My father was twelve when he learned that his mother had kept a part of herself hidden. Five of them were standing at a Customs desk at Orly airport in Paris in 1957: my father, his older brother, his younger sister, their parents. The Customs officer held the family’s passports like a royal flush, eyes jumping from his hand to the faces of his opponents.
When his eyes landed on my grandmother, then 41 years old, he paused and asked: “This is your second marriage?” And then plowed ahead with his line of questioning: “And how long was your first marriage? What was your married name?”
As my father recalls, he stepped towards his mother then—a gesture both protective and interrogative, I imagine—but she turned her carefully composed face towards him and fixed him with a look that rooted his feet to the floor. “We’ll discuss this later,” the look said, “Not now.”
But they didn’t discuss it later, not at length anyways. Over the years my father managed to extract fragments of the story. But his mother—my grandmother—never spoke the whole story aloud.
Her first husband had been a cruel man, a fact she discovered too late. The night before their wedding—engraved invitations long ago distributed and an elaborate bespoke dress hanging in the closet—she told her father she didn’t think she should go through with it. But it was 1937 in Chicago and she was the first-born of two daughters, her sister already nipping at her spinster heels.
After the wedding the next day, the newlyweds departed for New York City where they boarded a ship to France for their six-month honeymoon tour of Europe. By the time they docked in Calais, my grandmother’s first husband had struck her several times. She was bruised but not beaten. And so, on that shore on the edge of an unseen continent and an unimaginable life, she bid her new husband farewell and loaded her steamer trunks back onto the ocean liner for the return trip home, alone.
She may not have been holding any cards of value, but my grandmother was a savvy player—bridge, canasta, hearts—and she knew how to wear a poker face. She returned to Chicago, committed herself to volunteer work at the hospital and inhabited the role of the dutiful daughter. She kept her cards close to her chest. Some stories, she must have divined, are best left untold.
I am in the kitchen and my young children are in the next room playing cards. The only sound I can hear is the murmur of their sibling dialogue and the snapping of cards as they’re laid on the floor.
Then: “You’re bleeding,” my daughter says reproachfully.
More cards are laid down, picked up.
“You’re bleeding again.”
“I’m not,” my son replies, irritated.
“Yes.” Pause. “You are,” she says emphatically, ever the older sister.
A room away, I’m concerned. Is he bleeding? How could he be bleeding? They’ve been sitting quietly on the playroom floor for the past ten minutes.
I poke my head through the doorframe to observe, careful not to intrude. Both children are seated cross-legged on the rug and my daughter is gently pushing my son’s hand of cards up to his chest. He was bleeding his hand; she could see his cards. It’s a turn of phrase they picked up from a babysitter who had a poker habit. Nevertheless, the lesson is plain: failing to keep your cards close to your chest is dangerous. You risk injury.
The last time I saw my grandmother I did not know it would be the last time I saw my grandmother. I’ve since wondered if such moments should come with warning labels: this is the last time you will hear the timbre of this voice; this is the last time you will look into these watery denim eyes; this is the last time you will feel warmth in these arthritic hands or inhale this powdery scent, the olfactory baseline of your earliest memories.
I sat on the edge of her twin bed in the front bedroom of the island home she had shared with my grandfather for over 50 years. Winter sun streamed through the gauzy curtains framing the windows and splashed across the faded blue coverlet. She was propped up on pillows, a folded crossword puzzle and ballpoint pen on her blanketed lap. Osteoporosis had reshaped her spine into a question mark, but her mind was still exact.
I was there to say goodbye before I drove to the ferry. She must have seen the larger play. We talked for a few minutes about the year ahead: my students, the books I’d be teaching in the spring, her pending trip to the West coast to see her cousins the next month.
As our idle chatter ebbed, she squeezed my hands tight. I squeezed back and smiled at her. We stayed that way a beat longer than usual. Then she leaned towards me and said in a voice hushed by age and decorum, “You know, you’ve always been my favorite.”
