Melanie was home again.
She sat in her parents’ kitchen, staring at her mother’s faux roses resting on the table. Rooted in a dusty plastic vase, they’d been there as long as she could remember. Pink and white petals deceived, soft and shimmering from a distance but up-close, rough and flaking, not unlike herself since her mother died.
The clock’s ticking narrated the passage of moments, each one pulling Melanie further from the life she’d taken for granted. She thrummed her fingers on the quilted red placemat, picking at the hardened gravy on its ruffle. She wondered if her mother had noticed it congealing all those months before, the last time she tidied the kitchen, or if she dismissed it as a chore that could wait for later.
The surety of later deceived, the ruse of a contented life.
Melanie waited in the quiet, alone. Assertions to her older sister Amanda that she’d help clean out their parents’ home were met with eye-rolls and sighs. Two seasons had passed since Melanie last entered the house, despite her best intentions. The last time, she’d trudged through a mound of unshoveled snow to reach the threshold; now, a rich palate of dead leaves blanketed the ground.
Yet Melanie arrived mid-morning, as promised.
The battle between responsibility and grief roiled in Melanie’s gut, undignified as a bar brawl. She had no excuse to avoid her childhood home, other than the paralysis that crept through her arm and her hand each time she attempted to slip the key into the lock, or the tears that blurred the weathered tan siding outside until it was unrecognizable.
A mausoleum, this place where Melanie had dreamt each childhood dream, where she spent summer nights cupping fireflies in her palms.
This time, Amanda left the door open for Melanie, the lock and latch blameless.
Hinges had creaked as Melanie pushed the thick oak door open. She stepped over the threshold and into the foyer, her breaths short as she inhaled the stagnant air. The house felt stale as a vault and smelled like moist cardboard. Silence hung heavy as words whispered at her mother’s bedside vigil, obscuring the light echoes of memory that childhood homes were supposed to maintain. It reminded Melanie of all she’d lost–first her father, then her mother–and why she wanted to be anywhere but in that house.
Half-filled boxes and bulging trash bags cluttered each room. Dark dust squares lingered on the walls, like the outlines of fallen bodies, where frames once hung. Her parents’ wedding photo, where their story began. Baby and school portraits, an etched timeline of nuanced distinctions that the years bring as childhood slinks by–a bit like life, over when it’s too late to appreciate it. All removed in Amanda’s “progress.”
Was nothing sacred to her sister?
But the kitchen remained mostly untouched. Colorful magnets still clung to the refrigerator, emergency phone numbers secured by the shining memento of Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary cruise and medication lists held by a smiling Mickey Mouse from their last Disney trip–the last vacation everyone took together. Among them, old photos hung, vibrance lost under decades of morning sunlight streaming through the window—Grandma Lane, Mom’s mother, posing in front of a vintage car in a polka-dot dress, wearing tight curls and cat-eye shaped glasses; Dad kissing Mom underneath the Christmas mistletoe as Amanda and Melanie looked on, clad in footed pajamas. These artifacts blended into the backdrop of life, unnoticed but ever-present.
Melanie’s phone pinged, a text from Amanda: Running late. Start sorting kitchen. Luv ya! It was just like her sister to pull that tough-love act. Amanda always baited the toughest tasks with a false lure of handholding and baby-steps, and, without fail, Melanie grabbed on to the pinch of her shiny hook. Under this guise, she’d learned to swim, to ride a bike. To survive her first teen breakup. It was how she put one foot in front of the other in the weeks after they’d lost Dad. How she got out of bed each day after Mom died.
Grasping the arms of the chair, Melanie stood and cleared her throat, as if announcing her presence to the silence. She glanced around the kitchen, wondering how to dismantle this room without rupturing the foundation of memories it supported. It was impossible to maintain the full mosaic that time had crafted in this kitchen, intricate as the custom backsplash Dad installed so many years ago. But how do you lift away and keep the most beautiful tiles without cracking through the wall?
The clock ticked forward with the progression of day, the roar of morning tamed to the whisper of late afternoon. Around her, items lay sorted: table linens, pots and pans, utensils and dishes, all evicted from decades-old dwelling places. Melanie spent the hours organizing–compartmentalizing, it was what she was best at–though she hadn’t discarded a thing. She opened the refrigerator, grateful for the bottled waters Amanda left for them.
