I chose the isle seat on every flight, and never regretted it in spite of wishing I could see the Rockies spread out from above like some remarkable crumpled map, each mountain crested with white, the plains wide and even like some celestial quilt, roads stitched in between wide expanse, each farm a lonely marker of existence, trucks no bigger than fleas on the back of a dog.
Across the isle there is a man with eyelashes that remind me of my husband’s. In spite of my copious hand talking, and my double rings: engagement, and wedding, he seems enchanted, curious, gregarious and then subdued when he finally asks, “Are you married?” Apparently the reflexive ring-check all my single girlfriend’s do before even looking twice isn't instinctual for men. "Yes," I laugh. He looks temporarily disheartened, but then we forge ahead, and in the way I always do, I ask bold, impertinent questions that require vulnerability and heart. Conversations on the plane afford this: hello, goodbye. Fleeting snapshots. Anything goes.
“What would you do if money weren’t a concern,” I ask.
He isn’t sure how to answer, and when he says the generic things like travel more and see his family more often I prod a bit. Finally he says, “I’d become a vet. It’s what I should have done when I started, but now I’m too old. I’d be fifty by the time I was ready to practice, if I started now.”
He shows me pictures of his dogs: a black mutt and a golden that’s just died. He misses her. Shows me a half dozen photos.
In pictures, all dogs end up looking the same. They run and stand and loll and saunter, and to their owner each one is emblematic of their unique dog-ness, but to a bystander all that personality gets rinsed away and save for puppies with their too-big paws and big ears, dog’s all look pretty much the same. Still I look at every one, and then we talk about how growing up with money to burn makes you a different kind of person than growing up without it. We’re both of the latter type, and across the isle for a handful of moments above the Rockies it’s us against them.
Before we hit the runway he asks for my name, and I tell him, but only my first and so he tells me his name is Mark, and I leave ahead of him and never look back. This whole interaction has me wondering about the meaning of everyone we meet. My mother likes to say that we’re all connected, all part of an interconnected web of karma that unfurls over lifetimes, each person entering our lives meaningful to us in some way.
It’s my mother I’m going to see, and my sisters, the lot of us together for the first time in a decade; for the first time since my father died.
Family, that inexplicable thing that it is. The people that make us, fiber and bone, but also the ones from whom we learn the map of our own reactions and earliest perceptions of ourselves. They hold the fun-house mirrors and the truth. Our lives, witnessed in blurry fragments. “See that white horse?” my older sister asked me once. We were standing by a coral on the new land my dad had bought in Northern California that would become the home I lived in for the longest as a kid. “Yes,” I said, already climbing the fence. “I wonder if you can ride it?” she might have asked. A mere intimation, a suggestion was all it took and I was over the fence and onto it’s back, riding willy-nilly, break neck to the other side of the paddock and back with nothing more to hold onto than the white rope of it's mane. That’s how we were: my older sister always suggesting or protecting, one extreme or the other. Either sending me hurtling down hill in a little red wagon with no way to stop, or guarding my secrets fiercely. First crushes, and covert outfits. Now she’s as tightly wound as the vintage clock that no longer ticks on the mantle of the place we’ve rented in Denver’s Cap Hill neighborhood, and all I can do is rub her shoulders, even though she doesn't ask. The neighborhood is full of big old limestone houses, every other one set out with skulls and pumpkins, nearly the entire city turning out for Saturday’s Zombie Crawl. We try to find our stride, conversations happening between the indecision and decision of what to make for dinner; between the meltdowns of one sweet and sensitive boy, and the nap times of the other; between waking up and going to sleep in an unfamiliar place, all of us talking at once. Both sisters have their boys with them. I've left mine at home: sparkling, spinning, gap-toothed and bright-eyed. I miss them, even as I'm glad for the ease of my unencumbered self. Just me and my luggage at the airport, and at dinner I'm the one who can offer extra hands. My younger sister’s husband bravely joins us at the table. Later, as it’s just the two of us flipping through channels on TV while my younger sister puts her darling babe down, and my mom and older sister have gone back to the place we’re staying he says, “you all certainly don’t lack in conversation.” The kindest midwestern way of saying: we’re an intense bunch of talkers. And we are. We walk through the botanical gardens and my younger sister unfolds a perfect picnic blanket under the falling yellow leaves of a quaking aspen, and then spreads containers of olives and pickled beats, curried chicken salad and bagels. She’s gracefully thought of everything without us ever asking, and we gratefully eat. What I learn from the trip is to just be there, side by side. To hold my arms open wide. To apologize without the friction of ego. To wash the dishes, and then to wash more when they get added to the sink. To offer my hand to one nephew and my bouncing lap to the other and to try as much as I can to move like water between the moments. I stay up late, talking with my mother. She tells me stories, like lost stitches in the tapestry of my lineage. About my great grandfather who owned gold mines and gambled; about my grandmother’s unrequited love; about the cruelty of seventh grade for my mother; about the first boy she loved who died at 19 in a machinery accident. The whole time I'm with them, I'm feeling the shape of the stories that we're living. One afternoon while I’m holding my younger sister’s sleeping baby in my lap I start reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids , aloud to her as she lies on the floor with her huge white cat. It’s one of the most beautiful beginnings to a book I’ve ever read, nearly a prose poem, each line perfect, spare, visually stunning. On the way home I nearly finish it, reading hungrily about her hunger. I can feel the way I'm craving the evidence she shares. The proof that artists live some part of their lives circling the secret of their calling before their way. It's solace to me, even as I measure the decades between her first success and mine, and come up late by a long shot. Still, I underline as I read, and fill my notebook with snapshots from the time with family I’ve just spent. The stories that claim me. The stories that I claim. More than ever I can feel the way certain embers in my ribcage have begun flare up with the unavoidable heat of this again: to write is everything to me. Over and over again I find my way to this truth, even as I'm circling around what it means for my life in every day terms. Always there are stories making me, and in the making every day.
I want to hear the stories of your family. Not the one you’ve made, but the one that made you.
What have you learned about yourself from knowing them?
What stories do you claim, and what stories claim you?