Roots of the mammoth oak have heaved the sidewalk in front of our yellow, clapboard house and two-year-old Becky rattles over the bumps on her Big Wheel, blond pigtails whipping behind her. Ten-year-old Lisa pokes her head out the screen door. “Buzzer went off. Should I take the brownies out?” She’s followed the Betty Crocker box directions, greased the pan, broken the eggs and blended the brown goop.
“Toothpick test first.” My wrap-around skirt billows open and I tip my head back, gaze at mounds of cumulus floating above the canopy of elms.
It’s Mother’s Day 1976 and unseasonably warm and sunny for southeastern Michigan. Dad’s Mercury beeps twice as the car idles up the driveway and I see his high-beam grin in the car’s open window. “What’s for dinner, Chum?”
It will be baked chicken with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, Mother’s favorite, and we’ll eat outdoors to inaugurate the deck my young husband has built. I love him. I love our daughters. I take it all for granted. I’m twenty-eight and my heart does not recognize the perfection of monotony, the power of shared ritual.
And yet the memory of that Mother’s Day, and of each family member present, remains emblazoned more vividly than anything I can conjure of my new grandson, Gus.
My younger daughter, former Big-Wheel-rider, Becky, lives with her fiancé, Salim, and Baby Gus in California – thousands of miles and thousands of dollars away. Other than one three-day visit, all my connections to Baby Gus have come via the computer screen – Skype calls, or videos and photos posted on Facebook and Salim’s Baby Blog, for an audience of hundreds, including me.
Something is slipping away and I’m having a difficult time naming it.
During the 1970s and 80s, Dad called his short, Saturday morning visits “stopovers.” He tapped on the wavy glass of our back door, offered glazed donuts from Machus Bakery and parked himself at the kitchen table with his granddaughters. “What’d you do in school this week? Anyone want help with homework?”
The days of Dad’s stopovers and our family dinners are gone, and unless I board a plane, I cannot touch the flesh of anyone who shares my blood, not one person who sat on the deck on Mother’s Day 1976. The young, deck builder and I stopped loving each other and divorced more than twenty years ago. Dad’s been dead eighteen, Mother over five. Becky lives in Los Angeles, Lisa, near Chicago.
My second husband Don and I retired from our full-time work in Michigan, to a South Carolina mountainside eight years ago. All four kids, his two and my two, had left the Detroit area for college and to build careers. They’ve done what we envisioned for them, flown high and far and wide. Thousands of miles from us, they lead complicated lives and seem too busy to breathe. Sadly, I’ve not mastered the skill of long distance intimacy and am emotionally skewered by my situation. I want to live on this lush mountainside where mammoth tree trunks sprout pastel lichen and granite cliffs glisten in the rain, but I’m isolated from my daughters and their families here.
We planned our retirement home ten years ago when our young adult, childless children were portable and all of us jumped on and off airplanes with ease. Anticipating visits from giggling grandchildren and their parents, we built extra bedrooms and set up a long oak dining table.
I struggle now, to understand what I’m trying to hold onto.
Part of it involves the anxiety of geography, and the flesh of geography. On a recent Sunday, pin oaks shimmered silver against the seamless cobalt sky as I dashed inside to grab the phone. My older daughter, Lisa, and her husband, Ryan, were calling from their car in Illinois on the way to Ryan’s parents’ house for a cookout. Grandson Luke, fourteen, was fired up over his cross-country training and twelve-year-old Lily chattered about her summer book club.
Ryan’s parents live where they raised their family, in Kirkland, Illinois. They’ve tallied countless stopovers with their four children, who stayed put, like they did. They know their grandchildren’s favorite colors and video games, what they like on their pizza, what brands of shoes are cool.
The prospect of knowing my newest grandchild Gus with such intimacy feels daunting. Crossing the country to California is date specific and logistically complicated. And because we’re retired now, the expense of airfare, hotels, rental cars and restaurants is suddenly intimidating. Even more difficult is the ordeal of them dragging an infant across the country.
I laughed it off for years, but now believe that proximity may well be the most important factor in human relationships. Humans require physical immediacy to develop intimacy, and the luxury of proximity allows us to form stronger bonds. Memory gets murky when we do not see and touch each other, often.
I remember the sling across Becky’s chest the first time I saw Gus, how it cradled him, but what shape were his ears and did they lie flat? I had three days to soak him up and cannot recall. My eyes sting and blink at online photos and videos because as close as the baby seems, just inches away on my desk, the Internet membrane between us is impenetrable. The dimpled hands grasping thin air are out of reach.
Irony hangs heavy these days, forcing me to acknowledge what I hate to admit: That when my parents and children were nearby, warm and touchable, they often weighed me down. In the 1970s and 80s, Mom, Dad and my young family clustered around our dining room table for holidays and all our birthdays. I cringe to recall my snide remarks about those gatherings, “Hallmark Holidays,” I said, designed to mine guilt and produce revenue. Now, acutely aware of my age and disappointing geographic realities, I yearn for the weight, the anchor of family members in my life.