Sitting, Melanie took a swig, silently cursing her sister for leaving her alone in the house. She surveyed her progress–all that remained was the junk drawer. ‘Chaos in a box,’ her mother used to call it. The place for important, yet abandoned, things.
Six flashlights. Two fistfuls of paper clips. An empty tape dispenser. A corkscrew. Enough rubber bands to weave into a small, multi-colored ball. As Melanie bounced her newly crafted toy against the floor–bounce, catch, bounce, catch–she noticed a hint of shimmering gold peeking out through the latex gloves and empty pill bottles that still littered the drawer. She palmed the ball with her left hand, and with her right, fished through the mess and retrieved an old-fashioned eyeglass case from the back.
She stroked the sparkly casing, fingers tingling as her touch awakened a sprinkling of its remaining decorative glitter. Melanie couldn’t remember the last time she had seen this case. Yet, she beheld it as she would an old friend whose smile transcends time and age. The rusted hinges protested as she snapped it open. Resting inside on a bed of faded red satin were Grandma Lane’s glasses, the same ones worn in the photograph tacked to the refrigerator. Pearls and rhinestones adorned the corners of the pointed frames–the smooth plastic the color of apple-juice. Melanie removed them from the case and brought them to the refrigerator, holding them up next to the picture.
Melanie was ten when her grandmother died; Grandma Lane’s was the first funeral she’d ever attended.
Why had Mom kept these old glasses tucked away in a utility drawer for so long?
Melanie never knew her grandmother very well. Grandpa Lane died when Melanie was small, and for as long as Melanie could remember after, Grandma had refused to leave her house. Melanie did recall the glasses, though, and how Grandma Lane would sit, humming, on her couch, her eyes focused somewhere else. Sometimes Grandma would talk to no one in particular; she’d giggle like a schoolgirl in love, or ask questions, alone in her living room.
“What would you like for dinner?”
“Did you check on the baby?”
“We’re out of milk, dear. Would you go to the market today?”
When Melanie or Amanda would answer her, their response was met with soft humming. It was as if their grandmother didn’t see them through those thick and glittery glasses, as if they weren’t there in that room with her.
Mom and Dad said Grandma Lane had a sickness, which Melanie perceived years later as some sort of cognitive impairment, even dementia. And though they were told to be good and quiet while in Grandma’s house, the backs of their hands were never reliable enough to stifle their giggles as they watched the old woman waltz around a room devoid of music, alone. When Grandma Lane was lucid and could hold a conversation, she’d told them about how the souls of the dead would find themselves stuck in the limbs of mighty oak trees if they didn’t live a good and virtuous life. She told them that sand sharks lived on the moon and it was their daily migration that led to its waxing and waning. And that the glittering gold eyeglass case would bite and devour the fingers of naughty children who dared ever touch it.
Yet there Melanie stood, case in hand, her fingers intact as she studied the picture.
“What was going on behind those eyes?” Melanie whispered, caressing the pearls and rhinestones–jeweled blemishes marring the frames’ smoothness, yet defining its character. A bit like Grandma Lane herself.
I wonder what I’d look like in these glasses, Melanie thought. She’d already committed the ultimate sin of childhood by touching the case. With no one to chastise her, why not try them on?
Screws loose, the frames offered little resistance as she opened them. Still staring at Grandma Lane’s photo, Melanie lifted the glasses to her eyes.
The room blurred beneath the thick lenses. Then, everything changed.
The aroma of tomato and garlic tickled Melanie’s senses, the air thick, laden with the steam from boiling water and meatballs simmering in sauce. A tap-tap-tapping–Mom’s wooden spoon—against a pot. The tinny announcer and roaring cheers from the television inside the living room–Giants game? Both blew away the kitchen’s silence, swift as the wind on an autumn day.
It was time for Sunday dinner.
Melanie grabbed the handle of the refrigerator and turned toward the stove. Mom stood, stirring an oversized pot, her blue ‘weekend’ sweatshirt splattered with tiny drops of sauce. Her permed blond hair frizzed over her scalp, touches of gray teasing her temples with hints of age either unrecognized or ignored.
