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Friday, November 30, 2018

Other People's Music

by Cynthia Aarons

To the backdrop of Regan’s echoing words Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall—I took piano lessons. When no one was looking, my favorite thing to play instead of practicing was Animal from Sesame Street (if he played piano) and Don Music, the frustrated composer. I dramatized Don Music’s cries when he couldn’t remember the next note and the screeches of elation when he played like a concert pianist. Or I played “Thunderstorm,” every novice’s best number. I started with a gentle rain tickling the upper register of the highest octaves, then as “Animal,” cascading down into a violent, formidable nightmare of the booming keys, a roar that would be the perfect soundtrack to any mansion murder. It was in these moments that I was a messenger of a distant music that I alone was privileged to hear and transmit. Eighty-eight keys produce a million variations of seven notes. I could feel the power of the keys stretched out before me, realizing that any melody could be played by any ambidextrous child. The piano teaches children that anything in the world is possible. 

Miss V was my piano teacher. She was also the vocal music director of three different grade schools and one junior high. Miss V had no eyebrows. She drew them on with an oily brown make-up pencil, the thick kind that leaves a permanent clown upside down smile over each eye. Her olive tanned forehead was always smeared in a glossy sheen. Her big glasses, the plastic kind the 80s were known for, a direct revolt against the librarian half-glasses of the 1950s and 60s, magnified her eyes and reflected her face in the Coke bottle corners. Miss V had a block tummy, like a book hidden under her shirt, that fell over the waistline with an even roll all the way around. It looked like the door to a dumbwaiter that if open would reveal afternoon treats: Battenberg cakes and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and a pot of steaming tea, the tall slender silver kind, spouting upward with the elegance of a giraffe’s head. It was not a good look. I noted her odd shape at seven am every other day of the week as I arrived for choir practice. I sat sleepily in the front row of the sopranos, my stomach full of scrambled eggs and toast, and I silently noted, without fully acknowledging the significance to myself, all the beauty atrocities I would never commit as an adult. I would never become her.
My piano lessons took place at Miss V’s house, a 70s yellow brick ranch with a picture window looking out on a yard that didn’t get enough sun. The too soft ground seemed always to be covered by wet leaves and hollowed out branches from the one tree in the center of her yard. It, along with the other trees in the neighborhood, created a tunnel over the shady one-lane street. Her tree had a tire swing tied to its sturdiest branch, something I never understood because she had no children.  Every time I walked up the path to her front door I wondered about it—an unspoken question in the back of my mind—did the former owners put it there, or did she? And who was it for? Did Miss V look at it from her picture window and dream of children who might one day play on it? Did the neighbors’ children use it? Nieces and nephews? Or did it twist in the gentle wind every summer, unoccupied by children or laughter, still full of autumn leaves and April rainwater?
In the summer, Miss V kept the front door open with the screen door closed to let in the cool breezes that the shady trees of her neighborhood created. In the Midwest, the humidity could be eighty percent or higher, which meant 85 felt like 105, and none of us had air conditioning. So the only things that made getting through the summer bearable were screen doors and screen windows at opposite ends of the house that created a cross breeze along with Oster fans—rotating models angled to blow on your face, and large square ones that sat inside windows to suck out the hot air. As I walked up Miss V’s path, feeling sweat underneath my clothes and the oppressive heat on my neck, I encountered the most wonderful thing in the world: piano music coming through an open window. At first, I couldn’t tell if it was Joe or Miss V. Joe was two years older (and my neighbor) and a lot better at the piano than I was (his Catholic parents made him practice). But soon I could tell the difference. Miss V was extraordinary—the technical precision was unparalleled. Her man-like, calloused fingers, one or more usually wrapped in a Band-aid from playing so much, and her square powerful hands hit every note without a mistake, ever.  
Over time, I heard something else during my weekly visits that I couldn’t explain at first. By the next summer, I walked up to her screen door with a new sense of dread, a gnawing, tugging pain in my stomach, and each step closer to her was an involuntary act that I recognized as self-sabotage. Although Miss V’s playing was technically accurate, including the crescendos and sudden shifts to piano legato—there was absolutely no feeling in her playing. I can’t call it music now. Even at that age, my pre-pubescent, still innocent, naive wondering self knew that Miss V’s playing was cold, devoid of emotion and color. I vowed never to let my music become like hers. I vowed I would never become like her.

As a family friend, Miss V shared personal information with my mother. I remember the day my mother got off the phone with someone talking about Miss V and “her condition.” She hung up the receiver attached to the wall next to the kitchen door, its curly cord that could uncurl and stretch through the dining room to the entrance of the living room or all the way to the stove if necessary, recoiling against the wall as she returned the handset to its home. With a cluck in her throat—the one that meant, “Isn’t it a shame?”—Mom said she hoped Miss V would recuperate soon, and she declared she would make a casserole for Miss V.  
The casserole: an invention that probably originated in the 1930s but really gained traction in the 1980s: egg noodles from a plastic bag, a glob of Cream of Chicken soup, a glob of Cream of Celery soup, a quarter of a bell pepper, a small onion, and bam you have a meal that can feed 500 people. 

