Posts Tagged ‘family’

Memories like fireflies.

June 15, 2014

Robert HayesWe sat in a horseshoe of high-end furniture on the brick patio of my grandparents’ house, the one they moved into just before my little sister was born.

Gam sat in the center — equally composed and frazzled, ironclad-strong and fragile — flanked by my stepfather, mother and sister on one side, my aunt, her adopted son and me on the other side. We sipped ice water from stemless wine glasses that sweetened onto flowered cocktail napkins in the humidity.

She wore tailored black pants and a white linen jacket with a mandarin collar, set off with a brightly colored dragonfly stick pin: prim as always, but absent a bit of her luster and polish. The light started to leave her eyes, I think, the day she found out about Grandy’s cancer.

He tried to fight it — tried everything, from medications and radiation to chemo — but the treatments only succeeded in weakening his body further.

When we saw him at Christmas, he was a physical shell of his formerly robust, barrel-chested self. In years past, he’d already be dressed in pressed pants and a casual button-down, the morning paper already half-devoured, by the time our pajama-clad crew arrived to open presents on Christmas morning.

This past year, he wore a robe like the rest of us, with soft drawstring pajama pants I imagine were the only thing he found comfortable anymore. What little hair he had left was reduced to an ashy down, sparse on his head.

But his eyes still twinkled — mischief and wisdom and wit still clawing their way to the surface through his broken body — and his voice, when he spoke, still echoed all the same.

That Christmas morning’s celebration was a little more somber, and echoingly quieter. Instead of the big brunch, we left early to make room for an afternoon nap and all the attending difficulties life with someone dying of cancer inevitably brings.

Grandy had written my sister and I a Christmas poem every year for as long as I can remember. He was a master of the cutesy art of iambic pentameter, and it was impossible not to crack a smile, or giggle a little, when reading the poem aloud to the room (as we were always asked to do).

There was no poem for us this year, but on the table, wedged between the lamp and Gam’s glasses case, was a plain piece of white printer paper folded in thirds. He’d written her a poem entitled “Our Last Christmas.”


robert hayesIt seems, in the six and a half years since I moved to Chicago, my soul has blackened and shrunk; few things make me cry anymore. But I cried when I found the poem. (I didn’t even read it; the title was enough to break my heart.)

I cried when I found out he’d died that morning in February: I was on the Brown Line to the Loop when my mother called, and I knew as soon as I saw the caller ID what I’d hear on the other line. I day drank and wore myself out running around town that day.

And I cried when I came home that weekend afterward, though not when I expected I might. I’d been dry-eyed, all smiles, when we arrived at the airport and when we went to the house to give hugs to our newly widowed grandmother. But as I padded aimlessly through their pin-drop-quiet house, his imprint still pressed into his easy chair but the smell of his pipe already beginning to fade, I started to tear up. And somehow, the sight of his Mercedes sedan in the garage, shiny, clean, dark and forever without its driver, is what brought the house down.

Grief is a funny thing.


robert hayesGam began the afternoon with the story of why we were there. Grandy had said, when he got word that he had four to eight weeks left, that he wanted a funeral only if everyone sat and sang nothing but Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson music.

Gam said they’d compromised and agreed on a small family memorial gathering, where we would sit around and say nice things about him. And that’s what we did.

We read letters Gam had received from friends and former colleagues both before and after his death. I read aloud from his autobiography a bizarre history of the cars he’d owned throughout his youth, as well as the tale of how he’d scandalously sold his 1935 lemon to his “buxom and very pretty” Spanish teacher, so he could upgrade to a “late-model beauty” of same manufacturer.

Then we sat in our quiet little horseshoe — his wife, his daughters and their small families — and looked through photos of him doing what he loved, trading fond memories and sage adages he’d shared.

I tried to put words to my own fond memories, but in the end, I didn’t have much to say. My memories of Grandy are suffused with his wisdom, ooze with his stoic warmth, but lack form. My memories are hazy and vague, but they’re all vividly focused in that twinkle in his eyes.

robert hayesI remember my pleasant surprise at him occasionally picking up the phone when I’d call. I remember his patience every time Gam interjected into a conversation, and the way he said her name.

