New, Yet Familiar

This photo shows a baby hand gripping an adult's index and middle fingers

*Dusting off some old stories…the following is a family essay from 2012.

My niece is just about four months old, the newest member of our family and the first of her generation. My sister, her mother, has been sending daily photos, and we’ve all tracked her growth via our smartphones. Day by day, slowly but surely, a personality has started to emerge – playful and goofy, determined and opinionated, sweet and curious. We assign her these traits from these still images, and the occasional brief video, quick glances of how she interacts with her parents, toys, and dog. We see her intense concentration as she studies a new toy, a look of delighted recognition as she snuggles with her father. Inevitably, the comparisons begin, text messages exchanged in response to a particularly evocative photo:

“She looks like you here!”

“This one is a dead ringer for Grandpa!”

“Doesn’t she resemble Mom in this one?”

It makes sense, in a way – she is a reflection of all who came before her, made up of the same genetic material that shaped all of us. Her furrowed brow in one snapshot brings my father to mind, her wide eyes in another are a direct translation of her own father’s. I find myself wondering, too, if there are countless expressions and details that may be mirror images of those we never met – in-laws I’m not acquainted with, but also lost generations. Does she look like my ancestors who fled Gdansk? Or perhaps those who came from Naples? These are details we can’t quite assign, but still may be expressed – and now will be attributed to her directly. I like the idea of a trait, long dormant or diluted, now suddenly rearing back to life through her.

We look for patterns and the familiar with all we encounter, even (maybe especially) with a new baby, the physical collection of all we were and the aspirational determinant of what we are to come. These initial details get her story started, and help us explain the origins of what we can see – so far.

At the same time that we play this game of genetic Memory, matching her details to those we recall from others before, I find myself eagerly anticipating when she begins to assert the traits that are wholly hers without question, the qualities that are uniquely her very own and of her choosing. Maybe she’ll be a gifted athlete, unlike her aunts and grandparents. Perhaps she’ll be artistically inclined, like her parents, but in a medium neither has tried. Or, and most likely, she’ll surprise us all with an interest that none of us anticipate – something wildly off our radar.

I expect this assertion will happen sooner rather than later. I’m reminded of my cousin, now in her twenties; she was such a memorable toddler that her young malapropisms and nicknames have been cemented in the family lexicon (e.g., “all bodies” for “everybody”, “can’t want it” for “no, thanks”). It was her unique worldview, and our delight in her presence, that shaped us, in a way, and how we communicated then and still.

I feel this mix of evocation and anticipation with each daily photograph, with each visit with my niece. It’s a privilege to get to know her, this unique little individual who will also show me and my extended family so much of, and about, ourselves. It is staggering to meet an infant and realize that we will be profoundly important to each other, for a lifetime to come.

Photo courtesy Frank Guido via Flickr Creative Commons

Decline

“Would you be interested in taking your grandmother’s dining room table?” my father asks.

I pause, and switch the phone to my other ear. Many others must have already declined, as I am by no means the first in line for an acquisition such as this, and I quickly count at least six older relatives who could have claimed it before me. I realize, mid-count, that my father is still talking.

“It wouldn’t be just the table; it also comes with a lovely hutch. I think whoever takes it will have to take the both of them, as a set.”

I try to picture the table. It is rectangular, I can recall that much. Long—dominating my grandmother’s (admittedly small) dining room. Most likely designed to seat six to eight comfortably, although when we were there it often had ten to twelve people crammed elbow to elbow around its perimeter. So many side to side that if your seat was against the wall, opposite the door, you knew you were in for the night. My sisters and I, at younger ages, would take bathroom breaks or steal time outside by escaping under the table, crawling below, past denim and sneakers, pantyhose and heels, to make a run for it.

The visuals fail me. Instead, the sounds at the table come forward, large and loud. Not to verify a stereotype, but with ten-plus Irish-Italian New Yorkers and Jersey residents packed in a small space, the conversation quickly went up in volume, and down in decorum. One year, after my aunt recalled a childhood story that depicted Nana in a less-than-flattering light, Nana called her an asshole in front of the crowd – all in good fun, of course. Insulting (and politically incorrect) nicknames from my father’s childhood inevitably would be used (often as a term of endearment) before the meal was through. And during the multiple simultaneous conversations, there was always the additional cacophony of silverware clinking on plates, new dishes to pass—family style—from the kitchen, more drinks to pour.

Memories of sound give way to recollections of taste. What stands out about Nana’s table, despite the years, was what was always served on it. There were rules to the menu at Nana’s, unchanging, regardless when we visited. Whether we made the trek to suburban New Jersey from Pennsylvania on the day after Christmas, or a random July afternoon during our summer vacation, we knew there would be some variation of the standards:

Roast pork with sauerkraut and “new” white potatoes (extra salty from a can), coated with so many drippings from the meat that their undersides turned dark.

Spaghetti with meat sauce—the meatballs and sausage variety, not the ground beef/Bolognese style. Green salad was served after the main course, as a palate cleanser, and always with crusty Italian bread to dip.

A side dish of pickled beets with pickled onions – regardless of entrée. For many years, I would try to get to the dish before my sisters, so I could devour all of the beets myself, only realizing in my later childhood years that Nana and I were the only ones who would partake.

Red jello, strawberry or cherry, served in parfait cups or with individual servings scooped out of a casserole dish.

Chocolate sheet cake with white icing. Each square slice was then to be cut in half and inverted so the icing would be on the inside, like a filling. This would then be eaten with one’s hands.

And, for most of my childhood, a thick fog of cigarette smoke hung over the table, curlicueing up from several ashtrays placed strategically around the spread, seeping into our clothes and hair, so that our pillow cases, the morning after our visit, would smell of smoke. Gradually, over the years, the number of smokers dwindled, until my step-grandfather was the only one – and even then, he would often go outside to light up.

It had been years, though, since I last had a meal at my grandmother’s house. In fact, the final time I had sat at the table, there hadn’t been anything from the standard menu at all.

It had been about a decade ago, on a trip to New Jersey with Andy, my then-boyfriend, now husband, for the sole purpose of introducing him to my paternal side of the family. It was a rare visit without my parents or my sisters. And I had called my nana a few weeks in advance, told her we would be in the area, and asked if we could have a meal with her.

“No,” was the unexpected answer. “I’m just not up for it.”

We hadn’t known it at the time, but the initial signs of Alzheimer’s were starting to show. She knew it. Her husband knew it. But she didn’t want us to know it. And if she were expected to cook a big meal, everyone else would discover what was, at that time, her own private realization.

So instead we went to her home for a low-key visit, buffered by my cousin and his wife, presenting a dozen doughnuts and a carafe of coffee we picked up on the way over. The six of us sat at the dining room table. It seemed excessively roomy, with plenty of elbow room and more than enough space to stretch out. No one smoked. The room I associated with noise and crowding was oddly quiet and spacious, and I found this otherwise-normal setting bewildering.

Or, truthfully, perhaps I worried because of her initial rejection, wondering whether I had offended her and her husband, if somehow, by coming with a partner and not my parents, if I had upset the natural order of things.

We snacked off paper plates, no silverware needed. Bob, Nana’s husband, showed Andy his latest woodworking creations, several of which were displayed on the neighboring hutch. Nana told Andy a few stories about me as a toddler – stories I had never heard before. And after about an hour, we left.

The phone line is quiet as my father waits for my response.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Let me think about it.”

Read the full essay at The Grief Diaries.