Tag Archives: childhood memories

A Man of Habit

My grandfather was a man of habit. He walked the same three miles every day. He always stopped at my aunt’s house to see his grandsons. He worked at the New York Shipping Association Pension Fund for 40 years. When he retired as Executive Director, he settled on a once-a-week transition. On Wednesdays, he took the train into Manhattan and rode the elevator up to his office in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. By all intents and purposes, he should’ve been at home that day. Maybe bouncing a baby on his lap or waving at the neighbors who knew him as Walking Joe. He shouldn’t have been in New York at all. But he switched his routine, and he went to work.

He walked home that day, soot-covered and forever shaken. It took him hours. He made it back, but he was never the same.

We started recounting the story with my brother-in-law recently, and I thought about how hard it must be to believe someone when they say, “You woulda loved him.” We inflate people we love when we eulogize them. The person you’re telling always thinks, “Yeah, yeah, sure they were great.” And you want to grab their shoulder, catch them right in the eye, and say, “No.” You want to say, “Sometimes, they aren’t. But this one? This one was great.”

It’s like wringing out a wet dish towel, trying to make it dry. You can twist and squeeze, twist and squeeze, but there will always be that little bit of water left, until you let it fall flat and dry on its own. Until you succumb to the reality that you might never be able to show them. Sometimes I think we try too hard to explain how much someone means, because we can’t bear but to try.

I think about his diehard love of the Mets. I try to imagine him at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The way he never took off the shiny Mets varsity jacket. I think of the day he took me on the ferry to Shea. The weekends spent at the Poconos. The songs he sang us, made up and out of tune. How he could fall asleep standing up, leaning on the half-wall between the kitchen and family room. How he ate apples with a knife and brushed the salt off his sourdough pretzels. How he couldn’t swim so he’d stand in the shallow end of the pool with a baby in his arms.

I go back from time to time and read what I’ve written about my grandfather over the years. Because I can’t bear not to. Because the good parts, they deserve to be remembered. Because even though that day got the best of him, and he turned away from his family and lifelong friends until the day that he died, suddenly, we got the best of him first. For a time, we did.

I could run myself ragged thinking about the calendar. If September 11, 2001 had been a Monday or a Thursday or a Friday. Would he have met my husband? Would they have spent hours together, talking about everything and nothing? About the agony of postseason baseball. And the buzz of the stock exchange. And the comfort of a good book.

His story may never have a better ending. But the middle, the part I remember most, was just magic.

Four maracas, three girls, one song and a feathered comforter.

Before there were boyfriends and broken hearts and buddies that moved away, there were just three girls, a song, wooden bedposts, and a feathered comforter.

Our hands wrapped around the wooden spheres we’d wrestled from bedposts, makeshift maracas we alternated shaking above our heads and stuffing down our tank tops to make us look like Real Life Barbie Dolls.

The music played in our heads as we belted out renditions of a song we knew so well and not at all. A song fit inside us to make us feel like rebel girls all the while holding us in suburbia.

We knew the words, but we didn’t understand them. Heard the regret, but didn’t feel it.

We chose, instead, to bounce on a bed draped in a feathered duvet comforter. Our tiny toes trampled all that was Light & Airy & Floating Along Fine Just Fine.

“He was a skater boy. She said, ‘See ya later boy.’ He wasn’t good enough for her.”

I look for it now—those words, that verse, the moment when everything shifted from Peace Out, Sucker to Wait Wait Wait, Come Back To Me.

But it’s gone.

The song didn’t make it into my iTunes library when I shifted from Windows to Mac. The words didn’t wait for me to find them, relish in their bittersweet regret, and tuck them deep into my pocket for safekeeping.

“Now he’s a superstar. Jamming on his guitar. Does your pretty face see what he’s worth?”

I wonder how many moments it takes for us to figure out we won’t get it back. If it’s possible, at twelve years old, to be hyperaware of that while you bounce on your parents’ bed with your two best friends and a pair of makeshift maracas.

Back then we could end songs when we wanted to. Forgetting, sometimes, that it stopped well before we restarted the first verse after the last chorus. Forgetting we had the ability to hit Repeat six million times but it wouldn’t slow Tomorrow down.

Forgetting that we couldn’t stay in that spot where we were three girls in a bedroom with two pairs of wooden bedposts in our fists and a beige feather duvet comforter softening our falls.

The song ends. The day ends. The girls stop bouncing on the creaking bed. The stereo remote gets kicked beneath the bed and lost. The girl moves. The bed gets shipped to another state.

And then the three girls start to wonder if that moment was even real.

This is not about orange juice.

via weheartit.com

I’m terrified of becoming the cheap can of orange juice concentrate in Walmart’s freezer section.

It’s on sale. Yes. It’s looks like orange juice. Yes. But it’s in a can. No.

My mom used to buy that kind. She’d scoop it out with a wooden spoon into a pitcher and she’d add water; the spoon handle knocked against the narrow opening of the plastic pitcher.

I can still hear it in my head. That thumping noise as she churned the thick orange glob into something resembling real juice. The good stuff straight from Florida.

