I stand at the top of the stairs and cannot remember why I have climbed them. Am I heading to the left, into my son's bedroom? Right, into my study? Straight-ahead, into the bathroom? I try to retrieve the errand that has sent me up all three flights of stairs on this Thanksgiving morning with a house full of guests and a slew of things to do. Nothing.
I dig my hands deep into the recesses of my bathrobe pockets searching for a clue—a barrette I meant to clip into my hair in the bathroom? A Nerf dart from my son's arsenal that I meant to drop in his toy bin? A receipt for the "Expense" folder in my study? My pockets are empty.
I climb back down the stairs, pour myself a cup of coffee and pause by the kitchen window staring out. Though it is November in Baltimore, the tree outside still has green leaves clinging to its dark branches. While the tree began shedding its small fruit in early fall, letting the berries rot in the plentiful sun of Indian summers, the leaves are tenacious, holding on fiercely until winter proper bursts through and rips them off in a single day. That day has not yet come, but it is imminent. Is it a mulberry tree? I can never recall.
I watch a squirrel race down the trunk, pausing to look around suspiciously before gliding out across a flimsy branch that dips with his weight as he approaches its narrow tip and I wonder, What if my memory fails entirely? For a moment, I let my thoughts slide out to the dangerous tip.
Sometimes I worry that words have begun failing me already—and not just because I could not pull the right word from my head, but because, in that snarl of words and thoughts racing around inside my brain, I have occasionally darted in to grab one and pulled out its neighbor. I meant to say, Where is the dog's bowl? Instead, Where is the dog's ball? would come out. And sometimes I reverse phrases. Recently, when I intended to call my son Zack from the other room to take the garbage out, I shouted, Hey, come take the Zack out.
As I stand staring out the kitchen window wondering how long it will take the Mylar balloon that had tangled in the telephone wire some months back to fully decompose and disappear, I let my thoughts unspool until I land in a terrifying scenario where my current memory lapses are not just because I'm approaching 50, are not just menopause or stress, but are in fact the first signs of Alzheimer's.
I envision putting labels on the cupboard doors so I can remember where the plates in my kitchen are. I see myself at a dinner party with my husband's long-time colleagues, looking desperately around the table, unable to name a single person present (How nice, though, to perhaps be meeting them for the first time and hearing their stories as though they were fresh yarns). But what about my work? I imagine I will have to start carrying a small notebook in the back pocket of my jeans everywhere I go, pulling it out at the most inopportune moments to scrawl a thought I've grasped from the miasma of my mind, before it flits away from me, free and unrecorded. Eventually my journalism—the way I make my living—would become impossible because, if one grasps the wrong words from thin air, especially if one brackets them with quotation marks, problems will certainly arise.
The squirrel outside the window has taken a rest midway down a limb and is gathering a cluster of three berries, methodically breaking them apart and packing them into his cheeks. I take a sip of my cooling coffee and watch him, wondering when my guests, who are sleeping upstairs, will arise, thinking I should sweep the kitchen floor while the room is still silent and empty. Instead, I give the counter a swipe with the sponge, put the pumpkin pie I had made the night before into an antique cake tin on top of the Hoosier—reminding myself, don't forget the pie is in the cake tin—and wonder, as I return to my cup resting on the window sill and glance out at the busy creature, how many berries can he pack into his mouth?
Here is something, I muse. Perhaps I might file the first Worker's Comp lawsuit in the country for a journalist who argues that memory loss is an on-the-job injury. This work of reporting, I would insist, has caused me to lose track of my words. By spending day after day, week after week, year after year carefully collecting others' words in interviews and storing them in my mental filing cabinet, my mind has morphed into a pack-rat's jumbled lair and it has become harder and harder for me to locate the desired word when I need it. And the pie is in the cake tin, I remind myself.
Suppose, I consider, already enjoying the windfall my lawsuit would bring, I build an airtight case, forever lauded as a precedent in the annals of labor history? I will argue thus: If I collect the telling phrases of my subjects, I can't just toss them after I've filed the story. They stay with me. I think of the overworked Louisiana lawyer I spoke to last week who told me, "I'm up to my armpits in alligators." Or the Texan who described her skinny husband as "standing just this side of gaunt." My job requires me to sweep the phrases in, tuck them in a mental crevice, dredge them for later use as I sit down at the computer to re-draw these characters, invoking these colorful, country-western idioms to share an image with my readers. I apply the phrases to page, but it is not as if I have discarded the words. I have merely cut-and-pasted them. The original words—the thin cowboy, say, who I visualize as standing beside his thinner friend, Gaunt, or the bespectacled attorney in his three-piece suit splashing around in a swamp of alligators—remain inside my head, added to the plaque narrowing the pipes of my mind and slowing the efficient production of words.
