Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Navy Blue

Twenty-one years ago tomorrow, at 8 a.m., the phone on the wall in the kitchen rang, and I picked it up. The caller greeted me briefly and then asked for Dad, who was also in the kitchen, having some coffee. They had an even briefer exchange that finished with, “thank you for letting me know,” and him handing me the receiver to replace in the cradle.

He told me you were gone.

I nodded and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Emotions in the house had long since been forbidden, although we weren't allowed to tell you that. It had been a somewhat sleepless night, the remnants of the burger I'd attempted to eat the night before at Applebee's churning restlessly in my stomach to the soundtrack of Nona's wailing at your bedside as your fever kept creeping up and your organs shut down. Of course I didn't know that then. I've skimmed the surface of the memory a few times in the past 21 years, afraid to wallow in its depths, of losing myself and becoming that awkward 17-year-old again.

I'm no longer afraid.

I told Dad that I'd let Jeremy know, although why I volunteered to do so is beyond me. I approached his double bed with trepidation, not sure what to say or how to say it, only that I knew I was creating a memory—a horrible one—that we would have to share for the rest of our lives. I echoed Dad's phrase and told Jeremy that you were gone, and he cried. I had a nervous smile that I couldn't shake, which caused me to feel embarrassed and guilty for almost a decade, until I read in a psychology textbook that that was sometimes a normal reaction to delivering bad news.

The memories of the rest of that day are a wash of smell and and color. Your bloated face lying against a stark white bed pillow. The smell of urine that permeated the halls of the nursing home, pungent as I walked that final time to say goodbye. The navy-blue bodybag. The heat of the funeral home.

The sequence unravels somewhat after what I can logically impose as a grown-up, knowing what I know about what happens when there is a “death in the family.” I know we all got dressed. I know we drove to the nursing home to say goodbye. I know we went on a long drive to the funeral home—this was before Weil followed the Jews to the northeast part of Cincinnati—to plan the funeral itself and to learn what would happen. I know that Uncle Jack and Uncle Matt were there for part, or maybe all, of the day.

Oh god, and I had to buy shoes. I had forgotten about that. After all the planning was over, I had to go to the mall, of all things. I had had nothing to wear to the funeral, and I couldn't very well ask you, “Hey, Mom, what should I wear to your funeral in a few weeks?” Fortunately, Margaret was either back from Luxembourg or hadn't left yet, so we attacked the mall and she helped me find a navy suit. It was the first suit I ever owned. It had a peplum, which was so “in” back then, and four large blue-and-gold buttons. The skirt was a little long and the waist was a little snug, but as I knew I wasn't going to have much time, it was going to have to do. I can't remember if I had it altered, and as it has long since made it to another woman's closet, I have no way of verifying.

But I possessed no navy shoes. I had red and yellow flats, courtesy of Bat Mitzvahs in the mid-1980s. I had black shoes. I had white Keds, thanks to showchoir. I even had black character shoes. But nothing that would go with a navy suit.

I had been working at the JCC that summer, and was filling my evenings with a summer production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—anything to escape the reality of what was going on with you. I hadn't had time—hadn't made time—to buy shoes. So I found myself at the mall on the day you died, frantically searching for navy shoes to match my new, almost-fitting suit.

Within five minutes of being there, I had run into Marla Sudman, one of my co-counselors from camp. She immediately asked how you were, and I was faced with a quandary. Should I lie and say that you were “hanging in there”? Or should I tell her that you had died that morning? If I told the truth, how would that make me look, being at the mall on the day my mom died? But if I lied, and the truth came out later, which it inevitably would, then I would have to explain why I lied. Why did I have to run into her? And why I had waited so long to get shoes? And why was this happening to me?

I told her that you had died that morning, and explained my dilemma about the shoes. Rather than judge (What sane person would judge? the grown-up me wants to interject here), she expressed her condolences, asked if there was anything she could do, and directed me toward Pappagallo for shoes. I thanked her and made a beeline for the store, hoping to enter and exit without running into anyone else I knew.

