I understood that there was a right or wrong way to move from infancy, which is inertia and imperfect understanding, into an aspiring grown-up life, the kind that will be rewarded as we live it but also in people’s thoughts and conversation, the most tangible shot we have at immortality: praise or gossip that will outlast us. I paid attention when adults said so-and-so was a brick, a saint, a genius, a hard worker, the salt of the earth with a heart of gold. But entering life, a skirmish, to become this brick, saint, genius, seemed like edging forward on one of those ramps leading to a six-lane highway where cars travel at breakneck speed. In reality, as in this metaphor, my driver’s ed took place on country roads known for blind spots, ice patches, hairpin turns, and the occasional, unexpected wild animal leaping, but little traffic. So I nosed my way ahead, glancing over my shoulder at reckless others who might knock me spinning, and hurtled on.
In my earliest memory—a memory of a day, and then fainter, fainter, like a Xerox of a Xerox, a memory of memory—I sit on a blanket. Above me, trees flex and billow. I’ve not been a member of this race, the human, for long. So trees seem stunning: trembling, clustered emeralds on thick stems. I admire lilacs too, lavender puff-clouds.
This is in a back yard in St. Paul, Minnesota, where my mother’s widowed Aunt Edna lives, with a spare female from her dead husband’s clan, and my great-grandmother, who’s gone around the bend, as I’ve recently overheard, maybe during the car ride here. Suddenly, my mother, my great-aunt, and the spinster rush inside the house with its cupola, curved stairwell, leaded glass in every window, a house that isn’t historic, just 60 years old. “A mausoleum,” my mother once said, sniffing. My mother is modern. Great-Aunt Edna still swabs windows with sheets of newspaper and a solution made of vinegar and water, but my mother uses Windex with Procter & Gamble paper towels. Great-Aunt Edna’s attic was once a maid’s room, the narrow kitchen, with its swinging door lead- ing to a dining room, the cook’s domain. But there aren’t maids and cooks in 1960.
The women surge inside to see a photograph, or some handiwork-in-progress, and they leave me on my blanket and my great-grandmother in her ladder-back chair. I grew up with a father, sister, and brother. My father must be in Spooner, Wisconsin, where we live. Or he’s meeting with an auto parts supplier, a “jobber,” in Minneapo- lis. My sister has apparently flowed along into the house. Earlier that day she’d been handed a glass of something called Nectarade that she’d been promised would taste like Kool-Aid, but it didn’t. My brother isn’t born yet, just a twinkling volition in the life before this, a fist-sized fetus in my mother’s belly covered by a maternity blouse she’d have sewn herself. Stranded with my great-grandmother, who starts to sob and call out, “Please don’t leave me, don’t leave me,” I understand our situations (if not the two of us) are dead ringers. We aren’t expendable, but left to fend for ourselves, doomed. I decide to sob too. The women rush back out—my great-aunt Edna and the spinster soothing my great-grandmother, my mother swinging me up into her arms. My sister, a novice, takes note. In unison—in a chorus of sighs and murmurs—the kindred women tell my great-grandmother and me: “There, there. You didn’t think we’d leave? We will never leave you.”
In time, of course, after whispered phone conversations, everyone did leave my great-grandmother. We visited her at the nursing home. I wore a sky-blue sailor dress one size smaller than my sister’s, our haircuts, anklets, and shiny shoes also identical. My brother trailed behind, sucking his thumb, using his other hand to grip a blanket while he furiously rubbed its satin edge. The old people revived as we walked in. They wanted us, the children. Or, mouths agape, slumped in chairs, eyes gummy and hazed, they wanted to be us. We didn’t want them. “Gutta gutta,” a woman said to me, her arms outstretched. It could have been gibberish, or some odd scrap of Czech or German. The nursing home seemed like the zoo, I thought, which we visited later that day. And the zoo—where monkeys petted and slapped each other, touched their privates in public, acted kindly then aggrieved—seemed like the nursing home. We spoke to my great-grandmother. She didn’t answer. We left.
Six years later, she left us. In time, my mother left me, once by running off with a man who wished she’d never had children, later on by dying. I was an adult both times. As life goes—the knitting together and the unraveling—this isn’t unusual, or tragic. It’s ordinary. But mysterious. It happens to you.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.