Sunday, January 3, 4:35 AM
Friends were drinking wine around me last night, and they said the word earthy. I thought of two things, including you. I remembered when you taught me that word to describe wine when I was fourteen. I also thought about how Grandma died the day before Earth Day when I was twelve. Mom and Dad picked me and my friend Rachel up at Hebrew school in the car, which feels fitting looking back. They were quiet, and once Rachel hopped out, they told me that Grandma had died and kept on driving home. We had seen it coming—she had been in and out of the hospital for three months with pneumonia followed by strokes—but it must have been so odd for them to keep it quiet for those fifteen minutes in front of a stranger, a non-relative. Dad kept driving though, distracted. I texted Rachel about her death on my flip phone—pressing three times to get each letter—and she told me that her grandfather had died on that same day a few years earlier.
The funeral was the same day as the Earth Day celebration at our school. They had handed out light tan t-shirts with various mammals on a plain, looking regal in the dust above screen-printed letters reading THEY WERE HERE FIRST. The condolence letters we received for grandma’s death (not the animal’s potential extinction) said some things about memories comforting us through this time, and I wonder how much such phrases ripple out past funerals into other kinds of sadness. I didn’t cry at first, and my brother said my lack of tears meant I didn’t care that she had died. Is that how care works? We must have learned that somewhere.
I remember whispering to you at the memorial service about how much I liked my meticulously selected funeral outfit—black velvet shirt with those bell top then fitted sleeves that made me feel like an actress from the Middle Ages and a clip with a small green circle that showed a butterfly because it made me think of heaven and ascent. Grandma would have hated butterflies and the idea of flitting daintily upward to a wholesome sky space, but I thought she would have been proud that I was learning how to dress sharp. I have little sense of a Jewish afterlife, and I doubt you recall my remarks. You had just lost her—her and her chicken legs covered in pre-melanoma sunspots towards the end, her no more than three Marlboro Lights on stressful days, her hands squeezing your knee tightly—saying, “Are ya ticklish?,” her taste for fine things like cashmere and Italian leather and biweekly re-coiffed auburn hair.
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I miss her. I recently watched *Notorious* because I’m utterly out of ideas for my next project, and when I can’t reach her I watch Ingrid Bergman movies because I think Grandma learned being from Ingrid. They—Ingrid/Grandma—have all the right hard lines. In the film, Ingrid goes to Brazil with Carey Grant because she is the beautiful daughter of a former Nazi. The other escaped Nazis had moved to Río, which somehow seems like a no place because the film centers around Ingrid. She is all that matters. Here are some comments she makes, which I copied down because they reminded me of Grandma:
1. “There’s nothing like a love song for a good laugh.”
2. “I would like a maid from the embassy.”
3. Carey: “You’ve been sober for 8 days, and to my knowledge, you don’t have any new conquests.”
Ingrid: “Well look at me I’m practically on the wagon."
4. “I don’t like patriots or patriotism.”
5. “The time has come when you have to tell me you have a wife and two adorable little children.”
6. “I guess I’m the girl nobody remembers.”
I know, I know. Grandma was not Ingrid Bergman, but they were both magnetically beautiful and Swedish-German and had that dry bluntness that masks sadness so well. Didn’t you love that about her? I swear I’m not trying to guilt you or pick at the scab, but knowing and being like her at key, early points in my life gives her breadth in my mind. There are things I can imagine her saying if I were not her granddaughter but rather a younger woman she met maybe at the gym or an art museum—independent from all family affairs—who connected with her over our ability to make “little boys and small dogs” love us.
Imagined Ingrid-Grandma makes vaguely poetic, vaguely derivative observations such as, “We were like figure skaters, your grandfather and I. We loved each other but were not in love. We did not kiss at the end of our routine. We were the delicate, performative, passionate, but sexless kind of pairs that are neither couples nor siblings but partners.” She would never have been so hypothetically blunt about your marriage. I had thought— Oh grandma, why can’t I crack you? You showed me so many photographs, and you loved me so much. But her threads were so tightly sewn, so to speak, that there was nothing to unravel. I print Ingrid’s face again and again because those images are higher quality than the dusty, low-resolution ones that remain of Grandma.
