When Grief Sneaks Up On You, Don’t Forget the Antidote
Emotional undertow is a natural part of the process, but in the end there’s one thing you can always count on.
The red rotary-dial phone on the bright yellow wall is the first thing you notice when you enter our kitchen. It stands out like the alarm boxes at school, minus the phrase that’s tempted me since first grade — Break glass in case of fire.
For my mother, the red phone is a trophy in the exalted pantheon of delayed gratification. A secular manifestation of the word made flesh. An article of faith as integral to my mother’s personality as her Catholicism.
That phone takes its place alongside the green velvet, French provincial sofa in the living room. Placed on layaway for over a year. And the avocado-colored fixtures in the bathroom purchased on time from Sears. Most of our Christmas presents. Even the new suits we wear at Easter. We always have new suits and shiny Thom McAn shoes to go with them.
My mother has been marked forever by the deprivations of the Great Depression.
She is proud of having mastered the art of penciling in her stocking-seams during World War II. A math whiz who crunches numbers in her head, she squeezes every nickel of my father’s paycheck till it begs for mercy.
Now at long last she has added this red telephone to her list of fulfilled desires. It’s got a coiled extension cord that reaches from the breakfast nook all the way to the kitchen sink and gas-lit stove. The cord’s elasticity also suits her sense of thrift. With the phone cradled between her neck and shoulder, she snaps pole beans, cleans chitlins, deveins shrimp, slices fat off chicken, folds breadcrumbs and chopped onions into ground beef for meat loaf, adds fatback to a pot of turnips or collard greens. Talking all the while about marriage, sex, clever ways to cook the Sunday pot roast. Always push the garlic cloves under the skin.
The red kitchen phone is an extension of the black desktop model that sits on a table in the small hallway that serves the bedrooms. When either phone rings, it’s usually for her.
And it’s almost always other women who call.
The ones my siblings and I refer to as aunt whether they’re related to us or not. Aunt Maxine. Aunt Leola. Auntie this, who smells of Juicy Fruit, and Auntie that, whose hugs are rich with bosom. Women who drag their husbands along when my dad is home from his railroad job so they can drink highballs and play cards together at the heavy clawfoot table in our dining-room.
Couples who gossip and laugh through blue spirals of cigarette smoke. Salems. Kools. Pall Malls. Or the unfiltered Camels that will accelerate my father’s journey to an early grave.
Once or twice a month, they get together at that heavy pecan-wood table, cut the 52-card deck and deal. They talk about trumps and wildcards. Snap their fingers to Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. And enjoy guilty pleasures like naughty Red Foxx and Moms Mabley, who says she woke up one night to find a burglar in her room and asked: What do you want — I hope?
You don’t realize you’re in the middle of history.
Not when you’re a kid who’s supposed to be asleep but find yourself staring at a thin line of light beneath the bedroom door. Listening to the clink of ice cubes, the shuffling of cards, and a laughter that knows things you are not meant to know. Not yet.
You don’t realize how important the moment is while eavesdropping on grownups having grownup fun in a world that tries to tell them they’re not allowed to have any. Only occasionally do they speak of the burden they all live with and endure — The Man.
That is why I write about those days in the present tense. For me, they are still happening. Even now.
After the memorial service, a neighbor who’d known my family for decades told me two things I didn’t put much stock in at the time. She’d lost her own parents more than a dozen years ago. Now she lived alone in the rambling family home two doors away, the only person besides me who had a key to my mother’s house.
Grief sneaks up on you, she said, citing her own experience with loss. Even when you think you’re done feeling bad, it comes back like an undertow at the edge of the ocean.
Turns out she was right about that. Because here I am today, remembering that red rotary-dial telephone and my mother’s inextricable link to it. All because my current iPhone is a chameleon that disappears into every surface. Even when I ping it with my watch, finding it takes forever.
On Amazon, then, where all things live, I searched for a protective case that will stand out in any background. And decided on a red one.
It was William James who said possessions become part of the material self. Later, T.S. Eliot coined objective correlative to define that phenomenon in literary terms. Thus, in my case, the need for a new phone-cover triggered deep memory. And with it, an unexpected round of grief. I became a corollary to the poem by William Carlos Williams. So much depends on a red wall phone.
I don’t understand about cycles.
But here I am seven years past the first round of prayers and a memorial service held on a wintry day in Atlanta — icy wind and eyes that refused to cry— missing my mother more than I can say.
Does the number seven have anything to do with the pull of grief’s undertow? Am I feeling the effects of prolonged pandemic isolation? Or the tug of new grief triggered by the recent passing of two childhood friends from COVID-19?
Or is it just that stories about my mother always find their way into the family Zoom meetings we’ve had every two weeks since the pandemic began? Her influence on each of us, from our affection for precise diction to our generational fondness for rational thought and debate, is incalculable.
I don’t know the answer.
I do know that writing her obituary was the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do. Because I didn’t see it coming. Even though I was with her every day during the last year of her life. Wrote out her checks and did her grocery shopping. Watched Wheel of Fortune, Cosby re-runs, and prepared her meals. I didn’t see it coming.
How does death come to someone who could still add a column of numbers in her head faster than I could on my iPhone? Whose memory was an archive of everything that ever happened under our roof? How does death come to someone who never got the chance to attend college but whose children and grandchildren include a doctor, two psychologists, two lawyers, an artist, a nutritionist, a TV producer, and oh yeah — a writer?
Death comes, of course, because it doesn’t have far to travel. It’s with us from the day we’re born and never leaves. It just hangs around, mostly in the background, like in that painting by Paul Gauguin. Death is a taxi with the meter running. Waiting for the trip we all make eventually.
But I do not write this to wallow in the macabre
Or to whine my way into a pity party. Only to tell the truth about grief’s undertow. And to mention the second thing my neighbor told me seven years ago.
All that love is still with you. The love you had for your mother — and the love she had for you — all that love is still with you. And when you get over feeling bad, whenever that happens, you will find yourself feeling grateful that you have been blessed with the one thing even death cannot take away.
Experience tells me my neighbor was right about that, too. Therefore, Death, be not proud. You don’t get the last word. Love does.
© 2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill