I am going on a journey.
I’m taking a trip back in time. I am packing for me, my husband, and our toddler. We are loading up the car, and we are traveling back to a time and place when things were simpler – or at least seemed that way. I am thirty years old, and in a week, I will be thirty-one; but for this one trip, I get to go back and live in the past – be myself at 8 and 11 and 14 and 21. The past whispers to me, as we settle in the car and get on the road, following the lane markers up the interstate on this drive I have made a thousand times before. I feel all those memories, all the laughter and the mistakes and and the misunderstandings, brushing against me like the wind. Our history can be such a palpable place, just stepping foot in a building can bring back this oppressive feeling of presence, of a time gone by, of people who were once here, once important to us, and now are gone.
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Talking about family is difficult for me.
When I was younger, I thought my family was perfect. Spunky and a little loud and a little odd, but in all the best ways. When I was older, teenage years, early twenties, I thought my family was unconventional, maybe dysfunctional; but all the better for it.
In my mid-twenties, I thought the very existence of my family would crack me apart, from the inside, a great splintering, a great shattering. I wasn’t supposed to talk about it much, then, and I’m not really supposed to talk about it much now, for convention’s sake, for manners’ sake. So I don’t.
At thirty, I have decided family are the people we choose to be close to us, the people who may not always be related by blood, but have proven they will cherish us, and protect us. My chosen family is no less holy and divine simply because we are all friends who grew up in complicated families, with loss, with disappointment, with hurt and battered feelings. We are closer for it, because we know what it means to lose the familial ties, those traditional roles. We know what it is to be envious of a family whole, with two parents and siblings who get along, and grandparents and aunties and uncles who treasure your precious self, just as you are. We try to be that, for each other.
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We are traveling to Indiana, because my dad’s mother, my grandma, has passed away.
It is difficult. All of it is difficult, layer upon layer of emotion that has weighed heavily on me for a week, for two. Now that the news has come, and the very moment of her death has passed, I am trying to unravel this knot. I am following the little cords of emotions in my heart to see where they lead, what memories they dredge up.
It is difficult because my grandma had been very ill for a long time; one of those sad and slow degenerations that seem to take far too long, torturing her as she lost her strength and her memory, as this once robust and energetic woman became frail and uncertain. For a year or two now, it has seemed like anytime really, as she broke bones from falls, and had hospital stays, and got worse and worse but still stayed with us. For the last month, it has been anytime now, for the last week. Last Friday, she wasn’t supposed to survive the weekend, but she held on until Tuesday night. She was always made of very tough stuff, my grandmother.
It is difficult, because I have not seen or talked to my grandma on this side of the family much, for the last few years. Some of that was accidental, the very real limits of distance and circumstance, the demands of a day-to-day existence.
Some of that was intentional, and it feels rotten to admit that. In that time when I felt my family would splinter me apart, I lost all understanding of myself. In that time when the villains in my life were blood-related, I lost who I was, and I had to dig very deep to find my roots and get grounded again. I had to work very hard – for a long time – for years – I am still working on it – to find myself again, and protect myself so I could never get that lost again. And in that time, anyone who was a a supporter to one of those people who hurt me felt dangerous. Anyone who defended them felt dangerous. Anyone who tried to explain to me why I was wrong to feel my own feelings, to own my own damage, was dangerous. I put distance between me and honestly quite a lot of people, because otherwise I could not make it through a day. In time, I worked on rebuilding some – some – of those relationships – but I did not rebuild all of them. By the time my head was far enough above water that I could breathe and tread water again, my grandmother had degenerated so much that she barely remembered who I was, had only a vague understanding.
But still, I sent her Christmas cards, and occasionally letters. I tried to call on her birthday. Even if she did not remember exactly who I was, I was told she smiled so big, when she heard my voice. It was not enough, and never do I feel that more acutely than in the first days after her passing. But still – I did what I could. She always flickered through my mind on holidays, her birthday – all I can say is that I did my best to remember her, to honor her in whatever small way I could.
It is difficult, because I feel regret, I feel guilt – and yet also, I feel like I did what I had to do. I feel like I do not have to justify the actions I took to protect myself, even though I feel compelled to. I feel like a person who does not have the empathy to understand why I did what I did will never understand, no matter how long I try to explain. I feel like a person who does not believe how shattered I felt those few years does not know my true heart, or care about it, and so I should not waste time on them.
