by Anna Egeland
Across the street from Hopkins
prestigious prep school on a hill,
around the corner from Joe Lieberman’s old stone mansion:
Ivy tracing patterns on chipped stucco,
and in the backyard
(more like a jungle)
a flagpole stands, bare,
as if this is a church, a school, a courthouse
as if to say: everyone who was anyone used to have
Before the ivy turned brown,
this house roared:
a 6ft spruce in the sitting room every Christmas,
dressed in ancient glass and “real” tinsel,
and each person opening gifts, going youngest to oldest,
as the others watched, sitting in a circle,
all 20 of us.
Before the ivory chipped off the piano keys,
before the piano
(an upright, abandoned and perpetually out of tune)
became a shrine for family photos,
I practiced chopsticks, Für Elise,
skipping the broken key.
Upstairs, I scoured the bookshelves
taking everything in French, every ancient chemistry textbook,
every collection of American once-contemporary poetry
and sifted through tins full of buttons:
sometimes velvet, black, gold,
with lattice patterns like the tops of pies.
I was the only one who played in the yard
and once, running out to the pond,
found a deer, dead in the still green water
its skull showing through curled flesh.
I ran back to the house to get my father
(he still remembers, says the deer probably didn’t drown,
but maybe got hit by a car and stumbled into the yard).
I have always been afraid
of the cellar door that slams shut,
of Uncle David’s sculpture
(a plaster pyramid with protruding faces: casts of his college friends)
and after Uncle Freddy died,
my uncles said they heard the vacuum turn on by itself sometimes
The last time I saw my uncle Freddy
he had been sleeping on the couch in the sunroom
fingers lacing ribs, I hugged him,
worried at how his skin hung from his body,
saw his non-alcoholic beer sitting on the tray table:
an alcoholic’s methadone
(but no one ever called him an alcoholic).
Two months later
at the bottom of the stairs, my grandfather found him:
blood blending with red plush carpet,
seeping through the floorboards into the cellar,
it had been days.
We will never know whyhe died.
All I could think was how he had liked me best,
gave me his Hemingway editions
passed down from his great aunt to him
to me when I was in fifth grade–
a little too young for Hemingway
(but he knew I was smart for my age, liked classic literature).
After the funeral, on-and-off Sharon told me
she found a quarter in the sleeve of his silk Yankees jacket
(there was a hole in the pocket, it had slipped into the lining)
like a sign, she said, he left it there for me
and I nodded.
After he died,
the house got quiet.
No more drunken arguments with my mother
when he came back at 2AM:
You all left me here to take care of dad,
you’re only here to help 2 weeks out of the year
(Being my grandfather’s caretaker was a burden,
a source of power also).
Uncle Freddy’s friends never came by the house anymore
(money? – we weren’t sure)
and he no longer left us take out menus on the kitchen table,
with handwritten notes:
Try Mamoun’s– the best falafel in New Haven!
And so we would stop by
on the way home from college:
My mother would clean,
and I would eat breakfast with my grandfather,
looking out the French doors.
He would tell me about the stock market
(CSX was his latest investment:
the most fuel efficient way to move goods)
or he would lean in,
and very seriously suggest
that I join the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.
Just once he told me
the story of how he met Benny Goodman,
while he was on a date
with Irving Berlin’s daughter.
(It was his first and only date
with Mary Ellin)
I still wonder why there was never
a second date.
It is so strange, how is turns to was
in a second
we sing my grandfather’s favorite song
(the Yale Bulldog song)
the last thing we do before they take his body,
and I want to say
sing louder! He can’t hear us, he is/was deaf!
Last Christmas he gave me two shoeboxes
full of old stamps–
I heard a rumor you collect stamps, I hope it’s true.
My uncles told me he spent days soaking them in warm water
to get them off the envelopes.
We all thought he was immortal.
92 years old, he once told me
he would have to get a new pacemaker at 94,
and then that would last him until 104
and then he would have to get another.
90 pounds, I wish I could forget his body, his sickness
the way bones rested
on bones like sharp,
like no amount of pillows
could make him look comfortable.
The nurse had just arrived at the house
when he died.
My mother had gone to get the door
and when she came back
I heard her ask from the next room: is he still breathing?
When I got up
she said hold his hand one last time,
it’s still warm.
It is so strange, how we grieve:
Aunt Barbara tells funny stories, makes jokes while
her tears slow, evaporate, slow again
and I am laughing anxiously while
Uncle Johnny stands silent,
embodying what he thinks the word “strong” means
doesn’t even cry (is he even sad we wonder).
My mother and I spend two hours in Stop and Shop
reading all of the ingredients on every label
putting things in the cart, taking them back out
studying the difference between two brands of sausage that neither of us will eat.
Generic maple syrup or Spring Tree 100% Pure?
The $30 champagne or $15?
We throw ourselves into cooking,
not just one dish, five:
fettuccini alfredo, spaghetti with two meat sauces (canned tomatoes and fresh)
blueberry muffins (made with olive oil and egg whites), grilled vegetables,
breaded chicken, grilled chicken, garlic bread.
There are five people in the kitchen,
three telling me how full to fill the paper muffin liners.
Just before 10pm we finally sit down to eat–
there are nine of us but she keeps saying ten
and everyone is drunk and no one cries.
Three generations of traditions,
of stuff, of photographs, of backyard weeds
and we will spend the next year
cleaning it all out:
going through photos
Do you know who that is? No?
It’s a silk Vera Maxwell shirt, but there’s a stain, do you want it?
Fixing and replacing and removing
until there is no more us
(people don’t want us).
Too bad none of us can afford it.
My family wants to make it a historic landmark–
the mayor once lived here,
it used to be a tree nursery, that’s why it’s all
Copper Beech in the backyard:
they brought them over from England.
My cousin Savannah wants the great oak bureau,
cousin Austin wants
the beer glasses from the basement,
I say I don’t want anything
but really, I want the letters, the stamps, and the photographs
I want the crumbling stone pillars outside of the shed,
the claw foot bathtub that sits
full of tools and empty shampoo bottles,
I want the bizarre ceramic frog lamp, the porch,
and the red velvet window seat,
I want the lead paint.