I remember him gleefully sabotaging our family Christmas Eve craft every year. I remember his lung-crushing hugs, and the dirty-sweet smell of his pipe emanating from his basement office.

Barely, I remember him at the helm of his boat, never doubting he could steer us back to shore.

And I’ll remember him now, too, in the warm, gusty breeze that ruffled our cocktail napkins that afternoon, and the nightfall glow of the lightning bugs along the walk I took to clear my head that night.

I’ve never gotten close enough to catch a firefly in my cupped hands, but off in the distance, they blink and flicker with the essence of everything that’s lovely about a Kansas City summer.

My black heart may not cry for him again, but it’ll be impossible not to smile.


Not so little.

May 16, 2011

Tonight, I’m sitting on the dark brown, faux-suede love seat I bought just before I moved in to my first apartment in Kansas City, in the living room of my best-yet apartment in Lincoln Square, listening to my cat eat in the next room.

I’m wearing argyle knee socks, flowered men’s boxer shorts that have always been mine, and my rabbit ears. There’s a glass of pink wine on the table next to me.

And I can’t help but think, at this very moment, This is what it means to be a grown-up.


That's Bill.

It was cold and grey last Saturday, the day my younger sister graduated from Drake University. But my graduation day six years ago was hot, humid and windy — the way a Midwest May afternoon usually feels. My boyfriend at the time had gotten so wasted the night before that we weren’t sure he’d make it to the ceremony.

And that would have been so…him. Runner of the Beer Mile.

Between journalism school graduation and my initiations into Kappa Tau Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa, the most important parts of my day, at least on paper, were over before most kids even had to be on campus for the big ritual: the walk down the hill from the Campanile to the football stadium for the actual commencement ceremony.

None of this was a big deal for me. I knew I would graduate. And I hadn’t worked particularly hard to get there. If anything, graduating meant I could finally just be a damn grown-up. Have a job and a paycheck and a relationship that actually meant something. Good riddance, college.

But I did the walk down the hill anyway, smiled and laughed with the friends I’d made in the journalism school, which had been my saving grace as a college student — one of the only reasons I stayed sane enough not to try to kill everyone in my sorority house. I remember seeing my boyfriend’s family more than I remember seeing my own; his brother-in-law was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his face, sideburns and goofy grin in all their glory.

My friend Bill walked with a bright yellow smiley-face balloon on it to help his family recognize him in the crowd.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, I found my mother, then we turned away from the stadium and toward the parking lot. We got in the car and drove with my roommate and her mother to Louise’s West. I skipped my massive commencement ceremony to drink spicy bloody marys garnished with dill pickle spears.

I can’t imagine that day going any other way.


And that's us.

But as I wandered, bewildered, into the Knapp Center on Drake’s campus six years later, the concert band already sounding very academic over the loudspeakers, I couldn’t imagine my sister doing the same. Drake is a tiny school. And she was an integral part of the student life there during her four years. Or so it seems from the outside. And though I think she’s just as eager to get out there and grow up already, her empty chair would have been a tragedy at this ceremony. We — my mother and stepfather, my father and his wife, and Holly’s boyfriend — made our way to blue folding chairs high above the basketball court, and finding her among the rest of the black robes and mortarboards was a reading of Where’s Waldo? far too early in the morning. There were no striped shirt or trademark spectacles to look for; the only giveaways were her button nose and a tuft of short, layered hair sprouting from the back of her mortarboard. Maybe that proud Worthy walk, if we looked closely enough.


She looked so pretty in her cap and gown.

And for the next two and a half hours, we watched and listened and she made that rite of passage into the next phase of her life. My lungs burst with pride — and the loudest yelp I could muster — as she took her diploma and walked across the stage. And after she moved the tassel from one side of her jaunty little hat to the other, I thought, Jesus. We’re both adults now, with papers to prove it.

And really? The reason I was vaguely depressed all weekend probably didn’t stem from my realization that the Flightless Bipedal had already rejected me, but that my little sister was really quite far from it anymore. And that’s hard for me.


