Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940’s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

The Sweet Stuff

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, an elderly woman across the street named Hattie Hewson made homemade cookies for all the neighborhood kids. Upon our knock Hattie would emerge in a flowery housedress bearing a warm pan of buttery, chewy oatmeal cookies.  It was as if she were doing it just for us, which she may have been — she lived alone and didn’t appear to have a family. Our consistent glee may have been what got her through her days.

In addition to the Hattie infusions, sweet stuff was standard fare in my childhood. I remember spending hours separating my Halloween candy into piles and trading particular pieces with my sister as the arsenal dwindled. After school, there was always a kid whose household was more lenient than mine, and we’d spend hours raiding his pantry until our stomachs would feel like they literally were about to burst. When I was thirteen, I spent a summer at a northern California camp run by hippies where the food was so healthy my friends and I would spend hours talking about all the candy we’d eat when we got back home. We ended up discovering a way to break into the camp’s kitchen, but the hardest stuff we could find was a cache of carob chips. We cursed for a second and then scarfed them down.

By my twenties, my relationship with sugar had become more complicated. When I was teaching high school in South Africa, I began suffering from debilitating mid-morning “hazes”: I’d be in class, and suddenly my brain would feel as if it were encompassed by fog, my students’ questions like vague flares.  Fortunately I saw a good nutritionist who suggested that I should avoid processed foods, especially sugar, because my high metabolism would churn through them so quickly I’d be left bereft. She said that my hazes were caused by low-blood sugar and warned that I was flirting with hypoglycemia. I eliminated refined sugar from my diet and within a month the hazes were gone. I’ve kept my distance from sugar ever since.

Now that I am a father, sugar has returned. Rio likes candy, what do you know, and I sometimes think the sugar industry has conspired with the commercial-holiday lobby to create a constant stream of junk: Halloween is just the beginning; then there are holiday parades where people throw candy to bystanders from floats; then Christmas with its damn candy canes and stockings; then Valentine’s Day with its candied hearts; Easter isn’t far behind with its ridiculous chocolate eggs. I suppose summer provides some relief.  Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a shield over Rio to protect him from all the sugar falling from the sky. Not that he asks for my intervention; a recent short story he dictated to me for a school competition concluded with superheroes saving the planet and then showering the earth with streams of candy in celebration.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if candy didn’t tweak Rio’s behavior. But when he eats artificially colored, processed confections, it’s like he becomes a strange robot with ears that don’t hear and a body that moves in jagged, jerky motions. I don’t notice it when he eats what I consider sweet food: edibles that actually have some nutritional value in them. But give him some Skittles and clear the room.

It’s sad to me how corrupted sugar has become; as Michael Pollan has pointed out, sweetness is actually rare in nature, so humans have always associated its taste with comfort and abundance. I know Hattie’s cookies did that for me. But now confection appears in almost every bowl; I’m afraid we beat the sacred right out of sugar when we learned to “refine” it.

So here I am a sugar cynic, scoffing at the Sour Patch Kids but also trying to remember the wondrous road that used to open up when an adult offered me a sweet treat.  At my grandfather’s funeral in 2008, I met for the first time the son of my great Aunt Lorraine, who had passed away a few years prior and who had played an important role in my childhood. I told my cousin Bob about the icy bottles of Coke and plates full of Nilla wafers that Aunt Lorraine would offer my sister and me every time we visited. She so consistently gifted us with goodies that even now I warm at the thought of her. Bob nodded his head and choked back tears as he heard the story, no doubt recalling similar moments with his mother.

When Rio and I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, we learned that our neighbor Cubie across the street had died while we were gone. In the coming months, Cubie’s husband Ollie began mowing the lawn obsessively, seemingly to give himself something to do in her absence. Rio started walking over to visit with Ollie, and he’d inevitably return with tales of cookies and a few uneaten ones in his hand. I thought about discouraging the practice, but who was I to deny Ollie and Rio the pleasure of this sweet memory?

Remembering

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

My mother-in-law, Jay, is an incredible woman. At 82, she can still tap dance in front of a room of family and friends, play old standards on the piano, and delight in a blooming lily.

For the last several years she has suffered from Alzheimer’s. She still remembers who her children are (and most of her fourteen grandchildren; in-laws are tricky), but she has lost her short-term memory. It’s as if a reset button is pushed in her mind the second a moment has passed. She is continually trying to get her bearings: “What’s this place called?” (“This is the assisted-living facility where you live.”) “How did I get to your house?” (“We just drove here together.”) Because she instantly forgets what she has just learned, she will ask the same question perhaps fifty times in an hour.

Of course she was not always like this. She raised seven children. She went from PTA mom to PTA chairwoman to assistant to the mayor of Pasadena. For years she was a “field rep” for the city, priding herself on knowing the who, what, and when of every civic detail. Now, it’s as if she’s convinced she should still be playing that role but is unaware that she no longer has the facilities to do it.

There are times when her face seems to register the utter wilderness she inhabits. I’ve seen it when the room is full of her relatives, and she finally retreats to a chair after rubbing a baby’s head or hugging an in-law. A look of fear darkens her face, as if she’s thinking, “Who the hell are all these people? And who the hell am I?” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen terror illustrated so clearly.

But there is also a strange grace to her Alzheimer’s. Jay’s husband Bill died three years ago. Their marriage had been a rocky one. When I first met Bill and Jay in the mid-nineties, they were living apart; while she held down the Pasadena home they had owned for several decades, he lived nearby in a small bachelor pad. They would come together for holidays and visits from relatives (and he’d still come over faithfully to try and fix things around her house), but there seemed to be a lot of built-up resentment between them. To me, Jay always seemed mad at Bill for something, and he always seemed perplexed about what he was supposed to atone for.

With the onset of Alzheimer’s, it’s almost as if Jay forgot her resentments. With his physical health failing and her mental health diminishing, he moved back into her house. She started calling him “my Billy” and would often retell the story of how they first met, even if the details got murky. When they’d visit us she’d sometimes lay her head on his shoulder almost like they were high-school sweethearts.

Bill died of heart complications in a hospital bed the family had set up in the assisted-living apartment Jay and Bill finally moved into. As he lay there dying, Jay stroked his face and mourned the loss of this man she did indeed truly love. Somehow the forgetting allowed her heart to open up to that deep river of affection that was always there between them, even during the years when they seemed to argue more than agree.

The last time Jay came to visit us, I tried to prepare myself for the challenges  her presence brings. It’s hard to answer the same questions over and over. But if you tire and show your frustration to Jay, she gets hurt and confused, because she doesn’t understand why you’d be irritated with her — she literally doesn’t remember that she’s asking you for the thirtieth time how often you have to mow the lawn. To her, she’s asking for the first time, so why would you be bothered by such a simple question? To Jay there really is no recent past or near future. What’s in front of her refreshes every second, and fortunately what she’s retained through all of her trials is a certain joy in the simple beauty of the world. What she repeats are not complaints or snarky questions, but rather tiny moments of astonishment at what she sees.

We have a storage shed outside our house which the previous owner painted with huge, vibrant sunflowers. During her last visit, every time Jay looked out the window and saw the shed, she’d marvel, “Oh my gosh, look at those flowers! Did you paint those?” I’d feel the heat of irritation prickle under my skin, but then I’d see her eyes so lit up and reply, “No, Jay. The people before us did. They are beautiful, aren’t they?”

Is it truly so exhausting to look at those flowers again and again?