Chapter 1: “What Would you like when I’m Dead and Gone?” 1 “WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE WHEN I’M DEAD AND GONE?”
For as long as I could remember, my grandmother was dying and telling stories. “I’m just a candle in the wind,” she would say, and clutch her heart, sighing audibly. “I’m just an old, threadbare mule going round and round the katydid.” She grew up in Montana, but a long road had deposited her in Ogunquit, Maine, and into a yellow Victorian she had christened, after my grandfather died and in a moment of virtuosic melodrama, Last Morrow.
My grandmother had snow-white hair that she wore like a crown. Her exacting eyes were a startling emerald. Her large, sturdy frame seemed a fitting home for her strong opinions. She dressed impeccably in tailored suits, wore motoring gloves, netted hats, diamonds from Tiffany’s. Her snakeskin pocketbook fastened with a golden clasp, and when opened, the cinnamon scent of Dentyne wafted from within. On the dashboard of her black Lincoln Continental was a golden nameplate that read: Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown—another name in a long line of borrowed names. She was Tommy; she was Katherine; she was Mother; she was Mrs. Brown; she was Aunt Thelma; she was Grammy. She wanted to live forever, or at least outlive Nancy Cooper Slagle, her great-grandmother, who lived to be 104 years old.
In the scheme of things, Grammy almost made it. She lived and lived and lived, despite all the clutching of her chest, the rolling back of her eyes, the repetition of that candle in the wind. Her own imminent demise became another yarn to spin. But she lived on and on. My sister Scarlett, deadpan but admiring just the same, called her a blowtorch in the wind.
To protect against oblivion the methods of two ancient Greek historians compete: Thucydides, the dominant example, tracked people down and interviewed them, took notes, recorded facts; and Herodotus, the long discredited fabulist, whose allegiance was to a good yarn, sometimes involving gods walking among the place, giving a nudge to events. The thing about Herodotus is that you don’t need paper; you just need to keep talking, and on the backs of a multitude of voices the narrative is carried, like the soft shirt-rustle of an afternoon breeze across eternity.
When my three older sisters and I would visit, Grammy would take us on tours of Last Morrow, showing us “the melodeon that had been around the horn twice,” a china bowl belonging to Nancy Cooper Slagle, cousin of James Fenimore Cooper, she would say, telling us how Nancy had carried the bowl over the Allegheny Mountains as she fled the Confederate South during the Civil War. Her husband had died in Libby Prison, leaving her penniless, a Yankee widow with seven children. She carried the bowl—given to her as a wedding present—from Richmond to the safety of her husband’s family in Ohio. Grammy wanted us to hear these things. She would pause in her stories, ask one of us girls to get her smelling salts. “I feel faint,” she would say. And from her vanity one of us would snatch the small silver container filled with ammonia so she’d keep telling her stories. With a sniff of it, she’d sit up straight again, the bulk of her with those green, green eyes, eyes that could hold a child, midbreath, between the future and the past. “I’m not long for this world,” she’d say, like a prophet. “You need to know from where you came and to whom you belong.”
That was the sound of history. This is the sound of history. Like the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, you are not expected to remember particular names, only the sound of the names rolling along as you listen to the poem. Every history is a song, and this is what ours sounds like.
On her side, we were related to Mary, Queen of Scots and the Royal Stewarts of Nairn; a pair of dizygotic twins; an adviser to Bismarck, Helmut von Keller; and Laura Ann Slagle, a milliner in Cincinnati who made hats for Granny Howard—William Howard Taft’s aunt.
Our grandfather, on the other hand, was “eleven generations Lynn,” and though I had no idea what Grammy meant, I could tell it meant something. She was speaking about Granpy, but I knew she was also speaking about us—that we were somebody, descended from queens and also from Lynn, Massachusetts.
