Must Remind Myself
Wild parakeets land between the heavy oval leaves of Nanny’s grapefruit tree, the tree whose strong branches hold late winter fruit full of bitter juice and sharp, white seeds. “Oh, the parakeets were pretty,” she tells me in her husky voice, “Florida is such a special place!” The flock of birds with gleaming green heads and pale under bellies, chattering away in pairs as they rested and preened, produced a combined mini-roar like nothing Nanny has heard before. I never see the parakeets, only feel the joy of their flight as she describes it to me.
The most alive place in Nanny’s house is her Florida room, with three walls of Jaoulosie windows in rectangular aluminum frames. Against the west-facing wall is a wooden table where Nanny sets down her orange juice, her pastry plate, or her cup of coffee, clearing space amid a shifting clutter of drawing pencils and paint tubes. Alone, she often spends the day painting, delighting in the bright plumage of migrating cardinals or blue jays as she re-creates in oil and canvass a perfect Indiana Dunes sunset or a bouquet of pink carnations.
A long, padded bench is heaped with pillows that I would curl around when I was four, when Mamma and I extended a winter visit that seemed to stretch forever into a long horizon of calm. Nanny’s house overflows with a gentle messiness. Each surface has a small stack of books, a “Cornerstone” magazine or “Reader’s Digest”. Her Bible sits on a table by her easy chair, across from the TV where she watches Jim Neighbors sing on the Laurence Welk show. She has an old-fashioned record player and opera albums. To her, stereo speakers are a modern marvel.
Nanny is 85 and a widow ten years when my sister and I arrive at her house to start high school, in 1980. Twin beds in the guest room are covered in green polyester spreads. When we open the closet to hang up our ironed jeans, our shirts and church clothes, we are greeted by the smell of mothballs. Nanny’s kitchen is narrow and shadowed, its counters littered with rye breadcrumbs, the fridge stuffed with small plates of leftovers, with jars of rhubarb jelly and mold-frosted applesauce. There are none of my mother’s scrubbed surfaces, her bustling cleanliness, no windowsills filled with carefully tended cuttings. My sister and I bring our arguments, sometimes whispered, sometimes not. We slam doors without thinking, and we take long, hot showers that fill Nanny’s small bathroom with smoky steam on ninety-degree days. We burst the seams of her small house with the expanding uncertainty of our lives.
In 1980 I am in Dunedin, but not happy, there but not there. Listening to Nanny’s story about the parakeets, yearn for her serene appreciation of Florida, and I want to believe in my own innocence again. The two or three weeks we expect to wait for our parents to come to Florida and move with us into our new house stretch to a month, to six weeks, to eight. We move over to Aunt Barbara’s house on San Mateo, where we use a different set of beds, push our clothes into another closet. The backyard here is overgrown with lush fronds tended by Uncle Jerry, whose feet are calloused from walking barefoot whenever possible. My uncle is working on a translation of poems from Spanish into English. His typewriter sits facing the screened in front porch and the small, rust colored car he calls the “Wankle,” where he leaves his car keys so he can always find them when he needs them.
Years later, I learn that our mother developed sepsis that fall, that our sister and father were told to prepare themselves for her death. At fourteen, I only know that our mother’s voice has become a faint whisper. For many days, she has not been able to talk on the phone with us at all. Day after day her strength recedes as a tide might that can never fill its former pools.
At Nanny’s house, at Aunt Barbara’s house, I keep a green notebook. I don’t write about my mother or the precariousness of our family. Summer entries are about kissing boys and smoking pot, about trying to not be mean to my nephews. The addresses of two friends from Junior High are scribbled in childish block letters, oozing with sincere plans to write, to stay in touch, to be a better person, at last. One September entry, I start to write “Aug,” but disappear it with three very hard, dark lines. Amid a jumble of fragments is this: “Everything will work out. Must remind myself.” My pen presses hard into the paper. I am trying to make the writing look good, look legible and even.
Then, crossed out in black ink, and later lined over in red, is the address where I could send letters to the hospital: Mamma (temp) 201 23rd St., Wash DC 20027.
After that, I mostly write prayers, no dated entries for a long time.