/ Fiction /
My mother cried the day my grandfather died. This may seem like an appropriate response, but she hadn’t spoken with him in over twenty years. He was an abusive drunk, a gambling addict, and he split on her and her sister when she was twelve years old. So when she came to my office at the museum one afternoon unannounced, phone in hand, half crumpled over in anguish and smelling faintly of gin and cigarette smoke, I remember freezing for a second as if time had come to a standstill. Oh god. I thought. Somebody died. And just like that, I was glued to the cheap, shag carpet that hadn’t been changed since 1994. I hated that carpet. She didn’t talk about him much, for obvious reasons, and I never asked because I wasn’t the type of daughter to ask much anyway. I’d seen my mother cry before but this was different. It was like she was having an allergic reaction. She was propped up against the doorway, heaving, and shuddering, clutching her chest, and gasping for air. When I finally came to my senses I rushed over and led her to one of the wicker chairs seated across from the desk. We sat in silence for a few minutes, partially because I was waiting for her to collect herself before telling me what the hell was going on and partially because I had no idea what to say. She took a deep breath, gulped, and stared at me, mascara smeared across her overly-contoured and heavily plasticized cheeks.
“Your grandfather is dead.” My heart skipped a beat.
“Oh my god...oh my god…” She shook her head quickly back and forth, strands of curly brown hair streaked with grey flew out of her messy bun propped up by a jade hummingbird pin. Was she always that grey?
“No, no, not your grandfather. Your grandfather.”
I blinked. “I’m confused.”
“Your biological grandfather. Grandpa Eddie is still alive. David is dead. You never met the man.”
Oh. “Oh. Are you...okay?” I replied. She recoiled and gave me that all too familiar look that screamed, what are you stupid?! Without her actually having to scream, “What are you stupid?!”
“Of course I’m not okay! I mean look at me!” She said, gesturing to her entire body.
“You look...great Ma.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh please save it. You're even worse of a liar than your father,” she snapped.
“Look...Ma I’m really sorry I just don’t know what you want me to do...is there anything you need? When’s the funeral?”
“Thursday, and the family’s sitting Shiva until next Wednesday.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll go on leave. We’ll fly down tomorrow afternoon after Dad’s showing, how’s that sound?”
“That’s fine, I guess.”
“Are you sure you want to go?”
She looked up at me in horror. “Feh! What the hell type of question is that??”
“I mean it’s just from what you and Nani have told me you don’t have a great history with the guy…”
“Julia, I have failed as a mother if you think you can just ‘not go’ to a family member’s funeral.” She stood up abruptly and wrapped herself tightly in her shawl. “The man may be going to hell but the least I can do is see him off.” She whipped around and walked out of my office without another word. My secretary Isabelle peered at me over the top of her computer with a should I be concerned? look. I shrugged. Twenty-seven years and my mother never failed to astound me.
* * *
Brian took a long sip of his latte before clearing his throat.
I looked at him. “So…?”
“How was the funeral?” He asked.
“Small. Foggy. Illinois just turns into a heaping pile of gloom and slush in January.”
“It was depressing.”
“Funerals generally are, babe.” He reached across the table to grab my hand.
“No I mean, there was barely anyone there, no one spoke, and the only thing the Rabbi could say about him was that he liked the Cubs and going to Vegas. How depressing is that?” Brian started playing with my fingers.
“You should write about it.”
“The funeral. ‘Recent California transplant rediscovers her midwestern roots by traveling back to her son-of-a-bitch grandfather’s funeral.’”
I pulled my hand away. “It’s not funny Brian.”
“It’s funny, just not ‘haha’ funny,” he said.
“It makes me think.”
“I don’t know, life and death I guess.”
He tilted his head. “I’m not following.”
“It’s just, can you imagine living your whole life, and literally lying in your grave, a shriveled old husk, and no one, not even one of the holiest of people on this planet can come up with something... substantial to say about your life?”
