand past the fur coats and touched the back of CS Lewis’s wardrobe but never found the way to Narnia.
I touch CS Lewis’s writing desk. I photographed their pens. I felt the heavy weight of ink and syllables and the sirenic voices of the muses singing to me, saying my name.
Even now, I can feel that ghostly sense of the writers and my kinship with them even if I am nothing more than a child in comparison to their excellence.
From there, my aunt drove me past the park where my father proposed, pointed out the gazebo in the corner and said that maybe that was where he proposed.
I do not know my parents’ engagement story. I know my own. I know my brother’s. I do not know my parents’, and that will change. I will call them tomorrow. I will hear their words.
I will learn their history.
Twin Aunt then took me to my grandparents’ home, the house that was the closest thing to home for me for a long time. I loved that house with its long hallways and the dark wood siding. I called the front living room the “forbidden room” for obvious reasons…I was forbidden to enter the room because of Grandma Jay’s breakable, beautiful decorations.
In this room were her piano and her organ.
In the front hall closet adjacent to the forbidden room was her candy basket, aptly named because it held the full-size candy bars reserved as rewards for her piano students.
And one day, I stole a candy bar, a Marathon candy bar, from the basket and snuck into the forbidden room and hid behind a forbidden curtain and snarfed down the candy bar and loved every bite.
In the afternoon of that Thursday, we went out for ice cream. Going to my mother’s favorite ice cream store, my two aunts, my uncle, my cousin’s sons, my daughter, and I sat outside and devoured our unique scoops and shared stories, reminded one another of our histories and their intersecting lines. Another of my family’s traditions was observed, the sacredness of a good scoop of ice cream and being with people who are beloved and family.
My Twin Aunt took me down streets that were once familiar but hold strange houses and strange businesses. Everything was supposed to be a part of me and I was completely lost. But she would redirect the spinning needle of my compass rose and would point out a landmark, a story, a fragment of my history.
The world reoriented itself. And I was found.