The Long Hill
Posted on March 18th, 2013
It is March and here, miles inland, gulls are circling around the barn-buckled roof of my house. I imagine my recently acquired mid-century modern swan lamp feeling some sympathetic tug towards the window, to be out. To be away. The light is slowly dialing itself down between the houses. Everything going pale gold, the clouds sporting some darker breath at the horizon. Weather in the offing. Spring has yet to fully arrive, necessitating this heavy wool cardigan, the hiking socks I have on my feet, propped on an empty wine crate beneath the desk. But—we feel it running now, in the vein. The sap’s high. Leaving a store downtown on an errand, I feel something like breath on my cheek, and turn, startled to the empty air. It’s the sun.
With the sap’s rise comes the old urge to be away, to, as John Muir once said, throw “a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” I see the ice breaking up on the river in the morning, the stray panes of it moving down in the ink-black current. I feel something in me clattering free too, tugging in its urge to go forward, to empty somewhere. When I was growing up, and I’d misbehaved, my dad would send me up to my room to copy poems out of a Robert Frost anthology. Again and again until my hand cramped shut. I’d start out hating the words, and then, at the end, I’d hear the echoes in the back parts of my brain. My left-handed smudges creeping along the paper, while the stanzas stained themselves into my hidden places. In the early days of this uncertain month, one in particular comes back to me, daily, when I pass over this stretch of water–‘oh, I have been often too anxious for rivers/to leave it to them to get out of their valleys’.
I’ll say that I inherited my unfixed quality from my grandfather, but, my grandmother has it too. Hell, maybe that entire side of the family is infected with this dark blood stirring to always be somewhere else. The twin currents of two seafaring people, Portugal and Great Britain, funneling down between our DNA in some ceaseless imperative to stay in motion. I wrote in an old journal that everything is the beginning of something else. I do not think that we ever arrive, there is motion hidden everywhere, like sand, like oxygen. I sit with the loneliness, I walk away from trouble and its invitations, I do not drink. I wait for the motion to reveal itself, and then I throw myself down that long hill, with everything that I have.
That long hill has appeared in various guises, at various times. Once, it was moving across the country after deciding not to go to graduate school. Years later, it was that journey in reverse, my heart some dead ham-like thing shoved into a suitcase along with my shoes. For my grandmother, I think that the long hill has been food.
We’ve always been close, she and I—the only granddaughter in a passel of boys. My early birthdays a progression of special party dresses, cakes whose construction remained a mystery to me until I found myself in pastry school as an adult—a solitary doll whose cascading dress was rendered in elaborate frosting, vanilla-scented and dense with sugar. I had my first Easter candy at that apartment in Bridgewater, the bright foil of chocolate eggs winking at me from Uncle Roger’s grape arbor. I made myself sick on it, my previous carob-only years blurring away into the distance with each bite.
Sweetness, and sickness. One tipping so easily over into the other. My grandmother has severe diabetes, and has lost herself, in widening ellipses. The unfixed, written ever larger—her eyes unfocused in recent photographs. The thing that happens when food turns from the restless outlet into the relentless weight, and carries the person that I love off to some dim, unreachable country where voices don’t carry.
My Nana’s people were from the Azores—a small constellation of rocks off of the coast of Portugal, tiny brilliants punched into the fabric of the sea. We’d look at maps of them sometimes at the kitchen table, and daydream about going there, together. My grandmother had never been on an airplane. “Don’t get stuck like me,” she would say, “don’t forget to do what you want, while you can. You should have adventures.” I wanted to have them with her, some part of me knowing, even then, that she’d never go.
So, when I did go to far-off places, I would bring her back things—stories, calculated to make her laugh. Tales about strange foods I’d tried. And once, in high school, a lace tablecloth, handmade by a room of clucking nonnas in Venice. ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!’ she’d said, when she unwrapped it from its thin tissue. “Oh I could never even use it, it’s too nice.” But I want you to, I said. We should use it for family dinners—Easter. Christmas. My grandpa, offering up new twists on traditional Portuguese pork loins, redolent with plums and garlic—his omnipresent immaculate clam chowder. “We’ll see.” She said, folding it away.