Etiquette in small Midwestern towns was rigidly and happily adhered to. Death? A casserole. Bridal shower? A casserole. Baby shower? Potluck? Any party, including major holidays? Casserole! You switched it up with a different canned meat or something festive on top like dried onion rings. You just had to label your pan with a piece of masking tape and a permanent marker. Except for Vera K’s casseroles and my mom’s, which actually tasted good, the rule for the casserole beneficiary was to store the casseroles in a deep freeze, the one in the cellar shaped like a coffin, packed with ice cream, deer meat, and twenty-five cent plastic Corelle containers of frozen corn waiting for a tornado to take off the roof. After a polite month, the beneficiary was allowed to thaw a casserole, feed it to the dog (or put it on the burn pile for the neighborhood strays), and give back the pan. If you gave back the pan too soon, everyone would know what you did. If you waited longer than six months, it meant you stole their pan. Either way, you would no longer receive casseroles, which you might appreciate but only at the cost of not being liked, which in a small town could be unrecoverable. These and other rules I learned as a child without anyone explaining them to me. I learned that the gift of a casserole accompanied the most serious events of life, especially those we did not talk about in detail in the Midwest, if at all.
Mom seemed particularly troubled as she stood next to the phone. Because Miss V was my piano teacher, I pressed my mother that day, but she wouldn’t tell me, a child, what was wrong. I worried Miss V had cancer. I worried someone I knew would die. My mother assured me she wouldn’t die, but it was clear the condition was as big as death, perhaps bigger, and I was not allowed to go to the hospital. Days later, I pressed my mother again. In a moment of weakness my mother revealed that Miss V had a “female condition.” Amazingly, the tone of voice let me know she was referring to the part of the body that we truly never, ever talked about, something not even vaguely alluded to on TV except in tampon commercials. Many years later, I brought it up again. Mom shared that Miss V had had a hysterectomy, and visiting her at the hospital on the day of the “casserole phone call” was an ex-boyfriend, a well-respected music director from the next town who had jilted Miss V at the altar years before! 
This was high drama indeed. And it was death. A death to possibilities, to something I could not put into words until now because it was so horrible and frightening to say out loud. Some people didn’t get to have children. Or partners. Or happiness. My mother let me know without saying anything that this was one of the worst things that could happen to a woman. And I took Miss V’s hysterectomy to be a stain connected to her singleness, to her not being chosen. It seemed to explain her music, too, the dead, rigid, robotic approach to the keys. Again, I decided I would never become like her.

During piano lessons and choir practice, even though I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, I looked for signs of Miss V’s “change.” But I couldn’t see anything wrong with her. She was always upbeat and projected her voice as though performing a solo in Carnegie Hall. Her energy frightened me. She seemed to lunge into life a bit too enthusiastically, a bit too hyper. I took piano lessons from her for three years. But when I was eleven, she told me I had to trim my fingernails. I wanted to have sexy fingernails, as sexy as an eleven-year-old can have. I knew feminine nails were long and had learned from a teen magazine how to push back the cuticles with a stick and apply a base coat, two color coats, and the final clear coat without getting polish outside the nail. But Miss V said my nails were too long and were “impairing” my ability to play properly. She and I fought over how I held my hands over the keys, and she wanted me to study the 3 B’s (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). At a younger age I loved the Classics, but in my pre-teen years, I wanted to play Billy Joel. I wanted to jump on the keyboard and then onto the couch singing, This is My Life! (Go ahead with your own life—leave me alone!)
Miss V had dreams of making me her protégé. She wanted to “expand my repertoire” and increase “my range.” When I learned of her plan to live vicariously through my life as a professional pianist, or at least as a fourth place winner at State recitals, I panicked. And for one of the few times in my life, I stood up for myself. I told my mother I was quitting piano. I stopped pretending to practice and really started to sound horrible. Miss V and I both knew it was a sham. My mother told me, You will regret this for the rest of your life. She urged me to think it over for a couple of months. But after a while she let me quit. I quit the choir also to avoid eye contact, to avoid the fact that Miss V embarrassed me and frightened me, and to avoid admitting to myself that I missed the piano.
I could not take piano lessons from a different teacher because in a small-town Miss V would find out. It would be an insult I would never commit. So I practiced on my own and even improved quite a lot in the next years, but without technical guidance, I peaked early and stayed there. I secretly longed for music. I would play Eric Satie and Debussy with passion, as long as no one else was in the house. I could be the faint heart of someone who had loved and lost or the fiery self-made woman who led a Bohemian life that caused men to fall at her feet. I mourned over Apartheid, humanitarian crises in Somalia, and homelessness. I played with a deep conviction that I could be anything, do anything, and that I could save the world.

