Saturday, February 28, 2009

The glad years come

This is a personal essay I've been working on for a couple weeks. I'll likely revise it, at which point I'll post it again, but for now, here it is:

"The glad years come"

Megan Foley

On Valentine’s Day, my older sister and I are charged with cleaning our parents’ attic. They’re moving a few towns over in Virginia to a house better designed to accommodate my dad’s escalating health problems (fewer stairs), and they need us to clear out the junk before the movers come.

We crawl up gingerly, easing our way along the fold-out ladder, which always seems about to buckle to the side like an injured knee but does not, and poke our heads into the attic. It’s fairly typical, as attics go: cardboard boxes with sharpie scrawl, banged-up suitcases, an electric kettle and faded pillows, a lone ski boot; angled wooden ceiling beams so low you have to stoop. Our hands are soon thick with dust from thumbing over poorly boxed and bagged books, and our noses run; the air is stuffy, cloudy with particles of disrepair and inertia.

Once we’re done with the books, we spread out into opposite corners: her with the lumpy navy bag of stuffed animals, and me with the suitcase pile. Most of them (the suitcases, that is) are useless; old and heavy, without rollers. I’ve just parted with my paternal grandmother’s threadbare Oscar de la Renta (noticing, for the first time, its tag, finally understanding why she carted it around like a puffed-up bird well into her 80s), when I find the suitcase. The suitcase; the point of this essay.

It is small and maroon and utterly unremarkable, sitting in the shadows nestled between two other dusty relics. Unlike the others, however, it is heavy. When I lift it with the intention of tossing it downstairs into the garbage heap, I’m stopped by its heft.

“This one’s got something in it,” I say to Mia as I thump it down in front of me. “There are cards here signed by ‘Philip.’” This stops her. She crawls over, squatting down awkwardly, realizing before I have that this Philip is our long-dead grandfather, the famous Philip; Philip whose early death altered the trajectory of our mother’s life and became the crucible of her childhood troubles, described to us fleetingly, only in passing, as a long-lost loss. The great loss.

The lining of the suitcase is a very shiny pink, a shocking pink. We see from the initials under the handle that it belonged to our Nana, our mom’s mom, who died when we were children. At the very top is a man’s attaché case, which I have opened and begun exploring. I spread the wealth of greeting cards between me and my sister, and we take turns reading to each other. Happy Birthday, Dear Wife, states the cover of one. An illustrated woman in a 1940s dress and high heels arranges flowers on a table. Inside, a printed inscription: Happy wishes to you, wife. It’s your birthday, and you know, you grow nearer and still dearer as the glad years come and go! Below that, his looping cursive: “For I love you, sweetheart, and have you with me always in my heart. Love, Phil.” It is the first time either of us has seen his handwriting, found any personal article of his. The attic has suddenly been electrified.

On the left inside flap of the card, a woman’s face drawn in the shape of an apple puckers her red lips and bats her lashes; a hat shaped like a green leaf sits on top of her head. At the top, Philip has penned the date: February 1, 1944. They would have had the first two girls by then. My mother would come three years later, the final little one, the bean-faced runt. We know almost nothing of those years, the happy years. How they lived, what they did. We’ve seen a jerky, sped-up video taken from their honeymoon in St. Augustine, Nana in her skirt-suits and teetering heels, dark lipstick and coiffed black hair, waving on the boardwalk. Philip the quiet eye behind the lens, rarely figuring in the frame.

And he’s absent from many of the photos we find here, too, below the cards: Nana, posing in a fur coat and floppy cream hat in their backyard in Brooklyn, the neighbors’ row houses strung out behind her. Nana, glamorous smile, tucked into his wallet. But he does appear. We lightly touch the images of him now: here he is, squeezing into a photobooth with Nana, balancing her on his lap and flashing a pretty-boy grin; smoking a cigarette in a beige suit in Brooklyn, squinting in the sunlight; his dark, thick lashes and eyebrows, cupid’s bow lips. It’s never occurred to me before, but it’s obvious now, somehow: Philip was sweet.

The story, as told by my mother, goes like this: Philip came from an educated Italian family, and Nana was poor. His father was a doctor, he was a lawyer, and she, though she’d once been offered a scholarship to Julliard for opera, was a typist. His family didn’t approve, but they nevertheless had the big catholic wedding – the towering, cloying cake and heavy silk gown. They had the honeymoon, they moved into a house, they had the three girls. And then, eight years into the marriage, Philip got sick. A rare cancer in his retina. He was thirty-five when he died; my mother was two. If it’s nearby, she’ll refer to the only photo she has of them together, on the beach; she is plunked in his lap, scrawny and scowling, and you can see in his eyes that he’s tired. He’s frowning too.

