My grandmother died yesterday. She was 92, past her expiration date. I don't mean to sound flippant, but I know that's how she felt about it. She hadn't planned to live past 85, hadn't wanted to live in a nursing home, hadn't chosen any of it. I feel sad but not as much for the loss of the tangible her as for the fact that you can't go back in time, revisit your loved ones as they were, as you were together. I spent a lot of time with her when I was a child. She was an interesting woman, unhappy but content, simple but complex, peaceful but troubled. I loved her. She's gone and yet not gone. I can hear her voice calling me dear, smell her apartment, see her owl and cacti collections, her stack of mystery novels and the semi-precious stones she kept in a jar in the bedroom, great triggers for a child's imagination. I can still smell her perfume as she sat (sits) beside me at the Joffrey Ballet or in the audience at a Broadway play, still smile at my own teenager's arrogant surprise when I ran (run) into her walking alone near Lincoln Center in the city she loved so much.
It's all still there. So, in a sense, is she. And yet not. Very much not. Sad, yes.
I recognize the woman Tiny Coconut describes, the one with huge lacunae where memories of college friends, high school antics, junior high shenanigans and elementary school buddies are supposed to go. I recognize her because she is me.
Oh, I remember some highlights, sure, butÖ wellÖ when I went to my tenth college reunion, a man came up to me, gave me a big hug, "Tamar! I was hoping you'd be here!" I smiled, went completely blank. I had to admit I had no idea who he was. His face crumpled. I felt so bad. I'd just essentially told him he was a cipher. Which he wasn't -- far from it. But we talked a bit that night and again the next day and by the end of the weekend, not only did I like him once more but I even sort of remembered him.
Then again, this may be a common problem. That weekend, I ran into someone I remembered rather well from various classes and lunch colloquys. Not a friend, not exactly, but a companion, a cohort, a fellow History and Lit major. So I waved, said hi. He gave me a big smile. "Hi, Debby!" Um. Yeah.
Last weekend, we visited my fellow Calhoun alum so the kids could enjoy a play date and we could reminisce. He brought out old yearbooks, which I devoured. I was in some of the photographs, peeking out from behind a pole or looking sullen in the back row. But who were these other people? Some names I recognized. One, a girl I remember as a good friend, lots of sleepovers and secrets shared. And yet her face? Only faintly registered, and more in a "Oh, that's right," sort of way rather than that instant recognition I expected. And then there were the names that meant nothing, but the faces? I saw them and had an instant sense of who this person was. Character and voice and how I felt about him or her. But my actual relationship with this kid? What we did together? Blank. If there's a fold of my brain that's saved for that set of memories, it's been creased and mutilated so many times I can't read it anymore.
Iím not sure how I feel about this. Yes, I'd like some more of those memories back. Not so vivid I have to relive them (it was, after all, middle school, not a stellar set of years) but solid enough I can visit from time to time with a smile or a frown. Tangible enough I can have an emotional response. I think what I'd like most of all is the ability to go back there, the me I am now, and sort of eavesdrop on that girl while she went about her school day. Maybe armed with a remote control, so I could fast forward past the most embarrassing bits. But yes, I'd like some of that back if I could. I'd like more of my history. I know some inevitably fades, not just as you get older (after all, that college reunion was only ten years later), but as the people and events are no longer important to your identity. The lack of memory in a way means we no longer define ourselves by that. And by so doing, we recreate our own past to fit our current self-image.
This can have drawbacks Ė if you're in a particularly bad frame of mind the few years after college, say, you may only remember the worst moments, and then they become indelibly etched into your brain as The Way It Was. Then later when you gain confidence and just plain like yourself better, you can't go back and exchange the memories for pleasanter ones. And so what happens instead is that you say to yourself, "Well, that was a bad patch, I wouldn't go back to being that person!" when maybe if you did have that wayback machine, complete with remote control (I picture myself floating in the air, somehow, crosslegged, like some wise floating observer), you could instead redefine what was and frame your life in different terms.
I think this may be the value of reunions and, yes, letters unearthed from a musty cardboard box. That they remind us there was more to us than we remember.
Today was Damian's graduation day. Seems silly, making a big fuss about graduating from preschool, but in this case it was a whole lot more and well worthy of the tears and hugs. Iíd like to write about it but not yet. Still processing. Feeling drained, honestly.
Instead, an odd moment today: I gave my phone # to the father of one of Damianís buddies from school, a child whoís never been in class with him but who has had simultaneous floor time sessions and joint speech sessions. They have certain similarities, I think theyíre a good match. So I suggested a play date over this break, wrote down my phone number and full name to the dad, handed it through the bars of the front gate (they were outside on the sidewalk, we were still inside in the yard), and trotted off to socialize with people on my side of the fence while his son was saying goodbye to his speech therapist.