Granpy was the grandson of Nellie Mariah Breed, who lived at Breed’s Pasture, the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Nellie used to say it was fought in her backyard, as though she had watched it from the comfort of her porch. Time collapsed that way in Grammy’s stories, decades, centuries even, living side by side. Our grandfather was Charles Brown, had been the Buster Brown boy as a child, and Grammy would show us his picture as such, our grandfather’s image, a young boy, posing in an advertisement. His family had been prominent shoemakers in Lynn—and for most of my life I believed that the Buster Brown Shoe Company had been started by Granpy’s family, a notion that Grammy never disabused us of. Rather more stories filled in what logic and truth left out. Granpy’s grandmother had escaped the Candlemas massacre up in York, Maine, when she was just a little girl, hiding behind a rock while the rest of her family was scalped. In the telling, Grammy would roll her eyes the way she did and tug at her own hair, lifting it from her scalp. On Last Morrow’s kitchen wall hung a family portrait that included that little girl, grown up and so old her face looked like a dried-up apple. I was a little girl myself then, and it was impossible to imagine that I could ever be that old.
On her ring finger, Grammy wore a diamond from Tiffany’s. “Extra-extra river water,” she would say, showing it to us so that as she did it caught the light, casting a prism of color around the room. I didn’t know what extra river water meant, but somehow it made sense. I could see cold river water flowing over the diamond, shaping it, giving it the power to cast light. Eventually she would ask each one of us, “What would you like when I’m dead and gone?”
At night she would put us to sleep, making us wash our feet, dipping cotton balls in witch hazel and then stuffing them between our toes to keep our feet clean so they wouldn’t soil the sheets. She’d have us say our prayers—Now I lay me down to sleep—and then with her warm, wet breath and a voice airy and strained, soft and out of tune, she’d sing some horrible song about someone dying, “The Little Black Train’s a’Comin’,” which seemed a way of staving off her own death or at least normalizing it. She was, as she explained to us, “headed down the path toward oblivion,” and what she wanted, I came to understand, was to leave a trace. She was on that path for a very long time, and once she actually did die, at ninety-seven years old, it seemed she continued to live some more, haunting us with her stories, stimulating debate and conversation about what the truth was. “I’m combing my hair with a can opener,” she’d say.
If Grammy was our version of Homer, I was Herodotus. I wanted to tell a history, but my allegiances were more toward providing a sense of character. My sisters, on the other hand, were straight-up historians in the mode and model of Thucydides. They required the documentation, the verification, the proof. They were fully possessed of the world’s cynicism, of the fact of realpolitik as the true measure of how things happen in human affairs. Long before she died, thus, they had stopped paying attention to Grammy’s tales. It fell to me, therefore, to be the keeper of the family stories, my inheritance from Grammy.
All of which brings us to my childhood home in New Jersey, some fifteen years after our grandmother’s death, where Emma, the oldest sister, and I stood with our mother in the dim light of the Rose Hill basement, here to clean out the house, which smelled like mice and mildew, a dumpster in the yard. My eyes itched.
Scarlett was with us too, sort of. She studied the situation with her well-honed appraiser’s eye, left eyebrow raised, and her ability to sniff out a fake at fifty paces, even through the glass of a computer screen, videoconferencing from a visit to her in-laws in Bordeaux. Of all five sisters and our lone brother, Timmy, only the three of us had taken on this task.
“It must have value,” our mother said to Emma and me. “The”—she stumbled—“how shall I put it?” Mom tried to recall words, the weird conjuring that seemed to occur right behind her eyes. We were studying a trunk that belonged to our great-grandmother, Grammy’s mother, Glenna.
“Trunk,” I offered, finding the word for Mom. She gave me a puzzled look. Her confusion caught us off guard just as much as her clarity—weird illness, strange prism.
“Say our names,” Scarlett instructed. We waited, watched her, tried to will her to say the names. Each time the same. If she said the names she wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s, she’d only have dementia. Scales, degrees. “Say our names,” Scarlett insisted.
“Emma, Scarlett, Celia, Isadora.” Our mother was a poet, published two volumes before surrendering to motherhood. Growing up, she would say our names all together like a line of poetry—a refrain. For a long time I was the youngest, Isadora, and fell last. I liked falling last.
“And?” Emma asked. We pressed when playing this game, greedy.
“You’ve got it, Mom,” I said. She looked like a little girl.
“Zasu, Timmy,” she said. Zasu and Timmy came much later. Zasu had a different father. Closer to the present they were first forgotten, last recalled.
“Brava!” Scarlett said, and Mom smiled, as if she had won something. And just like that she returned.