Now I have lived in San Francisco for more than ten years. Passionate types are a dime a dozen here, and some actually save the world. I never went to South Africa to end Apartheid, didn’t stick with the homeless ministry I joined when I first moved, and now work two jobs, nearly to my own death, and I am, just like Miss V, single and childless. I am probably five years older than Miss V was when she had her hysterectomy, but unlike Miss V, I never had a man value me enough—if even in a moment of reckless abandon—to offer to meet me at the altar. I’ve contemplated adopting through Foster Care and becoming a single parent, but I have come to accept that at least for now I cannot do it alone, not financially, not logistically, not emotionally.  
The world I inherited from Women’s Liberation (though I am thankful for it overall) and Steve Jobs is one in which I have more education than my parents and older siblings, with fewer job opportunities—yet, I’m supposed to be successful in a profession and have kids (through IVF) and postpone marriage indefinitely if not forever because if necessary I can do it alone. We’re supposed to work all the time wherever we are with all our documents in a cloud, readable on a tablet as thin as a fifty-cent piece … on a date, in transit, even at the top of small mountains looking out at the vast world below … the Me Generation turned iPhone turned a thousand points of light all converging in my kitchen from all my devices, the lines between work and the personal erased as quickly as a Venmo Smartphone kiss.
When I go home, an empty hallway table greets me where plants once sat until they wilted in shadows, leaving a blank gray wall. I binge watch Netflix and eat slices of cheese pizza for dinner. Is there someone out there with the same ache I have watching the entire oeuvre of Friends? Are there others reaching out to the rest of our X generation/Ancient-Millennials, especially those still single, unwilling to use online dating because it’s too much like ordering toilet paper on Amazon? Perhaps Netflix will connect us, given that it knows more about our daily lives than eharmony ever could—the unvarnished, raw pain of loneliness recorded on our Watch List cue, the muted shades of TV light dancing on our faces as it changes from scene to scene to blackout.
And what about the dream of saving the world? As a community college instructor, I honestly don’t think anything could shock me—I’ve taught a Lost Boy who witnessed his father being macheted while his village burned down, a twenty-year old mother I took to a women’s shelter, a boy whose stomach was eviscerated by an IED in Iraq, a woman who witnessed her uncle executed in the street during the Cultural Revolution, a woman who escaped her violent husband by jumping off the ledge of a building, and countless students with precarious financial and immigration statuses. 
I taught all of them how to use a comma, and I tried to give them hope. But I have not corrected the wrongs done to them and cannot undo the trajectory of trauma and misfortune. In the endless cycle of trying to make enough money to pay the always increasing rent in San Francisco, meet the needs of overcrowded classrooms, and complete ridiculous amounts of committee work, I can’t fit saving the world into my Google calendar.
Is there a man out there who is tired of this treadmill, too, whose B12 shots are no longer working?—Stop the Madness! Is he unavailable because he is living in a biodome saving icebergs in Antarctica or trekking solo on foot in Nepal, knowing that I am so special he will have to look in the most remote place on earth? Or is all the evidence pointing to the end of a fantasy that kept me alive through the darkest times? Or perhaps the darkest times are yet to come. What is the next delusional hope to pull me through?

In reality, I never could have been a concert pianist. My hands are too small. I can barely reach an octave, and so a lot of the more complex works are just physically too hard. And frankly, I never wanted to be the kind of person who plays other people’s music. But my mother’s voice is right there, You will regret this for the rest of your life. She was right. My heart cries out every day for music. For the past two years, I haven’t been able to listen to music of any kind because the melodies make my cold life seem so pathetic in comparison. Today I can listen to the radio occasionally, but I find myself listening to the news and traffic reports more and more often.
Now I see Miss V’s empty swing. I can see her at the window, and I feel sure a woman who devoted her life to bringing music to children probably wanted some of her own. Yes, I’m certain she imagined her own children playing on the swing and a husband to watch through the window with her. I’m sure she felt trapped in our little community—where would she have possibly met eligible men there at her age? (I can’t even find one suitable man in this great world-famous city of romance!) 
I see myself walking up the path, the inevitable steps to my own tragedy, as she played inside her front living room, pounding the notes, getting them right, doing them justice, that cold, lifeless shell. And now, I finally understand her.

Cynthia Aarons is the author of fiction, poetry, and memoir. She teaches composition and creative writing and has led support groups utilizing memoir writing and art therapy. She is the author of a mystery novel and a collection of personal essays. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Turkey on the Strip