He took another long sip of coffee, licked his lips. “I think you’re looking at this wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well for one, what someone considers to be substantial is subjective and some people will never achieve that feeling of fulfillment no matter how hard they try. And two, I think it’s entirely possible to live a satisfactory life and die utterly content without accomplishing anything truly ‘memorable.’ I mean, people do it every day. The important thing that you’re missing is that this man died and no one could come up with a genuinely good part about him. That’s why the whole thing was depressing. The guy wasn’t a good guy. Seems like he never made a positive impact on anyone’s life.” I took a sip of my coffee and let this sink in.
“Well now I’m even more depressed,” I finally said. Brian laughed.
“You asked an ethics professor a question about ethics, what do you expect?”
I held my hands up in mock defense. “Alright alright, I should’ve known what I was getting myself into.”
I turned my attention to the window which was cracked open a few inches. The city of San Francisco lay sprawled out in front of us. Pier 39 glistened in the distance and even from the confines of the coffee shop Brian and I were seated in, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable aroma of sourdough, saltwater, and fried fish. The city was cramped and dirty and chaotic, my parents never failed to remind me, but I was absolutely in love with it, almost as much as the man seated in front of me. Maybe it was because I had made my career off of finding patterns within the seemingly random and metaphors within the seemingly mundane. I had followed in my father’s footsteps, becoming a curator for one of San Francisco’s most renowned contemporary art museums, and the city presented itself to me as one of the most intriguing pieces I had ever come upon. I wanted to dedicate my life to cracking its code and deciphering the many secrets embedded within its cobblestone streets and uniquely designed neighborhoods. But some part of me was scared of what would happen if I ever did. Maybe that’s why I took up the writing gig for that local magazine on the side. Something to keep me busy so I didn’t go nuts if all of my dreams fell through or by some miracle I actually achieved them all.
“I met some of the family on that side,” I said, still gazing out at the view.
“Oh? What were they like?”
“Jewish.” Brian chuckled again. “I wish you were there,” I added.
“It’s just, I didn’t even know all the people there, I didn’t want to just throw you to the wolves... ”
“I know, babe."
A thought dawned on me suddenly. It sent a deep wave of nausea down my spine and made my skin crawl. I turned to look at him terrified.
“What if I never do?”
“Never do what?” Brian asked.
“Never feel fulfilled, satisfied?”
He tilted his head again. “Well, how do you feel now?” He asked.
I shrugged. “I mean, I don’t feel fulfilled but I don’t feel bad either.”
“Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe try not to think of satisfaction as a thing you can achieve but a process you can practice.” We sipped our drinks in silence for a few minutes.
“Have you talked to her?” He asked.
“I mean we sat Shiva all last week.”
“Shiva’s completely silent doesn’t count,” he responded. Damn him and his efforts to learn more about my religion. I rolled my eyes.
“You know how we are, we only really talk if someone’s getting married or dead. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve had a full-on conversation with her since I dropped out of grad school. ‘Eighty-grand on an MBA down the drain, yada yada…’” I stopped when I saw Brian’s face. He was smirking.
He shrugged. “Nothing, nothing, it’s just you look like her. Talking with your hands.”
“What??” I shoved my hands into my coat pockets defensively.
“I didn’t mean it as a bad thing, Julia, it’s cute.”
“Babe, her father just died two weeks ago,” he said.
“Well, she never refers to him as that, her father is and always will be grandpa Eddie...I’m not saying she shouldn’t be upset I’m just confused why--”
“She’s probably feeling a whirlwind of every emotion under the sun. She needs you right now more than ever.” He interrupted. “You just need to pick up the phone and talk to her.” I stared at him. His tone surprised me. I knew he was a serious family guy but he was hardly ever stern. It hadn’t dawned on me how he felt about the entire situation and I felt a pang of guilt.
“Okay okay, I know you’re right. It’s just I know you grew up different. Somewhere along the line, my mom and I, it’s like we ended up on separate ends of this giant rift. We’re headed in the same direction but whenever we try to cross it the gap just gets bigger,” I responded. He said nothing and took another sip of his latte.
“Brian?” I asked.
“Do you think I’m a good person?”
“Do you think you’re a good person?”
“God, Mr. Ambiguous, can’t you answer the damn question? You actually infuriate me.”
He chuckled and grabbed my hand again. “I know.”
“I just can’t wrap my head around it,” I said.
