I won’t go into detail about this particular wandering. I sweat more. I ask for directions back to her bloc in childish Polish. I return only to have to turn around to go back down the deathtrap elevator with my aunt, and to the cemetery.
It is no gray place with faded flags and memorials to half-forgotten relatives, like the ones I’d been to in Pennsylvania. Here, each grave has its own careful caretakers, bearers of memories. Bright plastic flowers cry love among the headstones, and candles glint behind colored glass. Stray cats curl up in the tidy potted greens left by friends, and around us old ladies with rags kneel to wipe the stones until they are shiny. Some of the graves are so old that the names on them are just unreadable nicks in the stones. As we stand at my grandmother’s grave, we watch an old man struggle to lift a full pail of water, and then dump it over a dusty tombstone. How strange this makes cemeteries seem. They are places of loss, not of remembering. I think of my father, of us. We never visit my mother’s grave, after all these years.
I never met my father’s mother, and I realize now that I don’t know how she died, let alone who she had been alive. But it’s one of those things that feels too late to ask about. My aunt and I place the flowers I’d gotten from the corner kiosk on the tombstone. I hadn’t known what to pick and the flower seller’s glare made me nervous. So I’d pointed to a bunch I recognized as daisies. It wasn’t until I was running away that I realized how sad and worn-out they looked.
We walk and she shows me the graves of many people she has known. Their childhood nanny is there, near the back. An orange cat winds himself around our legs as my aunt tells me that this woman had been half crazy with love for the two of them, her and my father. That she had kept locks of their hair in a locket around her neck until she died. This alarms me, and my aunt can tell. She bends down to pet the cat and squints up at me. “That’s how much she loved us. Can you not see it?” she asks. “That’s sad.”
After she eases herself back up, she squeezes my arm “Your father can be a little cold.”
When we get back to the apartment, I finally shower. When I am dressed she has a glass of milk for me at the table. I sit and take a sip. It’s lukewarm and tastes different, which is frightening when it comes to milk. She pulls out a small velvet box. I open it. It’s a pair of square gold cufflinks.
“Do you like it?”
“Don’t be good. You can say no!”
“No, I really like them,” I say louder, and I do, though I’m not sure what the gift is for.
I kiss her goodnight on the cheek. She goes to the couch and plumps up the pillows she has left for me there. She’s made up a bed of blue sheets for me that, for the whole long summer, she will make in the evening and then tear apart each morning while I eat breakfast.
What will I do that summer? I will chart routes for buying milk, bread, and flowers on the back of my hand. I will relearn words of the soft, shuttering language of my childhood that have been hiding in some dark closet of my brain. I will look at old pictures in secret, sitting on the peach-colored toilet. Pictures my father must have sent. My mother in a blue dress, with her hair pinned back. One of me in diapers in our old house. My mother with her stomach swollen with me inside. I will sink into thinking about what I don’t remember. And I will forget about Aunt Aga’s health.
I will be OK until one day in July when my frustration will overtake me. For the lack of explanations I have been given in my life, for the silence about things I should know about myself, and about my mother. I will pace the living-room carpet until I decide to break into my aunt’s bedroom and steal my first cigarette. I will smoke it while sitting on the toilet, in a desperate fury, trying not to cry. I will cough a lot and my aunt will open the door, grab me by the collar, my pants still around my ankles, and drag me out. She will pluck the cigarette from my hand and flush it.
“You want your father to kill me before I die anway?” she will ask, tapping her chest in the place where the pacemaker keeps the time for her heart. “Aren’t you here to take care of me? It’s not the other way around! Sit.”
She will go to the kitchen and bring back milk and cake that has the texture of sand. She will pick up the photos that have fallen on the ground and tuck them into her apron.
That summer, away from my father and his insistent silence, what I don’t know about my mother will become a big nothing that no pictures can beat back. It will be as if I am looking inside myself with a telescope, and on the other end all I can see is vast, empty space. Is this how he feels, too? I will think. I will see why he avoids the subject of her, why I am left to try to find her on my own. He could describe her in a million ways, but he would never find the right words. Our missing piece, which is a story in itself. I will hide in the bathroom looking at these photos for the rest of the summer and will never find an ending to this story. ♦