I will eloquently explain to a jury—with the assistance of 3" x 5" index cards to jog my memory, of course—that words are an occupational hazard. I will ask them to consider, also, the wrenching stories I collect from my interview subjects that are similarly imprinted on my hard drive, never to be erased: I ask and listen and nod as their most terrible moments (the teenaged son shot by an irritated neighbor because he set off the car alarm, the woman raped by co-workers in Iraq, the addict whose mother turned her out to the streets at 13) are thrust at me like a bundle of unwashed clothes in a tangle of sorrow so deep the folks later apologize for handing it over to me, believing that I might carry the burden instead of them but realizing, too late, that I only lug the sorrow around with me forever in addition to them. All this I would tell the jury…if only I could find the right words, the right metaphors—but they are mixed, random, irrelevant. The right ones elude me. But what if the right ones are mixed, random, irrelevant; what if reality—accurately reflected—is a jumble?
I unload the dishwasher, check the cupboard to make sure we have chicken stock for the gravy, begin a shopping list of last minute items—butter, onions for the stuffing, heavy cream—and then clip the list to the fridge door with a magnet. Upstairs, I hear people stirring. The floorboards creak in the guest room above the kitchen and soon the visitors will descend wanting toast, coffee, milk in a Sippy cup for the toddler. Where did I put the Sippy cup when I unloaded the dishwasher? I reach for my own cup and take a sip, staring.
The squirrel is still there, his cheeks packed, now leaping nimbly from the dipping tree branch onto the Time Warner cable and racing off to his den. Do squirrels have "dens?" What is the word I am looking for?
I am reading Nicholas Mosley's 1990 book, "Hopeful Monsters," that swirls around German philosophers and the rise of Nazism and there is a provocative passage my thoughts have returned to again and again over the past few days. Now, as I rinse the sponge in warm water and wipe the counters, the table, the top of the microwave, my mind drifts back. The German protagonist, Eleanor, is going to hear the philosopher Heidegger speak at Freiburg University in 1929. Heidegger mistrusts words. "[W]ords were good for saying what things were not; they were not good for saying what things were," Eleanor says, summarizing Heidegger's ideas. She wonders, given this mistrust of language, how he will lecture. "Will he come on and be silent? Will he make noises no one understands?"
Heidegger then comes on stage and delivers a semi-conventional lecture that reads as a sequel to his thoughts on words. In a sense, understanding the limits of words—and language and science—can be liberating, he says. When we recognize that words are always inadequate—because they can describe only the known world and not the world we suspect is out there beyond the limits of our grasp—we can draw comfort from our disorientation. If we do not feel that our words adequately describe our relationship to objects, we are correct. We are, in fact, disoriented for a reason. The words we have available to us do not explain reality.
I sweep the crumbs from the counter into my cupped hand, tap at the broken step can lid to make it open, toss the bits and begin to consider words as disposable objects—nouns, verbs, adjectives that I leave one at a time behind me like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, as I walk deeper into the dark forest. What if I want to find my way back?
I am sure I am bastardizing Heidegger with Grimm.
The protagonist, Eleanor, does her own bastardizing, she admits:
What Heidegger said in his inaugural lecture (or what I imagined him to have said: I have kept my notes) was roughly this—Science takes us to the limit of what we can know about objects: beyond science there is nothing. But this nothing is postulated by science, for how can science be aware of itself except from a standpoint of what is beyond it? Facing this nothing we experience dread: but we also experience rapture, because it is what gives us a sense of our own freedom from the tyranny of things. It also gives us the possibility of being in a knowing relation to things. Without this nothing, we would ourselves be just things.
Another character succinctly summarizes: "Nothing is that which makes possible the revelation of what is!"
So perhaps, I consider, letting my cold hands linger under the faucet's warm running water—ostensibly rinsing the sponge—the specter of "nothing" (a word-less world) that haunts me might also be embraced as something that frees me from the "tyranny of things" that I can name and the perpetual mad scramble to pin down experience with words.
And then I think about the 1920s in Germany that Mosley was writing about in "Hopeful Monsters" and whether there was a heightened disconnect between words and meaning, and whether tyrants could more easily slip into power between those two spaces—and would I recognize such a political shift were it to happen here, in contemporary America? What would it look like, I wonder, casting about for the words that might describe such a scenario but also wondering whether naming the thing—attaching words—would have any power at all to forestall events?
In "Hopeful Monsters," the protagonist Eleanor has a conversation with her father about this—but her father argues that Hitler's own words made his intentions overt:
I had not come across Nazis much at this time. Hitler's first attempt to get power in 1923 in Munich had failed: he had gone to jail. Afterwards not much was heard of him till the first Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1927. Then I had said to my father 'But what is it that makes them different from other right-wing groups?'
My father had said 'They are the only political party who are honest about what they want.'
I had said 'What do they want?'
He had said 'To kill everyone who is not like them.'
I had said 'But what are they like?'
He had said 'They are like people who want to kill everyone who is not like them.'
I had said 'But then surely other people will kill them first.'