She said she knew she wasn’t supposed to say such things out loud. She, who had made a habit of speaking so little into the world, had a final card to lay on the table: an ace up her sleeve. It bound me to her in an instant and for always. But it’s been an odd burden to bear. I’ve held that card close to my chest, acutely aware of the power it wields.
It is spring and the Boston Gardens are planted with regiments of tulips and bristling beds of bobble-headed allium, whose purple blooms are taller than a three-year old. My husband and I have crossed the river with our young children to see the swan boats and recite the rhyming names of the ducks.
The moment we step off of Arlington Street’s brick sidewalk and pass through the gate into the Garden, my daughter races ahead. Her brother lags behind, meandering like a bumble bee compared to his sister, an arrow shot straight and true. I am in between them, performing that common maternal geometry: staying just close enough to my hard-charging daughter so that I can catch her before she encounters some danger, without also getting too far ahead of my son, who has a preternatural sense of proximity to those he loves.
I hear the fiddler before I see him. He’s at the foot of the bridge that bisects the pond. As my daughter approaches him, she slows, and then stops, and he lifts his bow from the strings of his instrument, the quiet descending like a curtain. For a moment the two are locked in stillness. She is staring up at him; he looks like a statue of a fiddler, bow poised at a jaunty angle.
Then he breaks the spell and says to her in a thick Irish brogue: “Fast? Or pretty?”
She doesn’t understand that he’s offering her the choice of his next tune and she cocks her head like a dog who’s just heard an unfamiliar sound and is puzzling out the meaning.
He asks again: “Fast? Or pretty?”
But my little lass doesn’t answer. She just runs over the bridge, pink dress flapping like a signal flag in the wind, and hits the far shore at a dead run: fast and pretty.
Good for her, I think, to resist the binary choice. Who says you have to be one or the other? Fast or pretty? Strong or smart? Kind or popular? Private or outspoken? Married or divorced or married again? You can be all of those things. Or none. You can speak them aloud. Or hold them close to your chest. The power is in the choosing.
After my grandmother has been cremated but before we’ve planted her urn in the cemetery plot overlooking the harbor, we begin the business of sorting through her belongings. My aunt tackles the desk on the second-floor landing, a double-height Chippendale-style secretary desk brimming with the ephemera of a prior age: boxes of monogrammed stationery on thick cardstock, matching envelopes lined with colorful tissue paper, bevel-edged calling cards, each one letterpressed with the title of the role my grandmother played best: Mrs. Barbara Bastien Rowe. The cards are impossibly small; her name barely fits. I wonder at the contortions she—and the stationer—had to perform to fit the allotted space.
I ascend the narrow wooden stairs to the attic and make my way to the Southeast corner, where a half-moon transom window is letting in the high summer sun. Racks of winter coats dusty with disuse hang in rows like ghostly versions of the woman who wore them. I unzip a plastic garment bag yellowed with age and extract a dress I’ve never seen before. It’s immediately recognizable as an artifact of the ’70s: a bright geometric Emilio Pucci print, only slightly faded. For no reason other than my grandmother is gone and I miss being near her, I drop my own sundress to the floor and slip into this one.
Later, I make my barefooted way back down the stairs and step onto the landing where the wide painted floorboards sigh at my arrival. My aunt turns from her work at her mother’s desk and takes in the tableau. I spin once for effect and she puts a hand to her mouth.
“That was the dress Mumma wore to your parents’ wedding,” she says. “I only saw her wear it that once. It looks like it was made for you.”
A calcium deficiency sheared seven inches from my grandmother’s full height over the latter half of her life. At five foot ten I’d stood taller than her since I was in grade school. But she’d worn this dress in 1972, long before she was made small. I wear it to her funeral the next day, along with a flamingo pink hat encircled with a turquoise beaded hatband and a pair of hot pink stilettos. I am a towering riot of color and pattern in the ocean of mourners.