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Why did I have so little to say about you, Grandpa? I feel guilty, still, but the story had to be told. I had to probe, from where do we gain these notions of fidelity that can’t be kept? You were all so far away. It’s been one-and-a-half years since you saw the gallery show in part about you. I found the working drafts and pieces I had made at that time, and I found an old journal where I had written down what I wanted to say to you in order to be articulate. We never did speak. I was living in L.A., still making art that was less about the family and more about abstract, obvious secrets. I have been coming home for Christmas and not Hanukkah to avoid you, and it’s been easier than I’ve expected. There are always friends, parents, uncles, and potential colleagues to fill fast-paced time with in New York.
*Your feelings are valid*, I had written to start off the journal entry. *Again, I don’t expect anything from you. I just want to be as honest as possible, and I know it’s too little, too late for that. I’m not trying to sound condescending by telling you what’s good for you, but I think if we both knew the whole story—beyond what you read and what you saw—maybe that would be better. I’m not trying to blame you for anything, nor enhance your sympathy for my shitty behavior.* I hope you don’t think I don’t care because I wasn’t publically grovelling about it, about us, about you because I was successful. I know I got frustrated and kept trying to explain myself to family members, and that was wrong and cowardly. I would imagine having an interview with some small local art blog where I would articulate my sentiments about hurting people you love in your work. The journal entry carried on for five pages. My initial apology was terse but still genuine. *You are an older and wiser and more tired person, so I suppose my kind of betrayal was enough. The true fault is assuming we have whole consciences or that we don’t teach men to have them. I don’t want to point fingers at you now or me now or then. Even so, I think you should know some of this to hear where I was coming from.*
You have to understand that I had been angry at men for so long (about a year and a half) that I felt resigned to bitterness, felt blasé about the collected pebbles of distaste that I carried with me. What I was focusing on when I was submitting pieces to the end of our first year show—the writing, scanning, printing, sewing, tapestry-making—was how some of my friends had been abused, and I know it didn’t happen to me, but it hurt and drained me to a lesser degree to see that suffering. I stuffed my hesitations about cracking open the disagreeable parts of our family story into the back of my head because I felt caught between the stories—yours, mine, theirs, hers. I know I should have warned you or asked directly at that time, but I was lazy and selfish and trying to feel worthwhile for my peace of mind—the living space I occupy everyday.
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We went to the Berkshires where everyone has Polish last names with more adjacent consonants than ours, and they know quickly that we’re city folk who don’t know how to make a proper fire. I told you how I felt guilty (not for making the series yet, but for the lack of making) and was struggling to find material, literal material—documents, printed photographs—about your half of the family. You told me precisely, “You’re not neglecting us. We’re un-neglectable.” But maybe my neglect to question about her directly was the larger problem. I’m sorry, Grandpa. I should have said that earlier, but I really am.
Were you sorry? I remember that I asked you once why you were so grumpy. You said that when I was around four years old you walked into our apartment for a Hanukkah party, and I didn’t even bother say hello to you because I was so busy reading. I had meant to ask you about your curmudgeon ways more universally, but maybe that one moment so long ago did begin to splinter something between us for later on.
Do you remember when you ignored Dad for weeks because you told him not to use Lemon Pledge on wood? Mom sat with us in a bedroom upstairs and turned the TV on pretty loud, but we could still hear him screaming at you. Remembering this as an old child now, something else must have been in between you two that Mom didn’t want to share. Lemon Pledge is good, smells nice, and cleans up messes. Maybe you could’ve said Germany was why you were so grumpy, and the grumpiness simmered inside you.
When I was grumpy and twenty and not a child, I asked Dad if it offends him that I speak Spanish and not German. He grunted and observed that Berlin—Grandma’s birthplace and sort of home—is a cool city. What a homecoming we could have had to the forgotten farmland in Furth where you grew up before you had gotten old and before you and I stopped speaking. Dad, a direct child of the expelled Ashkenazi people, observed that he has a less romantic worldview than I, so he would not feel ignited in the same way I did when I found pieces of myself in belligerent and loving families from former homelands on Mom’s side of the family. His glasses slid down his narrow triangle nose, and the two of us resumed our reading. Shortly after, I tried to pry more and more about the lack of stories from his family, aside from grandma’s glamourous ones. He just grunted inquisitively with his nose in his mystery book and observed that we should head to dinner.
He wouldn’t tell you, I wouldn’t ask you, I wanted to dig up the un-neglectable. I thought—so, *What do we know? We know that the mother and her second son love thriller books—the mother loves trashier ones, lamentably. The father goes to Asia “99 times!” And, what do we know about those trips? Why so many? Something off happens on family vacations, business vacations. Bad things happen in every family.* That’s why I went to the root of the problem. I guess I just wanted to know more, but I didn’t know how to ask. Should I tell you what I know and how I learned of it?