My father had said 'No, because they are politicians and no one believes them.'
So the words were there with such a leader as Hitler, but the people discounted them, a failure of imagination preventing them from following the words to their logical, deadly conclusion, I think, as I scrub at the burnt food which had bubbled over the pot last night leaving black, crusted pools on the white stove top. It was a matter of having missed the words somehow, distracted by living, I suppose as I glance up.
Out the window, the squirrel has gone. For a while, my dogs gave futile chase, running back and forth beneath the tree, barking, as the acrobat ignored them. Now that the squirrel has ceased his busy work, the dogs—a dignified Belgian Shepherd and her Sancho Panza, a portly Aussie—lie peacefully in a patch of morning sunlight on the back porch. For a moment, the wind picks up and I watch as they suddenly lift their heads in perfect unison, alert at a scent, I imagine, that invokes some ancient memory. They freeze—ears in the radar position—and then together lower their muzzles back onto their paws as the memory passes.
What scent on the breeze briefly enervated them? My dogs have a rich interior life, or anyway, being mute, they agreeably shoulder my projections, and as I go into the dining room to survey the damage from our late night partying, I speculate about the memories they hang onto—Did someone passing through the alley with a breakfast sandwich trigger some youthful triumph? Ah, that reminds me of the day that the toddler dropped his bacon on the floor—and begin to collect the remaining beer bottles that still sit on the table from last night. The odor of old beer won't go so well with the biscuits I'm considering making for breakfast. Six, seven, eight, nine empty bottles of beer, three empty bottles of red wine, two bottles of white and a bottle of scotch with a finger full in the bottom. I give the bottles a rinse—Jesus, we drank a lot—and scrawl beer on the list clipped to the fridge.
There weren't that many of us last night, two old friends from college and their partners and kids, my mother, my sister. Just like Thanksgiving last year. Same guests. Same house. Same pies. Same conversations. I consider how people who have been friends for a long time can speak in shorthand. Hey, maybe my collection of words isn't as necessary here; I can abbreviate? I say college, and there is no need to name the place, we are all conjuring up the same image of our alma mater and the people we were then. But every once in a while, talk takes a sharp, surprising turn from the familiar terrain. Last night, things got heated between one friend who teaches high school math and several of us who teach in the arts.
"You ought to be able to evaluate anything based on a rubric," said the math-teacher friend.
"Bullshit!" my husband shot back. "How would you use a rubric for a scene-study class or for playwriting?" He banged his glass of scotch down on the table, got up and strode into the kitchen to let the dogs out the back door. He teaches theater at Towson University and can't image what students would learn from that kind of feedback. But his response seemed out of proportion. I felt sorry for the shy math teacher, wife of the friend we have known since college, so brave about wading into this snarl of old relationships and their tangles of love and resentments. "I don't think rubrics are all that useful for writing," I said, trying to temper his vehemence a bit.
"I found them useful when I was in graduate school," said the math teacher. "At least I could understand why I got what I did, grade-wise, on a paper."
"Well," I said. "Maybe they're useful for evaluation but they're not really useful for helping a person become a better writer."
My husband huffed back into the dining room and sat down. "They're not even useful for evaluation," he said.
"Well, maybe—" I began.
"No!" he interrupted. "All they do is appease some administrator somewhere that something like objective fairness exists."
"And maybe convince that administrator's boss that 'measurable objectives' are being obtained."
"Well, that's what I'm saying. You could use a rubric to evaluate—"
"How? That's ridiculous!"
"—like you could have these boxes you checked off for a journalism article—"
"What? What boxes would you possibly have?"
What were we really arguing about? "I don't know, maybe—"
"What? What possible categories?" he demanded. He was furious and I suddenly understood we were disagreeing about something different. We had been at each other a bit lately; such "categories" were a don't-fence-me-in metaphor, do not presume to know me based on a composite picture of my words; words represent only that which we are willing to share.
I glared at him. "Maybe 'clarity,' 'grammar,' 'accuracy,' whatever." Honesty, truth, revelation, I thought. "Did they include a byline, a nutgraf, a headline?" I continued. "There are some basics."
"Sure," he said. "But even if they hit all the bases, it won't make it good—or meaningful."
"True," I agreed.
"It won't be art," he said.
"It won't be art," I agreed again and glowered at him across the table, loving and hating him in equal measures as a silence settled in the room.
"How about dessert?" my sister asked.
The phone rings. My sister is on her way to the 5K Turkey Trot but is wondering what time she should come for dinner.
"We're eating at seven," I say, "but come before for cocktail hour."
Are folks stirring yet at the house, she wants to know.
Enjoy the peace, she says, ringing off.
