Today is sick day. I squeeze bulging globs of honey into the bottom of my tea and post up on my parents' couch. I should be reading. I pick up one of the 30 photo albums my mom is putting together from dormant picture piles. "I remember this day so well," she says, pointing to one of David and me in saggy swimsuits, puddles stretching their fat fingers under us as we wedge magazines under lawn furniture. "There was nothing special about it, but I can remember it better than a lot of other days."
I have one of those recurring filmy memories, too; I'm standing on a slow-moving boat with lots of other people. When we go under a bridge, the boat is dark for a cool rectangle of time-- just enough time for something to happen, but nothing does. When we slide back into the sunlight, I am waving at someone onshore. There is a city behind them-- it could be Venice. It could be Milwaukee. It could be a movie or a metaphor as much as a memory. I don't have any idea. I don't think it matters.
The next picture my mom and I are looking at is of my brothers and me on a huge couch, all huddled up next to each other, for no reason, our shoulders touching, one person's thigh over another, a sole of someone's foot wedged into the hinge of a knee.
My mom goes upstairs to make a family tree for a class David is taking on marriage counseling. I hear her calling my aunt for a deceased aunt's last name. I wonder what I've already forgotten. Mom comes back downstairs. My tea is tepid.
"Do you remember my crazy Aunt Betty?" she says, taking my cup from the table. "She used to call me when she was drunk and yell at me."
I never met Crazy Aunt Betty. My grandfather and his four siblings have been estranged from each other my whole life. I've always thought it's a useless tragedy to lose proximity to those who are still living.
I start looking for some pasta in the kitchen pantry and Mom keeps telling me things I never knew she knew which is how I usually find out about her memories. "Do we have any olive oil?" I ask her.
"It's up top. Did I ever tell you about Dippy?" She starts boiling water.
"I don't think so."
"My grandma Kenny used to make this stuff called Dippy. You dipped your potato cakes or your breakfast or anything, really, into it. Dippy was a pot of heated lard."
I choose the whole wheat pasta.
"She actually lived a long time for what she ate," Mom says.
Between photo albums, my mom calls my aunt for another lost name. In this album, I'm about three and covered in spaghetti sauce, pointing my fork at Michael and smiling/screaming like my eyes will pop out. The sauce is caked on the tips of my boy-short hair. Michael's eyes are wide and he's not smiling and he's pointing back at me.
My grandma sits next to me in most of these pictures, a composed woman, lean, and almost stern, but really, gentle as cotton, and hiding a twinkle of amusement at every stunt we pulled growing up. I remember her in bursts of moments like a boat that goes in and out of light.
"Where are we here?" I ask my mom of a picture where the boys and I are squashed into submission in one corner of a carpet-backed booth. You can tell we are squirming because everyone has on the show-all-your-teeth-but-don't-smile smile.
"Maybe Black Angus...I don't know, but Grandma must have been there if we took you three to a restaurant at those ages." Grandma's not in the frame, nor is she in most of mine. It's wierd that parents and grandparents see their children on a spectrum of development; remember their young ones peeing in pools, throwing food, getting a diploma, professing their vows, and I only know myself and my brothers in long-gone snippets and a truncated panorama of the present.
My grandma used to go down to the lake with her hands outstretched with bread for the birds, and one day, someone took a picture of her in her red cardigan, seagulls like L's thrown into the air, and the frothy strip of the lake behind them. My mom comes downstairs and says her brother bought roses from all of the siblings for Grandma's grave-- filled 8 years ago today.
I have to sneeze, which I never get to do unless I'm sick, and I look outside at the light to make sure the sneeze makes it to my nose. It doesn't. I have no control over these sorts of things. My mom asks me to proofread the family tree, red flowers sway on their snipped stems 1,000 miles away. My brothers peak out at me from plastic pages saying, "Remember this?" "Remember when..."
I remember looking up from the parking lot at my grandma, in her 5th-story brown chair, staring at Lake Michigan before we left her the last time.
"Mom?" I asked. "Doesn't Grandma get tired of looking?"
And Mom said, "She's done a lot of living. Looking is more than enough."