Midniiiiight, Not a Sound on the Paaaavement

Carlita Fran,

Concerning the insult of being forgotten by the senex we love: could it be that, in addition to selfishness, it might just hurt that the project of family-building unravels some when its oldest members stop knitting?

In one way your grandmother and her unrecognized recipe is an old and terrible story. Everyone forgets. But the particulars just can’t be leapfrogged. Thirty questions in an hour until you answer correctly! The walks through parking lots! What scares me most about old age is how it X-rays your psyche and hands your relations the skeleton keys to your soul.

I last visited my paternal grandparents with my dad when I was fifteen years old. They were old and confused. My Depression-era grandfather had taken to washing his used Depends and stringing them up on clothesline in the house to dry and burning garbage in the living-room wood stove. He dumped the remains out front. The lawn was a mess of charred chicken-bones and ash.

My grandmother knew I wasn’t my mother. And I wasn’t quite the squeaky granddaughter she knew. She concluded that my father had smuggled his new lover into her home, and she did not approve. She never stated this outright, but she kept trying to catch the so-called “daughter” in a lie, slunk around the house at night in the dark, and peppered my poor dad with knowing looks. It was awkward.

Because of that visit I know them both better than I ever could have had they died with everything intact. It’s an icky kind of knowledge. I feel like I have seen them naked.

I will now remark (originally) that my maternal grandmother, the one who died in October, was a terrific knitter in her day. The sort who watches soap operas unblinkingly while her hands flutter the needles into surprising sweaters. (I think yours did this too.) They were wonders, and they took imagination. It was interesting, horrifically interesting, to watch her ambitions for her yarn thicken and slow as her mind deteriorated. We know that memory goes, but it seems like the same circuits that let old people recite the poems of their childhoods long after they’ve forgotten their children’s names should govern something as repetitive, as oddly and oldly elemental, as knitting.

And in a sense they do: for my grandmother those patterned membranes were still possible, but the projects were simpler. She’d knit a onesie in afternoon as an afterthought with the same purely mechanical attention she brought to a crossword puzzle or a round of canasta. She used to make not just sassy sweaters, but wool paintings of churches and trees and people. Many of them for me. Now she didn’t seem to want to knit much of anything.

It might not seem it, but this was at least as disconcerting to me as my paternal grandma’s suspicion that I was my dad’s mistress. It was personal.  Knitting had been her way of inserting herself symbolically into my life. She knitted red-and-white diamond-pattern sweaters with misshapen necks and expressed continual surprise that I wore them. But it mattered that I didn’t wear them charitably. They were a little crazy and I liked that, and them.

So when she didn’t want to knit, it surprised me that she didn’t want that validation from me anymore. I don’t know that it hurt my feelings exactly, but it was a small death. Something I had counted on growing forever had stopped and it was my turn to be the grown-up. Suddenly, her pleasure in our apparent sameness (one of my grandma’s favorite themes) had stopped mattering; she just wasn’t that interested any more in how her legacy was playing out. All she cared about now was her past. I felt a little like I’d been kicked out of the family story.

Being forgotten by a grandmother isn’t the same as being stricken out of the family Bible, but it’s not so far from that either. And the sting of your unrecognized recipe isn’t (I humbly offer) merely selfish. The Grandmothers are the closest thing to a record of our particular clutch of Buendías in Macondo, and they’re basically generative whether they’re making casseroles or cardigans. They’re why we’re even around. When they go, it falls to us to become memory-makers of a sadly yearbookish bent: we’re curators, archivists, executors. But we’re not knitters.

This weekend I will go to another city to celebrate my grandmother’s sister’s 92nd birthday. I made a recipe of hers tonight. I should probably tell her that.



Memory Part 2: Such, Such Were the Joys

In an ode to images lost, I would like to map out the mall of our youth.  As outdoor plazas with fountains and citywalks with bold names take over (the Americana, La Encantada, Discover Mills), I would like to remember The Mall.

The Mall was where my friends (all three of us) and I were dropped off for some unstable babysitting. We were in the 4th and 5th grades.  It was also where my family went on nights out where we wanted to have fun.  The Mall was my community center.  This is what it once was:

  • Two storied, floored  in brown tile, with live trees growing. Natural light was only in the new wings of the mall.  Escalators and directories. The fountain outside of JC Penney was a key meeting place, and it looked like a giant hoop earring.  Little kids were allowed to hopscotch to get in the middle of the hoop and watch the water shoot from the top  arc.
  • Haagen Daaz- A big deal, something that felt ritzy and for adults only, even though it wasn’t.  I was a little crushed when I found out that it wasn’t a real town somewhere where they wore dirndls.
  • The ATMs, which were cattycorner from Haagen Daaz and the fountain:  For the majority of my mall life, I didn’t have a bank account, but understood it was a stressful place.
  • Crabtree and Evelyn: for real ladies only.  I would smell everything over and over again, and imagine how sophisticated I would be to have matching soaps and perfumes and sachets.  I also considered it as a place Anne of Green Gables might shop, as they sold Lilac Water and all.  Place also gives a mean headache.
  • Victoria’s Secret: Very embarassing. Did everything I could to not look like I was looking in the window as we walked by.
  • Cache’: A dream, all tarty dresses with turquoise shoulder bows and gold sequins (again, we’re talking eighties).  The best place in the world to play dress up.  The staff didn’t seem to care, and the dresses were so committed to their fake life realities.
  • There was the good food court, and then the other one.  Cinnabun was new, had huge lines (and was a precursor to doughnut/cupcake trends?).
  • Brookstone: How does this store make money? All anybody ever does in there is touch all the stuff.
  • Kaybee Toys: The unwhimsical toy store, but good enough.  My brother usually had a stop here to eye Lego sets.
  • Peoples Drugstore: Friends and I would ogle makeup, buy horribly cheap brands like Wet N’ Wild, and then trade them to each other later.  I distinctly remember wanting Noxzema and a curling iron.
  • Buster Brown and Thom Mcan shoes: shoes for weddings and graduations.
  • Jean store right by Macy’s: how I wish I could remember this place’s name! My dad randomly wrapped a Christmas gift in a box from this store last year.  It must have sitting in the basement for 15 years. The store was full of Guess jeans, plaid shirts you could knot at your waist and silver buckled belts.  It seemed very grown up, like college girls would shop there.  It was the store I tried to lure my stepmother into to strongly hint at what I would like for Christmas (apparently, it worked once).
  • The spooky doll shop you had to walk by quickly: fully stocked with Venitian carnival masques and creepy fairy dolls.
  • The Limited: This store was once relevant (we’re in the nineties, here).  It was the nice girl’s version of Express. You could go to work or Maine in their clothes.
  • Express: Black pants, turquoise and fuschia tops.  Strangely helpful.
  • Units: Back to the eighties.  If anybody opened a Units now, they would be rich.  All stretchy cotton tubes that could be worn unconvincingly as a a skirt, belt, top, shrug, or scrunchie.  Again, seemed very posh, unfortunately impossible to try out in elementary school.
  • Spencer’s Gifts: mandatory stop, though how the tradition started, I’ll never know.  You could see sex jokes out in the open, and pretend you were looking at the Simpson’s slippers instead.
  • Department stores, only visited with adults.  Juniors departments felt encoded, adolescence would be like the show Tribes.
  • The Carousel: Only a dollar, and pretty great.
  • Sam Goody:  New Kids On The Block, not Debbie Gibson.
  • For all the looking, what did we always buy? Cadbury eggs, Pixie Sticks, Noxzema and blush.

This all came up because I went an old mall that is built adjacent to the new refined plaza mall (flagship stores, a train, chic restaurants). The old mall smells like pretzels, the new one has live fusion jazz and families with really good skin.

Yes, I am nostalgic for a childhood temple of materialism and want, but we could try on all the identities of what we wanted to be (as long as it was very feminine, rich, and well accessorized).  I doubt kids do things extremely differently now, but I can’t find my old landmarks.  The glee in the place is gone now, too.  Instead, I notice how everything smells, and there are stores that I don’t know how to browse in. This last time, while trying on clothes, all my fingernails broke at once. I’m sure there is a kiosk somewhere to help with just that problem.

What would you map?



Memory Part 1

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking about my grandmother’s memory.  On a recent visit home, my mom made a famous dish in the family, one that we love to love out of reverence for joint comfort and an agreed upon proof that there were joys in their family.  When we cook this recipe, it’s to honor to my grandmother. This last visit, she didn’t recognize the dish.

She also doesn’t recognize me if I am with children (I think, because I am supposed to be one of the children).  She has waking dreams where she walks in parking lots looking for her dead husband.  She will ask you the same question 30 times in an hour.  She will stop asking the question if you tell her the answer she wants to hear.

This part of age is now encountered regularly enough that “She didn’t even know who I was,” has become part of our script (in both television melodrama and sympathetic conversation).  My father mentioned his disorientation in visiting his grandmother as a boy, with her talking to him as if he were his own father, but at his age.  There is an idea that the person has left: “she’s gone, there’s nobody home.” What I find fascinating is that the absence is about us.  They are still there, it’s us, actually, who have left the picture.   My grandmother enjoyed her meal, just not the sentiment of the family tradition.  My great grandmother pinched the cheek of a little boy who looked exactly like her son, and in that view, my father was erased.

I have noticed that I am less keen on visiting now, both because I am afraid of seeing more deterioration, and because it seems trivial if every two minutes the present is forgotten.  This sounds ugly.  It is.  It’s also because, in some stupid way, I feel like if I don’t exist in her psyche then I am released.  The epitome of the spoiled grandchild—-if you stop thinking about me, I go blind.  I don’t think this is uncommon.  It might be a small relief (a hard relief) to a family that when they move a parent to a nursing home they are out of it and not full witness to the loss and change.

It does bring up an interesting question, one that we have talked about here in regard to love, family, and friendship.  Ultimately, is our main connection and tenderness to another person rooted in the image they hold of us?