Outside the window, I can see that my squirrel has returned to the tree, frantically flying from limb to limb in a frenzied search for the elusive berries and I think, Ahh, peace—indeed. I open the pages of "The Joy of Cooking" to see how long it takes to roast a 16-pound turkey. Who can remember when one cooks this meal only once a year? Twenty-four minutes per pound. I dump my coffee dregs in the sink and pour myself a fresh cup, thinking that I should perhaps make a fresh pot for the guests or at least sweep the floor, but my inability to name the species of this tree outside the window continues to nag at me. I should Google mulberry as that would probably bring up a photo of the genus and I could compare the berries and these dark green leaves. If I read about the tree, then I could know why it is that the foliage clings so desperately into the fall before letting go.
But then, I would have to climb all the way up three flights of stairs to my laptop in the study and I would probably just get to the top of the stairs and forget why I was there, anyway. I would, again, stare out at nothingness. I think therefore I am, I forget therefore I am not.
What did Heidegger mean about this sense of nothingness being liberating? I envision standing on a cliff—this is how I always pictured death—and falling into a black void where the thick air catches me and I simply float horizontal. It is restful, peaceful, this nothingness. Words and the tyranny of things left behind.
But I also wonder about the danger here. Words are limited, yes, but we lean on them to describe experience—the "tyranny," even, of our daily lives and political landscape. And my thoughts travel back to Heidegger the person, as opposed to Heidegger the philosopher, who joined the Nazi party and who, by most accounts, was bucking to be chosen as the official philosopher of Nazism. (He was not selected.) If, in a populist movement, demagogues like Hitler whipped up a middle class that felt betrayed and neglected by railing against educated "elites," was he not also railing against language itself, the words and ideas we collect in a liberal education that allow us to incorporate complex notions outside our own direct experience?
If words are all we have at our disposal to describe our experience—both the reality of our lives and the hints at subtext—then does a limited vocabulary translate into a reduced ability to describe the world, a limited imagination, a failure to walk in someone else's shoes with understanding and empathy, an impulse "to kill everyone who is not like them," as Eleanor's father said of the Nazis in "Hopeful Monsters?"
And then I catch myself; what it is about the scorched earth scenarios invading my thoughts today?
Staring at the grocery list on the fridge, I know I have forgotten something. Heidegger, Nazi Germany, the political terrain have taken up the space on my mental hard drive where chicken stock, beer, and onions were supposed to be. I consider the list of words…but what else? I open the fridge and stand there looking. But I can't remember what it was I was looking for. I rack my brains. Nothing. Oh, yes, heavy cream for the pumpkin pie. Zack will make the whipped cream, I think, as he does every year—adding too much powered sugar and, once, dumping a tablespoon of vanilla in instead of a teaspoon.
Do we have vanilla?
There are too many things to keep track of. Ahh, so here is the "tyranny of things" that Heidegger's "nothing" would free me from. But moving now from the profound to the prosaic, would that include my relationship with other "objects"—such as my son (though he might chafe at being thus designated)? Thinking this way requires me to weigh the transitive nature of those relations. Maybe we are always letting go of such relationships, shifting the words we use to describe them, because they are always changing—certainly a mother is always letting go of her child, a little more each day, month, year. Intimacy wanes. And the more intimate we are to begin with in all our relationships, the more likely we are to notice the gaps in our knowledge of another. I flip Heidegger's "Nothing is that which makes possible the revelation of what is" to consider the opposite: Who or what my son is, as I understand him, only puts into sharp relief this vast other part of his reality that I will never know.
I say this both in a nuts-and-bolts sense—I recently discovered that the then-14-year-old had ducked out of school to spend the day prowling the neighborhood with a friend of his that I had never met—and in a more abstract way. As a child reaches adolescence, we parents are forced to acknowledge what we always secretly suspected: We were never really in charge of molding their plastic little minds; they were always their own little person with a rich interior life we never accessed. I suppose Heidegger would suggest this is the "unknown" we always suspected was out there.
I try to track the change. Up until my son was three, I could account for the origins of every word in his vocabulary; his father and I taught him to speak, of course, and knew where and when and how each word entered his lexicon. But when he entered preschool, he began to pull words from teachers, classmates, complete strangers at the bodega as I used the ATM and he chatted nearby at the freezer section—and we lost that intimate understanding of his world experience, who he was.
What is troubling to me in my scorched earth scenario of memory loss is that the unknown parts of him will just keep growing. I will know him less and less as time passes and my memory fades, until finally I won't even recall his name or relationship to me. Or is this just a hyperbolic manifestation of every parent's worst fears that children they once knew so intimately they could tell the I'm hungry cry from the I'm uncomfortably wet cry will eventually only call on Easter, Christmas—and Thanksgiving?
And me, if I can collect the breadcrumbs quickly, will I still have enough words to tell my dutiful son, whose voice sounds vaguely familiar as I answer the phone in the Alzheimer's ward of the nursing home on Thanksgiving day, "It's so nice to hear from friends…or family."