Who doesn’t hope to find a hidden treasure at the bottom of a stack of boxes in a basement—that great repository of junk and time. The trick was not to get lost, to stay focused and on task. Already Emma and I had hauled out sixteen heavy-duty garbage bags of junk. The house was slowly sinking into the ground, the forest waiting like an army laying siege to our lovely childhood home, on its hilltop with views off into sky and distance. Our mother, in her forgetfulness, had spent her inheritance from our father, handing out, among other things, hundred-dollar bills to all the grandchildren for their birthdays and Christmas. All she had left was the house. With the cave crickets and the stinkbugs, the slow advance of the forest, the expenses advanced too.
“The trunk traveled with Grammy out west, when she was a child,” I said. Though I was not sentimental about stuff, I liked seeing the trunk, that it had survived—or even just that it existed. But if we could have sold it, I’d easily have let it go.
“It’s all nonsense,” Emma said with a look of grim determination. “Grammy was a storyteller. And if you find any money here, Isadora, be my guest. No one will buy the house with all this junk.”
Emma’s plan was to clean up the house, get it ready to sell. “We’re selling the house,” she had announced to the rest of us in an email. “The money can pay for Mom’s care. She may live a very long time, like Grammy.” Strong as an ox, Grammy used to say. Grown up with children of our own, plenty of knowledge about our pecking order, we humored Emma’s ideas, feigned they were the best ones.
Emma had the same severe silver hair, blunt short cut as our mother, same pale skin. They could have been sisters; it had been noted often enough over the years. Mom was just twenty-three when Emma was born. Often Emma acted as though she was Mom’s older sister too. “Let’s not be romantic… or sentimental. Grammy picked up the trunk in a flea market for a few dollars.” Emma let the lid fall shut.
“Wait a second,” Scarlett said. “Bring me in a bit closer.” Her bob of blond curls bounced around her pretty face. She favored our handsome father: round face, blue eyes. Looking at her, I could see him still. When we were children, she declared herself the beauty in the family. I moved the computer screen closer. “There’s a market for restoring old trunks of famous makers.” She asked me to run the camera over the details of the trunk. “It’s a classic Saratoga, but certainly not a Vuitton or a Goyard,” she said with her particular authority. The trunk was another instance—one of a thousand things—that needed to be dragged out into the clear light of day, then hauled off to the dump, its story finished.
“That’s wrong,” Mom said with a lucidity that always startled us, defending more than the trunk. “That trunk—that one right there—arrived at our house in Hasbrouck Heights when I was a girl. From the west, a few days before Grandmother. It’s not from a flea market; it’s not junk. It was filled with velvet and sheet music, furs and jewels in hidden compartments. It always contained some bit of the exotic—an arrowhead collection mounted on green felt, a coup stick, a tooled leather shot pouch. She would rest it on its side and open it like an armoire. It came again after she died. I remember that, appearing like her ghost.”
“Glenna was poor,” Emma said. We referred to our great-grandmother by her name, as if she were another relative living a short distance away. “She didn’t have jewels or furs.”
“She was difficult,” Mom said. “But distinguished.”
“That may be,” Emma said. “But the trunk, look at it. It’s finished.” Mice and chipmunks and god knows what other creatures had gnawed away at the interior, leaving behind the debris of their nests—middens of straw, acorns, and scat. The trunk’s leather straps were torn—or gnawed—the brass buckles rusted and broken.
In one way or another, since childhood, all three of us had been trying to save Mom. Scarlett liked to say that when our father came apart and our parents’ marriage suffered and Zasu was born, that she and Emma stepped in to become the parents. Emma became the mother, cooking for us, while Scarlett became the father, taking care of the bills. “That’s sexist,” Celia would respond, watching from the sidelines. I, on the other hand, created narratives to make sense of it all, while also organizing and ordering, taking action. Right now what I wanted was to find things we could sell in order to help Mom. All these years later, our roles remained the same.
“I wouldn’t have saved the trunk if it was worthless,” Mom said.
“Celia took it to Europe, to Paris, when she moved to teach at the Sorbonne,” I said. Celia didn’t come anywhere near Rose Hill these days. “It’s the scene of the crime of our childhoods,” she said dramatically. And for Celia, the basement was a graveyard.
