I’m late. “The wayward son” someone declares as I enter the house. The table is set with food, my great grandmother, a withered shell of a woman, is situated at her usual seat in the center of the table. She neither hears nor speaks nor sees nor even remembers the future progenitor of her dead husband’s name. I wonder that no one has espoused the concept that the soul begins its departure of the body even before the body dies. Someone mentions that my cousin is in mourning – ‘has secluded himself in the west wing,’ I think to myself, recalling a line from a favorite movie.
I set voraciously into the lunch, salad and pasta, a meatball and broccoli. I hear what sounds like a conversation, underneath our own discussion at the table. “What’s that noise in the other room?” I ask. “Your cousin, he’s unbearable, he broke up with his girlfriend, even when you’re talking to him he’ll interrupt you to say something like, ‘I should have known months ago.’” I just smile. It’s hard, but it had to happen, hopefully he’ll grow because of it.
My grandfather, quiet for a while, instigates a political discussion. There’re few social activities I like less than political conversations with people who can’t site historical examples, so I cleared my plate and set about investigating the frozen cream pie.
There is something about grandmothers and thawing out pies. They never seem to remember until it is too late and rather than keeping their mouths shut they announce the fact that they have a pie but that it can’t be eaten, I imagine a dog must feel the same way walking into a room to witness someone pouring steak scraps down the garbage disposal.
I slid a knife through the whipped cream but the banana cream proved impenetrable. My grandmother mentioned ice cream and my cousin, from the other room and still on the phone, announced his desire for a bowl.
The table was cleared and cards were brought out and my cousin even set aside the phone. A game was selected that required little concentration and I spent most of my time at the table engrossed in a biblical history book, reading about David, Jesus, Jehosephat and others. My grandfather seemed disinterested and I could see him sitting in the low light of the living room, beyond the far edge of the table.
My book choice was a good one. I could tell that my grandmother was pleased with my interest in the bible and I was entertained by the historic political intrigue that had, through the chance fate of a prophet, obtained otherworldly reverence.
Somehow the afternoon progressed. Not much happened; I was dealt out of cards after I began to win a poker game I wasn’t even watching (if you don’t use chips, it’s not really poker, I say); my parents, my uncle and my grandmother played spades; my grandmother scraped the side of her car on a retaining wall while everyone watched in horror through the dining room window and my father adopted an air of melodrama; I consoled my cousin that people deal with breakups in different ways and that given a few months, the world would make more sense. He asked me how I knew so much and I was lost for a tactful response that could convey both my experience and respect for the fair sex. If he thinks I’m gay, at least he’s nice about it.
The next thing I knew I was eating again, the day was slipping away comfortably but uneventfully – an acceptable break to my usual life of lofty goals and self-imposed stress.
Amidst a typical moment of Italian confusion, my grandfather was being served a bowl of reheated wonton soup at the counter, “Make room so your grandfather can sit over here,” my mother said surreptitiously. I cleared a space and grabbed his hot bowl while it was unattended on the counter. “I was going to eat here,” he objected, walking into the room. “No, you’ve been moved over here,” I said as I placed the bowl on the table. He didn’t seem to mind and shuffled to his new seat.
I bounced around on my cousin’s giant inflatable ball and made jabs at the conversation around the table. I can’t say now where exactly my mind was the whole time but I recall little interaction yet little boredom. My mother declared that it was time for them to go and that was my cue to go as well. I drove separately, I don’t live with them anymore, but I wouldn’t leave before or after.
The older the family gets, the longer it takes to coordinate the hugs good bye. I wasn’t the first, but as I hugged my grandfather, his soft and wrinkled face beside my own, the fluff of his sweater beneath my chin, tears began to choke his voice and his weight was unsteady beside me. He held my hand a moment after we parted. Glossed with water, I realized the richness of his brown eyes, how they seemed so lifelike under the aging skin. What is it, fear, that keeps us from holding each other, from drawing so close we can never let go? I quickly found my grandmother dishing a bag of pistachios to my mother in the pantry. She was telling my mother how much a certain cat prefers a certain cat food. “Oh, grandma, that’s not cat food!” I declared in mock admonition. “Those are nuts.” She smiled and touched my arm and led us in imagining a cat peeling off the hard shells with his little paws. But I was in two places at once and when I smiled it wasn’t completely me.