I found navy shoes in Pappagallo for $75—they were the most expensive shoes I'd ever bought, but I figured I didn't have much choice. It was the closest store to where I'd parked and I didn't want to go any farther into the mall than I had to. I wrote a check, tucked the box under my arm, and headed out the door.

The shoes had clip-on accessories—that had been one of the saleslady's selling points. One set were bows and the other rosettes. I wore the rosettes to the funeral, as the bows seemed too festive, but the teeth that clipped them to the shoes ended up snagging my pantyhose and digging into my feet—definitely a design flaw.

You would have steered me better. You would have taken me to L.S. Ayres or Lazarus and had me try on a dozen pairs, walk in them all, and asked me which was the most comfortable. You would have told me that neither the bows nor the rosettes were appropriate for a funeral. You would have probably insisted that we shop for the shoes at the same time as the suit, even if I was tired, to make sure that we got a good match, since the shades of navy can be so different. And you probably would have had a purse I could have borrowed.

Despite the shoe faux pas 21 years ago, I have learned, Mom. We have a wedding to go to in a couple of weeks. I bought a navy dress. I found silver-gray sandals that look just lovely with it, and I found a purse on sale at Marshall's (you would love Marshall's, it's just like T.J. Maxx) to match. I know what jewelry I'm going to wear, and I've got a little wrap in case it gets chilly, even though it's August and we're in the middle of an insane heat wave. I know, I know, you never know.

I hear echoes of your laugh in my laugh, you know. It catches me off-guard, but it no longer makes me sad. I'm happy that I carry a piece of you with me, and that piece of you comes out at the moments when I'm the most unguarded, the happiest, the most carefree.

Twenty-one years feels like a lifetime ago in some ways. So much has happened since then, it would take the rest of my life to fill you in, and then I'd miss what's going on right now. So instead I pause on this anniversary and acknowledge the gifts you gave me—life, unconditional love, and others too many to name—and say thank you. I miss you and I love you.


Annette Januzzi Wick said...

I loved this piece Allyson, as if I were right there with you, in the shoe store, and now. I am grateful for your reflection. As we get older, we do pause more. I just read a haiku yesterday to a friend confined to a hospital bed. Here it is:

halfway up the stair-
white chrysanthemums


only your case, it was the "blue" that gave you pause. So glad for technology giving us the opportunity to stay connected to each other's writing!

Applecart T. said...

i am pretty sure she knows what's been going on, even though … well, i won't get into afterlife-ness, a thing no one can confirm, and which is reliant on religion and tradition even to presume.

this is excellent writing.
and i'm so proud (wrong word?) that you have been able to grow and to express it so. and i understand you and others much more now. i even feel embarrassed that i didn't even know what i didn't know before …

it is ridiculous that navy, like black, is not a single reliable color in clothing. i have struggled with this many, many times.

white seems to be reliable, but only asians wear that at funerals.

the details provided here are so exceptional … uber-poignant and yet sparse. they are the reality of the moments that make up our present moments and then our memories; you are fortunate to have lucidity to be in both.

you are much like your mom in that you do, now, try on many, many shoes, you do plan, and you (i can't imagine) do not spend $75 on single accessory items.

i remember those days, of clip-on shoe-changing accessories. i think i can even see those very shoes in my mind's eye of "when i went to malls." i am 99% sure i touched them.

i wished in the narrative that the lady friend had taken you and not merely directed you to that store. she is older than we are now, perhaps, and she should have known better? but who am i to judge. just pointing out an additional layer of meaning in this essay; there is a lot to think about.

layers make for good writing; i don't know if you consciously manufactured them or not, but either way, you are in command of the material … real is real, and when an artist/writer/thinker meets such, the resulting communication is spot on and valuable to anyone who encounters it.