But I’ve still got five and a half years on you, kid. So this, madam, is what I would have written in all those letters your friends and sorority asked me to write for graduation but I didn’t make time to do: You’ve got this.

My advice likely means nothing. Most of the time, it seems you’ve got it together more than I ever have or will. It’s quite possible that you are just the family badass. Maybe you aren’t even feeling apprehensive about what lies ahead.

All your grand plans to have an apartment with a coordinating color scheme, dinner parties and potlucks, to subscribe to Real Simple, see your name in a masthead and your hands in the historical preservation of Des Moines? Those are all fantastic plans.

And you will make it all happen. Probably not in the six months after you graduate, but you’ll do it.

But? There will also be times when you’ll want nothing more to be treated like an adult and get exactly the opposite; there will be times when everyone wants you to be an adult but you want nothing more than to be babied.

You will fuck up. A lot. (Hopefully not as much as I have.) And you will be better for it.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

There will be breakups, and they will destroy you. Temporarily. And you’ll be better for them. (And in the meantime, I will be there for you.)

There will be crises where you have no idea what you want to do with your life. And…well, I have no reassurance for you on that one. I think you’ll be fine, but I’m in the middle of a phase where I want nothing more than to quit my job, drive a semi cross-country for a year and write a book about it. I’m not sure I’ll be fine — ever.

Anyway. Just remember that this is all part of it. Most grown-ups are absolutely flailing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’ve got this, just as much as anyone else does.

My biggest hope for you is that one night, you’re sitting somewhere doing nothing in particular, listening to a good song while you cook dinner for friends or watching your favorite movie as you much mindlessly on some disgusting snack that no one else could possibly like, and realize that this — not the job or the paycheck or the relationship or the sofa you bought on Sunday — is what it means to be a grown-up.

My second biggest hope is that we’re even closer friends when that hits you.

Christmas: The McPhersons.

December 24, 2010

I got a Christmas e-letter on Wednesday from the McPhersons.
It was a two-page, full-color PDF, laid out like a church bulletin or corporate annual report, studded with family photos and well wishes for the coming year. It was such a sweet letter.
Just one thing wrong: I don’t know the McPhersons.
The trouble with electronic greetings — especially those sent en masse — is that it’s pretty easy for them not to reach the intended recipients. The letter I got was meant for Pam Worthy, whose e-mail address supposedly differs from mine by a single character. But for some reason, it didn’t make it to her and came to me instead.

Before I checked the distribution list, I read the entire letter, thinking the McPhersons were long-forgotten friends of my family, business colleagues from deep within the horticulture industry or among the thousands of people I follow on Twitter.

The wife and mother, editor and publisher of the McPherson annual update, is so proud of her family.
Her husband just started working for a local nonprofit. They have two daughters, the oldest of whom suffers from a pretty severe disability. Mom’s days are spent shuttling the daughter to and from doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions.
In one of the photos, their oldest daughter had just won a blue ribbon in an event at the Special Olympics and displayed it proudly as she leaned in for a celebratory kiss from her father.
The younger daughter, with curly hair and glasses, smiled wide in another picture as she held a tiny baby bunny in the cupped palms of her hands. Another photo shows her dressed for Halloween as a cheerleader.

This family has its hands full; that much is clear from the letter. The sentences are short and each paragraph jumps to completely different aspect of life. Wife and mother seemed to have trouble picking which news to share from 2010, a year full of “blessings and challenges.”

In my circle of friends, we half-jokingly complain about our semi-tragic first-world problems: Not being able to get a primo reservation at Girl & the Goat. The battery dying in our $400 smart phones. Agonizing over which color to pick for that spa manicure and pedicure. Gosh, life is hard!

The McPherson family’s life is hard. I imagine that caring for their handicapped child affects absolutely every aspect of their lives. Money’s probably tighter than they’d like. Husband and father’s job as an addiction counselor must worry wife and mother every day as she hurries from place to place with daughters one and two.
And yet?
There’s not even an inkling of negativity to be found in that letter.
The McPhersons are deeply religious and thank God regularly — in every paragraph of that letter, actually, sometimes more — for all the blessings in their life.
Husband and father is doing God’s work in his new job. The Lord blessed them with a new van with a ramp to help get them around with a new wheelchair in tow. God has provided wonderful doctors, therapists and teachers.

