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A Long Island Passage

I still wake up sometimes, in the middle of the night, sure that I’m here. Grandma’s kitchen. That haven of modernity and 1980s suburban decadence. It’s a fever dream. I feel the give of the cold linoleum under my hot feet. I’m almost floating, in the never-quite-dark flow of rooms, the dining room separated from the kitchen by an open bay window, the kitchen from the sunroom by an eat-in bar. The glow of night-lights leading my way like an airstrip. The sharp stream of water in my glass as I press the lever on the refrigerator door. The taste, cold, medicinal, of chlorine water.

My parents moved from Hell’s Kitchen and Queens, one each, before I was born, and went “back to the land” in Southwest Massachusetts. I grew up there, in the primitive backwater of maple-syrup making, the make-shift sugar shack burning through the night outside my window. Family woodcutting outings. A panoply of day-glow orange and camo-wear that would come out around the time of year when a big buck would suddenly appear, unannounced, gutted and hanging by its feet in the clearing just beyond the yard—around the time when my hair would start to freeze in the mornings, waiting for the schoolbus, and we would be instructed to make a lot of noise running down the long wooded driveway, my brother shouting over and over to a made-up mad-cap melody, “I’m not a deer!…I’m not a deer!…”

I grew up with this as the norm. Yeast shakes and co-ops, chicken coops, crappy eggs, compost, worms, goats giving birth in the night, acre-wide gardens, gasoline in unmarked soda bottles beside water in unmarked soda bottles, leaving us to use our own common sense and senses to figure out the difference. Doors, on the second story of our house that, if you opened them, would drop 20 feet without warning or explanation. No “fire” exits. No “child”-proofing. If you didn’t have the smarts to look before you stepped, there wasn’t much point making it any further than you already had.

And so my grandmother’s house, while it may have been to my parents the plastic model of every ideal they left behind, was to me a land of great mystery, humming with electricity, glowing with exotically bland coy charm.

As children will, I moved away after college—cities: L.A., San Francisco, and then inevitably a borough bordering those my parents fled. My intrigue with 7-11s and 24-hour services diminished quicker than the charms of the woods and nature will. And now, nearly 30 years since my grandparents moved to the Long Island Promised Land, my grandmother is dying there. In the bedroom with the glass-mirrored closet doors, and the once-bright, now-peeling scene of gilt-trellised flower gardens running across the wall; the private bathroom off the master bedroom, with all its products and Lancôme giveaways—rummage-ready, perfect, disposable, new. Sleek designer dresses in the closet, top of the line, worn once, beads and sequins glimmering. Most of her jewelry gone for years now, stolen by my drug-crazed cousins, another over-fatted bi-product of the decade. A family consuming itself. Greed, pride, show, power, love frustrated in its delivery by all the prior human impulses vying for agency in each only-human vessel.

Having glutted myself on endless binges of television-watching during 48-hour visits to her TV room, and stuffed myself with as many Kellogg’s products and cold-cuts that a small child could possibly chipmunk away, I somehow ran through that cycle of want. It took several years into adulthood, but I’ve reverted to the values of my childhood. I have no television—it just slowly disappeared from my life. As the rest of the world suddenly opens its senses to the off-taste of plastic and processed foods, turning to organics and other fresh solutions, we take a social turn in a new old direction. My parents are suddenly at the head of Progress. Not the backwater bumpkins that my grandmother and my mother’s siblings always pegged us as, or I did through their eyes.

I confess: I have forgotten that she’s still there sometimes. I forget, for months at a time, that her life continues, separate from mine, separate from the childhood in which she loomed so large a figure. “Hello, Sadie,” her sing-songy voice would trail me, always with a smirk of humor lingering in it. Bright colors, gilded fixtures. Queen of her castle. A peasant girl from the country herself who with hard work and sometimes-blind eyes achieved the dream that everything in her world told her was worth achieving. “Stood by her man” as they built their corner fruit and vegetable store in Hell’s Kitchen into a successful wholesale distributor, until it began to hemorrhage money. I have already swept her into my history, maybe not wanting to integrate into my story the fact of the fading feeble old person she has become. Or not having the courage, to see her un-becoming, before my eyes. But suddenly, when I discover she is really dying, I panic to hold onto what she has always been, the memories which she has already become, as if with her death, they will disappear, too, as will the version of myself that I remember through her.

My mother and I were in their bedroom in the country last week. She was trying on a black and white silk blouse for me. “With pants?” “Or what about this dress?” “Should I change the buttons?” My father walked in, and joined in the fervor of the ritual. “Where are we going?” he asked with good spirits. Thinking we’d bought tickets to a play, or some music. My mother and I both looked down, bashful. “Um… to grandma’s funeral,” I said. He looked at us, not understanding, not knowing what to say, a judgment, I’m sure, somewhere at the front of his head. He just shook it. But who can judge mourning? And who can predict how we will respond, how we will prepare, in what bits and pieces our consciousness will cobble together responses to what is too large and deep and entwined in the fabric of our lives to isolate and properly inspect, understand, all at once?

My grandmother is dying. And still I have dreams of waking up, a fever dream, my hot feet on her linoleum floor, a dappled brick pattern, waiting in the electrical twilight, as the sharp sound of a water-jet propels wonderful cool chemicals into my glass—unknown dry bits of something always stuck inside it, a token of the dishwasher’s failed promises. Such plastic insistence that all is right with the world. That we can build whatever paradise our money and imagination and a little plot of land can buy. And that we can control that. My grandmother is dying, in her Long Island ranch home. And I can still remember, when it was new.


Emily DeVoti


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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