A few minutes the man called me over. To ask me if Iíd gone to Calhoun. Itís a small progressive private school on the Upper West Side in New York. I attended for the three years of middle school. How did he know? He went there too! A year behind me. His name was familiar, his face Ė well, Iíd seen him around preschool for the past few years, of course it was familiar. And he hadnít recognized me either until he saw my name. It was, after all, a while ago. A world away, too. Snow and ice and concrete canyons and Riverside Park and the boat basin and a small, idiosyncratic school where I found a niche in the drama department when I was eleven years old. So long ago. So far away. And now this unexpected link.
I went digging tonight. Turns out Calhoun has a website (duh, of course) and is still a thriving operation. Even though I didnít completely embrace the schooling there (a little too unstructured), Iím glad the place is alive.
Part of the site is a scrapbook from the hundred years of its history. I clicked on the Ď70ís, when I was there. It was like stepping into a time warp looking at those pictures. They look so old, the clothes like a time-period movie. It looked normal back then. My eyes have changed, clearly.
When I entered Calhoun, the middle school was upstairs from a synogogue somewhere around 92nd (90th?) street. The arts annex (drama, music, etc) was in the basement of a Greek Orthodox church across the street. A tiny diner on the corner between the two had amazing French fries, especially good when eaten still hot while walking down the wind-blown winter street on your way to chorus practice. The school was in the process of building a permanent home on 81st Street. Somewhere we could all be together, no drifting across the street at odd times, no sneaking around behind religious ceremonies.
This is a picture of the groundbreaking ceremony in 1974 (why they saved it in gif format, Iíll never understand). See the small face of the girl slipping through the crowd on the lower right corner of the image? Thatís my best friend Emily. Which means, if memory serves, that I was just out of frame, a little further to the right.
This is a picture, taken a year later, of our march down West End Avenue, the entire school walking from the old rented warren of rooms to the sparkling, just-painted wide open newness of the building on 81st Street. Iím not in the picture Ė at least, I think Iím not, though who can tell with the image degradation of a photo-turned-gif? Ė but I vividly remember that walk. For some reason, I decided to go barefoot. Eleven blocks or so on cement. It felt like the right thing to do, I guess. I do remember it felt like a celebration, like making history. And I guess in a way it was. After all, the images are on their website nearly thirty years later.
I think about Damianís graduation, about closing that chapter and beginning another. Somehow it feels fitting tonight to look back at part of my own school saga, now faded in contrasty black and white and almost quaintly old fashioned. It all shapes you, though. Those years at Calhoun as much as my time at Harvard, as much as my time at Music & Art, as much as my time in editing, as much as my time in LA. It all blends, you take bits from here and scraps from there and incorporate them into your own personal mythology.
I wonder how Damian will feel looking back at the videotape I shot today. How will he remember this time, that school? I look forward to finding out.
I grew up in what they call a prewar building, which I think means built before World War One. One of those stately buildings with gargoyles and cornices that line West End Avenue on the Upper West Side. The building had an elevator man to operate the old fashioned elevator. I knew all their names, of course, and they asked about school and my friends as we went up to the ninth floor. They were kind of like a set of uncles, always smiling down at me.
In retrospect the apartment feels huge to me though at the time it was just right. A hallway that went on forever, with rooms on either side, an eat-in kitchen with a pantry and a maidís room complete with bathroom (but no live-in maid), a heavy swinging door from the kitchen to the hall, the door the servants used once upon a time to bring the food to the big dining room down the hall. A echoingly big living room. Three bedrooms in the back half of the apartment. Sunlight streaming through onto the hardwood floors. Quiet above the traffic, quiet above the tiny people walking their dogs, stopping to gossip, holding hands as they went into their buildings lining the side streets. Quiet above all that life. I used to gaze out and make up stories about all the people I saw, imagine the intrigues and heartbreaks of their lives. My bedroom looked out on rooftops and windows. I watched pigeons and tried to see into rooms. The kitchen and the back bedrooms looked out over the Hudson River and the green Palisades mountains. It seemed like another country out there. The wooly wilds of New Jersey.
Itís a long time ago now. Iím forty two years old. My father gave up that apartment when I was around sixteen. An eon ago. But I still remember it so vividly I can see the dust rising in the sun and the way the fruit-decorated tiffany lamp looked over the claw-footed kitchen table. I can see the lavender color of my bathroom walls and the pale blue in my bedroom. I can hear the steam burble through the radiator and feel the squeaky softness of the old black leather armchair in the living room. It still feels like home. My home. As if I can turn the page and walk back into that life, sit at that kitchen table and invite my whole family over for dinner.