The McPhersons’ life seems to be all about those little blessings, those tiny miracles: Wife and mother would miss the weekly appointments if she suddenly didn’t have to go to them anymore. Disabled daughter has learned to eat real food this year, and her little sister is delighted to be learning the names of the months.
The girls fed a giraffe at the zoo.

Christmas at the McPhersons’ is all about the miracle of Christ’s birth, that much I can say for sure.
For me, this holiday has never been about Jesus. It has always been about Santa. All about Santa. (And the occasional reindeer, and maybe Frosty.) And I’ve always been perfectly happy with that.
I get pretty cynical about religion. And I flinched when I saw the Bible verse at the top of the McPhersons’ annual update. But their profound faith seeped into every word of that letter. It made me warm.

Tomorrow, they’ll go to church. They will have a quiet, peaceful day basking in the simple happiness of another year together. Husband and wife will settle in together, exhausted, in front of the fire, after another joyous Christmas with their two beautiful, special daughters.

Wife and mother will never make a video of her kids throwing a tantrum that they got books for Christmas. It will never go viral with more than 1.5 million views on YouTube.
I sat by myself and laughed hysterically watching that video early this morning, shared it with my sister and snickered expectantly as she watched it for the first time.
There’s a particular holiday pleasure that goes with laughing at some spoiled, snot-nosed 3-year-old boy yelling “POOH!” at the top of his lungs.

But it’s another thing entirely getting a glimpse into the cozy, complicated and wonderful life of a family that still seems to understand the meaning of Christmas.
Because it can be pretty easy to lose sight of that in my life, over here with my first-world problems. With my laptop and smart phone and the piles of presents waiting to be torn into under the tree.

I love my life, and my family, and the way we celebrate the holidays.
I do.
My extended family will arrive in two hours for cocktails, a beautiful tenderloin that’s been marinating since before I went to bed last night, and caroling by the fire with toy instruments bought for the occasion.
We’ll wake up in the morning and sit with our piles of presents, with our mimosas and breakfast casserole and festive holiday napkins, with Christmas music playing softly in the background, and enjoy one another in our own way.
But when the inevitable Christmas Guilt kicks in, after the hypercaloric gorging and orgy of gifting, I may take a few quiet moments and say my own version of a prayer for the McPhersons. The I’ll go back to enjoying my family and appreciating those tiny miracles I find here at home.

Pam Worthy is a lucky woman to count the McPhersons as friends.
And I was lucky to happen upon them by accident this Christmas.

God bless us, everyone.

Where are you, Christmas?

December 16, 2010

My Christmas tree fell over yesterday.
It’s perched a bit precariously, by three plastic legs loosely pegged to a spindly base, on top of a little table that’s just wide enough.

I’d stayed up far past my bedtime, just after 2 a.m., the night before trying to fix my scanner — and that is not code for “drinking spiked egg nog and crooning, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ in perfect harmony with a tall, handsome man in an ivory cable-knit turtleneck sweater,” as much as I wish it were — which left me groggy and a little out of sorts.

For a four-foot tabletop tree, it packs a sparkly, festive punch. Every light twinkles; every ornament has a story. Perched precariously, yes, but pretty. Maybe the danger makes it all the more beautiful.
The scanner, finally fixed after hours of finagling, and my tiny tabletop tree were intertwined by fate.
Fate and power cords.

I wanted to move my printer into the other room so I could watch daytime TV while I scanned receipts. My life: so, so glamorous. I thought it would be a fun trick to unplug it without moving any furniture or checking any of the other plugs.
I tugged at the scanner’s cord once and heard a faint jingle.
I thought I felt the plug start to give, so I gave it one last sharp jerk, and the faint jingle crescendoed into a cacophony of bells and breaking glass.
I winced and surveyed the damage behind me.
My most precious ornaments were still in tact, except for a glass rabbit with a hole through its heart and a clay ballerina with two broken legs.

