This long weekend I’ll be driving 7hrs. each way to see my grandmother, who lives in the lonely depths of the most perfect little Connecticut village you ever did see.
I wasn’t sure I could face the drive, but she called last night to check, because a few weeks ago, I mentioned that Ailsa and I might visit her at Easter. She is 91 and she forgets things, a lot of things, sometimes in the course of one conversation. However this information she had not forgotten.
- Are you coming? she asked in her tremulous voice.
Ailsa looked at me, raised her eyebrow. “Yes, we are”.
- Oh thank goodness. I’m so glad. I might cry.
- Don’t cry Abwe, unless they are happy tears!
I can feel when she needs me to call her. I’ve always had this internal clock that ticks louder and louder if I let too many days go by without reaching out to her. Sometimes I ignore it, because she knows me well, and I don’t want to infect her with my bad day, I can’t smile down the line. But sometimes I call her because I feel so good that I want to send that bright strong whatever-it-is down the line and feed her with it, like a bird.
We call her Abwe. It comes from abuela - grandmother in Spanish. When I was a little girl growing up in Buenos Aires, I spoke Spanish, so I decided to call her Abwe - short for abuelita, which means “little grandmother”. She taught me to look at everything, to see how the crack in that wall looked like a bird, or how that tree was bent over as if to greet us. She was so far from little, she was so aware and alive.
But these days, she is a little grandmother. She is shrinking - voice, size, the energy around her. She is preparing to take up less and less space in the world. She will not be here much longer.
The smaller she gets, the more my heart recognizes how huge she is for me.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
(Sent to me by my dad, so he can’t be so bad.)
My grandmother is 91. Until recently, she made 91 look like 71, but her 93-year old sister died a month ago in Switzerland. On that day my grandmother turned a true 91.
She lives in Connecticut, in one of those quaint villages you thought only existed in American films, with one main street, multiple churches and a cast of characters who wear either J.Crew or Ralph Lauren. Tonight she is preparing for hurricane Sandy, which she will face alone, in her 3 story house. Her area is expected to lose power for days, and she won’t see another human being for at least that long. Winds are expected to hit 60mph, yet her neighbours haven’t checked on her or asked if she needs any supplies.
She went to get them herself this morning. Jugs of water, batteries for her flashlights, the ones she’s already worried she won’t be able to find, “I’m trying not to panic”, she says. She is terrified of being cut off from the world, no TV, no news - it’s a heightened version of the fear I will only truly understand when I get old, “I’ve been through war time but I wasn’t 91 years old at the time. Age does something to your brain and softens it. It’s horrible. I’m alone.”
She’s going to fill her bathtub with water to use to flush the toilet. Do you have enough food Abwe? I think so. I don’t like food very much, she says. Will you call me? Will you check on me, she asks.
I’m angry at her old age. She knows it’s slowing her, crippling her, and when I call to speak to her these days, she spends more and more of our conversation narrating the anguish of what it feels like to endure it.
I’m angry at myself for letting her be alone through this. I’m angry at her neighbours for not checking in on her, at my family for not being close by. I’m pissed off that this woman is supposed to live through this alone, and I’m pissed off at the acid guilt and bitter worry that sit in my stomach, because all I can do is write and hope that she doesn’t fall and hurt herself in the dark.
So I’ll do what any scared atheist would: I’ll pray for her, while I curse this untenable situation.
I love you so much mama. You’re the best. I’m so glad you chose me from the cloud!
My little one, my bear, my sweet, my pumpkin. My bundle. Monkey. Sweetpea. My little love. I have more names for you than I need, and they slip out of my mouth unbidden, like those funny candies I used to love that popped around my mouth. You cross borders more than most business people, and as soon as I drop you off at the airport, my heart becomes a rosary, ticking off the prayers, aiming them at every deity I can think of, like a prayer bomb. Yes me - the same woman who once yelled at a Catholic priest that he was the reincarnation of the head of the Inquisition (he wasn’t very nice).
Why aren’t you here yet?
I haven’t seen you in weeks and you’re coming home any minute. I am as excited as you must be when you go to sleep the night before Christmas. Yes child, right now, you’re my Santa, my presents, my turkey feast, all in one.
For 3 weeks I haven’t taken care of anybody but my self, and I needed it badly: three months ago we sold our home, we left our neighbourhood, I started a job that was so new in so many ways. New job, new neighborhood, new lots of things: it’s like a self-imposed witness protection program, minus the plastic surgery. I’ve enjoyed this time off without guilt, because I knew you were soaking up your daddy’s love like a thirsty little sponge of a girl.
Enough of that, I want you back.
I want your voice to fill this house, I want your toys scattered all over the place, I want to trip over your stuffed animals having a tea party in the middle of the kitchen, I want to find your dirty clothes hidden in the corner of your room, I want you to sing Justin Bieber tunes til I roll my eyes, I want you to ask me to braid your hair just as we’re rushing out the door in the morning, and I want you to call from your room to tell me you love me 4 times after I’ve asked you to go to sleep.
Tick, tock, are you here yet?
Your room is ready, your bed is full of little presents - a skirt I bought you yesterday, a keychain I brought you back from Mexico, a letter you received. I need to hug you.
Any minute now…
Mama, why did you have to take such a busy job? I miss you extra terribly!