In his will, he specified that Nana would be named the ‘executress’ of his estate, unless she died or were unable to care for the children. In that case, the money would go to his father, and then his mother. But one month after his death, his father died; and two months later, so did his mother. His brother Hector (and here the tone of the telling darkens, grows nefarious) went to court and claimed that Nana was unfit to manage the estate, petitioned to be named the executor, and won. The story tends to get wrapped up in a stark black bow: Hector kept all the money to himself, and Nana and the girls were set adrift.

Next in the pile is a hodgepodge of papers: a playbill from Radio City Music Hall (“Showcase!” trumpets the cover), a 1946 invoice for a refrigerator he must have bought her. Here is a little pencil case with his initials, PJB, doodled all over it, and here is his father’s death card, printed in Italian. We rifle through the last of these mementos and, satisfied we’ve explored them thoroughly, reassemble the attaché case and lay it aside.

The rest of the suitcase is less colorful; the emotional objects all seem to have been tucked away in the case, kept intact and protected, and what lies beneath are folders. Documents. We open the first folder, which is neatly organized, left side and right. The pages are thin, tissuey legal paper, and they seem to be correspondences, spanning years. I hand them over to Mia, restless before I’ve even had a chance to begin, preferring to flip through the rest of the suitcase’s contents for more hidden treasures. So it is Mia who sits still and makes sense of them and says, after some time, “She wrote the president.”

Now this is interesting. Nana’s rages are legendary in our family. We know that she struggled financially after Philip died, relocating from Brooklyn to Catskill, where she worked as a secretary and, at night, managed her parents’ bowling alley. We know she was stretched thin and felt chronically cheated from the life she should have had. We know that she was mentally ill, a little, that she had bipolar disorder and was sporadically hospitalized. But writing the president is a new, iconic piece of evidence in the case of Nana. It is deliciously, tragically grandiose.

Mia reads:

“November 14, 1961

The President
The Whitehouse
Washington, DC

My Dear Mr. President [this would have been Kennedy],

I am enclosing here within a copy of a letter, which I have directed to the honorable Abraham Ribicoff, and which is self-explanatory. Your intercession would be much appreciated. Thank you for your attention to this matter, which is of such extreme importance to myself and to my children.”

We find the letter to Ribicoff (the name means nothing to me, woefully poor student of US history that I was, though I later identify him as Kennedy’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare), which is itself an introduction to prior correspondences. We see, digging through them, both those she enclosed for Ribicoff and other, earlier letters; how much time she must have dedicated to petitioning for benefits, how increasingly frustrated and desperate.

What begins in 1949, following Phillip’s death, as perfunctory withdrawals from the estate evolve into more carefully-worded pleas: “I’ve put off making this request hoping I would be able to manage without further withdrawals,” she writes to a Veterans Affairs attorney in 1950, “however my illness has precluded my working even part time, and I find I just cannot make ends meet on the small income I receive...Christmas is almost here, and although I cannot afford luxuries for the children, still, warm new clothing would go far in making it a happier time for them.”

Like rocks skittering down an embankment, a foothold lost, we read her situation go from tenuous to perilous. Following the annulment of a short-lived marriage in 1954, she attempts to get her benefits reinstated, but is only allotted a third – $22 a month – of her previous payments. She’s essentially gone from receiving $568 to $168 a month, and I don’t know why, but the numbers fascinate me.

In 1956, she goes through a disappointing exchange with the VA again, this time trying to establish the dates of Philip’s employment, which she believes should now, due to a law change, make her retroactively eligible for disability benefits. She is denied.

Her letter to Ribicoff, five years later, reveals an obsession with this perceived injustice: “Since 1956,” she writes, “I have been brooding over what I know is an unfair and arbitrary decision. The referee at the time of the hearing was extremely annoyed with me, because I had caused him to miss his commuting train due to a traffic situation which delayed me in reaching New York City from Catskill, NY, where I was then residing. I explained why I was late, but he was still upset about it...”

I imagine her drawing herself up as she sits to type it, crossing her ankles and tucking them under her chair, chest high. Of course she never received a response.

