(My piece in Airplane Reading, a book of essays edited by Chris Schaberg and Mark Yakich published by Zero Books. Originating out of the website, the book includes essays by Roxane Gay, Lucy Corin, Pam Houston, and Ander Monson, among many others.) On Sale Now.
When my grandfather died in 1985 my first husband didn’t go with me to the funeral. He was out of work again. “I need to keep the job hunt alive,” he said.
The call came in the middle of the night from my father. I lived in New Orleans and my parents were 100 miles away in Mississippi, but we booked the same flight and rendezvoused at my airport. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d flown with them. We’d lived in three countries but my parents loved eternally long drives. When we did take a plane my sister and sat in the row behind them.
My marriage was in its final month, and my parents’ marriage was in its final ten years. My father had taken up with his graduate student and my mother wasn’t budging. I had fallen in love with someone else, too.
On this flight we sat three across with me between them, because I thought buffering was my job. In high school, I’d stay behind at the dinner table with my raving sober father; and later, I’d find my drunk mother out on the patio, and smoke a cigarette with her, drink more wine.
But on the airplane my parents treated each other with kindness, like handsome strangers who had in common the fresh loss of a parent. My father sat, sad and quiet, with a bloody Mary; my mother sipped ginger ale and thumbed through a House Beautiful. The air at 30,000 feet was smooth and rare. For the first time in a long time, the discomfort of being their daughter went away. Even if we’d hit unexpected turbulence, I wouldn’t have been afraid.
In the open casket, my grandfather looked dapper in a dark suit, a starched white shirt and his favorite red tie. My mother patted his chest and kissed his forehead. “I love you Daddy,” she said. My father touched his father’s cheek with the tips of his fingers and choked back a sob. I knelt and in my silent prayer I apologized to my grandfather for loving him less than I loved my grandmother.
Relatives came by the house, bringing lasagna, veal bones in red gravy, crispy fried artichoke hearts, rum cake, biscotti studded with pine nuts, and liters of red wine. People said nice things. My husband didn’t phone to extend his condolences, and the family noticed. It made our divorce easier to explain.
The next day my grandmother wanted my grandfather’s things gone. My mother bagged clothes and shoes and golf clubs for Goodwill, and my father brought the bags down to the rental car. My parents worked in tandem. My sister was living in Berlin and we shipped her a slouchy blue alpaca cardigan with tortoise buttons, like something Bing Crosby would wear. My father kept a signed baseball from my grandfather’s minor league baseball days. My grandmother let my mother bring home a stern, sepia photograph from their wedding day in 1929. I packed my grandfather’s paisley bathrobe in my suitcase. He was a small man and it fit me.
On the plane home, my father sat across the aisle. Over Atlanta we encountered a few bumps. “Think of them as potholes in the road,” I said to my mother, but she kept her warm, dry hand on my arm. I didn’t want to land.