A Broken Knot

by Liz Atkins, http://neovox.cortland.edu, December 2, 2010

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As a little girl, I vividly remember taking that right-hand turn onto Maple Street, looking up the small hill, seeing both sides of the street lined with Dolan vehicles.

"Look at this," Dad would bark, the frustration my brother and I had caused him becoming more and more obvious by the second, "Where are we supposed to park now?!"

Excited as I was to get to Papa and Gramma's, getting in that Honda for the three-hour drive was like stepping foot into quicksand. We might make it out alive, but the frustration and anxiety it would take to do so was not only expected, but also dreaded. Nothing drove Dad crazier than Mike and I wrestling in the backseat, screaming at each other and fighting over the pillow. By the end of the three hours, I thought Dad wanted to kill us.

I could not wait to get inside that old yellow house and see my family; I didn't care how angry Dad was, or how far away we had to park.

Every holiday, we went to Papa and Gramma's -- my uncles, my aunts, cousins, second cousins . . . all of us. Mom's family gatherings were always something we looked forward to with avid anticipation. Even though we all saw each other fairly often, it felt like years in between.

I ran inside, my excitement at its peak, and instantly smelled the spaghetti sauce Gramma had simmering. Hers was my favorite, and she knew it. Everybody knew it. Aunt Lois especially, who had tried to make it for me before, only to receive my juvenile response, "Gramma's is better." Needless to say, that was the last time she'd tried. Gramma liked telling that story, a cool smile on her face, almost as if she were there to witness me say those obliviously brazen words.

The house was always full, bustling with little cousins running around, aunts and uncles laughing, Genny Light cans cracking open. Billy Joel playing in the background.

"Hey, Lizzie, grab me a beer would ya honey?" Papa would ask. He wasn't asking, though, he was expecting. When it came to behavior around Papa, all of us cousins acted as if he were a drill sergeant in World War II, a time in Papa's life for which he was forever proud, and for which he deserved the utmost respect. Papa wasn't the kind of man who coddled us or sat us on his lap, but he didn't have to be for me to know he loved us. I, too, see myself following his "hard love" form of expression: the absence of affection, the vacancy of emotion.

I learned, growing up with this family, that the expression of such emotion was merely a sign of weakness. I see my mother struggle with that, as she awkwardly laughs when telling me she loves me, something she didn't do until I was a senior in high school. Will I struggle like she did? Will I be the dispassionate mother I grew up watching on Maple Street? Questions like these surface the resentment I feel toward Papa. Back on Maple Street, however, I see now that I was too young to know what that feeling was.

Bringing Papa his beer, I'd see Gramma looking at me adoringly, with her cool, confident, red lipstick smile. She'd say nothing. She didn't have to. I'd go over to her, the smell of her Jean Nate perfume wrapping around me. "If you can smell your own perfume," she'd tell me, "you're wearing too much." How I admired her, that radiating quiet confidence, that class.

She could take on the world. Strong enough to carry the entire family, Gramma was the Dolan rock. I was intimidated by her. I wanted to be my absolute best for her, and I wasn't the only one. I watched her walk into church, heading toward the same pew she sat in as a little girl. She smiled smoothly as heads turned her way, her stance alone manifesting her pride. As the hymn began to play, she stood, and albeit she couldn't hit a note, she sang as though she were the lead in the choir. I think of this as an adult, as I trudge through my difficulties with no sign of tribulation.

As my cousin Katie and I secretly tried Gramma's shoes on, our tiny feet hardly big enough to fill the toe, we would hear laughter, booming laughter, coming from the gathering on Maple Street. Putting on our invisible cloaks and sneaking past our parents, aunts, and uncles, we were sure nobody knew we were in Papa and Gramma's bedroom. After all, they wouldn't be laughing if they did. After testing each pair of high heels out in the mirror, we ran giddily back out through the kitchen and into the living room, heading upstairs to play hide and seek with our cousins. As we sprint through the living room, I glance at Gramma, sitting one leg crossed over the other, glass of wine in her hand, smiling at me. Saying nothing, I break off from the race upstairs, go over to her and kiss her on the cheek. "Go have fun," she said, her lips almost forming a knowing smirk. Positive she knew I tried her shoes on without asking, I hurried past my aunts to join my screaming, laughing cousins up the stairs.

This sound, these voices harmonizing together, is a resonance for which I yearn. Everybody's happy, everybody's smiling, and no one even considers that we won't always have this - that these moments of true happiness and love are numbered, that one day, the smell of simmering spaghetti sauce in the kitchen with everyone gathered around the table playing cards, laughing, joking, smiling, will be nothing more than a distant memory.

I am in Gramma's pew, listening to Ave Maria, smelling the candles burn at St. John's. But she is not next to me, with her red lipstick and flawless hair. She is not attempting to sing hymn number 412. She is not smiling down at me as I try to mimic her every move.

Instead, I am watching my mother, dressed in black, with warm, uncontrollable tears racing down her face, covering my grandmother's coffin with a blanket, and I see her putting away everything we ever had left of those memories. Like my gramma, they're gone.

Maple Street is now nothing but an empty road, in a town I once knew, with an empty yellow house, and all I can feel is my empty heart. I ache for something tangible. Something substantive.

I walk to table #6, heading toward an older couple that has just been seated in the restaurant. As I present the menus, I am struck by the essence of the woman's Jean Nate perfume - and realize that is all I have left of Gramm

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