Love and (be)Longing
by Jessica Paden
When I was twenty-six, I went to Florida to attend a funeral. My primary grief at the time was a relationship left behind in California, and I was recovering at my mother’s rented apartment in Newport, Rhode Island. I ate only when I became so thin I threatened to hollow. I went to drugstores to cry. I stood on the rooftop deck at the rental home, staring stiffly at the distant water like a 19th century whaling widow, and when the sun went down I descended the ladder as if retreating to a damnation.
On a grey February afternoon, as I lay still on the couch, aware only of the clipped clicking of a wall clock and my own morbid thoughts, I received a phone call. “My father died,” said my father, on the line. I startled, having forgotten that since people exist, by extension, they also cease to. I hung up the phone and began making dutiful plans. I was going to fly south for a mourning.
I met my grandfather only once that I can remember. He was handsome, like a patriarch on an 80’s soap opera — wide-jawed, blue-eyed and tan, with a latent post-dixie drawl. He greeted me with charm, as though he knew me, and I understood from this singular meeting that his children must have felt grateful and hungry for his brief attentions, regardless of what transpired in between.
My sister and I received cards in the mail from him each year at Christmas, signed “love, Grandad” in what was unmistakably my father’s handwriting. Perhaps my grandfather was a forgetful man. I don’t know how he spent his days, but the word was he had a good brain, so I suspect he just rarely thought of us at all. We were the daughters of divorce, my sister and I, the yoke of heredity growing more frayed each year after the marital ties were severed. I felt betrayed by his lack of interest, but I was what you might call an overly sensitive girl.
From afar — my main point of view — my father’s side of the family seemed a well-adjusted lot, with a predilection for the middle class values of love, work and color-coordinated outfits. They paid their bills on time and didn’t suffer from digestive conditions. Entire months of their lives were never blotted out by the rorschach ink of depression — or if they were, it was never confided to me.
As a child, I once visited my aunt by myself, without either of my parents. Although my mother, sister and I were not exactly poor, we lived modestly, and I felt like a street urchin in comparison to my preppy cousins — with my messy hair and cautious demeanor, my imperfect habit of staring a little too directly into other people’s souls. I remained in wary awe of the massive brick houses along their cul-de-sac and the stately grandfather clock in the main foyer. My cousins’ bedrooms were pink, blue and tidy.
A photograph exists somewhere of this visit — the nuclear family in nice outfits, posing in a formal living room used mostly for picture taking, and me, a little off to the side, smiling shyly in my grass-stained pink culottes and red striped T-shirt. I had the skinned knees of a person who regularly experienced excitement followed quickly by a deflating fall, and my youthful allergies bloomed beneath my eyes like rose petals.
For perhaps the first time that day, I recognized that I did not fit in. They loved each other so easily. Which to me, a rumpled-but-hopeful nine year old, meant they must have been easy to love.
Florida was, at first glance, a sun-wasted nightmare. The air smelled delightfully of oranges, but the sky was rich with vultures ready to beak into the bleached carcasses of roadkill and the drying fruit of elderly flesh. It seemed as good a place to die as any. Since I was already grieving, I was ripe to fall into ritual. I wore a black, long sleeved, gauzy silk dress. I brushed my hair. For the first time in my life, I rang the bell at my grandfather’s house, nestled centrally in the thick warren of a gated community, his wife greeting me pale as a specter, unconsoled by what had —48 hours earlier — been her comfortable life. My extended family, those beautiful creatures, were standing in the kitchen drinking wine, convivial in the midst of their sorrow.
“Perhaps home is not a place,” James Baldwin once wrote, “but simply an irrevocable condition.” My condition among my family was a feeling that I barely exist. The contours of my being felt indefinite, more so with the hard sun beating down on me as we made our way to a neighbor’s backyard for a gathering. Can one ever hope to belong, when even family feels unfamiliar?
“Your grandfather spoke of you often,” said the neighbor, after apologizing for taking too many tranquilizers mixed with wine. I stared at her dubiously. Perhaps she assumed there was a standardization among his eight grandchildren, not realizing that I was the standard deviation. “He was so wonderful,” she continued, “so wonderful.” My family sat on plastic pool furniture, reminiscing about things I was never privy to, my cousins recalling moments that I had not shared. The few times I spoke, they turned to me as though I were a stray bunny who had wandered into the yard. “You look like a princess,” my grandfather’s wife said graciously when I first arrived. By the end of the gathering, she was alleging, “You look like a princess,” with a vehemence that bordered on derision.
What might it mean to feel unhappy amongst people with whom your blood belongs, but to whom you do not? In Dante’s Inferno, the classic damnation melodrama, sadness is cast as a grave sin. When gloom’s genesis is internalized anger, it warrants Level Five suffering — an intense situation where the depressed are condemned to gurgle beneath the muds of hell for an inarticulate eternity. I confess: I cling to a base level of soft grief like a transitional object, in part to distract from the hard anguish of being a member of a family, or a country, or a species. The hard anguish of being alive. But my plot in the eternal mud bath is purchased with each whisper of self-abnegation in which I tell myself, “I do not belong.”
Questions of membership yield no definitive answers. Perhaps I will always wonder whether my sense of familial exile is fabricated or dictated, and I will love and despise them either way. Because they are mine, I want them to love and despise me too.
My grandfather did not show up to his own memorial service, his ashes held somewhere offsite. As in much of life, our family mourned him without his body in the room — my father and my aunts cried softly and then, I did too. I grieved a new connection to him that I would never be able to convey.
We were finally sharing a moment in which neither of us needed to be there.
Jessica Paden is a writer living in San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared in Adult Magazine, Vision Magazine and Providence Monthly. She is a graduate student in Somatic Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Featured image courtesy of natalie jane.