Friday, May 19, 2006

It gets worse before it gets better (Part 2: 8th Grade)

This is probably my most unfortunate school picture. As you can tell in all of my other portraits, school photo or no, I have no problem with smiling. I really like to smile. At the time, my 3 years of braces had only been over a short while and my teeth were still smooth and shiny and seemingly new. My parents and grandparents constantly harped, "Smile! We paid for those teeth! We own your mouth! You owe us a lot of smiles for years to come!" But this particular photographer decided I didn't smile enough. No, he had to try extra hard to make sure I smiled. Maybe he was new. Maybe if he knew me better, he would have known I was an affable type who aimed to please. But he had to go and crack jokes and make me laugh. One flash of the camera and it was all over - no do-overs in case I blinked or anything. That's what picture make-up day (a few weeks later) was for.

A few weeks later, right before the picture make-up day that I was determined to attend (I will smile but not laugh - they cannot make me laugh!) we got a phone call that my mom's father was dying. He had cancer, the type you get when you spend years in the Navy handling asbestos without gloves, before they knew how awful it was for a person and what exposure to it did to their body. We knew he had this cancer, but we didn't know how long it would take for it to take him away from us. The last time my mom had visited her father, he had transformed from the robust, lively person he always was to a feeble, old man who had to wear suspenders on his pants just to keep them up. When we got the phone call, we knew he didn't have much time left.

I decided to live with the bad school picture and accompany my mom and my grandmother up to see my grandfather. 3 generations of women: My maternal grandmother (whom I was named after), my mother and me. My grandmother was once married to this grandfather - they were high school sweethearts. But 3 children, an affair, and an alleged pregnant mistress (a hoax) later, the union ended in divorce. My grandparents had made an uneasy peace since then... mostly when my grandfather admitted he had made a huge mistake. My mom (a daddy's girl) had a really hard time with the split, dealing with abandonment issues. Not only did her parents divorce, but while her two older brothers remained with their father, she and her mom moved to Alaska - several states away. I had grown up separate from all of this extended family drama, but we still visited these people on family vacations. I knew my grandfather from week-long summer and winter holidays and through birthday cards in the mail, with $5 or $10 stuck inside the envelope. I wasn't particularly close to him, but I had fond memories.

It was October when we made the drive up to Portland, OR from San Diego. I remember sitting in the back seat of an 80's model Toyota Celica hatchback snuggled under a blanket, glad I didn't have to go to school for the week. I also remember having to put chains on the tires when going through the snow in the mountains, my waist-length hair dragging through the dirty brown water and slush in the gutters as I was under the car putting the chains on and later untangling them from the axle.

The week was a blur. I remember visiting with a lot of relatives as they came through the house to see my grandfather one last time. I remember quiet talks as my mom or my grandmother huddled over his skeletal form - making peace, I guess. I remember all the women relatives saying they needed a break from the stress of the situation and going to the mall for the afternoon. As we were in JCPenney or Sears or some big department store, my grandmother called home to check in and got the news that he had just died. She crumpled into my aunt's arms, my mom hugged me tightly, everybody crying. Before we left, my mom bought the two of us matching bracelets with our initials on them, tying us to each other and to that moment.

The funeral was the next day. I remember that I didn't have any black clothes, so I borrowed my an aunt's black dress and shoes. I got them muddy playing with my cousins, but no one seemed to mind. The adults talked and laughed and reminisced and as the evening wore on, I heard so many different stories of my grandfather - things I never knew.

By the end of the trip, I was so much closer to all of these people that I had previously only known from a distance. I have cousins and aunts and uncles who have all kept in touch and with whom I have grown closer over the years. I guess I have my grandfather to thank, one last time.

By the way, my mom never did order school pictures again.

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