Melanie squeezed the handle. Her eyes watered under Grandma Lane’s glasses. Her face flushed. The kitchen lights pulsed, at once dimming and brightening like a maddening strobe in slow motion. Her head throbbed.
“The fridge isn’t going to open itself, Mel-Belle.”
Mel-Belle. No one called her Mel-Belle except for Mom.
Mom placed her left hand on her hip, stirring with her right. Just like I do, Melanie thought.
“Oh, right. The cheese.”
Melanie opened the refrigerator. Filled and organized, just as Mom liked it. Meats to the left, dairy to the right. And jugs of Melanie’s favorite Hi-C fruit punch, like a demarcation line through the middle.
Melanie lifted Grandma Lane’s glasses up from her eyes to her forehead.
The soundlessness sucked life from the room.
Stale air grabbed Melanie by the throat, leaving her gasping.
Three lonely bottles of water stood sentinel in the bare refrigerator.
Melanie dropped the glasses on to the bridge of her nose. She stared hard through the lenses and the soundtrack of her family’s life resumed, like a warped record finding its track.
“Melanie, the cheese!”
She jumped at her mother’s voice and grabbed the half-filled plastic container from the bottom right shelf, smiling at the La Famiglia logo emblazoned on the lid. They always made the best fresh ravioli. In the years since it had closed, it had transitioned to a deli (Nick’s), a card shop (Solo’s), and most recently, a nail salon (Eden’s).
“Here you go…Mom,” Melanie’s voice croaked. She looked upon her mother’s face, smooth and rounded as she remembered it from her childhood. The corners of Mom’s lips curled upward, as if she’d swallowed a secret.
My mother, here again, Melanie thought. Not that shadow of a woman hunched over a cane in those final months, shuffling down an antiseptic hospital hallway for another chemotherapy session. Not that gaunt woman hiding a bald head beneath a winter cap in the middle of summer. Not that tiny, shriveled someone who slipped away in the quiet of hospice, her hands as cold as the dawning winter.
My mother, living and real and vibrant.
Just as Melanie remembered her. As she wanted to remember her.
“You feel okay, Mel-Belle?” Mom leaned over and kissed Melanie’s forehead, her double chin grazing the top of the glasses. “You look a little peaked.”
“I’m… I’m fine,” Melanie said. Mom tugged the cheese canister away from Melanie’s grip. She opened the lid, sprinkling the cheese into the pot as she stirred.
“Ready for the Spelling Bee finals tomorrow?” Mom asked.
The spelling bee. Seventh grade. Knocked out of the state competition by the word ‘percolator.’ She’d blamed her mother’s New York accent for the gaffe—there was no ‘u’ in percolator, no matter how Mom pronounced it.
“Spell omelet,” Mom said.
“Omelet. Come on. You can do this. I have faith!”
The memory flitted at the edge of Melanie’s mind, fleeting, like a butterfly’s kiss.
Mom scowled. “Did you study? Did you really study?”
“I… I did study.”
“Study harder. You need to work at this if you want to move on.” Mom shooed Melanie away with a waving palm. “Go tell your father it’s almost time to eat. And stop playing with those old glasses. You’re going to give yourself a headache.”
“A headache,” Melanie murmured. Her chest seized her breath before she could exhale again, before this moment would dissipate, like so many other mundane, yet remarkable moments that hover like dust motes, floating and immobile despite the whirlwind of life. Staring at her mother, Melanie took in every detail. There were so many things she’d forgotten, overlooked in the day to day, perhaps–the beauty mark under her mother’s left eye, the way her earlobes drooped beneath her heavy earrings. Melanie leaned into her mother, wrapping her arms around her soft, ample midsection. She laid her head on her mother’s chest. Mom’s heartbeat thrummed into Melanie’s temple like a forgotten lullaby.
“I love you, Mom,” she whispered.
“I love you, too,” Mom said, rubbing Melanie’s back. “Now, go get Daddy for me while it’s still halftime, otherwise we’ll lose him to football forever.”
Melanie nodded, extricating herself from her mother. She shivered as she walked toward the living room on wobbly legs, as much from the loss of Mom’s warmth as from the anticipation of seeing her father.