by Susan Eve Haar

There are many appeals to Las Vegas aside from my brother—my youngest, at a California college, will not come east; we all have a taste for sleaze; a few of us like to gamble; and we have a super discount suite in the best new hotel in town, courtesy of my kids’ pal Dan, a dropout from the Cornell School of Hotel Management. The suite is a triumph, glittery and luxurious, and the price is certainly right.
Everything is spanking new. The side-tables are classics designed by Eames. They look like giant chess pieces, flat-topped pawns or de-crenellated castles. The muted greens of rug and fabric suggest an oasis suspended over the strip that unspools outside the gigantic living room window. There’s a bar lined with modern Danish glassware and sparkling light fixtures, suspended circles hung with cut-crystal balls that refract and reflect the light. Bits of rainbow ready for the Cinderella’s ball. I desire them. I feel the itch to pilfer. I stand on a chair and reach up, de-looping one of the crystal drops that cluster on the fixture, attached only by a delicate wire. It’s easy, really. Like so many illicit acts, I slide right into it. Holding the crystal in my palm, I feel the weight of it. I admire its many facets and its secretive translucence that pretends to show all but refracts into abstraction. Listen, it is a beautiful object. I hop down and carry it into the next room to show my kids, who are lolling on majestic beds.
“Look,” I say, holding it out for inspection. It is intrinsically beautiful in its solitary state, smooth and rounded, and they admire it, passing it between them. I wonder aloud if it would be possible to pluck just one from every fixture in the suite and make a chandelier for our new house. My sons are delighted.
I try to limit the number of criminal acts I enact before my children. And really, with the exception of the one or two enacted with a vengeful mind, I believe I had God on my side in the commission of each and every one. Perhaps this is not altogether accurate, but it is the story I tell myself, and here is the story I will tell you:
It was a Thursday afternoon in early autumn and branches started crashing outside. There was a crane operator, swinging loads of drywall into the adjacent building, lopping off tree branches. The trees that hung like naiads over Charles Street, that we treasured—our green neighbors. Calls to the company number on the side of the crane reached a machine, as did a call to NYU construction (the crane was working on their job). I even ran to the precinct two blocks away to ask for help. All to no avail and, desperate, I turned to self-help.
My throwing arm is lacking, so I enlisted my agile boys, five and seven. They stood at the top of our stoop, pumped with delight, and pitched old tomatoes and fruit at the windshield of the crane. A soft pear spattered on the windshield, juice dripping down, and they whooped and hooted victory. I was standing at the top of my stoop. The driver was sitting in the cab of the crane; I could see him pretty clearly. We’d already had some pretty harsh words, my manner eroded by his complete disinterest in the damage he was doing. Now he looked interested. A half-rotten banana hit the windshield. He put the crane in park. I kind of thought I had the measure of the guy, an angry man with a big machine. Yet I have to say I was surprised when he opened the door of the crane, hopped down, and started walking fast toward our house.
“Go!” I pushed the boys behind me. They streaked upstairs, yelling, “World war three!” as the driver charged toward me. I stood my ground, albeit briefly.
“You’re trespassing,” I shouted. And as he paused, weighing his options, I slammed the door shut.
There have been other incidents, I won’t deny it. One doesn’t want to model behavior that is too compliant with society’s requirements. It behooves you to leave a little dirt in the vegetables so your kids develop immunities. But this is not the time for a confession of my crimes; it is only to say that my children have borne witness to my bad acts—indeed, they have even been my accomplices.
Now they are twenty and twenty-two. My younger son stands on the bed; stretching up on toes, he balances and deftly removes a crystal from the light fixture. He sits down on the bed cross-legged, weighing it in his hand, absorbed. I know how good it feels, dense and glittering as a promise.
But is it right to really take it? All right, steal it. Them. By now there are three of them glittering quietly. There is, we reflect, the possibility that the hotel expects to replace them; it’s just built into the room price. There might be a vault clogged with crystals waiting their turn to hang in splendor. We consider the possibility that the suite was designed with the expectation of heavy drinking and orgies, so some damage is to be expected. We sit together and ponder. What would Aquinas say? But, in the end, it looks a lot like thieving, and with regret we pull over chairs and hang them back. I do know the difference between right and wrong sometimes, though it is obscured by experience. And there is something about Las Vegas that invites the illegal. And it’s not just the hookers who solicit both my sons, though one of them looks like he’s barely out of high school.
          Criminality must run in the family, I reflect later. Or at least a deep conviction that the rules don’t apply. We are in my brother’s club having Thanksgiving dinner. He lives in a gated community in Henderson. They take their security and their landscaping seriously. And there is a clubhouse, more for convenience than conviviality. Membership is obligatory, as is a monthly minimum charged. So, begrudgingly, my brother eats there. In fact, he reports to us he has recently escaped the children’s section, to which he was relegated after putting a plastic worm into a salad and then pointing it out to the horrified server. 
Today they have given us a large, round table. Around us the room is thronged with families of some stripe or another. The ladies have all had their hair colored, blown out, and shellacked with hairspray; the men wear blue blazers with gold buttons. We are all on seconds. My brother’s shaggy toupee is a little askew; it looks like a convivial, napping animal. My cousin has slowed down a little, but he’s talking to my older son about puts and calls or some such. He is a money guy, a millionaire and a miser. Two adolescent girls, leggy and sweet-faced, scoot around our table on the way to the buffet. They are wearing skirts so short you fear for them when they bend over, heaping sweet potatoes onto their plates. The view is one of the other glories of Thanksgiving, I suppose, along with roast beef dripping with blood and fat, trays of iced shrimp and oysters, and the inevitable turkey.
“Shrimp!” my brother declares. They are definitely the most expensive of the foods offered on a per-ounce basis, and that is a calculation he has done.
“You guys are wimps,” he suggests to my boys; they have faltered after second servings. He’s already on his feet, empty plate in hand. He hands it to a passing server and heads for the buffet unhindered. He’s a big guy, my brother; bulky, not fat. Thick. He kind of lumbers but that’s more an attitude than a physical necessity. I sit and ruminate, watching my kids joking, and contemplate another run at the salad. Maybe a few more hearts of palm. My brother returns, the new plate piled with oysters and shrimp.
“Do you like oysters?” I ask, surprised.
“Not particularly. Did you bring plastic bags?”
“Could have fit a lot.” He gestures at the purse slung over my chair.
“What d’you do with them? Feed them to the cats?”
“Eat them eventually.”
“I can take cookies,” I counter. “I can wrap them in napkins.” And then I get a sudden memory of my mother slipping dinner rolls into her purse wrapped in a cloth napkin. Now that was theft. No one ever ate them that I remember, but they were always there, just in case.
What is it to steal, what is it to earn? Have we earned, in any way, the bounty that we possess in this moment of our fleeting lives? Of my fleeting life, this momentary bounty. This is how the meal began:
Jed, my youngest, took his brother’s hand and my brother’s hand—I could see his hesitation, but he let Jed take his paw in his smaller hand. And then he said, “Let’s all say what we are thankful for.” It’s his tradition, not mine, but I wait my turn, listening. There is such a truthfulness and sweetness to what they say, these children of mine. I listen and then I say it—well, most of it, what I am grateful for: my children, my freedom, my health, and great good luck. My brother listens; he doesn’t speak but he holds Jed’s hand and mine. It’s then I realize that I am not a thief after all. I may feel unworthy or undeserving, but there is no way to steal the happiness I feel. It is simply a gift.