I did my Christmas crying before Thanksgiving when I put the tree up; I was cold and lonely, and the ornaments’ stories seemed bittersweet as I did my trimming solo, fanning each artificial branch into something more lifelike, choosing the best hanging spots for my prettiest treasures and reserving the back for the glass pineapple of unknown origin and the fat blue crab from Boston.

Nothing about this apartment deserves a pretty little tree. The white walls and high ceilings swallow its light.

The glass pineapple had broken. I scooped up its shattered spines and the other big shards and threw them in the trash, then I vacuumed up the smaller pieces of glass and glitter, and gave my kitchen a once-over with the Dyson while I was at it.

I put lunch in the oven and scanned my receipts. I showed my light-swallowing, white-walled apartment to the man I hope will free me from my lease and gingerly unplugged the tree again when I left for the afternoon.

The Christmas spirit hasn’t really found me this year. Mostly — and I’ve never felt this way before, ever — I want to fast-forward to February, when I’d like to think I’ll have the time to start making sense of my life.
For the past few years, Christmas has been about the stress of travel, finding the money to afford all the presents and getting them home in time for the big day.
I used to love Christmas so much.
Last year, I needed a change. I spent the holiday in Chicago with the Knight, in my cozy Lincoln Square apartment that embraced the light of my tree. Every molecule of the living room glowed. We opened presents in our pajamas, ate leftovers from our Christmas Eve feast and watched movies on the sofa. We never even went outside that day.
It was so blissful on the surface, but it was punctuated with guilt, disappointment and resentment.

I must really be an adult now.

Christmas is next Saturday. I’m not really sure how that happened, and I can’t seem to get myself excited.
So the toppled tree didn’t strike me much either.
It was more like knocking over a lamp. A broken bulb, a busted shade.

That’s how it felt this year, anyway.

I’ve re-fanned the branches, and the lights still work. The man who looked at my apartment noted how pretty it was; everyone else who sees the tree oohs and ahhs over it. It brings out the Christmas spirit in others.

The ballerina’s legs can be glued back to her body. She will dance again.

The hole in the rabbit’s heart can’t be patched, but he’ll go on. I’ll think of how I felt when he broke every year I take him out of the box — that’s his story now — and I’d like to think I’ll be in better spirits then.

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.

Bear with me?

November 29, 2010

As my checks start rolling in — sloooooowly — I’m loosening my purse strings a bit.

Which means I’ve finally let myself splurge on the WordPress theme I’ve had my eye on. (Hey, big spender!)

But as I crank through a busy post-holiday week at work, there’s not going to be a lot of time to tinker and tweak. So if you read my blog on proper, it’s going to look like a grabby-hands 6-year-old or really cute kitten (she will be mine) got all over my keyboard and reset a bunch of stuff.

Bear with me?
You’re great.
Oh, me?
No, you.

Sidebar: Remember that time I didn’t blog about Thanksgiving and skipped straight to some crazy story about a minor car crash?
Don’t think me ungrateful.
God, I have so much to be thankful for.
To the point where I’m so overwhelmed that I end sentences with prepositions.
To the point where it seemed stupid to try to write about it.

I got back to my Chicago apartment on Saturday night around 9 p.m. Before I left, I turned the furnace off completely, and after five days the temperature inside had dropped…considerably. It was 40 degrees.
So I put on a pair of socks, yoga pants and a hoodie, and jumped between my plaid flannel sheets, comforted tugged up to my chin. The Christmas lights were on, tree plugged in — I’d decorated before I left so I wouldn’t be faced with the task in an extended tryptophan coma — and before I let my solitude depress me, I thought about how nice it is even to have people to miss. If loneliness were really my life, it would just be there all the time. It probably wouldn’t get to me much.
I do not like my apartment. And Wicker Park makes me die inside. But I was so happy to be back in my little Chicago life, missing my family (who I’ll see again in less than a month) and eager to see friends again, that it…
Well, it warmed the little cockles of my heart.

Cold hands, warm heart.

Bear with my ugly, rarely updated blog, please.

