She Speaks

Finally packed away the ornaments and took the tree down to be mulched last night. 

Said goodbye to the season with a candle, mint ice cream and Alex playing outrageously sad opera on the piano. Wally was hugging the tree again and again, the whole way down and even once it was laying on its side downstairs by the trash. A maudlin scene.

Woke to snow this morning, but not before Wally woke several times during the night, padding into our room in tears, distraught about "Tap" (he names the trees). 

On the way to the bus this morning we got on the topic of Mimu, the great-grandchild nickname for my grandmother Miriam who lived in our current apartment from 1965 until she died in 2008.

"Tell me a story about her," Petra said, sticking out her tongue to catch the snow.

I couldn't think for some reason off hand of a good story. Not one that would fit into the few blocks to the bus stop. Not one I could tell over the noise of the traffic. 

I talked briefly about Miriam's life growing up in Brooklyn. Four sisters all sleeping together in one bed. About the piece of furniture she bought because it was big enough to hold her punchbowl. But that was decades later, maybe even after she moved to Manhattan. The Pepsi she drank until 9 pm, switching to something without caffeine at that time. That was in the final years of her life. I skipped around. I mostly left out, for some reason, the two decades where she raised my father and aunt in Brooklyn, maybe almost like those years don't fall under her story. Those belong to my dad.

I was, between crossing streets, waving at crossing guards, saying "Hi" to the fruit guy, still trying to think of a story, to take up the time between Wally's bus stop and Petra's daycare. Somehow I skipped ahead to the rehab center in Massachusetts that had three llamas. She spent time in my parents' house after that rehab center, but that was the last place I saw her. 

I thought about how happy she was with crappy suburban Chinese food we brought to a common room there. How she told me to sit in the "Queen's chair." I pictured myself carrying Wally in the Ergo outside in the mild summer air, pushing Mimu in the wheelchair to see the llamas. 

She was already lighter than air.

"Pops was there with his mom when she died," I told Petra as we turned onto the block of her daycare. 

"His mom?" Petra seemed surprised. "I thought you said it was his grandmother."

"No, she was my grandmother. Pops' mother."

Family trees, sketched out, spectral and skeletal like the trees lining the brownstone-lined streets where we walked.

"Pops said goodbye to her," I went on "And Mimu died and there was a big, full moon up in the sky that night on his drive home." 

"What did it say?" Petra asked facing straight ahead.

"What did what say?"

"The moon!"

The moon! Of course the moon would speak in this story. This is girl and boy land, where owls eat pea soup in front of the fire, where bunnies stay up too late, where pigeons beg to drive the bus. Why wouldn't the moon have something to say?

But I couldn't think of anything. I surveyed the snow, general over New York City. I smiled thinking of my James Joyce course at Fordham in July only two and a half years before. My mind flashed to Ireland. The churchyard. The dark mutinous Shannon waves.

In my head, the final lines of "The Dead" weaved around Maria Callas singing La Mamma Morta in Italian. And like a counter-melody, so many lines from my grandmother's stories, fragments of stories, really. And in particular this one: "You know, I never thought to ask my father how he got to Hull, England." (It was always Hull, England in particular.) "I mean, how did an eleven-year-old travel alone from Russia to Hull, England in 1900?" 

I laughed thinking about Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, made famous for sending her nine-year-old alone on the NYC subway a century later. Then I thought about the picture of me at that age that used to hang on the wall in this apartment, me wearing an argyle sweater with braces newly installed over wildly crooked front teeth. 

Miriam's refrain wasn't like many others in her generation. It wasn't inflated nostalgia. It wasn't the past was better. She was equally intrigued by and committed to the present, to giving me advice on my band, to writing letters to Senators, holding on to the present with every cell in her body, the last one to bed and the first one up. But still the past was vast, hyperlinked to every conversation.

"I really don't know," I told Petra. I shrugged my shoulders, trying to shake the spell that had come over me, the tree, the opera, the faintly falling snow. 

Petra started climbing up the stairs, holding onto her mittens and hat. At the top she turned around and took over my story, my not-story, the fragments I hadn't been able to attach, the ending I'd rushed to for some reason. The llamas and the bad Chinese food and the soaring moon in that dark sky on that final night.

"I know what the moon said," Petra whispered, like vespers, but Maria Callas' voice was still piercing, ear-splitting as that highest note rang out. "The moon said, 'You cannot die.'"


  1. I want to know what the Moon meant by that!

  2. I suppose it could be taken many different ways.

  3. Good god, Rach. This piece is perfectly written. I'm wiping away tears before I get S at school. Hauntingly beautiful. Thank you for putting this out in the world.

  4. I'm honored by these words. Thank you.

  5. She might be right...reincarnation etc.

  6.'s nice we can leave that possibility open...we have no definitive proof otherwise...

  7. I am so late to comment here, but I've been carrying this post with me. The whole thing is so vivid, almost Chagall-like. Walking the snow-dusted streets, Petra's questions, your thoughts of Mimu hovering above the cityscape, opera notes snagged on water towers, and a big, knowing moon fading in the morning sky. Just beautiful.

  8. Oh thank you so much Sarah. Love that idea, that line, "opera notes snagged on water towers..." yes!


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