“Dad?” Melanie called. She stepped into the living room, her feet–Melanie noticed, clad in her favorite 80s jelly shoes and wigwam socks–sunk into the beige shag carpet. Her father snored on the old blue couch, his mouth open, beer belly jiggling with each breath. She smiled, knowing that if she woke him, he would deny having been asleep. Just resting my eyes, he used to say.
Seeing Dad again was like finding a rainbow on a sunny day. He’d had a much more peaceful death than Mom. She’d slipped beneath the murky depths alone, hands too weak from fighting to grab hold of any lifeline tossed out to her. Whereas Dad, he left in his sleep, healthy except for the heart attack that claimed him. Melanie always envisioned her father waving to the family as they saw him off from the shoreline–a final bon voyage as he rowed into calm waters on his own terms, his death resolute and absent the struggle her mother endured in her battle with cancer. And now, lush, thick grass filled Dad’s burial plot, while the earth was still so fresh on Mom’s grave–unsettled and raw. Funny how time’s sleight-of-hand seals away the pain of loss, Melanie thought. So preoccupied with the loss of her mother, she had forgotten how much she missed her father.
The fall breeze lifted the sheer curtains, grazing the bronze lamps on the end table with a spectral touch. Melanie glanced at the framed photographs on the wall; her own eyes stared back at her with the wide-eyed questioning of infancy, the shyness of toddlerhood, the seriousness of school age. Always heavy, tentative, Melanie thought. Unlike Amanda, whose portraits seemed to float from the walls with a smiling confidence.
Melanie raised the glasses up over her eyebrows. Again, the walls loomed in their dusty nakedness–artifacts of childhood vanished with a glance. The sharp silence lurched her into the focus of now. Was it hours, days, or decades since Melanie had cursed her sister for leaving her alone in the house? She neither remembered, nor cared.
As she repositioned the glasses on the bridge of her nose, the TV glowed, crowd roaring to another Giants touchdown. Dad’s snoring boomed in the cacophony.
“Dad.” Melanie sat on the couch and touched his shoulder, shaking him. “Dad.”
He jolted awake. “Oh! Hi, honey. I was just resting my eyes.”
Melanie smiled. “I know, Daddy.”
He yawned, stretching. “What’s the score?”
“28 to 3. They’re crushing the Redskins.”
“Ah, that’s my Big Blue. Halftime’s over?”
He pushed himself up and ruffled Melanie’s hair as he stood. “Something smells good. Mom’s making meatballs?”
“Wouldn’t be a Sunday if she didn’t.”
It wouldn’t be a Sunday if she didn’t. Melanie wondered how many meatballs her mother had cooked over the years. How many times they’d sat around that table, laughing or fighting or complaining. What little things were so funny, so annoying, or important? Had she ever realized that the last Sunday dinner they’d shared would be the last? Had she known, would she have done anything different? Would she have lingered at the table longer, or laughed louder at her father’s jokes?
Melanie stood and squeezed her father’s hand. Eyebrow raised, he glanced at her.
“Daddy? Can I ask you a question?”
“If you had to leave this house today and you could never come back, what’s the one thing you’d take with you?”
Dad scrunched up his lips and scratched the back of his hand. His thinking pose.
“Can I take the television? To watch my Giants?”
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “No, I mean something important.”
“Well, that’s easy,” he said. “I’d take my family. You, Mom, and Amanda.”
“Needs to be a thing, not a person.”
“Nothing?” Her father rarely offered anyone a straight answer, but when he did, his words somehow always blew through the fog.
“Nothing. No thing.” He tapped his chest. “I have what I need right here. For as long as I live.”
Melanie swallowed hard, wriggling her nose in warning to the tears that prickled the corners of her eyes.
“But what about… after?”
Dad pulled Melanie in for a hug. The glasses jostled against her face as Dad gave her a hard kiss on the forehead.
“After? Do you know something I don’t?”
Melanie opened her mouth and promptly closed it, unsure of how to respond. Dad chuckled.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll come back someday and let you know.”
Melanie heard her mother tap the wooden spoon against the sauce pot three times. “Dinner!” Mom yelled.
“Better go get your sister,” Dad said. “You know Mom hates it when she lollygags to the dinner table.”
Dad turned and walked into the kitchen. Melanie watched as he rested his hand on Mom’s back and she turned to kiss his cheek. The smallest gesture writ the volume of decades, their connection severed only by death. But perhaps not.