But now my grandmother has passed and we are driving up to Indiana, and I feel weird. Sick, even. It seems like when a death is expected, a long time coming, we think we’ll feel more numbed to it – and I do, I do feel numbed. The loss does not feel as raw as it might have. But I have this heavy feeling in my chest, and a squiggling feeling in my tummy. My eyes are heavy and tired, even though I’ve had coffee. I can hear my grandmother’s voice in my ear. I can see her smoking a cigarette at her glass table on her brick patio. She is with me, and I can’t stop thinking about her.
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The drive up to Indiana is painfully familiar. We made this drive, so often, when I was a child, when my parents were still married. In my early years, we spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Indiana, large chunks of the summer. In middle school, early high school, we made this drive every other weekend – for years. Four and a half hours there on Friday night, after my sisters and I were out of school, after my mother was done with work. Four and half hours back, Sunday afternoon so we were home in time to get ready for school the next morning. It was exhausting for my sisters and me; I cannot imagine the exhaustion my mother felt, packing us all up, hauling us into the car, driving us that far, and back, and there and back again in the same weekend – all after working all week, supporting us on her single mother’s salary.
Two hours up to Henderson, the exchange point, where we met in a ratty old Burger King that still gives me anxiety if I step foot inside it, or in better weather, at James Audubon State Park, where we could at least stretch our legs and wander around the grounds, before we climbed into the next car and made the second half of the drive, two and a half more hours.
The Kentucky half of the drive is quick, all highways, speeding through trees and hills, the occasional town lined up against the Interstate, just off an exit. The Indiana half, when I was younger, was my favorite even though it was longer – we drove through so many little towns, Petersburg and Shoals and Loogootee. I made up stories for the people who lived there, imagined attending that high school, going to dance at that studio we passed. Now, I-69 connects all the way from Evansville to Bloomington, now the drive is stream-lined, and efficient as it wasn’t before. As we drive, I do not have any familiar landmarks to help me judge the distance, it is all naked trees and grey sky – we shoot along the highway and it is the same, it is the same, it is the same, until – suddenly – we are there.
I am nervous. I am nervous to see everyone. I am nervous to step foot in what was once my grandparents’ home and what became my grandmother’s home after my grandpa died, years ago. I know as soon as I walk in, another wave of memory will wash over me and overwhelm me, from the garage to the kitchen to the living room where we used to laugh about how all the paintings hang so low, so much lower than other houses’ – because all of us were so short, and that seemed the normal height. I know it is not just my grandmother I will miss when I walk in – it will be that time before, when my heart was lighter and freer, when I did not carry so much cynicism and judgment. I will want to be that little girl again, who saw this home as a vacation, who came in to a fridge full of caffeine-free Coke and our favorite pickles, who played whiffle ball with my dad and uncle and cousins and sisters in the back field, who played with all of Grandma’s little knickknacks on the windowsills, and listened to her stories for each and every one.
I am nervous to see any family that will be there. I am afraid they will tell me they are disappointed in me for not being there more often, for not calling more often. For not helping as much as I should have, when the times were hardest and they carried the load. I know how it feels, to be on the other side, to be the in-town family dealing with an aging and ailing relative while the rest of the family is spread out all over the country, distanced from the legwork of the day-to-day care. In the same week my paternal grandmother passes, my maternal grandmother is taken to the ER, and then admitted. It seems a week where the bonds of family are tight and pressing in on me. I know how it feels to be the group in the trenches, watching my grandma in Kentucky’s pale face as machines beep and whir, helping her into a new hospital gown and putting chapstick on her lips, lifting her glass of water to her mouth. I don’t know if I can explain my choices, I don’t know that I should have to. But I know the load my Indiana family carried, when my sisters and I were not there, when we were not the ones shouldering the heavy burden that was my grandmother’s health deteriorating.
I am nervous to see my father, with whom I have barely spoken in the last year. Our relationship has been fraught for years upon years. There was a time, when I was very young, that our relationship was simpler. A time when I was a daddy’s girl and raced to see him. That feels a very long time ago. For most of my adult years, our relationship has been, at best – at best – problematic. This man feels like a stranger to me, and has for years. I am seeing him, because his mother has just died, because it seems like the right thing to do.
Everything about this trip scares me, and yet I feel so compelled to make the journey that I cannot stop myself.
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When we are younger, our childhoods seem normal simply because we lack relativity, we lack perspective. We know nothing else other than our own experience, so why should anything seem unusual? The lens of time sharpens our view, as we grow older and gain maturity, we’re able to see what we could not see before.
