Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Retail Therapy

I feel this strange compulsion to entertain you. Maybe because I'm punchy, and I know tomorrow is my highest traffic day.

Here's a short story memoir I wrote. Don't steal it; it's been published.

BTW, I'm just figuring out how blogging works. If you leave me a comment, I'll write you back! How's that for a lightbulb moment! Takes a fever to figure out internet civility. My apologies.


It had been three and a half weeks since my grandmother’s death, but I still hadn’t cried. I felt oddly hollow about the matter.

At her memorial I had giggled at the preposterous arrogance of my hippie father, forcefully guiding us all through his required “process.” I got through the eternal moment of silence for grandma by chugging red wine with a long-lost cousin hiding in the farthest outreaches of my grandmother’s living room. She had been the black sheep of the family and had caused many problems. I identified strongly with her and could think of no one I would rather be with. We were as far as we could be from where grandma had recently expired. She had died painfully in a hospital bed stationed in her own home, the angels of hospice fluttering around her while her son and step-daughter kept vigil. None of her six grandchildren were present.

I avoided sharing memories of her with this roomful of strangers, not out of petulance as much as a sudden inability to remember anything but the moments my grandfather had called her a stupid cow. “Jane…” his voice would whine in that chilling tone only dry drunks can achieve, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course my brilliant and competitive step-cousin stepped forward into the circle of strangers, delivering a powerful speech about how strange the nature of memories are, and that in moments like this we recall snippets. He shared beautiful snippets that made the room misty eyed, as I sat in confusion and jealousy. He wins again. He had always been the apple of my grandparent’s eyes.

Afterwards, I shoveled food and smiled through a full mouth at forgotten strangers who examined and pet me. “You don’t remember me, but when you were six…”
I heard stories about my grandmother that she shared with her caretakers in the last years of her life. It seemed she had a certain story for each one, and that though her memory supposedly faltered she was careful to never tell the same story to more than one person. It was as though everyone had known a different woman. I wished I had known her as the caretakers had, with her ribald gossip and stories about ex-lovers and travel. She had never had an orgasm, but had never turned away her husband from her bed. While sorting through her things, my sister found an unopened “back massager” from the 1940s. If only grandma had opened it.

After making it through the memorial, there were still estate matters to be handled. The grandchildren played a type of game devised by my aunt, where one by one we selected the leftover items we had most cherished in grandmother’s house. Her children had been instructed on the value of the hidden antiques, while my brother and sister and I consistently chose silver-plated candlesticks and poorly repaired porcelain plates broken in an explosion in the 1950s. The experience left me drained and sad. I hate it when people think I am unaware of being taken advantage of. Better a coward than a fool.

Days of sorting followed. She had Bridge cards and old photos hidden in every drawer. Having lived in the house her first husband built for 65 years, there was an enormous amount of clutter to sort through. Nothing could just be tossed, because there were clues about her personality everywhere. I hunted for old love letters, newspaper clippings, diaries…anything that would make feel a connection to her again.

We finally left my father alone in my grandmother’s house. We could help no more in his process, and were completely overwhelmed by the sisyphus task of wrapping up one woman’s life. I felt burdened with the responsibility of living up to her, and the memory of the deceased relatives she had been the keeper of. Not only had I inherited her penchant for clutter and disorganization, but also her figure, ring size, sloppy handwriting, love of romantic poets, plays, and Shakespeare. I arrived home with a small Uhaul full of memories and an overwhelming desire to disappear. Not only did I no longer know who she was, but I wasn’t so sure who I was either. Does free will exist, or are our tastes and choices determined by our genes? And why hadn’t I visited the woman more often? She was only an eight-hour car ride away. What was so damn important about my life that I couldn’t make more of an appearance in hers?

My wise older sister, who had freely cried at all the appropriate moments over the last three weeks, told me not to worry. Years of nursing working in critical care had educated her to the many facets of human grieving. “You’ll cry when you least expect it. You’ll hear a song on the radio, and think of her and it will just happen.” It made sense, but there was still a seed of doubt in my heart. I was sure I was inhuman, wrong, perhaps even borderline anti-social. My grandmother would never meet the man I marry or see her great-grandchildren. She would never know that I turned out okay or see any concrete successes in my life. Yet the knowledge of this was not enough to move me. What more does it take to shake a human loose from shock?

Shopping in a Dollar Tree store provides me with an odd amount of solace; retail therapy at its most affordable. One night after looking through old photo albums I retreated again to the fluorescent lights and 70’s music of my local branch. I pushed a cart through the densely packed aisles, knowing that even if I filled it, I couldn’t spend more than the thirty dollars of cash in my pocket. I passed a display of PEZ dispensers shaped like poodles and picked one up. “Perfect for Grandma.” I thought of the three black poodles she had owned successively, naming each Pierre as a replacement for the pet who had died. Denial of death also ran in my genes. Then I remembered that Grandma wouldn’t be there to open the present. Her home had already been sold to strangers. There wasn’t even anywhere left to send a package that couldn’t be opened.

I set the toy down as if it had burned me. Something started to bubble up inside me, but I pushed it back. I forced the shopping cart faster down the aisle, pausing at the greeting cards. Almost Easter time, I should pick up a card for...My heart skipped a beat. I realized there was nothing here that I could buy for grandma, ever again. There was no way to show her I thought about her. She was gone. Our relationship was over.

Stunned, I stared at the aisles full of gifts that could not be given. The brightness in the store began to overwhelm me. Everything was so shiny. I noticed the music playing over the speakers, too loudly to escape, “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, the little boy blue and the man on the moon. When you coming home? Son, I don’t know when…” I knew the rest of the words to this song. It was about a father who never made time for his son until it was too late to establish a relationship. The son had built his own family, and through learned behavior had no time for his father. “But we’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.”

There would be no more sharing of gifts and store-bought cards. Our relationship would never deepen beyond an exchange of holiday pleasantries. I thought of all the things I would never learn from my grandma, and all the things that would never be said. And in the middle of a consumer discount chain, I began to cry.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you for this. I can see why you're doing screen writing. Your brother isnt the only writer in the family!

Kid Sis said...

Thank you. That's very kind. I fought being a writer for a long time, but it's what everybody else always called me. Time to embrace it, even if I feel like a goofball.

Christina said...

This one should be published kid.

Christina said...

Oh, I see...it has been published. Go figure!

Kid Sis said...