"I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer – its dust and lowering skies." - Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
July has gone too fast, but isn't it human to eke out just a little more before the last grains of sand fall? A third of July I spent in the northeast, teaching a week of songwriting in Allentown, PA for the International Women's Writing Guild's annual conference at Muhlenberg College, and then visiting friends in White Meadow Lake, NJ, a place where as a child I once lived. When I think now about the conference and weekend after with old friends, I remember stories and clouds. There was a slice, though, of three hours, west of both Allentown and White Meadow Lake, that comes to me mostly as water.
It was raining, harder than a drizzle, lighter than a storm, when I parked on the soft shoulder in front of my aunt's house, not far off Route 80. Having packed in ever-sunny Los Angeles a week earlier, I didn't think to bring a rain jacket or hat. My uncle, who sat beyond the porch overhang, who's lived all his life (as far as I know) in the PA clime, didn't have one either. I don't remember us saying much, and we didn't mention the weather.
The other water: My uncle made some coffee, I stirred in sugar; I dabbed at my eyes with a tissue from the coffee table at the foot of the yellow couch where I sat with my Auntie Dish, in an art-filled room I vaguely recalled from my childhood; my aunt dabbed at her nose, where the tube of moist oxygen made it feel, she told me, like her nose is always running. It's lung, she said, because I thought it was stomach, which she did have once, along with breast, thyroid, and colon. "The only kind nonsmokers get," she said, without bitterness. I asked her how she felt, thinking both of her, on the edge of something I'm trying to understand, and of my grandmother, who is my aunt's twin, who will be left behind.
If learning is a thing we do in school, I never learned to read. I emerged from the womb with a book in hand, like it was a road map to figuring out this life. In the back seat of the Volvo, my head bent to cloth-covered Bedknobs and Broomsticks and A Wrinkle in Time, left over from my mother's childhood, and cornflower blue hardbacks of The Bobbsey Twins. When I was six, we moved in with my Grandma Roro and grandpa in the duplex where my mother had been raised with her two sisters and, on the upstairs side, her three cousins, children of Dish and my rain-immune uncle. The two families propped open the door between homes so the six kids had free reign, like the Bobbsey Twins on steroids.
The next year we moved to White Meadow Lake, into what I have recently learned Californians like to call a "cabin." (As far as I can tell, a "cabin," by Los Angeles terms, is a regular house with amenities like a garage door and an attic, but situated on a mountain. Since White Meadow Lake is located in New Jersey, we called it a "house.") I would fall asleep in my upstairs corner bedroom, pretending that I was a twin and my other slept a mattress away. Though I didn't have my own real twin, I took some solace in the rumor that non-identical twins run in families. None of my friends could tell them apart, but everyone in the family knew that Roro and Dish were sororal twins, with nearly identical strawberry blonde hairdos. Maybe what I didn't have, my future children would. Meanwhile, I would play both parts: I would be beautiful like Roro (I was loyal to grandma) and smart like Dish (I'd heard Dish sat for my grandma's math exams in school).
Grandma Roro and Auntie Dish were tall, with narrow waists and pleated pants. Each raised three children, though Dish had a boy. My mother was the first of that new generation, and when I came along, Roro and Dish were still young at forty-four, nearly the age I am now. They would sun themselves in the summertime wearing glamorous bathing suits, and I danced around swinging their vintage umbrellas, singing Singin' in the Rain.
As I sat on the couch with my aunt, I asked her about a framed photo on the coffee table from around that time, a black and white of her and my uncle side by side, a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket on the table. The oxygen tank hushed softly in the background, the rain fell forgotten outside. She told me they were on a Paris dinner cruise along the Seine, celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary, and pointed to a painting on the wall behind the couch that they bought right from the painter on that same trip. "The paint wasn't even dry," my uncle said from his corner of the room.
In case you've got a picture in your mind of Dish as an old lady half-unhinged and dying, I can do better. Dish is a great-grandma now. I started calling her earlier this spring, because I'd heard she didn't have much time left, and I'd realized how much had gone by. I didn't know her as an adult, only as I had known her when I was a child, and I wanted to. So I called, and we talked about the other generations, my cousins and their children. Dish made no distinction between her step- and biological great grandchildren, which warmed my heart. It's not that she didn't know the difference, but that she didn't care. Like how I feel about my kids, my step-daughters, they were hers either way.
On one wall, I saw a photo of her and Roro when they were near five, which made me think of her mother, my great-grandmother, whom I loved, and who died when I was in twelfth grade. Were they close, I asked. Yes, she said, but paused. "You know what I wish," she said. "I didn't like that she was a racist. It made us all uncomfortable. She'd say shvartze, and not in a good way."
We stayed for three hours on the couch, me asking questions as best I could, her answering as best she could. I wondered if there is any way for me, in this vibrant moment of my life, to fathom the way time crawls at the end. I thought of mothers-to-be, in the last weeks of their pregnancy, wishing the baby would just come already. Is it that way at the end, too? The bookends of life, slow, between which we love and fight and worry about bank accounts and career choices, and try to make some meaning out of the arbitrary event of our being? When we are born, we survive from mother's milk, and spend the rest of our living days eating from Mother Earth. Maybe at the end it's just waiting, waiting, waiting to go back home.
Before I left, I asked how she felt. I meant body, but also heart and mind. She told me she's ready to go, not in pain at all, but ready. However, she's concerned that Roro hasn't yet accepted that her lifelong companion will be leaving first. In my twin fantasies, it had never occurred to me that, as at birth, one always passes through the barrier first.
A few days after I saw Dish, I heard that she'd stopped eating. That was two weeks ago. Her body no longer needs to sustain. Soon, Mother Earth will feed off her. I hear the hospice nurse rearranged the living room, and Dish has a bed there now, and a rotating watch, made of her daughters, Roro and my grandpa, my mother's sister, and my rain-immune uncle. They recently did a genes test and found that all these 87 years everyone was wrong: Roro and Dish, it turns out, are identical. Makes sense, since identicals don't run in families, and they're the only twins on that tree branch so far.
I've been trying to figure out if I should go back for the funeral, whenever it happens. I think of Roro, and want to comfort her. But I think, too, of my daily plans here. Of the syllabus I need to write; of the long and expensive airline flight back east; of my meager days off from work, already in the red, and of the David Wilcox songwriting retreat a few weekends from now; of the work I like to do and want to do, because it gives my life meaning between, as Joni Mitchell says, the forceps and the stone.
By the time we hugged good-bye, because Dish and my uncle had a doctor's appointment and I was heading to White Meadow Lake to reconnect with old friends, tears had choked my throat too tight for me to say anything. If I could have, I would have said Thank you and I love you. I think she knows that.
Of course it was pouring, too, because that's the way the east coast does weather: When you are saying good-bye to your great aunt for the last time, the clouds don't hold back. I closed myself in the rental car and let myself sob, and when I could see through my tears, I turned on my wipers and pulled onto Route 80 heading east.