Many of my memories from my childhood in Indiana are happy.
In summer, we – my grandma, my sisters, my cousin and I – we would pack our bags and walk up the tar-patched road, through the duplexes and the tennis courts to the neighborhood pool, where my grandma loved nothing more than to teach all of us how to swim. My younger sister and I paddled from edge to edge, daring to go into the deep-end, while my older sister and my older cousin sunned themselves on the lounge chairs. And home, later on, my grandma kept a counter full of treats for her own sweet tooth. I sat in a tall bar stool at the counter, spinning and spinning and spinning until she told me she’d make me stand on my head in the corner if I didn’t listen to her and stop spinning.
I remember driving around Bloomington with my grandma in her car, my younger sister in the backseat, and me in the front. So often, Grandma drove us around town, because my father was – somewhere, somewhere else – and so often she would tell me stories. My favorite has always been about her two sisters and her, with their three trees in their backyard, an apple tree, a pear tree, a cherry tree. Each tree was special to one sister. We would run out to our trees, and call to each other, my grandma would tell me, steering carefully through curving roads, Calling Sister Cherry Tree, calling Sister Cherry Tree. She told me stories about taking care of her entire family, her father and all of her siblings, from such a young age, after her mother died. She was sixteen, and she told me about all the times she messed up dinner, because she didn’t know how to cook yet. About how her father was stern, a hard worker, but she knew he loved her.
She told me stories about music, about her professor at the IU school of music who would tease her by giving her the wrong sized bow when she was learning a string instrument. She always loved music, it is one of the things I remember most about her besides swimming. She had a little electronic keyboard she used play hymns on, hitting the organ setting and explaining the chords to anyone who might be listening, at the boozy Christmas Eve parties she hosted for years. Silent Night was her favorite hymn, and we always sang it on Christmas Eve. The adults were usually drunk, but I took it very seriously. Just the pretty singers now, my grandma would say, and the adults would collapse into chagrined laughter, break into a chorus of Who Let the Dogs Out while I tried to sing along with my grandmother. She loved music so dearly, and in one of my last visits to her, while she still knew who I was, I managed to fix her CD player so it could play her CDs, all choral arrangements from her childhood. Oh, how she clapped her hands together and smiled.
Not all of my memories are happy. Many of them aren’t. Many of them, I didn’t realize there was something off about them, until years later, until I could see them through an adult’s eyes. So many memories seem fine and normal because it was normal, at the time. Because I was a child, and I didn’t know better. Other memories made me feel slightly ill and uncomfortable at the time they were happening, and I didn’t understand why, then. I do now.
It is hard to place an Indiana memory where someone was not drinking. Where most adults were not drinking, and heavily, and for long periods of time. All those Christmas Eve parties seemed so glamorous, when I was kid, when I just thought everyone was laughing and laughing louder because it was Christmas, and why wouldn’t you be that excited? I remember taking a sip from a red Solo cup that I thought was my punch, and then spitting it out in horror as it burned my mouth, my throat – all the adults around me laughing, because I’d grabbed my grandpa’s bourbon by mistake. I remember the older cousins getting the younger cousins drunk, because it was funny; my older sister, at 14, puking outside on the blacktop driveway. At least, when I was younger, 7 or 8, my mother was there, keeping an eye on things. She would shepherd my younger sister and I into one of the side bedrooms and close the door, try and get us to sleep over the noise and the racket and the excitement of Santa Claus coming.
But as we got older, after my parents divorced, she wasn’t there. There wasn’t really anyone to run interference. My little sister and I were younger, significantly younger than anyone else around, even my older sister. Maybe I should have been the one to run interference, protect my little sister better, and maybe I would have if the whole situation didn’t seem so normal, so perpetual. I lacked perspective, and we went along with whatever happened – with increasing discomfort, aping what had become for us the social norms, unsure and uncertain we could say anything that could make much of any difference.
So often we were alone, my little sister and I. So often we were left at home in one residence or another, the house on Grimes Street where we used to sit out back on the second-floor roof, or the little house way out in the country where at least we could rove through the fields, and for the longest stretch of time, in the condo out at the lake. We ate Doritos and drank Cokes until our teeth nearly rotted out of our heads, and we sat alone for hours and hours, weekend after weekend, watching Nickelodeon and SNL reruns and this one tired NSYNC concert on VHS, over and over and over again. We sat bored, and we quarreled, because we had nothing else to do, because we were stuck at home again while everyone else was out. We drove four and a half hours to sit on a couch at night, alone, unsupervised, until even we, pre-teens and teenagers, knew we ought to just go to bed.