I’m moving. And it’s moving me, a lot more than I had expected - I had forgotten that moving is like shedding a skin of bricks.
I’ve sold the only home I ever bought myself, in the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in here in Montreal. This place was my beginning after an end, the highly mortgaged light at the end of a long post-divorce tunnel.
I bought it 5 years ago, feeling pushed shoved forced into my new life as a single woman, a single parent. But the alone-ness proved to be worthwhile: for the first time, I alone decided who and what came in that front door, and who and what went out: thoughtless boyfriends, misbehaving relatives, bad furniture. Here I was reminded that I’m good at making friends and including people, and here I learned that it’s equally important to shed bad friendships and unkind people.
Now I’m surrounded by 78 boxes, ready to start another version of Montreal and of our lives. It’s not far, but I’m so sad, much like my daughter last night, “Mama, this is our home, and now we won’t ever be allowed to come inside again. What if the new lady doesn’t take good care of it?”. We both had a cry. Because she’s right, you buy a house, but you grow a home, just like you grow a plant.
We grew this home together, we infused it with the sounds of our lives: hysterical giggling as I chased Ailsa down the hall tickling her; plain old hysterical as I shouted at her for misbehaving; the clomping of little girls playing dress-up in my high heels; friends eating and laughing at so many dinners and drinking at so many parties; boy friends cooking or just filling the house with well-needed male energy; my family filling the house on holidays.
And sometimes too, the sad sounds that happiness requires to make you miss it. You need both to grow attached to a place.
I will miss Westmount, the Lulu Lemon clad women, the double parking, the overdressed dogs and overpriced coffee, the fountains at Westmount park and views from the top of Murray Hill park, the beautiful homes, the homeless guy outside the Metro who calls everyone “friend”. I might even miss the whining of my Plateau friends when they get tickets for parking on my street.
I already miss the age Ailsa was while we lived here.
More than anything I will miss bumping into my friends, Jen, Christine, Anny…the women who were my first friends after I moved back to Montreal following a 10 year absence, and who will always be my family. I hope they’ll trek over the mountain to see us, because those unexpected meetings were one of the loveliest pleasures of life in Westmount. And worth the ridiculous taxes.
Every one of you who walked through our door has helped grow this house into a home.
This place was my shelter in every sense of the word, and I will grieve our departure the same way I grieve saying goodbye to someone I loved, who loved me back well.
London beckons to me like that flirty guy who never makes a move: I enjoy it, but I can’t take it too seriously. And yet going back reminds me that I miss living in Europe, and that I have more family living there than I do on the entire North American continent. Why do we live so far away from those we love?
Like my cousins - 2 of whom I had never met before: Nikita on left, and his father Magnus, on the right. And my cousin Joseph in the middle holding Lois, his little girl. They’re interesting, fun, irreverent, good people who I would like even if we weren’t (sort of) related. And yes Magnus, we will be visiting you in Portugal, once you’ve installed the septic system.
The last time I was in London was for my 36th birthday, with my boyfriend at the time. Two years later and the (ex) boyfriend lives in South America, my best friend is pregnant with her first child, my dad and my not-so-wicked stepmother have moved back to England after 5 years in Dubai, my brother Stefan has moved to Beirut, and my sister Daisy is in law school and wields her knowledge of EU law like a weapons-grade sedative.
And I have matured.
This trip was the first time since 2007 that I stayed at my parent’s house in Letchworth - the house they shared before moving to Dubai, but don’t share any longer. It feels like a lifetime ago: I was still married, living in Joisey, and my little one was small and round, still a baby.
I have so many good memories of that house.
I didn’t grow up in a peaceful home, so this one meant a lot to me. I left home when I was 17, and never returned. Even now when I drive by the house I grew up in, I think the woman who bought it from us should have had an exorcism thrown in as a bonus, or at least a Feng Shui for Dummies consultation to rid her of the many bad memories it contains. Because just as I love Letchworth’s pile of bricks, I still hate that other home’s every brick.
The Letchworth house was a home, and knowing that it existed - even across the Atlantic - was important. My stepmother filled it with aromas of Lebanese food, and artifacts from the places she and my father had been, while my dad filled it with booming classical music and books. And along with my brother and sister, they filled it with love. Nobody chased anybody with a hammer or threw bowls of oranges at each other. We all have such happy memories of sitting at the kitchen table laughing, arguing, together (hammer-less and orange-less).
And perhaps there were less happy things going on under the surface, but it wasn’t for me to notice: there I could regress and be a child, a daughter, a sister, and possibly a pain the ass.
Now the house is inhabited again, and it’s turned into a home again. It’s beautiful and comfortable. But only one of my parents lives there now, so at first it was a sadder visit than I’d expected. And even though I’m an unwilling expert in divorce, I realized that I hadn’t understood the importance of what has happened to the people I love, and how difficult this has been for them all.
Rather than olfactory memory, I had an architectural memory - all the emotion associated with that building and the people who lived there and the people we all were when we were there together - came back, as I stood outside the front door with my little girl.
I’m so proud of the way my family has handled all this. I’m so happy that we came, we saw, we began to understand. And hopefully, we contributed to new and happy memories to fill the house anew.
PS: This brings me one step closer to falling for you, London. After all, I’ve just sold my own home…