And then, as abruptly as we made our discovery, we reach the end. We have finished our excavation of the suitcase, and there is nothing left to sort through. We close it back up, and I carry it back to where I found it. We have taken from it several of Philip’s business cards, which we found in his wallet, the photobooth picture of him and Nana, and white enamel deco necklaces, which we assume were Nana’s. I am pleased but agitated. For the first time, I have heard Philip’s voice, her voice, but my access to them is finite.

Four hours later, I am at a cocktail party with my older brother holding a sticky glass of pink champagne punch. We are surrounded by bowls of Hershey’s kisses and platters dressed with mediocre cheese, and I watch as a caterer pulls two bags of dumplings and mini quiche out of the freezer and shakes them onto trays, to warm in the oven and then circulate. (I feel like I’ve seen behind the curtain, and my anticipation of trying them correspondingly diminishes.)

“What was Nana like?” I ask. Duncan’s attention has shifted to the raffle the hostess is announcing from the top of her dining room table, and he takes an annoyingly long time to answer.

“She was Mom and Aunt Roberta and Aunt Jill,” he says, “she was all three of them.”

It is a pat answer, too easy, and I am dissatisfied. Which part of them? When? “But what was she like,” I prod.

“She was full of life.” He describes how our oldest brother used to make fun of the way she walked, encased in a pencil skirt and tottering on four-inch heels; he stands rigid and pokes his butt out, taking small tiptoe steps to demonstrate.

It is funny, and it is not enough. Why has he picked a juvenile joke to recount, out of all his memories of her? Why did she, for that matter, save a refrigerator receipt, out of all the things Philip gave her? I am playing an impossible game, I know, trying to piece together a coherent picture out of fragments, to ascribe my own narrative to others’ memories.

The next day, hungover from sugar and champagne, I find my mom in the kitchen and ask if she’d like to see the suitcase. I have an hour before I have to head into Washington to catch my bus, and though I’m tired, I feel a small thrill at the idea of witnessing her reaction to the items. But she declines. Next time you come down, she says.

And so I go back to Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for five years (not so far, ultimately, from where they lived), hanging Nana’s necklaces on my wall, propping up the small photobooth photo on my shelf.

Friends stop in, stay for dinner, and sometimes I take the objects out. These were hers, I say, proffering the necklaces, this was him. See how pretty? Wasn’t he pretty? I never knew them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wait wait don't tell me

Baby's newest game is hunting down my packaged food and ripping it open. Not to eat, apparently; for sport. This morning it was the brand new bag of coffee beans, hermetically sealed in thick metallic something-or-other, some durable air-proof material, which i found behind the counter, shredded. Why? Usually it's crackers, cookies, carby treats that she maybe craves since she only eats grain-free expensive blah blah. She pushes those off the counter and then Pern, the big fat one, who really does have a carb addiction, goes to town. But what use could Pern or Baby have for coffee beans? It's cruel.

Anyway, possibly this is boring to you. Possibly you're thinking, why should I care about this woman's cats? I've got no answer, except that right now the big one is spooning my hip, and it's damn cute.

Basically, I'm procrastinating starting my real work. I pinched a nerve yawning, that's how my morning's been. That and watching a Westminster judge appraise mutts on The View. Fucking A. Time to start.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

High school stalker

Guys, because it's Valentine's Day, I've prepared something really special for you. I hope you like it. Love is in the air!

For much of my life I attended a lot of church; evangelical ‘bible’ church, to be specific, which preached a literal interpretation of the bible. As you can imagine, this led to some backwards (and contradictory, if you cared to actually read) beliefs, but more interestingly, attracted some unsavory individuals.

One such individual was a brain-damaged (I think) man that the youth group pastor inexplicably put on staff. He had a history of violence, having hit another church member in the head with a hammer when they were both kids (this was common knowledge, since the victim was the sister of another kid in the youth group), and basically, he was creepy as fuck. He was very tall, and very large, bald; he used to drive a beat-up muscle car and skulk around the parking lot staring at girls. At some point he developed a crush on me and took to following me around the halls of the church. It seemed somewhat innocuous, because there were usually people around, but still.

Eventually I dropped out of youth group (a different story, for another day) and pretty much cut ties with everyone there, but one day, a year later, I ran into him. I can’t remember the circumstances, but apparently (as per the letter) I was with a couple of my guy friends. I do also remember him showing up at my high school, but whether that happened before or after the email, well, I have no idea.