DishKebab: Holiday Traditions.

November 23, 2010

Read my post about family holiday traditions over on DishKebab.

Tale of Two Homes

January 13, 2010

I wrote this on Monday morning and wasn’t sure I even wanted to post it. But here it is. Because the blog told me it was lonely. I’m catching up at work and in way over my head…more writing soon, I hope.

Captain’s Passenger’s log, day…oh, hell.

I’m on American Airlines flight 2022 from San Juan to Chicago, just over the mainland, with a few hours until I land.
We entered U.S. waters just after midnight, and my BlackBerry got its signal back. It screamed back to life, downloading the text messages, e-mails and Facebook notifications that had hung in the cloud since I left town 11 days before. I spent an hour in the tiny bathroom of our stateroom before the sun rose, reviewing my notifications and blinking back the flood of tears brought on by a long e-mail from the Knight. I sent him a text message at 5:15 a.m., 3:15 Central time. He called me immediately – he just happened to be awake – and we spoke for a few moments, in whispers, as I tried not to wake my sister. She wasn’t sleeping well, and she’d talked in her sleep at some point overnight; she and I laughed riotously about it as we lugged our carry-ons from the stateroom and up to our last breakfast.

We’d left the ship so ahead of schedule that I made it on a standby flight. Six hours early. What does it say about me that I’m so eager to return to cold and snow and a murky, grey lake after 10 days of warmth and sand and crystal-blue ocean? Yet here I am, seated comfortably in my exit row next to two catatonic Latinas with shimmering fake nails and hooded sweatshirts. None of the flight attendants asked the exit rowers whether we’d be willing to assist in the event of an emergency, which I find more than a little disconcerting. So I’ll say it here, for posterity: Yes, I would have been willing and able to lift that 50-pound door and help my fellow passengers to safety if some midair calamity had befallen us. Hell, in case of a sudden change in cabin pressure, I’d even have helped my seatmates with their oxygen masks after securing my own.

That’s the kind of woman I am.

It does seem a bit crazy, being as excited as I am to return to Chicago. To early-morning alarms, to trudging through snow to get to the suburbs for my 8 to 4:30 job. To preparing my own food and cleaning my apartment. To bills and bus passes and deadlines and Facebook drama. No mornings at the pool, no midnight buffet, no round-the-clock ice cream scooper, no stateroom attendant, no white-jacket maitre-d’, no chocolates on my pillow after dinner. Obviously, that’s not all that awaits me in Chicago. And really, lounging and being waited on hand and foot does get tiresome after a while.
(How convincing was that? Be honest.)

The Knight is picking me up from the airport when I land at 2:20; not being in touch with him has been the hardest part about this trip and probably the biggest reason I’m so jazzed to be back. But I’ve missed silly things about home, too. My flannel sheets. Thai takeout. Metra conductors’ hats. Starbucks. (Dear lord, Starbucks.) Coats and scarves and hats. The rattle of the Brown Line. Buffy on DVD. Tall buildings. Collective kvetching about the weather. The solitude of my one-bedroom apartment. It feels as though I’ve been gone for months.

My friends thought a nine-day cruise sounded like the ultimate paradise until I told them I’d be traveling with my family. “God, I’d kill myself!” they said with a pitying chuckle. But I never flinched. As strife-ridden as the holidays were, I didn’t actually have to steel myself for more than a week with my family. Our house in Kansas City may not feel like my home anymore, but so many moments throughout our cruise together reminded me of how wonderful it could be.

Yesterday was our day at sea, a day spent reading by the pool, enjoying the last few splendorous buffets and dozing off to pass the time before dinner. Ah, sloth. I woke up from my glorious nap as the sun was beginning to set and hurried to the upper deck to soak up a few final rays of Caribbean bliss. The light was no longer warm as the shadows lengthened and the sun passed through the fluffy cartoon clouds and dipped out of my view, bar by bar of deck rail. It set the horizon on fire and turned the sky the color of a tropical drink, and I fought back tears as I walked back downstairs to get ready for dinner. As excited as I was to come back to this home, I was leaving another.

