40 years later…
i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?
it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.
because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?
measuring life in 8 millimeters (from 2007)
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
As I read, I could feel my heart constrict. Like you, I was early 20s. Like you, I can still feel all the heart-rending feelings, as I’m sure all the chairs can who have loved and lost. I wish my husband could have known him. I wish I could have known him better. Dad was always the one with the camera, so there are less than a handful of photos of the two of us.
I distinctly remember a moment with my cousin Helen, who grew up with my dad. She was older then and we hadn’t seen each other for a long time, so she was trying to place me. I told her, “I’m Lawrence’s daughter,” and watched as recognition dawned in her eyes. It’s why, when I married, though I took Tom’s name and didn’t want to hyphenate, I moved our family name to my middle name, so that Dad’s name would live on a little longer. (Having all girls, the name dies with us.) I think you may have kept Mahany for professional reasons, but isn’t it wonderful to still have it?
I’m babbling. But I loved reading these memories of your father. And my heart breaks right along with yours, even after all these years. Love you.
actually, i kept my dad’s last name for one and only one reason: to keep it–and a little bit of him–alive. both our boys have it as a second middle name. my longtime password to get onto the tribune computers was his monogram and mine combined. i wanted him wherever it mattered. i was not stingy in doing whatever i could to keep his spark alive.
you’re not babbling. and when you asked me early in the week how i was doing, i WAS doing AOK. then that email popped on my screen and the whole weight of it came crushing down. like it was yesterday. 40 years ago.
sending a giant hug. xoxox
I love that you have old home movies of your papa. How wonderful that you have the power to see him in motion and watch how he interacts with each of you, his beloved ones. What a treasure you have in those home movies, what a treasure you have in the love you shared with your papa…. That his life ended suddenly without time for goodbyes is so unfair. I can’t imagine how painful it was for your family then, how painful it still is for each of you. I’m so sorry….
Unlike your papa, my momma’s life faded over the sad slow course of fifteen years, so I had ample time to pre-grieve. And oh, how I pre-grieved…. (I took care never to show her my tears.) She suffered horribly in her final years, so when death finally came to her, it was an open door, a gift, a blessed end to unrelenting pain. Because I was expecting her death, and because I knew no other soul who longed to enter into the presence of the divine more than she, and because I had so many astonishing, comforting signs before and after her death, a part of me genuinely rejoiced for her and celebrated her entrance into eternity. The other part of me went through the painful process of what I knew were the stages of grief. Many months later, I had a call from a dear friend who is a psychologist. She was checking in to see how I was doing. I told her that I was fine, but that here and there, a line of poetry, or a certain strain of music, or some other small thing would catch me off guard, and I would find myself crumpled up with torrents of tears, as if she had only just died, as if the wound in my heart had only just opened. I told my friend that I couldn’t understand it, how my pain could be still so raw. Her answer to me that day shed new light. (Maybe you are aware of this already, and it won’t be a revelation.) My friend said to me that everyone talks about the stages of grief as if they are linear, as if one progress through each stage and then poof, they’re through the grieving process. This is not so, she said. Grief, she explained, is not linear. Grief is a wheel. At any time, something can trigger a memory that will turn the wheel back to one’s first stage of grief, to one’s first overwhelming sense of loss and sorrow, no matter how much time has gone by. I had never heard this before. Understanding that grief is a wheel made it so much easier for me going forward. Previously, I had felt I was a spiritual weakling to break down and keen over my momma. Since I knew she had been suffering, knew she was now free, knew I had had plenty of time to prepare myself for her death and, after it, had conducted myself bravely and with acceptance, how could the sound of a robin singing in the treetop completely destroy me? Now I know. Grief is a wheel. This explains how your brother’s memory from 40 years ago shattered you. I’m so sorry…
I’ve blathered on long enough. Just know, please, how much I care about how you are feeling. Sending love to you, my friend. I’ll close with the words of Emily Dickinson:
Unable are the loved to die/ For Love is Immortality. . . . xx
oh, dear gracious……that last line of emily, which i didn’t know but do now…..
and i love the reminder, the picture in my mind now, of the wheel. it’s true that it turns more slowly now, but indeed it will always turn.
your telling of your own grief story is elegant and bursting with wisdom, and of course beautiful. your mama is so alive in your stories, and your language, and i’m guessing even your voice, that i feel sometimes as if she’s among us, even though i met you years and years too late to have known her.
thank you for your loving heart. and i know you share the same date; for you it’s a birth date, for me it’s the other…..
Dear, dear Amy…you always know just what to say. xoxoxoxo
Lovely!! A lovely reminiscing of a wonderful dad, tho sad to feel his loss in your life, even tho I didn’t know him! Lots of reminders for me, tho different! It reads like a poem, Barbara, and was a delight for me this Friday morning!!
bless you, dear dear you…..xoxox
Feeling your deep, deep sadness with you! I am convinced that we will be with our loved ones again, and that gives me peace. And their continuing spiritual presence is palpable and comforting. The healing process and grieving is messy. Very healthy that you experienced all that sadness surfacing once more rather than pushing it down. The word for “to cry” in Lakota, ceya, is also the root of the word for prayer, “when the whole body pushes up sacred water that emerges in your tears.” I really like that.
Our family, too, has those home movies from my parents’ wedding in 1949 until the early 1970s…transferred to video tape, now need to be transferred to DVD. Also, my father recorded our family history on a 90-minute cassette tape, now transferred to CD. All precious resources for family storytelling and remembering.
i love the languages that tell us so many secrets and truths. thank you for sharing Lakota. i love that…..
“A grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven.” My name is Uncle Michael and I believe every word of it…
I speak of how we remember loved and beloved and treasured ones as a family/as a community/as a tribe.
Eugene Mahany was TOO WON-DERFUL for any one soul to wrap around like his robe!
Thus, Barbie darling you see so vividly YOU ARE “EYES TO SEE”—and my heart swims in images you project with your soul projector. You focus in the visual and I am an audio freak—I am a Wollensak reel to reel vacuum cleaner, oui? Hmm, is this why I invest my life chasing scores and sounds while you chase stories of the heart?
*the sound of Dad on the tennis court with his baritone fortissimo at a shot—he missed or made — no difference just that primal sound punctuating the live action in doubles!
*the way he would frame a question THE SOUND OF HIS GENTLE IRISH VOICE (💧)
*the sound of Dad entering the room with his wing tips keeping time”
My reel to reel heart is spinning sounds.
BUT I’LL NEVER FULLY WRAP—so we need each other and the tribe to complete the 51/49 majority.
THIS dear, dear Chair THIS ONE is running deep and I thank you for building the stage Barbie and putting on the performance of HOW WE grasp our Dad 40 million years ‘ex post Geno’.
Because there is still “the script not yet scripted” from tribal meetings of the heart. Xoxoxo
oh, M. you sing songs with your words. and you enchant and delight me, and whirl me in your rhapsodies. xoxoxoxox