Like most women of my generation, pregnancy and motherhood came early as natural functions of youth. I pushed my babies out with pent up vigor, propelling them forward as decades passed, and sure, my girls and I butted heads during their teenage years. I was distracted and working too hard, often didn’t decipher what they needed, and when the time came, they were ready to leave home and I was glad to see it. That reality has tipped upside down now. I want my daughters close enough to touch, to see their eyes crinkle with laughter, to relearn their emotional alphabets.
How predictable but uncomfortable, this separation from distant children and dead parents, this winnowing of loved ones. The iPhone photos of my long-distance grandchildren far outnumber the wrinkled snapshots Dad carried with him in his pocket, but it’s not the same. Dad was on the scene, clicking his Instamatic, standing in trampled grass by the inflatable pool as little girls splashed his seersucker pants. He witnessed the events portrayed in his photos, lived them in real time.
But it’s not just distance that ails me.
When my older daughter Lisa’s children, who resemble their brown-eyed, brown-haired father, were born, Dad had been dead only six years. Mother was still alive and we talked about him, how he loved tapioca pudding, Ovaltine, and Ronald Reagan. Dad’s face was fresh in my mind’s eye and it didn’t occur to me that Lisa’s children bore no resemblance to him, or to anyone else on our side of the family.
The Skype call from Becky, in California, came early this morning. Baby Gus’ brown cheeks and chunky legs fill the computer screen and he blinks his chocolate eyes, flutters his lashes. I smile like a mannequin, swallow the lump in my throat, yearning to squeeze him, fly him through the air playing “babies in space” until he chortles like his mother used to. Gus, however, is digital, untouchable.
So far, Baby Gus does not resemble Becky or anyone in our family who came before her, but he is hers and I want to make him mine too. I’m perplexed and wonder why we examine infants with such scrutiny, explore their tiny faces so intently. Hoping to recognize what? What distance do we hope to bridge?
I miss my parents more, not less, as I age, and physical proof—such as a likeness—that they will live on when I’m not here to remember them would be comforting. I search for their features and mannerisms on my grandchildren, hope to find their hospital-bed-eyes relit and vibrant again above chubby new cheeks. If I lived close enough to tickle Gus’ chin or brush his sleeping palms, might I see hints of Dad’s high beam grin?
I am embarrassed by this emotional juxtaposition, this faceoff between profound gratitude and derelict desire for genetic immortality. As years slipped by and her first marriage faltered, I was concerned for Beck, who had always wanted a child. Now I’m exhilarated because at age thirty-eight, after a difficult divorce, she has a healthy child with a man she loves. Yet an eerie emptiness persists because I ache to see some sign of her, in her child. Mediating elation and longing is tough.
Last spring, our friend, Fred, sat on the porch with Don and me and we all remarked that we couldn’t fathom we’d attained our present ages. Don and I, in our mid-sixties, are well broken-in grandparents, have embraced the role for over a decade. Fred, however, a longtime-divorced guy in his late fifties, was brand new in the role, and wasn’t prepared for the emotional earthquake that shook him when his daughter gave birth to a baby boy.
Fred said that although he was uneasy with the milestone of becoming a grandfather, he laid eyes on the boy and broke down because, “He was her all over again.” Gazing into his grandson’s eyes, he found his own baby daughter’s twinkling back at him. He recognized the turned up nose and rosebud mouth on the infant’s face, held the tiny thumbs, shaped exactly like his daughter’s. He stepped back in time, basking in the glow of his own young fatherhood.
Yes, I yearn to see my tow-headed girls again, to establish their cornflower eyes on their children’s faces, but even more, to sense a distillation of past generations of our family. I suppose a primal wish of people my age is that our children and grandchildren will be our future, and that perhaps for now, they will soften the wide empty space our parents left when they died. And, I want my grandchildren to know and remember me.
Salim’s mother, Zarintaj, has moved from Houston to Los Angeles to be the full-time caregiver for our grandson, Gus. It is an excellent arrangement. Gus is safe and adored by his Dadima (Daddy’s Mama) and Salim and Becky have peace of mind, are able to expedite their powerful careers and manage their new-century lives.
Dadima is ever present, radiant in the photos and videos Salim posts online. From Gus’ first strained peas to his Pediatric checkups, she is there. I absorb the joy in her actions and try to reconcile my feelings. She murmurs to baby Gus in a language I do not understand and I see that he is listening, concentrating on her face, focusing on the striking dark eyes that match his. The beauty of their connection is excruciating to observe. Gus will remember his Dadima.
I’m upholstered with memories of my Nana, Dad’s mother. How her stumpy-heeled oxford clomped the rhythm as she taught me chord sequences for Maple Leaf Rag on the piano. How we sang together, I’ve Got Six Pence and My Wild Irish Rose, how her freckled arms hugged me, the way her brow crumpled in astonishment the day she realized I towered over her at age eleven. Nana’s eyes, and Dad’s, Mother’s, Lisa and Becky’s all varying shades of sapphire, all here with me this minute if I shut my own.