“This man physically and emotionally fucked up so much of my mom’s childhood, but she insisted on going to his funeral. I get that it’s a custom and maybe she felt obligated, but standing there, staring at his grave, that couldn’t have been easy. Even if they were ‘family.’”
“Seems like you just answered your own question,” he replied, his head tilted slightly as if deep in thought.
“What do you mean?”
“Your mother still considers him to be family. Regardless of blood, chosen or unchosen, people sacrifice everything for their family, even their own peace of mind. I know you two aren’t in the best place and I know she hasn’t treated you great all of these years, but I think you should know she’s a hell of a strong woman. If you have any chance at all to close that gap, do it."
I couldn’t come up with a response. My mind was too busy reeling from everything Brian had just said. He stood up and reached for his coat.
“I’ve gotta head out but thanks for lunch babe. You’re more interested in my lecture topics than most of my students.” He kissed me on the cheek, leaned in, “and yes, you are good, one of the best,” he whispered in my ear. “I’ll see you later tonight!”
I heard the bell in the shop’s doorway ring as it signaled his departure, but my mind was thousands of miles away, staring at that oak coffin as a steady trickle of wet soil and blackened snow inched its way across the coffin’s surface. Thick tendrils of icy fog encircled its exterior and pulled it down, down, into the earth’s eternal embrace.
* * *
I woke up the next morning in a cold sweat. I leaned over, careful not to wake Brian who was sound asleep, arm stretched across his face and snoring. I checked the time on the clock. It read: 5:43 AM. No better time for a cup of coffee. I fixed myself a cup of Folgers and made my way over to our balcony overlooking a portion of the San Francisco Peaks. Our. We’d been engaged for over a year and moved into the apartment on 17th and Ashbury a few months ago, but that word still made my stomach jump from time to time. It all seemed so surreal. In most ways, the world was still asleep. Several sparrows chirped insults at each other from the treetops. A few lights here and there glinted in the darkness now tinted a deep indigo which faded into grey as the sky bled into the sea behind me. A thick layer of fog blanketed the valley and crept slowly toward the mountains. It seemed to pull me along with it. I leaned over the guardrail, the only thing separating me from a four-hundred-foot drop into the pine-tree-ridden forests below, clutching the cool metal until my knuckles turned white. I stood there shivering and gasping and staring intently at the horizon, sliced open by the jagged peaks, not exactly sure what I was hoping I’d see for God knows how long. I couldn’t move. I was frozen in place once again. Something was missing. Something crucial, a chunk of who I was and who I was supposed to be gone like the tide. It was something I could not live without and that gnawing, aching feeling was eating away at the very foundation of my soul.
I’m not a spiritual person. Not really, and I used to pride myself on not falling into the clutches of institutionalized religion like the rest of my deeply Judaic family members. Yet what I experienced cannot be described as anything but spiritual. It started slowly. A small, golden sliver poking its way through the clouds, and then, like a bucket of paint, the sun spilled over the horizon flooding the world and my body in a brilliant yellow light, dispersing the fog which rose and fizzled into nothingness like a dying flame. Like those wise hands once outstretched from the peaks of Mt. Sinai, the sun’s rays seemed to warm every cell, every fiber within me. And the world woke and like the wailing wall I was still there, still standing in that moment, broken still yes, but breathing. A single fleeting second in the universe’s eternal timeline, but a second nonetheless and for once, that was enough.
“She’s a hell of a strong woman,” Brian had said. Stubborn, infuriating, one of several reasons why I attended bi-weekly therapy sessions and hated hummingbirds, but I couldn’t argue with that. She was the strongest woman I knew. And dammit her kugel was a gift unto this world even if the recipe came wrapped in red tape. I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my phone. I held it for a second, staring at the dark screen and my reflection in the glass. I could see myself in twenty years, the same greying hair, same pursed lips, maybe slightly less plastic surgery. I might want to keep those growing wrinkles in the corners of my eyes and mouth. My dad said it was a sign we were always laughing and our smiles always reached our eyes. A rare blessing in today’s world. I breathed in and exhaled slowly. I let my fingers absentmindedly click on a contact, held the phone up to my ear, and waited as the line rang.