Whatís stranger than the fact that I canít is that I canít afford it, not in my wildest move-back-to-New-York dreams. If a two bedroom nine hundred square foot apartment in a not quite as desirable a neighborhood is worth a cool million, my childhood home Ė that $400 a month rent controlled apartment in one of the best parts of town Ė must go for what? Two million? Five? It stuns me. It makes my childhood feel impossibly far away. Unreachably far. And that makes me sad.
Danís working late tonight, so I did Damianís entire bedtime ritual myself tonight. Including the part where a parent lies down with him and tells him a story. Dan makes up the stories. Damian and I agree that I can just tell him real life stories. Hereís tonightís:
I didnít learn to read until I was six and in first grade. The summer before I started first grade, I asked my mom to play with me but she was too busy reading her book. I got mad and told her I would never learn to read. She laughed and said I needed to know how. So I said ďOkay, well, Iíll only read things like street signs and directions and stuff. Nothing for fun.Ē And ran off to play.
Well, then first grade started and I learned. We didnít have fun books to start with, just Run Spot Run and See Spot Run. I got tired of reading about Spot the Dog, so I started looking at our books at home. And I started reading them. Go Dog Go, the Seuss books, Maurice Sendak. And I loved it. I loved it so much I started reading all the time. When I was a little older, Iíd carry a book to school and read in between classes (and in class, too, Iíd secrete a book in my desk and read it while the teacher was talking, but I didnít tell Damian that). I brought books everywhere. On the subway. To the movie theater so I could read before the movie started. Walking down the street. I always had a book with me the way you (Damian) always have a frog. Reading was like becoming someone else, living their life and doing what they did. I felt like I was with Max, like I was King of all the Wild Things, or like I was the bunny in Goodnight Moon, looking around my room at night or like I was Dorothy in Oz, meeting the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion and falling asleep in the poppies. I loved having a story in my head. Thatís why I became a writer, so I could always have a story in my head, one I was telling. I still love reading and I still love books and now I love writing too. Itís all about stories.
I donít care if Damian becomes a writer like me. In many ways, Iíd rather he didnít. Itís a difficult road. But I do hope he takes after me in his love of books. I think he will. I think maybe he already does.
I have a very particular relationship with AIDS Awareness Day and with AIDS in general. Yes, Iíve known several people who have died. The first friend we made in LA, a graceful, perceptive man who told us with a hint of mystery and a sadness I couldnít quite read back then that he was moving back to Seattle, moving back in with his parents. Months later, a friend of his called: would we like to come to his memorial service? Later, an assistant on a TV show I worked on. His boss was annoyed at his constant sick days. How many times can one man get the flu? She learned. She shut up. The office was shrouded in black. Others too through the years, people I knew, people Iíd known. The closest was a friend of my fatherís, a larger than life sharp, sassy, funny, soft and prickly Italian who encouraged me to get involved with Dan.
So AIDS has touched my personal awareness, yes. But my father is/has been an AIDS doctor and researcher since the early Ď80s and so itís touched me in other ways. I wonít speak to my relationship with him here, itís not the right place for that complex, personal issue. But for so many years, Iíd visit him at his loft which was also his workplace. Iíd meet men and sometimes women in the waiting room which doubled as his guest room. Iíd talk to them, get to know them a little. Theyíd call him at midnight. Scared. Sometimes angry. Wanting answers, needing help.
AIDS patients are often the most educated about their illness, more so than people with other diseases. Theyíve had to be to wade through the morass of accepted treatments, soon-to-be-approved drugs, potentially promising drugs and all the quack and not-quack alternatives. Theyíve had to doctor themselves. The people I spoke with were often so strong, so fierce. They sometimes seemed to see my father as their own father figure. I guess that happens sometimes. It was strange to see him in his white lab coat, his soft professional voice in full purr. Their potential savior.
Iíd look at the medical equipment in his little office, the one where his patients sat on his so-familiar faded brown couch and talked of their blood results and inevitably of their own parents and lovers, too, Iím sure, because my father in that white cloak was something of a Father Confessor. And sometimes Iíd sit there after they had all gone home and squint, trying to imagine their ghosts, trying to hear the after-echoes of their words. Trying to imagine myself as one of them. Not that I ever want that, I have no martyr complex. But it was so real, so tangible in that room and in my fatherís life. Almost mundane, but no. Not mundane. Not really. Not ever.
My awareness of AIDS is an odd thing, comprised of so many faces, so many voices on that answering machine. So many files in that black cabinet. So many people. Some stayed healthy. Others did not. So many lives.