"What is a six letter word for the Goddess of Wisdom?" my mother-in-law had demanded a month earlier as we sat on her enclosed and over-heated back porch in Lancaster, Ontario, passing the slow hours from breakfast to Thanksgiving dinner. Every year we celebrate this holiday twice, once in October for what I insist on calling "Canadian Thanksgiving" (and which my Canadian husband always corrects to simple "Thanksgiving") and once in November for Thanksgiving proper (which my husband always corrects to "American Thanksgiving"). My mother-in-law has her own theories about memory—and she trots them out regularly. Her favorite: the-mind-is-a-muscle-in-need-of-daily-workouts theorem. She insists that doing the crossword every day improves your memory when you are young and slows its decline as you age. She's been doing the crossword puzzle every day since they started running them in The Montreal Gazette 50 years back. She's 90, and pretty sharp. "Case in point," she often says. Her husband, on the other hand, never did a crossword puzzle in his life; he died with dementia five years back, snapping his fingers to try to recall his grandson's name—though, in the way of old people who have edited their mental hard-drives to the essentials, easily recalling the name of his childhood dog, Teddy. "Goddess of wisdom," she repeated "Begins with A."
"Athena," Zack said. He was playing solitaire on the glass and iron table in the corner. He moved an ace of hearts to the center of the table.
"Picnic insect, three letters," she said. She was throwing him some softballs, but tapped the eraser of her pencil on The Gazette as if she were genuinely stumped.
"Ant," he said.
I was sitting opposite him at the table, writing and watching my husband walk the perimeter of the deck he painted last summer, looking to see if it needed touch ups. I tapped my finger on an exposed two of hearts in one of Zack's piles.
"Bossy," he scowled, but moved the two up to sit on top of the ace.
"Master of ceremony," my mother-in-law said.
"MC," Zack said
"I'll spell it out," she said. "E-M-C-E-E."
"Oh," he said. He flipped over three cards, glanced at his options, flipped three more, played one.
"Fen," she said. "Five letters."
"What's a fen?"
"A swamp," I said, seeing my attorney friend up to his armpits in alligators.
"It begins with M," my mother-in-law said.
"Marsh," Zack said.
"That works," she said. "They're making stuffing balls this year." She disapproved.
"What's a stuffing ball?" Zack asked, rapidly flipping the cards. "I'm on a roll."
I was writing in my journal, lazily bored with the conversation, recording it. Otherwise, I might forget, and suppose I need to chronicle and recreate boredom. The drift of boredom to the existential crisis.
"Estimated time of arrival," my mother-in-law said. "Three letters."
My husband came in through the back door and stood on the mat, stomping the dirt of his shoes.
"Take them off," his mother ordered.
"What's a stuffing ball?" Zack repeated.
"They're having stuffing balls," my mother-in-law told her son.
"What's a stuffing ball?" my husband asked.
"I don't know," my mother-in-law said. "All I know is they made them last night and left them on the counter where the dog ate three of them."
"Last year she cooked all the stuffing in casserole dishes outside the turkey," said my husband. "She" is his sister who lives next door. She was hosting Thanksgiving along with her sister-in-law who is visiting from out of town.
"She says it keeps the turkey from drying out if you cook the stuffing separately," explained my mother-in-law. She herself never cooked the stuffing outside the bird, she pointed out.
My husband, who makes our turkey for American Thanksgiving every year, pointed out that he never does either. "It's ridiculous," he said. "There's a symbiotic relationship—"
"What's symbiotic?" Zack interrupted.
"Mutually beneficial," I said.
"Estimated time of arrival? Three letters," my mother-in-law repeated.
"—and the stuffing keeps the turkey moist and the turkey flavors the stuffing," he finished.
"ETA," I said.
"And I don't know what vegetables they're making," my mother-in-law continued, carefully printing "ETA" with her pencil in the three tiny boxes. "Here's one for you, Zack. Donkey, three letters."
Zack looked up from his game of solitaire, met her eyes and laughed.
"Really?" he asked.
She raised her eyebrows.
He answered, "ass," and laughed again.
"They said something about a broccoli dish with water chestnuts," she continued, speaking to my husband. "Anyway, I made the usual last week and froze it. I took it out this morning in case they need it—" She was referring to a mashed turnip dish she made each year, although she couldn't find turnips at the market last week and resorted to rutabagas. On the beige countertop in the small kitchen of the pre-fab house in the retirement community on the St. Lawrence Seaway, it sat thawing in vintage Tupperware—the Tupperware, the turnip, the countertop all a little yellower than last year.
There is something melancholy about our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Canada. Maybe it's because we see our relatives so infrequently that the march of time is more evident. The newborn nephew we saw last Thanksgiving now walks and talks. The Golden Retriever, whose arthritis was just setting in, has died. The 12-year-old niece who fished with me in the St. Lawrence—14 small sunfish lured with bacon-bait, collected in a bucket, proudly displayed to family members and then dumped back in the water ("Free Willy!" she crowed)—a year later whispers to her mother, can she bleach the faint dark hairs above her lip and will I please paint the nails of her right hand after dinner—it's so hard to stay inside the lines.