That tablecloth is coming back to me now, in its same wrapper. Unused. The house where I gave it to her is slowly emptying—my grandmother living elsewhere. My uncle, whom she cared for for most of her life, getting settled in his own group home. I think about it waiting for me at my parents’ house in Connecticut, and how I wish, more than anything, that it were stained by stray bits of grilled trout from one of our backyard picnics. The seeping grease of linguica. The carelessly-held rind of a piece of watermelon, summer-soft and dripping down into its threaded pattern. But it isn’t. Yellowed a bit by time, but, inviolate in its intricacy as it ever was.
The uncle that my grandmother cared for is at the center of the narrative of why she felt she’d been cheated out of adventures—why her tablecloth stayed folded and forever waiting for the right party in a chest of drawers. He was born with a hole in his heart. The result of having been exposed to German measles while my grandmother was pregnant with him, my uncle’s host of birth defects became a complicated web of familial guilt—a visible depiction of ‘what if’–and my grandmother began a lifetime of crafting a story that was equal parts regret, selflessness, frustration, and martyrdom. His care was the reason why she couldn’t travel, couldn’t leave, not for a day—even long after he became an adult who, while more limited than someone without his complications, had crafted a life for himself. My uncle, despite true handicaps, loves to travel. He has been further, seen more, than the woman who has raised him, and who declared that doing so made travel impossible for her. The stories that we tell ourselves are powerful—our self-narratives carry so much weight. But they are of our own making. My uncle chose to believe that there was no good reason why he couldn’t take a bus to Canada with his sister, or to sail on a cruise ship north by Maine. My Nana’s internal narrative loop left her, instead, slipping one more sliver of cheesecake out of the fridge, saying ‘I deserve it, I never get what I want anyway, this is a small something that I can have.’
Only now, the food that once provided momentary escape from the imagined litany of thwarted dreams has become, in itself, a second sort of prison. My Nana is deeply unwell. Her diabetes has progressed to a point where there is no fixing it—only waiting. Following a recent hospitalization, she tells my mother ‘This is no way to go.’
Go? My mom says, playing dumb, go where, mom?
To the glory land, my Nana replies.
Do you want to go to the glory land?, my mother asks, knowing the answer.
Yes, replies my Nana, but, in a big Lincoln.
I laugh when my mom tells me this, even while I feel like crying, because I know that whether I want her to or not, she is leaving. Phrases like ‘only a matter of time’ are now being uttered, with great solemnity, by men in white coats. I feel the hot heaviness of grief hollowing out a space behind my ribs while I go through the days, and it catalogs all of our un-acted plans for blueberry picking, people watching at Onset, my Nana threatening to show me how quahogging is really done. And, it makes me think about our complicated familial relationship with food, and the ways in which we travel to those places we think are beyond our reach by eating, and how the plate both opens and closes those doors with different degrees of finality. How I’ve seen some of my grandmother’s own self-negating behavior in myself—that tendency towards despair, disguised as another piece of pie. I think about her wish for a grander exit, and sign up for a sprint triathlon this coming August, with my mother and my cousin. ‘This is no way to go’ echoes in my head on my slow runs around my neighborhood. I feel them settling up in the trees below the high ridge line that waits at the end of my street, watching.
The thing that I can’t tell my grandmother is that she was always going somewhere, when she was choosing to stay home, to have another secret cookie. That her illness isn’t something that has happened to her, ex nihilo, against her will. That the stories that we tell ourselves create truth—but that we can un-name those truths. And write them over, new.
What I will tell her is that I love her. That if I am forever restless, and going somewhere, she will be with me. Hidden and sure. Like water. Like oxygen.
We go down that long hill together. With all that we have.