Susan Eve Haar is a lawyer and playwright living in New York City. A member of The Actor’s Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater and H.B. Playwright’s Unit, she explores, among other topics, the intersection of our neural and lived experience. Her work has been produced at a variety of venues including Primary Stages, The Women’s Project, 13th Street Rep, HERE, Chester Theater, Manhattan Rep and The Looking Glass Theater and published by Broadway Publishing and Smith and Krauss.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Granny, the Grocer and the Cobbler

by Eileen M. Cunniffe

The phone roused me near midnight, and I pulled back the covers and stumbled toward it. I’d hardly managed a hoarse hello when my mother’s voice rushed at me from the other side of the Atlantic, wide awake and seemingly oblivious to the five-hour time difference.  
I could tell from her voice everything was fine. More than fine, it seemed.
“How’s the trip?” I asked as I climbed back into bed and propped a pillow between my back and the knobby brass headboard.
“Great,” she yelled. “We’re having a grand time. We’re in a pub.” 
Mom was shouting, no doubt because of the noise around her, but also because she was unaccustomed to speaking to me from so far away. Mostly, I think she was yelling because she was—uncharacteristically—a bit tipsy. I pictured her always-pink cheeks flushed a shade deeper. I imagined the comical scene in a dark, smoky pub as she and Dad had figured out how to place an international call.
My parents had been gone for more than a week. I’d been tracing their itinerary on a map on my dining-room table: Shannon to Galway, Mayo to Sligo, and now Derry, in Northern Ireland. They’d been planning this trip for months, dreaming it for years. All their parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to America. Each couple had met in Philadelphia, made their lives in that city, and never once went back to where they were from.
Now in their mid-50s, their parents long gone, my parents had finally made the journey “home.” Almost no one from my grandparents’ generation was left—just two of Mom’s aunts, Ciss and Aggie, and one uncle. But both my parents had cousins scattered across Ireland. Before the trip, they’d swapped countless letters with these cousins, most of whom they’d never met. Each exchange uncovered another connection, another invitation, another branch of the family that couldn’t wait to welcome them. 
“How was Aunt Ciss?” I asked, knowing they’d seen her in Sligo. Ciss and her sister Ena had visited when I was eight.
“Oh, she was fine,” Mom replied. “I’ll tell you about her when we get back. But guess what? The most amazing thing happened today. I met my granny!” 
“Your granny?” I asked.  
“My granny,” she repeated, giggling.  
“We went to Magherafelt, and we found Pop-Pop’s house,” she continued. 
She said the name of the town just as her father had, with an audible sigh where the silent g and the h brush against each other. As a child I’d been fascinated with that strange-sounding word, which my grandfather loved to say.
“Then we met my granny.”   
Mom’s voice wavered on the word “granny,” and even from 3,000 miles away I could tell there was an urgency to this call. I knew something about her discovery didn’t quite add up. My grandfather left Ireland after his mother died—that much I knew, and little more about his early life. How could my mother have a grandmother who was still alive, a grandmother none of the Irish relatives had mentioned before?  
“My cousin Pauline gave me her address. A tiny old lady opened the door. Before I finished introducing myself she said, ‘Yes, of course, Rose Marie. Michael’s daughter.’ So we went in and she made a pot of tea and we just sat and talked. Imagine—I have a granny,” Mom said giddily, for the fourth time.
“But, Mom, how can you have a granny you didn’t know about?”
“I guess I skipped that part.” 
Mom explained that her grandfather, a shoemaker, had remarried after my great-grandmother died, and his second wife was much younger than him. Which explained how the ninety-year-old granny could still be alive, but did not explain why every relative except Pauline had seen fit to keep her a secret. But our phone call was up, I’d have to wait for the rest of this story. 