Maybe it's also the drive up, which adds to strange, lonely déjà vu feel of it all. Driving late into the night, we always stop at some random gas station south of the border to fill up the tank with cheaper American gas. But no matter which place we pull in, I feel like I've been there before. Isn't this Manley's Mighty Mart on the outskirts of Syracuse the same one that we stopped at last year? Or is it just the smell of diesel from the adjacent TA Travel Plaza, the vibrating hum of the fluorescent lights, the cement barricades that separate us from the semis, the sandwich board advertising "slice, one-topping pizza with 20 oz Coca-cola brand beverage just $2.99," the vision of my husband passing through the spotlight of a street lamp as he takes the dogs out for a pee, his shoulders hunched against this first bit of fall weather, that seems familiar?
This time we stopped at 2 a.m. for a second time at a rest area in Canada on the 401. The feeling—everything is the same but different; time passes and these memories, significant and insignificant (and however will I tell the difference?) fade in and out the like the radio station where the reception falters, then rallies, then fails as we cross the border—hit me a second time. Inside the brightly lit OnRoute, Tim Horton's is open but Burger King is closed. (My brother-in-law will tell us the next day that the hordes of Canadians traveling the 401 from Toronto to places east for Thanksgiving exceeded predictions and Burger King ran out of burgers at this rest area: "Can you imagine?" He burns with indignation. "Only chicken sandwiches at Burger King!") But we knew none of this as we entered the OnRoute. We saw only the freshly mopped linoleum floors, the vending machines wiped clean of finger prints, the empty yellow industrial bucket and mop standing in a corner, and the rows of red tables were also immaculate and empty. The entire building was empty save for a lone teenage boy in a paper envelope cap standing beneath the bright fluorescent lights looking sullen, alone, bored with a backdrop of doughnuts in the middle of the night on a dark highway in the middle of nowhere, likely thinking this "nowhere" is the nowhere he'll be all his life, and what kind of fate is that to be always serving travelers who are just passing through on their way to somewhere better?
"I'll have a doughnut," my husband said. "Glazed, please."
And back on the porch in the ranch house on the St. Lawrence as the sun crept across the sky, my mother-in-law was wondering what is the difference between a rutabaga and a turnip anyway?
I gave her question some thought.
"Does anyone really know?" she persisted. She told us she took her question to the grocer and asked. He said, "the wax."
I thought it was the larger size and the yellow interior.
In any case, she is thawing the vegetable even though they will probably have their own, that broccoli dish with the water-chestnuts, she said. But it's not her business. She supposed they could do what they wanted. She was not going to get into it. Still, really, water chestnuts and stuffing balls? Well, anyway, what are they?
"Yeah," Zack echoed. "What are stuffing balls?"
"What are rutabagas?" I wondered.
"Neil Young song starting 'Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,'" my mother in law said. "Four letters."
"I don't even know what a turnip is," Zack said. "Have I ever eaten one?"
"Last Thanksgiving," I pointed out.
"Ohio," my husband said.
I remember one Thanksgiving, many, many years ago when we had moved from Dayton, Ohio to Brussels, Belgium for my dad's job. My sisters and I were teens and had just gotten home from school on that Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We lived on the 12th floor of an apartment building and when a postal worker rang the intercom telling us that we had a package, could she bring it up, we buzzed her in. Because we were teenagers—self-absorbed and oblivious—it didn't occur to us to wonder that our postal worker spoke perfect English, and seemed to know we would, too. As we opened the door to collect the package, our grandmother stepped off the elevator. "Surprise!" she said.
As the three of us fell into her arms, she laughed so hard she cried.
My grandmother Hazel, whom we called The Haze, or Purple Haze, behind her back, immediately requested an Old Fashioned. "It's only three in the afternoon here," she said, "but it's cocktail hour in my time zone." I went to the kitchen to work on this while my two sisters went down to the lobby to collect her bags from where she'd stashed them by the mailboxes. My grandmother, a small, slender, energetic woman in a lime-green polyester pantsuit and the too-clean white tennis shoes she wore to golf three times a week in Sarasota, was still chuckling and I was trying to figure out the sequence of events.
"How did you get here from the airport?"
"I took a cab."
"Your mother will be so surprised," she said.
She was right. The two of them had a fairly acrimonious relationship but also, despite themselves, enjoyed each other's company.
My sister Gail dragged my grandmother's suitcases into our shared bedroom. She told The Haze she could have her bed and offered to sleep on the couch.
"Fine," my grandmother said, by way of thanks. "But change the sheets." The Haze was particular that way. "Then come here," she said from the kitchen, "and tell me all about school. I want to know everything you've been up to."
