Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Still life with gorillas in the midst

Let's say, hypothetically, that you don't have a lot of inheritance. You don't come from riches. You don't have hundreds of fond extended-family memories, because your parents didn't live where your grandparents were, and 'family' was always a distant thing, far away and carefully constructed.

Let's say you have just a few memories and because of their rarity they glow pulsating in your memory.

Say, when you think of your grandmother, there are a few things. There was candy on the nesting side tables and there were shortbread cookies near the toaster. You could find money hiding behind the toilet paper in the linen closet and half a grapefruit for breakfast. There was cool marble in the doorway and it felt good on bare feet. Her voice was both high and gravelly. There was a narrow table in the kitchen, perfect for leaning on while she did her kitcheny things, and light flooded in from the backyard, which was filled with trees. And if you asked nicely, she'd make a cake.

Her cakes were fluffier than anyone else's and if you mentioned that today, your mother's voice would fill with envy at the mortally-unattainable loft. You make a mean cake now yourself, though you almost never make the kind she did, and somehow you have her cake pan, and you cherish it, and you use it often.

Your mother cherished it, too, and one holiday eve when you're baking in your home and your mother is baking in her home, she'll muse about the old cake pan, wondering where it disappeared to after all these years. You will smugly and with not a small bit of glee grab your phone, snap a picture of the cake pan freshly filled with batter, and immediately email said picture to your mother, taunting playfully, "you mean this one?"

Your grandmother's cake pan is a crown jewel in your inheritance. You honor her memory by using it often.

And then one day, you will wash it and leave it out to air dry before returning to its quiet home in the baking cabinet, and you will walk away.

And because of your second child who constantly needs to rearrange the objects of her life, who thinks nothing of discarding her excess Cheerios in your shoe and who delights in moving puzzle pieces upstairs and hairclips downstairs, you will find a primate scaling the tube of your grandmother's ancient cake pan.

You can imagine your grandmother's reaction: she would feign exasperation in the same way she'd react when you asked her to bake a second cake because you and your brother already finished the first one. But her voice would get just a little higher and just a little gravellier and you'd know that she was amused, even if she'd never say so.

You know that your second child and your grandmother would have held each other in high regard, even as they eyed each other warily, each trying to anticipate the other's next move. You think an aluminum-pan inheritance is worth its weight in gold for the gift of contemplating those two, and the relationship that couldn't have been, and the admiration you're sure they'd each feel for the other.

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