March 12, 2009
My Mirror of Erised
On Saturday mornings I woke up with Papa James and fiddled around the kitchen while he made a tankard of coffee-- really, it was one of those restaurant-sized containers-- and when he had poured a cup for Nana, and a cup for himself, I carried hers into the dark bedroom, careful not to spill a hot drop. She sat in bed next to a bright light, reading her latest Agatha Christie mystery. I handed her the coffee and hopped on the bed beside her to hear about the next chapter in Poirot's adventures.
Then I'd sit by the fire with Papa James and watch game shows, playing "Who's the prettiest girl in the world?" during commercials while Nana, in the pink bathroom, put her face on. Sometimes I visited Uncle Mike and his chickens outside, but it was kind of smelly out there, and I was a little afraid of the bully roosters.
When Nana was ready, we baked. If we made pies, she kept a bit of dough aside so I could press it into a miniature tin-foil pie plate left over from a TV dinner. If we made cinnamon braids, I had my own pieces to twist and sprinkle. When I got a little older I was allowed to sit on the counter and watch the mixer swirl the batter as long as I promised not to stick my fingers in there while it was running. Nana always let me lick the beaters, too, and that was the best part.
At lunch I was the living room messenger, running back and forth with requests from Papa James. Sometimes we ate chipped beef on toast (but Nana had another name for it involving the S-word, which I could never bring myself to say), or she made toasted peanut butter sandwiches with banana and marshmallows, and I drank instant tea with lemon or milk flavored with maraschino cherry juice.
Then we'd sew, paint ceramics, make jewelry, or I'd recite Shel Silverstein poems until I was nearly hoarse, from the book they'd given me for my birthday.
In the evening I played with the dachshunds or Uncle Mike's Lego set on the living room floor while Papa James watched the news and Nana made dinner. During commercials Papa James quizzed my addition skills. Sometimes we went to Gotto's market in the VW bus for berry pocket pies, and Papa James was patient while I chose the perfect flavor.
Later, Nana Ivy might come over, and we'd all play canasta. Nana Ivy called it "Nasty," and rubbed her bony fingers together when she said it. She and Papa James were always a team against Nana Pat and me, and they cheated. They'd try to speak in code or flash each other their cards when they thought we weren't looking. Nana always caught them, and she'd shout, "Mother!" or "Jimmy!" with feigned exasperation.
They'd drink coffee and smoke cigarettes while I ate the dessert we'd made that day, and we'd play until I was nodding at the table, and then Nana would tuck me in on the brown vinyl couch, and I'd twist the big gold buttons and let the tick tock of the cuckoo clock lull me to sleep.
Holidays at Nana's were huge, and she baked non-stop for days. There were tables filled with pies and cookies piled high with frosting, and home made eggnog. The Christmas tree had real, nana-made gingerbread men. Plus, all of my family was there drinking, joking, and filling the house with smoke-filled laughter while my cousins and I dashed about them in our best Christmas clothes.
Nana Pat died of cancer when I was twelve, and the family dismantled itself without her; even our grief couldn't hold us together. Papa James married a woman who preached the bible to me, to everyone, and I understood that he needed someone to take care of him, but I didn't visit.
Years later, I visited my dad in New Mexico when I was pregnant with Sweet P, and in the spare bedroom I found a photo album filled with black and white pictures of my family that I'd never seen. One page held a blurry photo of my bright-haired dad as a boy next to a separate photo of my tall, tan, and handsome Papa James. Above it was written, "My Sweethearts," and that's how I knew that it was Nana's album.
When my dad died, his cousin Chuck cleaned out Dad's belongings and called to ask what I wanted. I said all I wanted was that burgundy album if it was still around. He found it and said he'd send it to me, but it didn't arrive. I didn't want to pester him for it. He and my dad were best friends, and I knew he was grieving.
I was shocked and sad when Chuck died last year, and I felt that I'd lost the last connection I had to my dad and his family. I remember him saying, "My mom was my mom, and I loved her, but your Nana Pat was the most amazing woman I've ever known. She made everything special."
Last week I got a call from Chuck's wife, and she told me that she found the missing album while she was clearing out the house to move. It arrived in the mail the next day. The pages are dark and brittle, and so many of the pictures are missing. The back cover has fallen away completely.
I sat on the couch, examined all of those familiar faces, somewhat younger than when I knew them, and cried-- so many pictures of my dad as a happy baby, before he was broken.
When Harry Potter discovers the Mirror of Erised, which shows its gazer the deepest desires of his heart, Dumbledore warns him that many have perished in front of the mirror, giving up everything while longing for what they see there. As I turned the pages of my nana's album I knew what I would see if I were to gaze into the Mirror of Erised. Of course, I've always known-- many an hour of therapy has been spent learning how to live in the present.
I didn't expect to find any pictures of myself in the album because they were all taken long before I was born, and there weren't any. As I was closing the album, I found an envelope glued to the back page, and I was excited to read something in Nana's scrawl. What I found instead was my own messy, childhood writing. It was a Robert Louis Stevenson poem I had copied on a piece of lined paper and given her. I have no memory of this, but I still know the words of the poem by heart. It was the first poem I ever loved:
To Any Reader
As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
Who lingers in the garden there.