Tag Archives: 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.

Polaroids & Playgrounds

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She’s seventeen.

December is slipping through the spaces between my fingers and so is she.

So is she, head hung over the rubber tire swing, arms flopping at her sides, mouth agape. In a few months, I will have lost her completely to distance. But for now, she’s still young, still just a kid in a white and green knit cap, hair sticking out on all sides.

And so I take a picture. Because that’s what you do when you know it won’t last.

I wonder what we did before iPhones and Instagram, before Polaroids or picture frames. Those small moments, the ones where we were painfully aware of time, did they get lost?

Did we take mental snapshots before we knew what snapshots were? Did we know, more than ever, when time was just a thing we got to play with for a few hours on a quiet winter afternoon?

I’d like it back. I’d like her back.

I’d like to think that time is a thing to be won, a thing to be held, a thing to be saved. But it’s not. It’s a thing to be lost, under the sofa cushions and beneath the bed and behind the clothes dryer. It’s a thing to be wasted, sleeping into the afternoon and staying with people who don’t care about us, and standing stuck in ruts because it’s scarier to jump.

It’s scarier to miss her than it is to pretend it’s OK when state lines and deadlines and workdays and weekends get added up between us like bricks building walls.

You deserve to find the people who reach for your hand in a crowd of strangers, but more than that, the ones who reach for it in a crowd of friends. You deserve to grow up, and grow old, and grow tired sometimes of trying to make it work, trying to make life work, trying to make distance disappear.

But never giving up.

I decided when she was months old that I would never give her up, on a doorstep or a milk carton missing child ad. She was mine.

There are nights, plenty of them, when I realize I’ll never have to.

And I had not yet said, “Here’s mine.”

This blog began with a letter.

Exactly four years ago. That’s a story you’ve never been told.

It was the forty-fifth birthday of a man who stopped growing older. It was the morning after the first kiss with a boy who was shipping out to a third world country in six hours. It was the first time I learned what it felt like to lose something you only just learned to have.

It was a letter that didn’t see the light of day for two years. But in it, you could map my beginnings and endings. My nerves and regrets. The pain I felt thinking back ten days earlier to a boy in a leather recliner, away from us all because he had given me his heart and I had not yet said, “Here’s mine.” I had not yet said, “Here’s mind to trample for the next 457 days.”

It was a letter about all the things we do to ourselves.

The growing up and away. The people we reject and the places we forget to miss. It was emotional. It was nostalgic. It was written with the intention of never being read but needing desperately to be mailed.

A present never gifted because it still sits in the receiver’s future. It still deserves a place among the texts and tweets she’d rather read.

It ended up on this blog just a few weeks before I got serious about turning my life into a lasting love letter to the people who brighten me. Before I began writing truths that felt like poetry. Before I began growing people like plants with my words.

That is all this is: a place where I can magnify the good souls in this world who might otherwise never get a love letter.

And if there is one secret we must never keep, it is this: you deserve a novel of thank yous, a list of reasons why your smile will be missed tomorrow if it doesn’t grace us with its presence. You deserve the kind of love letter that gives people arthritis and sends us to Expedia for one-way tickets home.

The letters keep going. The letter to my parents, read by thousands, that never feels like enough of a thank you to them. The letters to strangers & friends who hold my heart in IP addresses and Gmail folders for when I need a reminder.

They have become my words, the calibration scale upon which I measure my actions. They are the actions behind those words and the only reason I have had enough strength to be honest when it hurts.

It is them. The broken man and the crying girl and the magic kiss against a long-ago sold car. The burn of the headlights on an intimate moment. The pounding in my chest when I remember that there will be no cake today. No candles.

Just letters. And words. And the images we rush to write down.

And girl, you're going so far.

Just to be clear, I am 16 or 17 here. Not 13. I may've burned all those photos.

Dear thirteen-year-old Me,

Thursday night I knocked on Brooke’s door and just started crying. And not the wiping-a-few-stray-tears-away kind, either. I’m talking full-on can’t speak crying.

Some things, my dear, will never change.

Brooke told me something pretty radical, something I still don’t quite believe, to make me feel better. She said I’d been through a lot more than most of the girls in this town. Like the two standing outside my neighbor’s house Saturday night, shrieking, the green strobe lights pulsating into our street.

She told me that and I shook my head, because of course it wasn’t true. The more I see of the world, the more the scale tips toward heartbreak. There’s just a sea full of brokenness rolling between Us and Them.

Kellie’s challenge made me think of the thirteen-year-old girl locked deep inside of me, still reeling from the pain she put herself through.

I know you’re awkward. And I mean, everyone says that when they’re thirteen, but it’s about sixteen times truer for you. I don’t know how you got out of bed at six in the morning and watched Fresh Prince reruns with syrup-drowned waffles and didn’t just want to go comatose.

By then, though, you’d already sworn off school for once. You figured you might as well go back again. I know. I understand.

You lied about a lot of things. I know you didn’t want to, but you felt like you had to. And that’s true for a lot of us, but sooner or later the truth has to free you. I think, eventually, you learned that. You lied about things that, seven years later, you cannot even dare to speak out loud. That’s how ashamed you are.

You lied about things you’re unable to write about; and that’s a big deal, because let me tell you that all your little stunts, all your little mishaps will find themselves again on the page. Even the ones that ended you in hospital beds. Even the ones that threatened, at times, to yank your bedcovers off you and take you right from this earth.

Don’t lie so much for so long, OK?

It’ll be eight years in December, but I can still see you standing barefoot on that cold blue tile floor, sure that something bad was about to happen. You didn’t know it already happened. You didn’t know that it could take three days to find the right kind of tears for a funeral you never anticipated. You didn’t know how to heal.

And so you gave up. It wasn’t your first funeral, nor was it your last, but you had seen enough.

Now, you look at death and see it backwards, each person falling closer and closer to birth. 57, 40, 17. You pray it starts going back up again. You pray your next funeral might not be for a 3-year-old, but a 98-year-old.

Mostly, you pray life at thirteen is more complicated than life at twenty-two. Guess what? It’s not.

But you’re fine. Obviously, you’re more than fine. You still laugh nine out of ten days and you still look more or less the same. You still know how to hold your chin up, even if those other girls in town don’t.

And girl, you’re going so far. You don’t even know it yet, but you are.

This world, your life, your mind is a magical place.

Your future self