“There’s a scorch mark on the trunk,” I said, “from a fire. A stove exploded when Grammy was a girl in Montana and Glenna had left her alone. Turn it over and you’ll see.” I felt my sisters looking at me blankly. A piece of string hung from a bright bare bulb above us. We all had our own claim staked on the past; the stories were mine.
“Okay, okay,” Emma said. Turning it over wouldn’t be easy, the way the trunk was wedged into its tight space, surrounded by so much other junk, including a pinball machine from the 1970s. Even so, I handed the computer to Emma and started to lift the trunk to show them the scar. “We believe you,” Emma said.
“Let’s stay on task,” Scarlett said. “I don’t have much time.” Emma moved more deeply into the basement, carrying Scarlett on the computer. I pulled on another string hanging from a lightbulb and illuminated more floor-to-ceiling stacks of stuff—a basement that seemed to stretch, without end. Being downstairs was like a stroll into the hereafter of objects, labyrinthine turns suddenly revealing vast collections of old vinyl LPs, children’s toys, files, tools, household appliances, furniture, framed Haitian art from a gallery that our father had briefly owned, photographs and negatives from Mom’s work as a photographer, books and stacks of Dad’s research archives, Grammy’s nursing manuals, Glenna’s music, unfinished lives. Emma and Scarlett joked about getting lost in the Library of Babel. One could vanish down here in the musty silence, the sound of time ticking in the pipes. And here was what happened if you did vanish: you got curious, maybe opened a box, a trunk, and kept looking—one thing leading to another, until you were completely, wonderfully lost. Rummaging down here, I once took the nursing manuals, the music, a long, low plastic box stuffed with photographs of our ancestors—artifacts for my work. I felt like I was stealing.
One always to hope for easy luck, I maintained that maybe enough time had passed that the basement somewhere contained the treasures we needed in order to support Mom. Wasn’t that the secret heart of every flea market that ever was?
I am a novelist of sorts, using biographies of real people as jumping-off points for the stories I tell. I have written three novels, all of which feature families playing central roles. Families for me are like countries. They both contain and create the subject, while a childhood shapes a life. Jeanne Baret was a subject, an impoverished orphan of an illiterate couple, who grew up to circumnavigate the globe in the eighteenth century dressed as a man; Jane Wilson—ethereal painter of the sky, raised in dust bowl Oklahoma by a poet and an engineer—took long car trips across the country with her parents and her sisters, watching the changing landscape bookended by oceans; and Hypatia, earliest female mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, daughter of Theon, renowned mathematician, mother unknown, erased by history. I made it my job to resurrect this mother, and therefore Hypatia, through deduction.
Now, after years of wanting to, I had trained my work on my grandmother, writing her story. This is what I told myself, what I told people who asked at parties what I was working on. It was good to have a clear, unimpeachable subject—one that was straightforward but admitted, just the same, enough depth and complexity to keep things interesting. It put me at ease, and therefore my interrogator, gave me a sense of purpose or at least a sense that I knew what I was doing with myself. More pointedly, I said, on grant applications, for instance, that I was interested in my grandmother, born in 1904, dead in 2001, because her life had spanned a century in which so much had changed for women, and she, an ordinary, unhistoric person was cast within the flow of big history. Whenever I thought of her life against this backdrop, I felt a vista open up before me—a prairie emerging in the original sense of the word, forest suddenly giving way to the horizon and tall grass blowing in the wind. I felt that distant woman call to me, and so she became my subject, as she had always wanted to be for me.
For years I couldn’t see, in the way we can never see the most important things for what they are—most likely because they present themselves in the form of endless rows of dusty basement boxes—that her story was mine. Not the details or the particulars. Not the facts or the fabrications. But perhaps the one big fact—that she once was, and so was I. We were shaped differently by our times, by the ways in which we were raised and educated, of course, but what did my grandmother and I share? There was no way through this, I knew, but through the particulars.
There were the particulars, for instance, of an epic-heroic past—some of it factual, some of it running parallel to fact, some of it orbiting in a broad, elliptical path, like Pluto, around the truth, and some of it like the stories about the gods we give to constellations in the sky. We project the epic onto the sky; to find, in the chaos of the cosmos, the patterns connecting star to star that give a snug fit to Orion’s Belt; to place in one’s palm the ladle of the Big Dipper; and to receive a few practical orienting tricks: that the Dipper’s cup points to true north.