I am the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, and the most sentimental when it comes to our Irish ancestry. So Mom had made the right call: if anyone was going to share the excitement about her long-lost granny, it was me. I should have wept for joy to learn I had a “new” great-granny.
But I didn’t.
Because the little old lady who’d shared a pot of tea with my parents was technically just a step-granny to Mom, and a step-great-granny to me. And this particular “step” seemed contrived: only in theory had Mom’s step-granny ever been my grandfather’s step-mother; he’d left Ireland long before she’d stepped into the picture.
“Granny” wasn’t even a word we used, which made Mom’s repetition of it as strange as the news itself. We’d called both of my grandmothers “Nanny.” Mom was now a grandmother herself, and she’d chosen the hip moniker “Grandma Rosie.”  
          My parents took only one picture of the granny because the flash bothered her eyes. In the photo, her straight grey hair is parted down the middle. She has a long, thin noseand thick glasses with large, plastic frames. She’s squinting up from an armchair, Mom crouched beside her, grinning.
          When my parents got home, I heard more about Mrs. Annie Henry. Aunt Aggie hadn’t mentioned her step-mother, even though she’d been so excited to meet my parents that she’d dragged them upstairs to see her son, who was laid up with a back injury, and she’d phoned her daughter in England and handed the phone to Mom to say hello.
Aunt Ciss hadn’t volunteered information about her step-mother either. But once she learned Pauline had, she felt compelled to add some color commentary. She implied the granny had been pregnant before she married the cobbler and that her father hadn’t fathered that child. And she gave Mom the distinct impression that the cobbler’s children had not taken kindly to their step-mother.
Three years after their first trip, my parents went back to Ireland, and this time I went along. We visited every relative they’d met the first time, and they showed me each of the four homes where my grandparents were from. Three of these homes were still in our families, although one had been reduced to a crumbling outbuilding behind a newer house. The fourth—the one we reached last—was the house in Magherafelt; my parents had seen it from the outside on their first trip, but the people inside were strangers. 
On our way to Magherafelt, we made one other stop. Mom couldn’t wait to see her granny again, and she was determined I should meet her, as if this would close some ancestral circle. But the granny’s health was failing and she was in a hospital. Although this visit was important to Mom, I wondered if we had the right to intrude on the old woman’s privacy and ask her to entertain her American “relatives” from her sickbed. 
When we stepped into her room, I knew I needn’t have worried. The lively old lady my parents remembered was now a frail little bird who barely made a bump under the bedclothes. Mom set the flowers she’d brought on a table and pulled a chair close to the bed. When she reached for the blanket that covered the sleeping granny’s legs, I excused myself and went to the lobby. 
The tears that had failed to fall when I’d first learned about the granny finally arrived. Not because my step-great-granny was dying, but because it never occurred to me until I saw them together that maybe she and Mom had both been missing something until they’d met. Mom had let Annie Henry step into the void where her real grandparents never had been, and I knew she knew this was a stretch, even if she didn’t say so. And the granny had her own child and her own grandchildren, so she too must have understood the difference. 
After I left the room, the little bird woke up and squeezed Mom’s hand. Both my parents felt she remembered them and understood they’d come to see her again.  

Because my grandfather lived with us while I was growing up, his was the family home I thought I knew best. I’d always pictured a farmhouse, with enough room for thirteen people, and a big yard. Not that he’d ever described it that way, I suppose. But long ago I’d seen a pastel-tinted photograph of him with his parents and ten brothers and sisters all posed on a lawn, and my mind must have conjured the kind of house I thought belonged with that family.
I held onto my image of the Henry home right up until the day I stood outside it. I’d seen pictures my parents took on their first visit, but my mind had simply refused to reconcile the real house on Church Street with my idea of it until I stood there in front of a grey, pebbledash row home on a narrow street in a busy market town.
It had been fifteen years since Pop-Pop died, and still it was hard to forget how sullen he’d been in his last years, how hard he’d been on Mom. But he’d come alive anew for us on this trip, especially when we’d visited Aunt Ciss, who still called her brother “Sonny” more than sixty years after he left home. I’d only ever heard him called Michael or Mickey. I’d laughed with her over how he used to tell us he’d once been a little girl, because he wore whatever hand-me-downs fit, even dresses. 
Dad stood on the sidewalk opposite the house, camera in hand. Just as he snapped a picture of Mom and me, the wide wooden door swung open and a middle-aged man stepped out. We quickly explained why we were photographing his house.
“Please come in,” he said warmly. “My father and sister live here, I know they’d love to meet you.” 
He ushered us past the brass “46” on the chocolate-brown door, through a narrow hall and into a tiny living room, where the elderly father and his daughter sat. We explained our connection to the house, and the old gentleman recognized the Henry surname right away. “Of course, I knew the Henrys,” he said. “They were a fine family. Your grandfather,” he offered, looking directly at Mom, “was a cobbler, and this room we’re in was his workshop.”
At first I thought he was just being polite. But then he began to remember names—Jack and Barney were the ones he mentioned first. He was ninety-three, his daughter told us, so my grandfather and his siblings would have been his contemporaries. 
“I remember Mickey, he worked at the food co-op,” the old man said. Mom was pleased to report Mickey had found similar work in Philadelphia and eventually owned a grocery store. She’d grown up working in that store, and living upstairs. The old man seemed pleased to know this. He asked his daughter to show us through the house, which she gladly did. Upstairs were four tiny bedrooms. How had thirteen people lived there? From a back window I saw a patch of grass, far too small to have been the setting for the photograph I half-remembered. Downstairs was a modest kitchen and the small living area that had doubled as a workshop.
“Show them the hallway,” the old man instructed. His son led us back to the passage where we’d come in. “Stand here,” he said, then waited as we took turns stepping into a well-worn dip in the floor. “Right here,” he said, pressing his hand against the wall, “was a window. Customers would pass shoes back and forth through it. Over time there was so much traffic it bowed the floor. We closed up the wall, but there’s your proof of the cobbler’s shop.”   
          The elderly man seemed to have exhausted his memories of the Henrys. Mom hung on every word, hoping for new information that might shed a little light on the scant facts she’d collected on her first visit to Ireland, but none was forthcoming. Our two families parted with warm handshakes all around.