Last night, we said goodbye to our servers, the maitre-d’, our stateroom attendant. We waved timidly to a few other guests we’d seen around the ship but never bothered to introduce ourselves to. We finished packing, set our suitcases outside and tucked into our tiny beds for the last night. And this morning, we said goodbye to our cramped, makeshift home of the past nine days, and I said goodbye to my family again.

Archived: A Moment I Had.

April 22, 2009

I originally wrote this Sept. 18, 2008, in about fifteen minutes. Back when entries were easy for me to write.
Words are coming back to me gradually, but I figured it was only fair to share a little something about the other side of my family, even though it’s old, after airing out grievances with the other on Monday. The song remains the same.
We are all about equal opportunity here.

A tall, slender black man boarded the bus yesterday with three kids. They looked just like him; the four of them were practically joined at the hip until they split up to find seats near one another on the bus. Dad stayed at the front to pay their fares then walked toward them, his watchful eye taking inventory of the family. He stepped into the space by the bus’ back door, just in front of my seat, and I was hit with a wave of musky cologne in the breeze his body created.

We always gave my dad cologne on holidays. It’s such a dad gift. He always joked that all he wanted was socks and underwear, but I guess men’s fragrance got dumped into that cliché as well. He had just as many bottles of cologne as my mom did perfume; he never seemed to run out, but we always bought him more. I tried to remember, yesterday on the bus, being enveloped in his smell — freshly showered, groomed and suited — when he hugged me before leaving for work in the morning. But I draw a blank when I look for positive recollections of him. (The one true memory I have of our daily home life? His mock groans lamenting the smell of hot peanut butter when we’d spread it on our English muffins at breakfast.)

This is the kind of thing I always wish I could have held onto after the divorce, totally intangible but comforting memories that could bring a smile to my face at unexpected moments. I don’t have those for my own father, but for some reason, I was affected by the smell of that man on the bus, a stranger I’d never met but whose heavy, fatherly scent seemed familiar to me.
I see my own dad exclusively on holidays now. My sister and I make the drive to Atchison, once during the Thanksgiving holiday and once over Christmas, and spend a few hours at his house. Eating together and making conversation that attempts to hide the fact that we almost never talk anymore. In the master bathroom, there’s a shiny tray that holds 10 or 15 cologne bottles, including a bottle of Victoria’s Secret Very Sexy for Men I bought him years ago at Christmas. It’s my favorite.

I wonder if he even uses it. I imagine a thin layer of dust settling over the entire tray. My red bottle, or the jaunty Nautica with the screw-on top and a sailboat printed on the glass, or the preppy Polo bottle obviously left over from his days as an upper-middle-class suburbanite.

Because in all the times I’ve seen him in the 10 years since my parents were divorced, I’ve just never noticed. A lot has changed in a decade. And there are so many other things that comfort me more now than the smell of a cologne-drenched absentee father ever would.


April 20, 2009

I come from a family that does spectacularly well on paper. I certainly don’t carry the pedigree of some of the kids I grew up with — none of whom would have me in their social circles, anyway; we lived in a one-story house, for Christ’s sake — but from bank statements and real estate deeds to boastful letters hand-signed and lovingly placed in Christmas cards, we look good.

Picture perfect, even.

Family portraits line the mantel, crowned by an elaborate oil painting, in my grandparents’ formal living room — which is important to note, as they actually have three living rooms: the formal living room, carpeted in flawless white and accented with a shiny marble fireplace; the library, with floor to ceiling bookcases and an unabridged dictionary sitting open to the same page, forever and ever; and the “green room,” which isn’t green anymore. It’s wallpapered in a heavy coral hunting-print toile, anchored by two worn chairs with sunken cushions and smells of pipe smoke from lazy, three-newspaper mornings and before-dinner Scotch.

But the portraits, like so many aspects of my family, look so much more perfect captured on film than the real life they suggest. We wear unbearable clothing — take, for instance, the stiflingly hot, matching red corduroy dresses and strings of flawless white baby pearls that my sister and I were wrestled into before we even had all our baby teeth — slap on forced-natural smiles and contort our bodies into poses that no one should have to endure for even a second. For minutes at a time.
Just after Thanksgiving in 2007, my mother’s side of the family was corralled into that coral toile living room to take what my grandmother, ever the imposing matriarch, threatened could be her last family portrait ever for that year’s Christmas card.