But just as often – we weren’t left at home. So often, we were dragged out to whatever party just so my dad and older sister didn’t have stay at home with us. Some of those memories are the ones that seemed fun, then – because it was fun, mischievous, to be present at these parties that our mother would have never let us attend, to be sneaky and play along with my father’s charisma, and his conviction it was all fine. If our father, our parent, thought it was fine, why wouldn’t it be? There were summers my sister and I spent a week at the golf course pool, swimming and splashing and eating ribs and sucking BBQ sauce off our fingers, that never-ending supply of Coke; while the grown-ups – not just my father and my sister, but my uncle, my cousin, their friends we saw so often we thought they’d become our friends too – clustered around the bar, drinking, getting rowdier as the hours passed from afternoon into evening – before they all adjourned to someone’s house to continue the party. I thought it was cool, then – the way everyone else at the pool gazed over at our posse, our family, watching us. I thought we were the funny ones, the cool ones – the ones flouting convention, making our own fun.
But for every memory that seemed fun at the time – there are the ones where I felt awkward, confused, uncomfortable in my own skin. So many parties, later on, after my older sister moved up to Bloomington and started school, where even she wasn’t there. Parties that my younger sister and I were dragged along to, the only females in a crowd of drinking middle-aged men, football on the TV and beer and liquor on the counter. So many parties all we wanted to do was go home, because it felt weird, hearing the men yell at the screen and make crude jokes and talk about women as if they were objects. It felt weird to be young women coming into flower, when this was how men talked about women – and so we sat silent, pretended we were not there, that we were not girls becoming women, just so we wouldn’t take notice. So many parties where we just sat in the corner and took turns playing Snake on my dad’s phone because it was the only entertainment we had.
How many times did we get in the car with him when he had been drinking? Drinking, and not just a little. Not just a glass of wine or two, or a couple beers. How many times did I know, or understand that was what was happening? Everything is foggy, so often I can’t bring it into sharp focus. So many things I blotted out because speaking up seemed wrong, but letting the evening run its course as it seemed set to do seemed wrong too. How many times did we ride in the car with him and feel scared? I have this one terrifying, one oddly specific memory among all the fog: a night with snow on the ground, of the car slipping off the road under my father’s hand, my sister and I waiting white-knuckled but silent for him to correct it. I felt ill, near to puking, but somehow he saved it, and we made it home. Another night where finally – finally – my older sister and father came home, and my father was loud at the parking lot at the top of the hill, and I came out to greet him and watched him going tumbling headfirst down the hill. How I raced to meet him, dust the mulch and leaves off his clothes, steer him more carefully inside. Put him to bed like he was the child and I was the parent. How many times did my younger sister and I just shut ourselves in a room with the TV on, rather than face what happened outside the closed doors.
I suppose I ought to feel lucky, because throughout all of it, there was love. We were not beaten or hit. We never actually wrecked. We had food, and a roof over our heads. We laughed, and here and there we went on adventures, at least when we were younger and less self-sufficient. As the years passed and we became older, more and more of those nights were on the balcony of the condo, or my uncle’s garage. More and more nights where everyone snuck off to the bathroom to do something my younger sister and I were supposed to ignore if we saw. Literally, I remember someone saying that. But we were loved, and told that often, and for that, we are supposed to feel grateful. We are supposed to forget how often we felt, at best, ignored, a burden that gotten in the way of partying, of the fun times that happened full-swing when we were not there to interrupt; and at worst, we felt scared, uncomfortable, unable to speak up and ask for something different.
Most of these bad Indiana memories are not my grandmother’s fault, and if there was anyone who was careful and attentive with us in our visits up there, it was her. But she never stopped us from getting in the car and riding with someone who had been drinking. She never stopped the glass from being refilled, and if we were settled in one place, she drank right along with the rest of them. Everyone loved to laugh and tease her about how she’d say, we are not getting drunk! – even as she topped off someone’s wine glass.
It is hard to know what to feel, as I comb over all of these memories, the good and the bad, in the days following my grandma’s death. I know that I loved her. I know that she loved me. I know that even as she told me I needed to lose weight, even at a healthy weight, over and over again until I hated to exist in my own skin – that she did it out of love, because she cared about me.