A poster of an 80s teenage heartthrob greeted Melanie as she approached Amanda’s room. She knocked once and opened the door. “I told you to stay out!” Amanda shrieked through the asynchronous beat of some pop song playing on her oversized stereo. Melanie was bowled over by the shrill electronic synthesizer and the whining vocals that dug into her eardrums like a ravenous worm and by the shoe Amanda flung at her, hitting her between the eyes.
Cracking Grandma Lane’s glasses in half.
The eye pieces melted from Melanie’s face as if in a Dali painting. Melanie caught the remnants in her palms before crumbling to the floor in the re-birthed silence.
“No,” she whispered, squeezing tight fists around the plastic. The rhinestones dug into her skin as the pearls soothed. Melanie brought her hands together, imploring whatever mystic force that enchanted the glasses to repair the broken pieces she held–to fix the broken pieces inside her. Releasing her grip, Melanie stared at the remnants resting in her palms.
She lifted the lenses up, one in each hand, and placed them in front of her eyes. She fought the strain pulling at her eyes as she squinted through the lenses. What was clear before became nothing more than a migraine-inducing haze. The harder she looked, the more it hurt. Stiff tears clouded her view, thick as cataracts.
Melanie wanted her mother back. She wanted to sit at that table, one last time, and tell her mother everything–or tell her nothing at all. She wanted to sit with her Dad as he watched the end of the game, legs tucked beneath her on the corner of the couch, the drone of crowds and announcers the auditory backdrop of a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I’m an orphan, Melanie thought. A 43-year-old orphan.
She yearned to live in that world she saw through Grandma Lane’s glasses. The world where her parents lived and breathed and thrived; where the tang of Sunday pasta dinners lingered ever-sweet on her tongue and home swaddled her with the softness of a worn blanket left at her bedside on a cold night.
Her lower lip quivered; her shoulders shuddered.
She didn’t attempt to stop the tears. The dam she’d built with the detritus of grief and regret ruptured, unleashing a tsunami of feelings she’d avoided for so long. After her parents’ death, the house had become nothing but a cold, empty shell that Melanie feared would swallow her whole. Yet with those glasses, she saw things she’d always taken for granted, wrapped in the warmth of smells and sound and light and laughter that painted her home. Her story. She tasted the salt of pent-up bitterness, the sweet nectar of release, and remembered what was good.
Yet, the image of her grandmother, twirling alone in her living room, danced across Melanie’s memory. For the first time, Melanie realized it wasn’t dementia that trapped Grandma Lane within her own mind; the sickness afflicting her was an unrelenting longing for the past.
As beautiful as that past was, Melanie wouldn’t spend her life hiding. It was time to move forward. Time to move on. Melanie laughed through her sobs.
“You ok in there, sis?” Amanda burst through the front door, slamming it behind her. “I know, I’m late. I’m sorry.” Melanie looked up to see her 47-year-old sister in wrinkled work-out clothes, graying hair falling from her messy bun. Crows’ feet punctuated years in the corners of her eyes.
“The kids were driving me crazy today. One crisis after another.”
Melanie threw herself into Amanda’s arms, squeezing her hard.
“Oof,” Amanda said, pulling away. “I’m surprised you’re here. I thought you would have bailed hours ago.”
“I’m glad I didn’t.” Melanie smiled. “I did some hard work today.”
“I knew you could,” Amanda said. “And you did it, alone.”
I wasn’t alone, Melanie thought.
“Thanks, Sis,” she said. “For everything.”
Melanie pocketed the pieces of Grandma Lane’s glasses and linked her arm through her sister’s. Together they walked through the skeleton of their childhood home. Melanie felt an odd peace in the bare walls and empty rooms that hours before brought only pain. Melanie finally saw beyond her grief, grateful to find that one tile in the mosaic that maintained its beauty, despite the fissures that marred the others around it.
Melanie had found an unexpected treasure in the chaos of that junk drawer. Had her mother known of its magic? Or was it simply a relic tucked away, out of sight and mind, though ever present and comforting?
Something like our best memories.
The important things, Melanie would always carry them inside. No matter where she went, she knew she’d always be home.