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Mom was wine drunk again one night, and we were discussing drug use in her friend’s family, which turned into talking about drug use in our family. My brother had been looking for one of those holey, white old undershirts (Why do men have to put on undershirts under starched collared shirts? Why do they often need belts?) to wear because one of the richer of his rich friends invited him to a steak dinner. He felt the crinkle of a thin plastic Have a Nice Day bag while rummaging through Dad’s closet, which held our father’s stash. He had it all, a closet candy shop for a middle aged businessman with a secret (sort of like you, no?): oil pens that come in a futuristic case—metal screens for grinding and THC pods that looked like candies, ziploc sealed, formerly luscious buds. It was glorious, easy to steal, and explained the skunk smell he had around him a few nights a week. I’m sorry if that potentially tarnishes how you feel about your son, and sorry about my sorrily easy writing, waxing so poetic about drugs. If it makes you feel any better, if you’re still reading at all, these patterns of not knowing and feigned not knowing and just knowing descended from you to your son to his son (and his daughter, if she can intervene).
So, Mom was talking about how she’s worried about how much "pot" my brother had been smoking, and she implied something about how she doesn’t have a problem with Dad because he keeps his drug use in check. He learned not to let substances interfere with his life from you, she and he have said. “He also learned *other things*,” she added suggestively. I hope this doesn’t enhance your resentment of my Mom if you’re still reading this at all. She told me so offhandedly about the Other Woman you had in Japan, lumping infidelity, swear words, and functional alcoholism under an umbrella of Sins, not that we really believe in sins. She said Uncle Peter jokes about how we may have had half-Asian cousins, but Dad doesn’t find it so funny. She told me you’d buy grandma emeralds when you’d return from “business trips” to ask for her forgiveness, and that must be the most green and grand thing I’ve ever heard. I asked Aunt Suzy about this affair, and she described your marriage with Grandma as if it were one of those modern open relationships, where Grandma was an “empowered” badass who messed around but never went steady with anOther like you did. You know how Suzy has that confidently insecure attitude that endlessly justifies and explains like the rest of us, saying it all while twirling a dark brown corkscrew curl.
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I wanted to stay your little girl, your very first little girl after your sons and grandsons were born. How could I have asked you? How could I have so treacherously unbalanced the mutual veneration that is so easy when two people are so different and so the same? You are a stern, adventurous, daunting, playful, dry, charming, harsh, brooding old man. I am a messy, warm, adventurous, charming, open, dry, emotional girl-woman. Do you remember what you told me when my first love left me? “It’s a yes-no relationship. Yes, he likes you. No, he can’t commit to you.” How could I lose the love in lines like that? How could I have broken an assumed respect of elders that crumbles across generations and politics, the more American we become, the further we stray from the fearful life in the homeland where we could not stay?
So, I went to the pictures in the sliding wooden cabinets where you keep stationary and coasters in your office. It was sneaky of me, I know, but they helped. There is a photograph of you and the woman who I suspect is Her and another white man and an Asian man and two other East Asian women. You know that I have screen printed and written around this picture in so many different ways that I see her face in my dreams even now. I have many questions about the nature of your relationship. But, back in the photograph, you gave her a side glance and write on the backside of the image Aberdeen, Hong Kong, 1961.
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What can I say? There was so much wrong and rich and green and grand under the surface in this image that the untold story really got me going. Who scribbled on and around the women’s faces in that photograph from Aberdeen? What was Aberdeen like? What was this woman’s name? Did you buy Her emeralds or rubies, and were they real? What could Grandma have done? Was she too old for you suddenly? Were you too old suddenly? How too young for you was this woman? What happened to her? Do you keep in touch? How do we learn and unlearn fidelity? The quiet space around the tendril of reality confirmed in family gossip about the whole story, the women’s separate stories, your story, all three of your stories, was ripe as hell.
Dad was sad at the gallery opening, standing small below the wall-length tapestries about the affair. He was mad that I was self-aggrandizing in my display of the bad parts of our past, his past, her past, but he eventually admitted to recognizing the sense of justice for his mother. “Your Grandma would’ve been so proud of you,” he said.