It is hard to know how to feel, and I have to keep reminding myself there is no wrong way to feel. That all my emotions, good and bad, are valid. That I can love my grandma and her memory, that I can love the times I was happy and oblivious with my family in Indiana, and I can still feel scared and confused and angry about all those years. There is no right answer, there is no winning answer. There is only what happened, in the past, and what I choose to do with my own future.
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In the end, the visit itself is mostly just underwhelming.
Everyone there is the same, almost predictable, just older. We are all of us careful, tentative. As if we are all aware of the distance, the time apart, the phone calls missed and the texts ignored. As if we are all aware of who is not there, willingly and unwillingly. We are all of us carefully polite and friendly. There is wine, of course, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some.
My daughter is there, and she is an almost eerie copy of myself, as a child. Our eyes are the same, our lips. She is fair-haired and rosy-cheeked, as I was. The echoes of my girlhood swirl around the house, she plays with the bear-shaped paperweight on an end table, as I did, she oos at the vase of periwinkle flowers collecting dust on the window sill, as I did. It is impossible not to compare, to remember, to see myself in her capering around the house, making the adults laugh.
She is a balm, an icebreaker for all of us. She is a dear and precious child, and my father sees that, as does my uncle, my cousin. Children have a way of breaking down barriers, and I am grateful to have her as a buffer. I am grateful to be an adult, in charge of my own child and my own marriage, to make my own decisions and be able to decide when it is time to leave, and not be second-guessed.
We do not ever have any difficult conversations. We come close, once or twice, but we keep the gatherings safe. Gentle. And perhaps that is for the best. It is, I think, what my grandma would have wanted. I do not know the next time I will see my father, or my uncle, or my cousin. I do not know that I will ever set foot inside this little duplex at the dead-end again. I watch my second cousin race through that back field under a dim grey sky, and my daughter toddles after, desperate to be like one of the big girls. I run my hands over stained-glass window hangings, I take home a painting that has always hung in my grandmother’s dining room, for as long as I can remember – a single candle in a dark window. I peer intently at black and white photos, then grainy color photos, more recent prints I know I myself had sent to this address. I feel years and years of history that I never asked about being lost to me now. I cling to the few stories I know, that I held close to my heart because I knew one day they would be important, and that day is today.
On our final day there, it is sleeting. My daughter has a cough and swollen eyes. She has been chipper and hardy, but now she is exhausted, coming down with something. We get on the road to beat the worst of the winter storm. We do not even go inside for one last goodbye, I bid my father farewell in the driveway under freezing rain.
We drive home, all those miles of highway again, and my daughter sleeps. I am quiet. My husband concentrates on the slippery road. I feel old, and at peace. I feel ancient, and like I have closed the chapter on a book I have been waiting a long time to finish.
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At home, I think, I am at least grateful my grandmother met the man who would become my husband. She adored him, on the visits we managed up there, because he cooked for her.
I wish she could have met my daughter. I wish she could have been in good health and sound mind while my daughter existed in the world. I wish she could have taught my daughter 1-2-3, I think I’ll have a cup of tea, dipping under water in the pool to learn how to blow bubbles out her nose – the first step in learning to swim that my sisters and my cousins and I all learned. I wish she could have put out bird seed and watched the squirrels steal it with my daughter from her living room window. I wish my daughter could have known the Christmas mornings from my own childhood, when we came out and saw Grandma’s tree stuffed with presents, the entire family assembling groggily and hungover, or else ecstatic that Santa came, the rotation of present-opening around the room that we ape still today.
At home, I hear from my father the day after we get home, and then a week later, the day after my birthday. I respond politely both times. I know that I have opened a door, making this trip up there, and it seems impolite to slam it shut so soon.
I wait. After all this time, all these years of the same cycle — I still fall for it. I expect to hear from him, again. I expect conversations to be attempted, and I think, perhaps this time I will answer, again. I convince myself to be the bearer of goodwill, yet again. I convince myself it would be worth it, to try. I tell myself, life is so short — hadn’t we just learned that — and you are not so young any more. One day slides into the next. Weeks go by, another month, and I realize I have not heard from my father, at all, since the day after my birthday. I realize, yet again, I thought things would be different, and they weren’t. Once again, I offered an olive branch, and just when I thought he took it, he dropped it. I expect this to hurt, as it has so many times before.
It doesn’t hurt. Instead, I feel nothing.