But none of us wanted to talk about school, or cross country, or the Homecoming game, or friends, or boyfriends. We had two hours of delightful anticipation to plan just how my grandmother ought to surprise Mom. Thanksgiving, because we were in a foreign country where no one celebrated it—and because my father died three years earlier and this was a holiday he loved—had been a day to get through just because. But with The Haze here, it was automatically a party, an event. We began thinking about who else we might invite to join us for Thanksgiving dinner.
"But first, how are we going to surprise mom?"
We considered having our grandmother hide in the broom closet. She was tiny enough, and willing—as long as she could wait out my mother's arrival on a stool in there, and bring her Old Fashioned with her—but it was not like our mother would walk in the door from work and decide she needed to give the place a sweep. We could just as well have the Haze hide behind the front door and jump out from behind it when our mom walked in. But we couldn't figure out how to get her there in time since the only heads-up we'd get was the sound of my mother's key in the front door. In the end, we decided to arrange my grandmother as a reclining beauty on one of the twin beds in our room. She hated the cold and had brought her mink stole, so we draped that across her shoulders—a strange contrast to her bright green pantsuit. We took her tennis shoes off so her always impeccably polished and manicured toenails were visible—and crossed her legs at the ankle. One of my sisters got some costume jewelry from my mother's room and we decked The Haze out in style. We wished we had one of those long cigarette holders women used in the old movies but told our grandmother she'd just have to smoke her regular old menthols with her nose in the air, blowing smoke rings.
When we heard my mother's key in the lock, we all three rushed into the foyer and told her that we'd gotten her an early Christmas present. She had to close her eyes. We walked her the six steps from the front door to the bedroom door.
My mother rushed to hug her mother. They laughed and laughed. And then suddenly, they were crying. My sisters and I, on the sidelines of this scene, also teared up. All the women in our family—and our family then was all women: two widow grandmothers, our widow mother, and my two sisters and I (no one left the toilet seat up in our house)—all cried at the least provocation. Who knows why? Because my grandmother had traveled halfway around the world to spend Thanksgiving with us? Because our mother seemed so happy for a moment? Because joy and sorrow get so mixed up in our family—how do we live with this much joy, sad already at its passing?—and we have never been able to figure out how to untangle the two? Or because, for a moment, as we stand firmly planted in the present, the chill of Heidegger's adjacent nothingness blows over us—a cold, portentous huff?
I was thinking about this long-ago Thanksgiving as I sat outside on the deck, overlooking the St. Lawrence on that Canadian Thanksgiving. Odd, how is it that on certain days the wind moves through channels of complex association, one thing calling to mind another, everything somehow in relation. It was nearly dinnertime and we were at my sister-in-law's house. Most of the guests were inside having hors d'oeuvres—the stuffing balls arrayed on a cookie sheet on the counter looking a little like the suet balls we made for the birds when I was in Scouts—and I was bundled in my brother-in-law's coat having a beer and watching the sun set over the water. A soft purple haze blanketed the surface, fading to red, then orange and finally pink.
My sister-in-law's sister-in-law, T., was talking about her son, now in his late 20s. She told me that he was shy, a loner, that even when he Eurailed for three months one summer during college, he spent a lot of time on his own. And she said this apologetically, somewhat defensively. "He has his issues," she said. "But he will figure things out. Some say he won't. But I know he will."
I pictured my own Eurailing trips in high school, how in Paris, my sisters and I once spent a night, the three of us, huddled together in sleeping bags behind some bushes in the median of a busy traffic circle because we couldn't afford the hotels and the youth hostel was full. It seemed safe, like we wouldn't get mugged or raped because it was so public, so heavily trafficked. I then imagined T's loner son, whom I had never met but pictured as a hefty boy with a dull face and blond hair and a slow affect, sitting in his sleeping bag alone on the traffic median, his arms around his knees as he listened to the cars circling him all night long. And I wondered, has he done something terrible? Was he a "loner" like the kid in Columbine or the one who gunned down 12 moviegoers at the "The Dark Knight Rises" premier? Or just an ordinary, garden-variety loner who plays too many video games and covers his mouth when he smiles?
The sliding glass door opened. Zack came out and plopped himself on my lap, squishing me. "You're too big," I said, pushing my gangly 14-year-old from my lap, but shifting a bit to make room for him on the lawn chair next to me.
"Don't you love me?" he asked.
"Yes, but you're too big."
He turned to T. "She doesn't love me," he said.
T. laughed. "Oh, I think she does," she said.
"I'm freezing," Zack said, hunching his shoulders and pulling up the hood on his sweatshirt.
My sister-in-law slipped out onto the deck. "Aren't you freezing out here?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "But the sunset is so nice."
My husband came out and stood in the far corner of the deck, lighting up a cigarette. The wind moaned across the top of my beer bottle. It sounded like a ghost, crooning some sad song. "Do that again," my son said. I tilted the bottle at various angles but could not make it repeat.
My sister-in-law repeated her query to Zack. "Aren't you freezing out here?"