My own true north understood that there was something essential being done in my mother’s basement, in sifting through and sorting out truth from fable, though even fables have something deeply true about them that outlasts us, my mother’s disintegrating mind, our own unique and individual selves shuttling off into the unknown: a truth beyond the objects we tossed into the dumpster and the objects we held on to, a truth in the stories that would remain, when we were dead and gone.
If Glenna were a constellation, you would see her in her white teacher’s smock, striding westward across the dew-wet grass of Montana, a rifle in one hand, Temple’s Notes to Shakespeare in the other. There wasn’t room in the sky for a husband with a wandering eye, but that was where stories came in, to fill out an evening, to ask about duplicity and betrayal, the steady march of self-compromise that led to whatever cul-de-sac of banality one found oneself in—and then to wonder about what a genuine hero would do about such things.
If my grandmother and her little sister, Katherine, were constellations, they would be in another part of the sky entirely. Grammy would be kneeling, facing east with her .43 Egyptian just about ready to pick off a prairie dog. Her sister would be standing next to Grammy, looking west, toward Glenna. The larger truth, the one that would outlast all of us, would be reflected in this constellation, this mise-en-scène.
“I need more light,” Scarlett said. “The gems will be small. Look for small objects.” Scarlett had already staked her claim to the larger gems. One way or another, all of us wanted something to take away. Even so, Scarlett’s brand of hope was more practical, more concrete than mine, based on equations made from the way in which Grammy had lived her life, the way in which Mom had saved everything, the fact that none of our siblings had scoured the basement yet, or so I thought, had separated the wheat from the chaff, the disjecta and dross from the “quality pieces.” Scarlett’s mission was to preserve, find objects of value, and then keep them. Her home was a museum to our shared past.
“The boxes,” Scarlett said, her mind working like a heat-seeking missile, “Find Grammy’s boxes from the move and do not throw any of it away or sell it.” Grammy had moved from Maine to New Jersey some ten years before she died, not long after our father died. All those years piled up, the contents of her life stowed in the deepest part of the basement storeroom, her red ink scrawl informing us of the long-ago room the contents had occupied and to which ancestor they had belonged. As my sisters zeroed in, I noticed, for the first time, a familiar black metal box, smallish with a handle on top. I remembered it sat by my grandmother’s bed, held all of her important papers, letters, cards, certificates of deaths, of births, decrees, marriages, clippings from newspapers—papers that I wanted to sift through, that certainly held some approximation of truth and fact. She would put her glasses on and from time to time, in the dull light of one of her fancy bedside table lamps, she would rifle through the contents. I could easily imagine what was inside, wanted it for my own, before my sisters had a chance to stake a claim. Suddenly I had never wanted anything as much. I wanted this expedition to end right now. I stepped forward, twisted my body so my back turned, pressing up against the shelf upon which Grammy’s boxes were stacked, hiding the black box altogether with my body. Deftly, I maneuvered it, sliding it more deeply into the shelf, tucking it behind the other boxes.
Just then, Emma asked me what was wrong. Scarlett too. She raised her right eyebrow suspiciously. And then, coincidentally and very conveniently, my sneaker squished into the soft flesh of a newly dead rat and I screamed, startling Mom and Emma.
“Disgusting,” Emma said, jumping back. There was blood.
“The house could be infested,” Scarlett said. “Call the exterminator immediately. Mommy pays dearly for the service. Use it.” Emma slammed the laptop shut and handed it to Mom. Scarlet was gone, sucked back to Bordeaux. Emma reached down, her hand in a plastic garbage bag, and scooped the rat off the ground.
“It’s a farmhouse,” Mom explained.
“We have to wash our hands, Isadora,” Emma said to me, as if I were five years old and she was eleven, holding me with her big black eyes, shining as they did, like precious jewels. Grammy used to say they were Glenna’s eyes and before that they had belonged to Nancy Cooper Slagle, Glenna’s grandmother.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, knowing that later I would return for the black box—no golden nugget for the flea market, just papers. I could almost hear Grammy whispering in my ear, What would you like when I’m dead and gone?