A quarter-century has passed since Mom called to tell me about her great discovery. All that time I’ve carried around in my head what little bits I’d heard of the cobbler’s story. I’ve turned them over so often—like a snow globe—that what I knew for certain eventually blurred. Unconsciously I’d invented new scenes and extra twists in the plot. I’d forgotten who’d first told Mom Annie was still alive, and who’d implied the rest.
Only lately have I started wondering in earnest about the cobbler and his family, trying to make the picture come clear. I began with what little I knew about my grandfather: He was twenty-three when he sailed for America in 1929 on the S.S. Albertic. Before he left he was a hardworking butter-and-egg man and a decorated Irish football player. In Philadelphia, he built a successful business. He mentioned Magherafelt often, but almost never the names of his people there. He took his family obligations seriously and was a good provider and a generous, though stern, father and grandfather. And I don’t remember him ever being happier or more charming than he was that summer and fall when Ciss and Ena came to visit. 
Around the same time I began wondering about his backstory, Mom decided to divvy up our family photographs. I asked if I could see—or even have—the Henry family portrait, which I hadn’t seen in decades. The one I mis-remembered as a smiling, relaxed clan in some bucolic setting.
I have that old photograph in my possession now—the original, tinted copy mounted on cardboard that my grandfather must have carried in his suitcase. How many times did he take it out and study those faces? The names are recorded on the back in Mom’s neat handwriting. It’s a formal pose, with a leafy green backdrop that’s clearly fake. Everyone is wearing his or her Sunday best. Two little girls sit on sheepskin rugs in front of two rows of older faces, all with similar features: thick, wavy helmets of unruly hair, some dark, some fair; deep-set eyes and thick brows that all slope downward at the same angle; and thin lips, only a few of which suggest any effort at smiling. The ones whose shoes are visible—including my great-grandfather, right leg crossed jauntily over left, one shiny black boot all but touching the hem of his wife’s long dress—seem to be well shod, as one might expect.
 There they all are, together: the Henrys of Magherafelt, County Derry, in the late 1920s, as best we can guess. Mom knows Martha was the oldest and Aggie was the youngest, but she doesn’t know where the rest of them—Michael (Sonny), Rose (Ciss), Barney, Jack, Mary, Ena, Patsy, Daisy and Kay—fell in terms of birth order. How could I not have known I had a great-aunt named Daisy?
Pauline told Mom their grandmother had all her teeth pulled shortly before the photograph was taken. Her false teeth weren’t ready, and she’d wanted to reschedule the portrait. Because the cobbler insisted on having the picture made as planned, my great-grandmother Rose’s mouth appears as the merest hint of a line above her chin. 
Mom and I recognize a stubborn streak that maybe kept the cobbler from rescheduling. But we might be wrong. Perhaps there was some urgency to having the portrait made, a sense that the little house on Church Street wouldn’t contain them all much longer. Martha looks to be wearing a wedding band. Maybe one of the brothers had just booked his passage out of Ireland—Barney to America, or Patsy to Australia. Patsy seems too young to be leaving, but the resolute look on his face and his crossed arms suggest he’s ready to bolt. If one of the boys was about to leave, it could explain the solemn faces. Or were they told not to smile? Is that why Aggie looks so cross, or did she not like being made to sit on the floor?
The edges of the image are soft and out of focus, like the bits of family lore the American relations have cobbled together. Ena and Daisy each have one arm that fades into the background. Kay and Aggie are in white, probably their First Communion dresses. Four little girls in all, maybe ranging from seven to twelve years old. My grandfather looks to be about twenty, so it won’t be long until he and Barney, Jack, Patsy, and their mother Rose are all gone from the picture, leaving the cobbler with a houseful of young daughters.
Nothing we’ve heard makes us think Annie helped the cobbler raise his other daughters after their mother died. It seems more likely they’d all left home before the cobbler remarried.
My grandfather would have learned about his father’s second marriage through the mail—the only way he ever got news from home, until late in his life, when he or Ciss occasionally splurged on a transatlantic call. Did his father write to him directly, or did one of his siblings tell him about their new step-mother and step-sister? I imagine he was relieved to be on the other side of the ocean. I remember him as proud and proper, mindful of appearances and what the neighbors might think.
His brother Bernard was also in Philadelphia, and I imagine them speaking about their family. But Barney died young, and that subsequent visit with Ciss and Ena when they were all in their late fifties or early sixties was the only other time my grandfather spent with any of his siblings after he left Ireland. Surely, they must have discussed their father.   
As a child Mom was vaguely aware that her grandfather had remarried, but she was so far removed from the experience of being anyone’s granddaughter that the news didn’t mean much. “They always said she was very good to him,” Mom remembers hearing (or more likely, overhearing), “but they said it kind of grudgingly.” She remembers her father receiving a letter telling him his father had died. After that she never heard another word about her step-granny for almost half a century.
In the nearly thirty years my mother’s parents were married, my grandmother always handled correspondence with the Irish relatives—including all those Henry in-laws she’d never even met. She sent photos, money, notes of congratulations and condolence, even a First Communion suit for one of my grandfather’s nephews, Mom recalls.
When my grandmother died, Mom inherited the task of corresponding with the Irish relations. Pop-Pop’s step-mother never made it onto his Christmas-card list. Yet somehow Annie managed to keep track of him, because even at ninety she’d known who my mother was and how they were connected.