I kind of want to charge over to the dairy aisle where milk carton meets juice box and they become best friends. I want to bend over sideways and tilt my head and try to see the orchard on the other side of the shelves, but I know I’ll only see the stock hands and the white rubber gloves as rows are filled and refilled.

I know that the best kind of orange juice is fresh squeezed.

The canned pulp gets the job done, yes, but if you had the time, wouldn’t you opt for the fresh-squeezed nectar from the fruit itself? I would. I so totally would.

Maybe not anymore since you can buy the carton in Walmart that says ‘fresh-squeezed’ even though it was squeezed 600 miles away and packed on a delivery truck.

But this is not about orange juice. This is about us being taught to devalue ourselves every day unless we master one impossible task: stretching our goodness, our hearts, thin to cover every inch of this Earth.

Really, we should love a few things as best we can. Nothing wants half a heart’s worth of love. Not even our orange juice.

I’ve been taught to believe it though.

“One project is not enough. Fill every day with something different,” the voice in my head says. “Stress is your best friend, Kaleigh. Stress will keep you company on the lonely nights when people desert you. When you fall short again and again.”

“Stress will make me feel adequate?” I might look up with hope in the back of my throat. Blue eyes to the clear sky.

“Yes. It means you’re pushing forward in this world.”

“But I don’t feel like I am,” I’ll say. “I feel like it’s making things worse.”

I’ll treat stress like a warm, thick blanket that chokes me in the middle of summer. False comfort and not what I want at all, but it’ll be there.

We believe we need it because that’s what we’re taught. But stress isn’t passion. It isn’t love. It isn’t hope.

It’s just stress, repackaged to look more attractive like that can of orange juice concentrate. It’s cheap and convenient and tastes OK if you don’t think about it too much.

It sits in the freezer collecting frost on the edges. It won’t taste better when you bring it home and mix in the water. When you stir until your arm almost comes off.

Go buy the navel oranges. Squeeze them. Wring out every last drop and taste the difference.

Taste the hard work and the love and the focus on one single task on your lips.

It’s there. And it’s so good. Juicy and sweet. Tangy and zesty and full of life.

I pray there is a generation with fiery red hair and painted in freckles, dedicated to eating dessert first.

My grandma & I at Long Beach Island

My family will maintain that my grandmother is buried six feet under the ground at Fair View Cemetery in Red Bank, New Jersey. But that’s not true. Not really.

The truth is that she’s alive. More alive than most people in my life. She’s strategically spread herself, clinging to everything in sight like the smoke from the cigarettes she used to smoke.

When I was eight years old, standing in front of an open casket, I stumbled silently over my Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s.

The scents of fresh cut flowers, too much cologne and Mint Milanos distracted my brain, forcing me to start over.  I kneeled until my kneecaps imprinted themselves into the maroon plush, until I wrapped my head around the concept of death.

Back then, my biggest gripe was not being allowed to miss school to attend the funeral.

And then, instead of just abiding by the rules of death — you know, the gone forever part — she played a trick on me. Her presence crept up on me, bleeding into the remaining members of her family.

I should’ve forgotten her. Thirteen years ago. Instead, what I do remember is distorted. Like fragmented pieces of glass that — when glued back together — won’t be enough to reframe a mirror.

My first memory of my aunt is in a hospital room. All the lights are turned off; the glow from the whitewashed hallway is the only light penetrating the darkness.

It’s an intimate moment. A woman just six years older than I am now is hunched over a bed. Her shoulders wrench up and down. I stand back, hoping to fade into the background as she pleads. Bargains with her terminally ill mother not to die.

Motherhood, I’ve come to realize, is a legacy passed on to the next generation. Maybe a mother doesn’t sit her children down and tell them how to behave and how to raise a child, but she prepares them silently.

My grandmother, in fact, grew quite good at sitting her children down and telling them how not to behave.

“Do as I say,” she insisted, pushing vegetables around on her dinner plate but not eating them. “Not as I do.”

I see her in my own mother, who lays on the couch wrapped in a blanket even in the middle of June. Devouring novels of love and morality and conflict as if they were crossword puzzles.

And in my aunt, who believes in the “always have something prepared for dessert” theory. Maybe, with three growing boys, you’re obligated to abide by that rule.

And now, long after she is gone, I see her in my roommate whose parents, ironically, were from Red Bank, too.

“Desserts first,” my grandma would say. And I’d joke about opening a restaurant with the same name.

My roommate believes in relaxing; she’s an expert in it, really. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. And she bakes three times a week.

So the years will pass; the leaves will change colors and the people in my life who most reflect her will grow older. But I will find new ways to find her in the strangers on the sidewalks or the grocer at the store. Her fiery red hair will crop up in someone else’s DNA and her freckled skin will splatter itself across someone else’s cheekbones.

And I will pray that there is a generation dedicated to tough love, desserts first and romance novels.

Because there’s a large piece of that glass stuck inside of me. Absorbed into my blood and clinging to each generation until Cissy Rossetti is a legacy.

Quite frankly, she already is.