Saturday, February 24, 2007

Luck in Your Own Backyard

Three things have occupied my thoughts lately:  I'll soon be thirty, the latest stage of my life to feel like "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" seems to be passing, and I miss my grandparents.

The framed four-leaf clover in the drawing above is my rendition of the real one that has a place here on my desk. I look at it every day and think about luck and its place in my life. My grandfather used to search his backyard for four-leaf clovers for me. He would sit at the base of his thinking tree and study the grass until he spotted one. There was always a lucky clover from Papa being pressed in a book, waiting for me to claim upon my next visit. I would take each one home and carefully tape it into my Bible, the only place that seemed right for such a collection. When I had a falling-out with God while in college, I threw out the Bible--and seemingly, all the good luck it contained. If my thirties see fewer moments of such reckless stupidity than my twenties did, we should all be glad.

I have gotten through the six years without my grandparents, of course, but I can't help but think that they all would have been easier had my grandparents been here for them. When I returned home from a failed grad school venture, it was Papa's spin on the events that most helped me. "A nice girl like you, you move to a big city and they treat you like that! But you tried! People who don't make mistakes don't make anything." He died four months later, so I never got to hear his take on any of the many twists and turns that followed. I never got to ask him what he thought of luck or if he considered himself lucky. He and his family had come to America from northern Italy when he was a boy--"America! Where the streets are paved in gold!"--and his mother died a few years later. He was always sure after that that he, too, would die young. A decade later, he and my grandmother met, somehow strangers to each other in a mining village of a few hundred people. Early in their marriage, Papa contracted Black Lung and was told to put his affairs in order and make arrangements for his family. He lived to almost-90 and celebrated more than six decades of marriage. As Joe says in Force of Evil, "You can't tell about your life 'til you're all through living it." By 2001, Papa had lived long enough to know that he never could have guessed how his life would unfold or what the "better or worse" that he had vowed to be there for would actually entail. Six years and countless highs and lows later, when I think of Papa and his lucky clovers, I ache to tell him that--even if the collection is gone--I'm beginning to get it.

After Papa died, I flipped through the pages of a book I'd taken from his and Grandma's house and found a four-leaf clover pressed inside. I promptly framed it and set it next to my favorite photo of us and promised not to be as careless as before. Maybe that wasn't necessary. Maybe luck, like love, never really leaves us. But still and all, maybe Papa knew that his granddaughter would sometimes need to be reminded that, regardless of what life held for her, she would always be one of the luckiest people in the world.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Pen and Paper Visits

My grandmother and I were pen pals. We lived near each other until I left for college, but we both loved writing—and receiving—letters, so our correspondence was more a way to tuck some extra love into each other’s days than it was to bridge long distances or stretches of time between visits. My letters were always addressed to “Papa and Grandma,” but it was Grandma who would write back for the both of them. (Sometimes, though, she would add a postscript from my grandfather, and reading them delights me still. P.S. Papa says not to take any wooden nickels.) When I was a little girl, my “letters” were drawings and pictures made of magazine clippings. Grandma’s letters usually included comic strips from the Sunday paper and a dollar bill. My grandfather died in the spring of 2001 and Grandma died five weeks later. I didn't know until I helped clean out their house that year that they had saved all of their mail from me. For years I had been saving most of my mail, too, so maybe I should have suspected that I’d gotten this sentimental tendency from someone. Still, it is really quite something to be organizing into stacks everyday items stored in shoe-boxes and hat-boxes—Things That Can Go to Goodwill, Things Aunt Sophie Might Like to Have Now—and happen upon luggage filled with a lifetime’s worth of your own letters. And when, seemingly hours later, you come to and look up from the now-disheveled heaps of envelopes and note cards spread out on the floor all around you, you want to run downstairs to Grandma and giggle, “You saved this!? Oh my goodness! I sound so silly! Do you remember this one?” And it hits you all over again, and you realize as you push them back into a neater pile—Things That I Will Keep for Myself—that your letters and memories are yours alone now.
Grandma once sent me a photo of her and Papa with an inscription on the back that read “So you don’t forget what we look like.” I laughed when I first read that, and it still reminds me of her dry and quiet humor, but I read it now and realize that she knew countless things about time and memory that I was then too young to. Sometimes, for example, you have a hard time really seeing people until they’re not there to look at anymore.
Six years after my grandparents died, it is still a greater shock to me every night when I climb into bed that I went yet another day without having seen them than it would be if I were to walk into them on the street tomorrow.

By the time I was a teenager, Grandma needed a hearing aid and even with it couldn’t keep up with conversation as she had before. And I made it harder for her: I didn’t like drawing attention to myself by speaking loudly, so instead of managing my shyness, I simply talked with her less. I never told anyone that, so maybe my grandmother simply chalked up my even-quieter-than-usual nature to teen awkwardness or some-such. Or maybe she knew me well enough to understand. But maybe not, and my regret is only relieved by an antique suitcase filled with our correspondence.
All through college and even after, when I had graduated and moved farther away, Grandma and I wrote back and forth. She mentioned in all of her letters that she had nothing much to say, but she regularly filled the sheets of stationery anyway, always my most devoted correspondent. There’s a ballgame today, but we’re not going to it, of course; We stayed home from church today on account of my having a cold; We canned the last of the tomatoes today and will give you a few jars when we next see you. Papa would walk down to the post office and show off the colorful envelopes waiting for him to anyone there at the time, Grandma told me. “That girl!” he always exclaimed when he saw my drawings and stickers. While I often read their letters while still standing in front of my mailbox, other mail in my arms, my grandparents would wait to open my letters together, my grandfather carrying them back up the hill to their house and my grandmother reading them aloud. Grandma would write back after the Sunday dinner guests had gone home, Papa would walk her letter back down to the post office Monday morning, and I would soon be working on my reply again. This was our routine.
A few days before Christmas 2000, Grandma was diagnosed with Leukemia, and she and Papa, whose health was also failing him, were moved into a rest home. I wrote to them every other day, even as I was visiting at least once a week, wanting what Grandma called “our pen and paper visits” to continue as usual. Grandma never replied to these letters, though, and I heard of only one more “That girl!” from Papa. The day he died, one of the first things my grandmother managed to say to me was, “We read your new letter just this morning.” She asked me to be her “little secretary” and send letters breaking the news to far-away friends and family. Later she asked me to write the thank you notes for the sympathy cards. When she told me to take her address book and box of stationery home with me, I knew our days of being pen pals were over. I continued to write both for her and to her, however, sometimes sending her books and poems I thought she would like, as well. When she was transferred to the city hospital and it was explained to us that it could be days or weeks, I still wrote. I sent letters to her although she could no longer stay awake long enough to listen as someone else read them to her, and later still, when she was simply too close to death to care. One of my aunts gently told my mother that I didn’t need to write anymore, but I wasn't ready to stop.
A few months after Grandma died, I dreamed that I was standing across the road from her and Papa’s house and seeing her as she stood on the front porch opening the day’s mail. I was giddy with excitement in the dream, knowing she was about to get to the last letter I had sent, and I could barely keep my presence a secret as I watched. When she came to my envelope, her face burst into an expression of joy like none I have ever seen in this life. As she read, I crossed the road and greeted her quietly so as not to startle her. We stood on the front porch laughing and crying and hugging each other—Grandma! My grandma!—and when my alarm clock began to bleat, I woke up in tears, still feeling her soft cheek against mine. She had read my last letter. Ever-faithful, she'd gotten everything I’d been saying all along.