One of the gifts of holiday travel to the homes of family members is the occasional hour or two when it is considered acceptable, even in the company of others, to read. In the late afternoon, before the evening meal, or after it, as others are milling around. I am reading Speedboat, by Renata Adler, at the suggestion of a wise friend.
A novel told in fragments - spare, sardonic. The voice of your weary, over-educated friend, who tells of cocktail parties and love affairs and the ways in which we attempt to connect to one another and fail, attempt again, and fail again. She says:
“Any dreams?” the doctor asked his patient softly, tentatively, as we used to say in the child’s card game, “Any aces? Any tens?”
In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. “When you can’t sleep,” he said, “just tell yourself the story of your life.” Now sometimes when I can’t sleep, I wonder. A twenty-four hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let’s just have it a little quiet around here.
I am writing and I am not writing. I don’t know what I am doing. I never know what I am doing, or even what I am trying to do. I have this life that I am living, and I have this other life that I can sometimes imagine myself living, only I cannot really, because I have no details except these little things that it is possible - at this point - I have made up: ripe persimmons scooped with a spoon. Wild turkeys eating seeds and grain from my outstretched open hands. The dusty dry earth of the Korean countryside. A kind woman, maybe? Her adult son? A slim blue folder of papers growing yellow and brittle with years. This is all. This is not a way to make a life.
On this trip, we take a ride the apartment that M’s parents will move into next month. A senior living community. It is lovely, clean, bright - the walls are white, the afternoon sun streams in through the blinds. But it is tiny. I think about how they will decide what to bring here, to store in the single closet, to hang on the bare white walls. What to leave behind - to give away or to discard. After forty years in the same house - seven children, four grandchildren (and now, a great grandchild on the way). Forty Thanksgiving dinners. Forty Christmas trees. Thousands of family dinners huddled around the kitchen table.
In the late afternoon, I chop celery and carrots at the sink like I am at home. I cook them in butter at the stove, while the family gathers in the kitchen. I am at my best this way, with a task to complete, with focus. In a kind of service. Of use.
We talk about television shows and movies we have seen. We laugh easily. The anxiety quiets for a few moments until I remember how difficult this will be to do again, next year. How it will not be like this - in this particular way - ever again.
I tell myself that I feel so ill at ease because it has been so long since I have had to worry about my own parents. They have both been gone for nearly twenty years now. Half my lifetime I have been without them. And there is truth to this, I am sure. The ways in which one grows to accommodate the people for whom they care - this is a muscle, I think, that gets stronger with use. But there is something else perhaps, too. Something less articulable. About the thing I began wearing when I boarded the plane from Seoul to New York thirty-seven years ago. Beneath my pink tights and burgundy jumper. About the parents I could never know. For the ghost family who would never be mine. For the mother I would never watch shuffle across the kitchen, her back bent and head bowed in pain. For the father I would never see standing on the front porch in the middle of the night, in his pajamas and bedroom slippers, confused and having forgotten what he had come outside to do.
At the apartment, M. gushes. “I love this,” he says, “this is sort of my fantasy - just this small, manageable space…” I glare at him, thinking about our own sprawling house, and he stops, mid-sentence. “Well, what I mean is…”
“I know a way you can have your own tiny space,” I say. “Live out your fantasy,” I say.
He reaches for my arm. “Honey…”
On the way out, my sister-in-law says that her own mother moved into a similar type of housing not too long ago. She calls it her prison, she says. “As we drive her back home she will ask, ‘Are you taking me back to prison now?”“
We emerge from the apartment and there is a handwritten note tucked under the windshield wiper. "Please do not park here.” The words “do not” have been underlined. There is no identifying information. There are six parking spaces in front of the building. We are unclear as to whether the admonition regards this particular space or all of them. Gestures like this seem to me a declaration of war. Admittedly, of the most passive aggressive kind. I suggest leaving the van parked there, and walking home, just for spite. Or coming back in the morning and parking it there for the day. Fortunately for all involved, no one takes up my proposed course of action.
There is a tile floor in the kitchen. The rooms are carpeted and all within a small footprint for ease of access. We envision the walker moving easily between rooms. We consider the low threshold to the shower, the placement of handrails. Of course, this will be so much easier. Of course.
Then why is it, sitting in the back row of the van, facing out the window so I don’t have to meet anyone’s eyes, do I feel myself well up with tears?
After dinner, I retreat. I take the boy up for a bath and watch as he splashes around in the tub, makes piles of soapy bubbles. I hear the conversations continuing downstairs, loud and high-pitched, punctuated by peals of laughter.
We read a story about a bear who wakes up in the factory that has been built over the cave in which he had been hibernating. The men who run the factory cannot believe that he is a bear. They say: You are a silly man, who needs a shave and wears a fur coat. They say this to him so many times that he starts to believes them just a bit. They make him work in the factory, standing at a big machine, for many months.
Finally, at the end, after the factory has closed and all the men have gone away, the bear walks a great distance until he finds a cave. Once inside the cave, he makes a bed of fragrant pine boughs and sleeps there through the long, cold winter.