"Yes," he said.
"Go inside," she said. "Your grandmother wants you to run next door and get something from her house."
Zack got up and went inside.
"He's a good kid," T. said to my husband.
My husband nodded. "Sometimes," he said.
"When it suits his fancy," I said.
"No, really," she said. She grew serious. We all watched the sun fall into the water at the edge of the horizon—waiting, almost, to hear a sizzle as the light went out—as she reminded us that she'd been the principal of a Catholic high school for 35 years and that she knows kids. "I have good instincts about these things," she said. I wondered if she was picturing her own son with his arms wrapped around his knees on a traffic island in the middle of the night in Paris. Alone. Lonely. "He's a good kid," she repeated.
"You don't know," my sister-in-law said. Suddenly she was angry. The sun was gone. Dinner was ready. It was cold. And…what? "Things aren't always what they seem," she said. Was she thinking about her own son? Was she thinking about Zack? Or was she thinking about T's son, as T. suspects.
"Well, you saw something odd in my son?" T. said, or asked, really. "From the beginning."
"No," my sister-in-law said.
"You did, but you never said anything to me," T. said. "All these years, you never said." I was listening intently but there was another conversation going on between them that I was not privy to. Words, in this case, were utterly inadequate tools. "You did, didn't you? Even when he was little," T. said.
"No," my sister-in-law said, and then repeated, more gently this time, "Things aren't always what they seem. That's all." She slid the glass door open. "Come inside," she insisted.
Back in Baltimore, on "real" Thanksgiving, I wipe the ring my coffee cup left on the counter as my son shuffles into the kitchen, sleepy-eyed and rumpled in sweats and a long-underwear shirt. He stands in the middle of the room, motionless, as if he is still waiting for his eyes to fully open, the world before him to come into full focus. I give him a hug and squeeze his shoulders.
"More," he says, and turns so that I can give his shoulders a rub. He bows his head as I massage his neck and purrs like a cat. "Remember that girl, Eleanor, that was in my class at the New Hill School?" he wonders, drifting back to third grade and a multi-age class he was in. "She could read Harry Potter even though she was only five, but most of the time when you talked to her she meowed like a cat instead of answering?"
I laugh, but don't answer.
"Do you remember?" he insists.
I try. "Sort of," I say, thinking instead of that other Eleanor who summarized Heidegger in "Hopeful Monsters," the insistence that "words were good for saying what things were not; they were not good for saying what things were."
It's an interesting position for a writer to be in.
"Ouch," Zack says. I have pinched his shoulders too hard.
"Sorry," I say, realizing that of course Heidegger is right. Words are always inadequate to describe reality. Every writer knows in her heart she is really only skimming the surface of any real conversation, any moment, any scene, capturing and pinning down on paper only those things that move slowly enough to catch our gaze, those truths simple enough for us to begin to hint at with our limited words. So I try to collect words, phrases, moments—and hold on to them. But there is, as Heidegger rightly recognizes, something we know is out there but can't name.
Maybe that recognition comes with age? Maybe my mind and body are conspiring together, forcing my failing memory to triage the moments that I'll take with me into old age—can I fit the Thanksgiving my grandmother surprised us with the carry on luggage?—as we are faced with our limitations, restrictions to lighten our load for travel. And to think we condescend to old people who do not remember the movie we took them to yesterday but vividly recall the Thanksgiving of 1929. Joke's on me, I suppose, as I sift through my thoughts deciding what I'll need to delete to free up more space for living. Which memories, which Thanksgiving—Sophie's choice—do I take with me? Which one dies, or really, as Heidegger says, becomes part of the "nothingness" we know is out there but cannot name, the tugging currents (familial, political) that move just below the surface of our words?
"A little to the left," Zack says. "You're not quite there."
"Ahh," he says. "Can you feel that knot?"
"Yeah," I say. "Did you sleep on it funny?"
"I don't know," he says.
"You don't know?"
"I was asleep." He shrugs. "How would I know?"
He slips away from me to get a bowl of Cheerios.
I give the bottles I have collected a rinse and put them in the already overflowing recycling bin beneath the sink. So many bottles. I don't remember us drinking that much. Some perks to my failing memory—or a contributor to it? Hmm. I lug the blue recycling pail out the backdoor, across the porch and down the stairs to the yellow plastic garbage can. Before I dump it, I pause, glancing up at a pair of pale grey mourning doves that sit balanced on the Comcast wire that stretches from the row house to the post in the back alley. They sit, not touching but barely an inch between them, both looking straight out at my mysterious, still-leafy tree, crooning their sad song about the approach of winter. A gust of wind shakes the wire. They wobble in unison, instinctively echoing each other's movement as they struggle to maintain their balance. I hesitate (am I responsible for everyone's happiness?), and then dump the bottles with a clatter that sends them flapping from sight. This essay, written in 2014, is part of a forthcoming book, "Reading, Interrupted."