My parents have told me everything they recall about their first meeting with the granny, which was all polite conversation, a visit that lasted as long as a pot of tea. If they talked at all about the cobbler, Mom doesn’t recall what was said; and if they had, she almost certainly would.
Still, I keep asking questions. Mom answers by digging up every scrap she can find—prayer cards confirming when my great-grandfather and step-great-granny died, a letter from Church Street saying we were welcome to visit again. She hands over each treasure as if it will answer my questions. I have the frayed white jacket my grandfather wore in his grocery store. I have his passport, and my grandmother’s, and their marriage license. I have the journals my parents kept on their trips to Ireland. On that first trip, Mom wrote that they were “completely enchanted” by the granny, and she described their meeting as “the most remarkable event of the trip.” She also noted that one of her cousins said their grandfather had been a great cobbler: “He could just about spit nails into the heel of a shoe.” 
Mom had received a letter from the granny’s daughter, Kathleen, after our hospital visit, and we knew my step-great-granny died six days after we saw her. But by the time I started asking questions, this letter had gone missing. Then one day Mom called to say she’d found it. “It’s yours, of course,” she told me.
          Kathleen was responding to a Christmas card from Mom. From the seven-page, hand-written letter we learn (all over again, because of course we both read it when it was new) that we just missed meeting Kathleen at the hospital that day. We re-learn that my step-great-granny had six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. We calculate that Kathleen was four years older than Mom, Kathleen’s oldest child four years older than me.
And thanks to that letter, we now know even less than we thought we did about the cobbler’s children, and his second marriage. 
 “I remember your father’s photo which was always on the sideboard of your grandfather’s house in Church St. where I lived from the age of 7 until 12 …,” Kathleen wrote. Which begs the question of where she lived before she was seven, and what it might mean that she referred to the cobbler as “your grandfather” and not “my father” (or “step-father”). 
And then there’s this: “… I want you to know something very specially. Would you please let Ciss know that Mammy didn’t have her address when she moved and that she asked for it or the phone number on many occasions but it was not forthcoming! Mary and Ciss never forgot her over all the years and she would so much have wanted me to write or call to say so. I do hope you can put that right.”
Mom would have done her best to convey this message to ornery Aunt Ciss, knowing, as Kathleen surely did, that it wasn’t always easy to put things right with a Henry, or even to know what was wrong in the first place.
All we can do now is read between the lines. From the warm tone of Kathleen’s letter, and the cool undertone of everything else Mom heard from other Henrys, it seems reasonable to conclude that the day my middle-aged mother turned up on Annie’s doorstep was the first time one of the cobbler’s grandchildren had jumped for joy at the chance to call her “granny.”  

The cobbler’s house in Magherafelt is gone now—my Uncle Mickey went looking for it and found it had been torn down. Ciss and Aggie died long ago, and our favorite Henry cousin, Pauline, died too. There’s no one left to ask about the people in the picture, the missing parts of their stories, or at least no one we know well enough. Public archives could fill in some blanks, but they wouldn’t tell us the stories we wish we knew; at best they’d help us cobble together a few more dates or add some branches to the family tree.
I ask Mom what she remembers knowing as a child about her father’s parents. “He never talked about them,” she says. And although neither one of us says so, we both know this is the real mystery we are still trying to solve.
I’ve revised the scenes in my snow globe that I’d fictionalized over time. I’ve written down only what I believe to be true, or can reasonably surmise, about the cobbler, his wives, their children and grandchildren.
With one exception: I have, quite consciously, allowed myself to invent a scene at the end of that long-ago day when my mother met her granny. I imagine that after she kissed my parents goodbye and closed the door behind them, she picked up the phone and dialed her only daughter’s number. 
“You’ll never guess what happened today,” she began, then blurted out the news before Kathleen could reply: “I met my granddaughter.”