Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.
We’re moving. You’d think I was moving to Outer Mongolia the way I’ve been stressing about it. Is this really a good idea? What about the animals? Will they freak out? Will the cat fall off the balcony or jump out one of the upper story French windows and break her neck? Come on, I’m being ridiculous. We are just moving down the street, not to some foreign country where I can’t speak the language. It’s another apartment, not the farm with goats I’ve always wanted, or the crumbling manor on the wild coast of Galway I’ve always dreamed of. Still, for us, it’s a move up from our small hobbit hole to a second floor with a wood-burning fireplace, a balcony with a view of the hills, and light—so much glorious light. Even a garret, a real little room with two windows where I can write. I’ve started packing but I keep getting distracted.
It belonged to my great-grandmother when she was a baby. I can’t imagine she actually drank anything from it, it’s not only fragile, but has little shark-toothed ridges around the rim, cruel for a baby’s mouth. Still, my grandmother loved and treasured it and she admonished me to always take care of it. Damn, I’ve managed to break or lose so many of these little things that meant so much to the people who gave them to me, who trusted me with their memories. But despite all odds it’s survived. My Grandmother King kept little treasures like this in a sun-lit window where they would glow like jewels. She had a long, and in many ways, a disappointed life. She graduated from college in 1921 and spent the next 66 years being too smart to live in a small Indiana town where her love for classical music as well as the writings of obscure eighteenth century poets, earned her a reputation as a snob. This was more of a village than anything–the biggest event of the year was the annual Lion’s Club Parade. She was the town librarian and spent evenings listening to opera in the living room. My grandfather spent those evenings on the other side of the living room wall in his little smoking room reading. Although I didn’t know it until after she died, not many people liked her. She never suffered fools and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She told me she was excommunicated from the local DAR chapter for saying that Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite for owning slaves and that the chapter president was an idiot. My grandfather and grandmother, although outwardly civil, barely spoke to one another. You see, she never forgave him for an illicit affair that he refused to apologize for.
I loved her and she loved me. She took me to my first opera (Falstaff), taught me to sit still and listen to Brahms, read poetry to me. She said one day I’d do the things she’d never done, like go to Europe, hear music at Carnegie Hall, but mostly, live somewhere a woman’s brain was appreciated.
The way she gently held this little cup by its handle, as if it was precious as a Fabergé egg. I can see her standing in the light of the window that displayed her little glass treasures. She’d been struck with rheumatoid arthritis in her thirties and by the time I came to be, she was hunched over like a question mark. She was never pretty, but had the most amazing crystalline blue eyes. She gave me the cup before she went to live in a nursing home and I cry to think of her right now as I hold this last remnant of her treasure window. The last two years of her life in that nursing home, her hands became so curled and crippled by arthritis she couldn’t even hold a book. Her last great pleasure, her solace, reading, was denied her.
But here’s the cup. Here’s me. And, Grandmother, I have done all those things you couldn’t do. I have the cup. You’re alive in me.
Now, this sad little wooden dog waits to be packed away. Spaniel? Basset Hound?
It belonged to Grandmother’s husband. That would be Grandpa King, and this is his pipe holder. This sat in that room where he was exiled for his infidelity, while my Grandmother blasted Puccini. He loved English detective novels and short stories by writers like Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce. I was only twelve when he died, but I loved nothing more than to tag along when he went to the donut shop in the mornings to meet fellow members of the Masonic Lodge and the VFW. They sat around a table with opened newspapers, smoking Pall Malls and cigars, discussing local politics and the history of things like Copperheads (Southern sympathizers in Indiana during the Civil War), or how young long haired men who listen to rock music are ruining America, and whether The Women’s League would allow a sideshow with hoochie koochie dancers at the annual Lion’s Club Fair.
“Want chocolate or glazed?” Grandpa King would always ask. The donuts were made fresh each morning, they smelled of heaven. I always chose glazed, they melted like butter in your mouth. “What’s the news, girlie?” one of the old guys would invariably ask me. “She can do cartwheels,” my grandfather announced once. I remember that day. It was a summer morning. I was ten. I had finally mastered the art of spinning on my hands. I was showing off in the front yard until I banged into a garbage can and nearly knocked myself out. Grandpa told me they were the best cartwheels he’d ever seen. “Maybe you should join the circus.” He loved to laugh, this Irish Grandfather. And, he invented things. For instance, he invented a device called the “Kingle Light,” which bankrupted my grandparents and forced them to move to a little cottage next door to the huge house where my grandmother had been born. Unfortunately, he couldn’t invent a good enough story to keep my grandmother from learning about his love affair. The years they spent side by side, separated by a wall. Grandpa reading and smoking, Grandmother trying to drown herself in an aria.
I just sniffed the wooden dog, that little bowl in the back where his pipe would rest. The dog still smells of dark black cherries and peat moss, still smells of Grandpa’s tobacco, those resins are embedded in the wood. It still smells of him.
And, god, look at this. Look what else I’ve found. It’s my mother’s full-length black velvet opera coat. I’ve managed to hang onto this all these years too. The hem is shredded from the hooks on the combat boots I used to wear with it back in the old days in New York. I even wore it to high school with high-top tennis shoes (yes, I was one of those weirdos-no surprise there). The last shoes I wore with it were black patent leather pumps with four inch heels. That was to a Halloween party a few years ago. Where did my mother wear it? It’s from Lord & Taylor. Did she dance the night away at the Coconut Grove or the Villa Capri in Beverly Hills? I’ll never know. I rub the velvet and imagine her wearing it. She must have looked like a movie star, which is what she wanted to be. When I wear this coat, it’s like somehow touching my long-ago mother and my mother giving me a velvet kiss.
And here’s an empty envelope.
I don’t know where the card is. Was it a birthday? Maybe an anniversary. “My One True Love.” He always writes this on my envelopes. I am lucky. Finally.
Books and books. I try to weed them out, I do, but certain ones I just can’t break up with.
These books I always carry with me from place to place—ones I can’t bear to give away. Someday I can say to my grandchildren, Look. Now smell it. Touch it. Feel that? It’s a real book. No, like this—you actually really turn the pages!
I begin to clean the bathroom shelves, there’s my panda. He’s traveled with me across the United States, from Indiana to New York, New York to California. I don’t remember who gave him to me, I’ve always had him, I think. Maybe he just appeared one day when I was small. The panda peeks out at me everywhere I move.
Outside the window is the petrified man. That’s what I call this mostly dead tree. Do you see his face? He peers into the dining room at us who are able to still move about, walk and talk. He is frozen, my poor friend out the window. He can’t move with me. He’s forever rooted.
If I sound a bit mournful today, I am. This little place is imprinted with me, with us, with books I’ve written, stories, laughter, songs and tears. We’ve had parties in this little place, it’s been filled to bursting with friends and good food and good wine. But it’s time to move on. I am always moving on. Maybe, probably, always will be, but, hey, that’s what creates a new spark. Change. And, all my ghosts will travel with me. They’ll whisper new stories. I’ll write them down.