The works were well-received by my peers and our professors and our critics. “Green and Grand does not leave us with an artistically satisfying conclusion. It leaves loose ends dangling, in ways that leave us hanging on,” said one of my professors. Another remarked, “She expertly makes color a medium and marker but also a tool full of personal and collective symbolism.” I had never felt so satisfied.
Then I received your curt message after you somehow found the exhibit online, because your back hurt, and you couldn’t attend the opening where I could’ve explained the whole thing in person. Six days later, I opened my email and read “We are not family. Please don’t speak to me ever again. I have never been so disappointed.” Mom and Dad of course played devil’s advocate on both sides but supported my “creativity.” I would never have known that you would react that way. I do regret it, and I did apologize with that email that you maybe lost among the Spam. Email wasn’t your forte, but you loved Skype, and I sent the message through there too. I was at a loss though. I was just very literally following your request to not speak with you, and I didn't want to be obsequious because I thought you wouldn’t want that because it would’ve been self-indulgent.
Can I add that you must have neglected this one piece at the entrance of the gallery? It was the magenta one in the images of the show you found on the exhibition website that Mom must had forwarded to you in some Freudian slip. It offered a crucial explanation about where I had been coming from, why I had been digging everything up: *She’s afraid of writing their stories down, but if they’d make her known, she’d hide behind the beauty beheld in outside eyes even if they’d hurt the inside eyes right above the mouths that said or did that thing she recycled. Maybe she’s afraid that it’d be too incisive or maybe it’s not incisive enough because she worries they’re over her shoulder, and sometimes they are. “What did we do to you?” Her mom asks when she made a painting about divorce in high school. No one divorced in her family. There is no divorce in this family. They are over her shoulder, and some you’re-not-good-enough force looks on as she types, scribbles, makes texts into notes.*
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Mom, Dad, and probably you if you kept looking past the works that were about you probably also didn’t like the sexual bits. Regardless, I never wanted to make those encounters sound good because maybe good is boring. Though, I also wonder, if you didn’t know me, weren’t a forefather of mine, weren’t a complex yet endearing villain in my work, was it simply hard to read about a woman feeling so utterly bored during sex? *The last time he and I fucked, the sex was wildly forgettable. *I wrote-stitched.* I remember is that it was morning. I looked out my blinds promising light, promising light upon the gray and purple walls in my childhood bedroom. My sheets felt like paper then, but he was proud that the fitted sheet stubbornly curled up from our tussling. He came in me, and I felt little. The last time with the next boy was less boring— mirror fucking in a shower, but it hurt, and I still bore easily.*
You should know that I have your gene, Grandpa. I cheated on The Next Boy in part because he sent me flowers that cost far too much and felt far too impersonal. This is a silly complaint, but maybe I didn’t want him to be “thinking of [me] as always.” It said that in the card the florist wrote for him because I was overseas on business like you would have been. I wanted to be curious and loose and forgettable, and I wanted to feel good.
I had cultivated a secret attraction for one of the boys who worked in the Grad Student gallery, who dressed extravagantly—stud earring, flashy windbreakers, those sort of phallic beanie caps that are stupidly either too small or too large on the head. He was three years younger than me and acted like it. I liked him less as I got to know him better, but my curiosity was cooked slow. We took down the show together after his shift and before mine. We shared a cigarette, and I pretended I was hipper than I really was. One thing lead to another. He played good ambient music while we were together, and he was gentler than I’d expected. It felt fine, and it felt like nothing, but nothing felt good. Maybe that was something else I did to find something to make work about. I don’t know who or what or how to blame. Of course, I blame myself, but there might be better reasons.
Maybe I did it, in part like everything is in part, because I am getting old— twenty-five in two more months, and my mother and father are getting old, and my dog is getting old. We are dying, and I want us to be remembered at all. I want us to be remembered, even if we are only remembered for shady parts of our histories, which is terribly shallow of me. Maybe it’s easier to write about ex-lovers and sick relatives because they cannot challenge me as much anymore, but they are not dead and venerated like Grandma, still known and living-ish bodies.
I also wonder— why are apology writers always the cad? Do you ever just say sorry to quiet the other person? I’d like to believe I’d defer to their hurt, but sometimes I am not sorry. Though, I don’t want to hurt a loved one again, which is ironic because I’m a cheater, but I thought you’d understand. If you’re still reading this, attached please find early, early drafts for coming works, and do tell me what you think.
Love (no matter what and for always),
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