The following is the email he sent to me – I just found the print-out of it in my parents’ attic, and retyped it. (I’m home helping them organize our old storage crap in preparation for their impending move to McLean.) Anyway, it’s really a masterpiece. Once I found it I knew I had to preserve it for posterity or whatever. I quote:

Date: 3/29/99 1:31:59 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: tiny@[redacted] (MS SWAN)
To: Nutmeg520@aol.Com

Megan,Megan,Megan.I will say ,Lst night,it was cool seeing U,Even though U didn’t say anything to me after I said HI. I understand,But just think back and remember what type of Guy I really am. 1 Remember the first day I met U, I talked to U and U were soooo nice,It was summer of 97 and U were about to become a sophomore in highschool. I thought I had met an awesome Gal and had just made a new friend,Anyways,2 The summer of 98,U were getting ready to go on a missions trip and when they asked for people to put hands on people,While praying for them,Who stepped up and realy cared for U.Me,and As my hand went on youre bare shoulder, You thought, WHAT’S going on and What is he going to do to me? [!!!] I was gentle to U,Never thought once about something bad happening to ya.ACCULLY ,For a slit second it soo quite I could hear your heart beating and tell and really tell what was going on in your head.U have been blessed 1000 times over,Wheather it’s inside or out.It’s time to live life more serious and grow up. God loves U [oh boy.]
Megan and he want’s U to step out on the lim.FEAR NOT,For he has ahold of U and he won’t let U fall.Have more faith and do what GOD wants U to do and not what MEGAN wants to do.I encourage U to put God 1st.And for those Guys you date,U can get better then that. I mean Christian guys at least [He’s all, ‘I mean, really. Have some class, please.’].
Now about last night,If your boyfriend or his INDIAN FREAK [I do believe he means Viranda!] has any problem with me,Or if they wanna talk trash or call me names, Tell them to say it in my face.MAN TO MAN.Especially that Indian freak .Tell him that, The next time he talks trash to me,I’ll come up to him like I did last night,When he least exspects me,And it won’t be a sight as pretty as U.MEGAN, U surly don’t want me to show up @ LANGLEY and embarris him infront of U or others, Do U? NO! Your saying to yourself in the back of your head. I know U to good megan. Well if this type of B.S. happens again,I promise I will show up when U or they least exspect me. I might even show up @ your house, SOOOOOOOO TELL then NOT to play with fire,Becauase I will burn like a MOTHER.Well hope U and your Family are doing well and I want U to know I’m still praying for U daily. Oh how’s MIA doing? [This part made me LOL – like, ‘I’m gonna eat your dog and fry it up with your cunt, you bitch! Oh, by the way, do you prefer sausage or pepperoni?’] Well hopefully next time U get a letter from me,I’ll be to for better reasons. YOURS TRULY,

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to miss a friend

James has been gone for two weeks, and today the weather is balmy. When I walked out this morning, neutral gusts of wind puffed my coat out and made me duck my head. It’s grey and warm, my favorite weather.

I miss him, I do. But already I feel that certain portioning that happens when someone you love is no longer accessible. It’s like running a long distance, accepting the slowed-down, difficult pace. You measure in months, not days or weeks. Vacations, not weekends. And the time in between gets filled somehow. Not by him or by anyone like him, but by yourself. Your brain fills up with different thoughts, essays and books you’re reading, snide comments people have said, the way your cat chirps hello when you come home. And home is still home, remarkably. The couch is the same couch, although it seems a little forlorn, waiting for your friend to come and admire it and its surroundings, to relax into it like he’s supposed to, like it’s meant for. The sconces you bought don’t seem as special without him there to obligingly flatter them, and the white wine you bought weeks ago, before he left, is still in the fridge. That’s the way you miss a friend, I think. By looking at the objects he used to look at and seeing a little less magic in them, without him.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Oh well, okay.

The horrible feeling has settled in again, the one I thought I’d shaken this morning when I left my apartment and it was warm outside, the one I thought I’d slept off when I found myself able to get out of bed, shower and dress with relative ease. But the horrible feeling is back, seeping through my bones, water-logging and weighing me down. I’m sad, I’m sad, I’m sad. It’s not about any one thing, or one event, or one person, or one action, it’s about the impermanence of everything. Of my home, both my sense of it and my physical place of dwelling, of my constructed and biological families, my feelings of safety and satisfaction. All impermanent. All shaky. Is this what depression was like? It’s been so long since I toyed with that word, put it on my plate and poked it with a fork. I’m not interested in trying it again. But I’m so tired. I’m so damn tired. It will get better, I tell myself. Here are the things you can do: you can wait, and be patient. You can eat nutritious foods and sip only tea at night. You can sleep. You can walk, and walk, and walk. You’ll find clarity. Well please let it come. Please let it come.