According to simplified, Mendelian genetics, if an individual, like Gus, inherits both a dominant gene, (BB for brown eyes from his father,) and a recessive gene, (bb for blue eyes from his mother,) the dominant gene will prevail in him. The recessive gene remains, hidden, and can be passed on to his offspring. I imagine that maybe Becky’s blue eyes, or my father’s, or even Nana’s, will peek out of the face of Gus’ child some day.
I acknowledge that I am afraid, not just that our family’s physical traits are lost, but that our traditions have disappeared too. No more stopovers, no Hallmark Holidays, no sleepovers at Nana’s when Mom and Dad want a night out. Visiting Lisa and her family in Illinois, easy when we lived in Michigan, is more challenging now, a six-hour drive having become a fourteen-hour one.
Yet Lisa’s always had a guest room, and the intimacy of staying under the same roof with her family provides emotional ballast, enables me to face the empty rooms at my house for months at a time. At Lisa’s, we wake up down the hall and eat meals around the wormy chestnut table that sat in my dining room for decades. We sweat through indoor swim lessons together and relish roundhouse kicks in Tai Kwan Do. Yes, our memories are compressed into specific time segments but they are profound, sunk deep into memory trenches.
Sadly, there are no memory trenches in California and here’s what I fear: that my timidity will turn to regret. I’m a blurt-it-out-woman by nature but am trying to change. I have not told my California daughter that her stepfather and I feel like distant, anemic outsiders. We recognize her overwhelming career demands and are astonished at how she juggles them so adeptly within her sweet, full life with Salim, Gus, and Dadima.
Without thinking it through, I assumed I would share not just ceremonies, but mundane moments of my children’s’ and grandchildren’s lives. That we would savor the innocence and simplicity of unplanned, unplugged time, the way three generations of my family did. However unrealistic, I yearn for Gus’ sweaty little hand in mine at the zoo, for casual dinners with Becky and Salim around our table eating squishy meatloaf and those mashed potatoes that stuck to the plate, the ones Dad loved.
I suppose most families remember holiday dinner conversation, and I do too, but what remains singular and specific in my memory, happened after the meals. How Dad grabbed a droopy old apron from the broom closet and tied it up high under his armpits, clamping it to the placket of his shirt with his tie clasp. I chuckle and recall how my girls and I trailed him into the kitchen, allegedly to help with the dishes, when what we really wanted was the stimulating discussion of presidential politics, Tommy Dorsey’s big band instrumentation, how Henry Ford built Detroit and then destroyed it – all shared with Dad over sinks of sudsy water, damp dish towels in our hands.
If our traditions are lost in the geographic abyss and my family’s physical traits are hidden, what remains? How can I cross this gap of generations? Essayist Peter Selgin poses the question: “What are memories if not the ruins of experience?”
If we can’t find our children in their children, nor the slightest resemblance to our missing parents, how then do we satisfy this yearning to bridge the space between them? How deep-seated is the hope for physical immortality? Very deep, I believe, yet my longing surprises me. Years ago, when a friend expressed her wish to recognize her family in her son’s children, I smirked, thought she was shallow.
I am moved by the words of Anthony Doerr’s character, Dr. Amnesty, in the novella Memory Wall, who says: “Memory builds itself without any clean or objective logic: a dot here, another dot there, and plenty of dark spaces in between. Remember a memory often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.”
I am remembering the memory of three-week-old Gus as he was, the first and only time I have seen him, over eight months ago. Suspended across Becky’s body in a hands-free sling, he slept peacefully when she opened the door. I remember his cue ball head, the wisps of black hair, his full pink lips. But Gus was not Becky all over again. He was not Becky at all. He was perfect, her miracle, and I’d sobbed at news of his birth, overwhelmed that he’d arrived safely and that his mother, my precious girl, was well. But no flood of recognition surged over me when I held him. Gus is Salim all over again. I suppose the years have folded back for his mother.
I was in Michigan recently and drove down the street where I lived with my young family. The giant oak and towering elms have been replaced by disease-resistant maples and the new sidewalk is smooth in front of our former yellow clapboard house, which is now covered in vinyl siding and expanded by a two-story addition.
Yet Mother’s Day 1976 remains illuminated as time compresses. A day when three generations of my family sat outdoors around the dinner table and focused on each other’s faces, simply because we’d been trained to behave that way. A time when none of us clutched small devices to distract us from the momentary present, a time when we sat still and paid attention to what was said at the table, even if we were bored.
It never occurred to me to grasp the hands of those around the table on that day, to feel the flesh of the older and younger people who centered me so precisely in time and in my own life. I assumed there would always be Sunday dinners together and that afternoon sunlight would burst through elm leaves lighting up the faces of those I loved, reflecting in the eyes that matched mine.
Leslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge its exact location. She holds ancient degrees in business and music, is an avid hiker and zip liner, a diligent yogi, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. Her work has appeared in Press 53 Anthologies, The Baltimore Review, So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Shenandoah Magazine, The Tarnished Anthology, Fiction Fix and Prime Number Magazine. Her essay, “Reckless” was nominated for Best of the Net Awards in 2011, and “Reunion” won first prize in the 2011 Whistling Prairie Press Contest.