The first time my daughter goes to the Flying Horses she is four years old and has to ride on the inside of the carousel, where the horses are smaller and more demure. The bigger horses on the outside of the carousel—the mounts that afford you the opportunity to grab at the brass ring—are wild-looking, in full stride, purposeful in their gait. She bridles at the idea of the shrunken horses, writhes in the saddle when she is belted in, and glares at the teenage employee who tells me that I have to stand next to her for the duration of the ride.
It’s the oldest carousel in the country and my grandmother—her great grandmother—played a leading role in its restoration three decades earlier, but all she knows of it now is that it’s the embodiment of her thwarted ambition.
The summer she is seven she sneaks onto a big horse before the carousel attendant can direct her to a smaller mount. I watch from my vantage point in the gallery as she cinches the worn leather belt tight around her tiny waist, straightens her spine and lifts her chin—just so—to ward off any challenge to her place. Her sneakers dangle a full foot above the stirrups. She is tall for her age, but her ambition is still running way out in front of her biology. Her arms are not yet long enough to reach the brass ring. Still, she leans in that direction—wiggling fingers fully extended—every time she goes around.
By the time she is nine, she approaches the carousel the way a veteran sprinter addresses the starting blocks: confident, at ease, with a sense of belonging and ownership. She has a favorite horse and she slings one leg over his back, pats his neck affectionately, then tightens her grip on the metal pole that pins him to the wooden floor. The music starts and the horses rise and the carousel begins to spin.
She’s spent so many summers studying the unceasing revolutions of the older children that she’s learned how to grab multiple rings in a single pass and they stack up on the spike at the front of her horse like chips in front of a poker player on a streak. But they are all a dull metallic gray. She’s earned nothing shiny for her effort.
“Can I ride again, Mama? Please? One more time,” she implores.
Her ambition is an engine. I find it hard to resist gassing the tank.
When the gate swings open for the next round of riders, she darts foxlike through the slow-moving tourists and climbs up on her horse. She’s buckled herself in before most of the other riders have selected a mount. I’ve bribed her younger brother with a wand of spun sugar and pulled him through the crowd and across the dusty floor to position ourselves under the arm that dispenses the rings. Here we have an unobstructed view of the carousel riders.
She circles by us a dozen times and doesn’t make eye contact once, despite the fact that we are calling her name and pointing a camera at her. Each time she rounds into view, she sights the metal arm that dispenses the rings, drives her feet down into the stirrups and, anchoring herself with one hand on the pole, leans out and grabs as many rings as her little fingers can hook in a single pass.
Soon the disembodied voice of the carousel announces: “The brass ring has now entered the arm, riders. The brass ring is up for grabs.”
I tilt my head up and watch the shiniest ring drop into the slot and then my eyes fall back to the carousel and focus on the approaching rider. She is rising in her saddle, hand just beginning its reach towards the ring, eyes narrow and focused. She is unmistakably small, but the drive that animates her sure body is generations old.
I am 26 when my grandmother dies of heart failure in a hospital room in California. And I am 34 when I give birth to my daughter on the day my grandmother would have turned 93. Though it will never happen, I like to imagine the three of us around a table, deep in a game of high stakes poker. My grandmother to one side. My daughter to the other. Me, the genetic hinge between the two: one, a woman made small by society and circumstance; the other, a still small girl blind to boundaries.
The dealer would drop luckless cards in front of us, his hands tracing a path as predictable as the orbit of a carousel horse. Underneath the table, though, we’re playing another game entirely. We have cards up our sleeves, tucked under our stilettoed soles, sewn into the hems of our Pucci dresses.
Hand to soft hand, we pass cards with the confidence of thieves. We trade our twos for queens. We build whole families in our fists. We are flush with ambition. We’re playing the long game, studying our opponents, tensing our legs in anticipation of the moment when we will push back our chairs, rise to our full height, and lay our winning cards on the table.