We had argued, lamely, for weeks beforehand about the day’s attire. My grandmother was adamant that we not only match one another but the room’s décor as well. Meaning we would all wear neutral colors: brown, tan, khaki, eggshell, ecru, winter white, maybe a splash of dusty brick or baby pink. We would make Sherwin Williams and Ralph Lauren proud. My sister had spent half the morning in tears over what she would wear; I complained until the last minute that I had not a stitch to wear in those colors. But discovered a chocolate-brown sweater and plaid pants buried in my closet at the last minute. Topped off with a hand-strung pink pearl necklace, I was a picture of upper-middle-class white privilege.

That morning, the green room’s vaguely pleasant, stale scent of lingering pipe smoke had been replaced by the acrid stench of fresh cigarettes; my mother’s sister and her husband — for the moment, anyway — had been chain smoking since they arrived, never bothering to consider that my stepfather is horribly sensitive to it. They’d also been drinking since they arrived, likely stressing over their not-adopted-yet-but-hey-we’re-giving-it-a-try son; he was running amok through my grandparents’ house, playing with antique African tribal flutes like they were Star Wars action figures.

At least 12 of us sat for the photo, sprawled across the plush carpeting in various states of kneeling, sitting and standing, manhandled by the flamboyant photographer and melting under his bright, artificial lighting. In the shot that went out in the Christmas card, no one blinked. We held our smiles; the pleats of the men’s pants were smooth, and the women’s hair was collectively parted just. so.
Seated in the bottom left corner: me, always camera ready with the same coruscating smile. I am a bigger mess than most people I know, yet I’ve found I can conveniently blind most anyone to it with a white smile and a coy word or two. There’s a silver Tiffany bracelet dangling from my right wrist; I wore it every day while I was living in New York; my mom and sister each have one that matches.
My sister is next to my stepdad, who I’m pretty sure she tried her damnedest to drive away until she realized her efforts were futile — his love for my mom was too strong to be torn apart by a little girl’s petulant fear of change.
My mom’s smile is inexplicably sincere, the still frame of the photo betraying her left hand’s increasingly intense tremor from the Parkinson’s that began to shake her life when she was only 39. Just before my dad met someone else, refused to work through it and left us all in a lurch that we’ve never recovered from.
That little nucleus — my sister, mom, stepdad and me — seems huddled together off to the side, united more than even by our collective hope that it would all be over soon.
My aunt is next to to my mom, her sister. She wears a sassy, Cheshire-cat grin on her face; her husband (my sort-of uncle) and the not-yet-adopted boy form a triangle in the middle. Her husband looks uncomfortable; maybe he had some inkling that she was about to go off the deep end and kick both of them out of his dead mother’s house. I hear they’re trying to work it out.
My sort-of uncle’s two children look like afterthoughts in the photo, their faces missing the family resemblance and possibly wearing a bit of relief that there’s no blood relation there; they’ve come and gone from our family gatherings year by year. They’ve never quite understood our penchant for complicated Christmas crafts and obsessive adherence to tradition. (My father, it seems, didn’t either.)
His daughter, just a few years older than me, lives in Chicago too. She has nothing to say to me.

My male sort-of cousin, a lawyer for some elite segment of the U.S. military, had recently left his wife and newborn baby for another woman, whom he elected to bring along that day. She was perched awkwardly on the arm of another sofa in the room, her eyes shifting quickly as we grew progressively frustrated, torn between the commanding voices of the overpaid photographer — whose résumé could have given Annie Leibovitz a run for her money — and my grandmother, who barked orders incessantly despite her lack of expertise. Both demanded total compliance, one for the sake of his portfolio and the other for her reputation.

I pitied that “other woman,” the only outsider permitted to watch the chaos of my family’s supposed perfection in the making. Such a process to assure others that all is as it ought to be.

Yes, that’s right: Envy us.