I remember being little and my mom coming into my classroom once a month as part of a program called “Get Smart with Art.” She would bring a painting and then ask us kids about it, volunteering her time. I was always excited to see her and it felt special to have her there. One of the earliest paintings she brought, and the one that always stuck out to me, was Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night.
Because of the special circumstances, I remember the very first moment I saw that painting (a reproduction, of course). Now, it’s everywhere–on posters and in bookstores and in dorm rooms–but because I saw it the way I did, I was awed. It was not just another painting but something truly spectacular, even if I was in first grade.
So when the Art Institute of Chicago had a special Van Gogh exhibit, I really wanted to go with my mom because he has always been special to the two of us. This one happened to be on his bedroom series. He painted his bedroom three times: one lives in Chicago, the other in Amsterdam, and the other in France. This exhibit united all three and Van Gogh’s constant yearning and search for a sense of home. The timing of the theme of the exhibit was particularly poignant to both of us at this point in our lives.
While we were there, we saw some of the Institute’s other gems. Everyone talks about Monet and so I sometimes forget that he really is that awesome. I was awed not just by his lilies but his dreamy cityscapes of Paris. They may have been my favorite of the day. Of course, I love Degas as well because my mom has been a dancer her whole life, and like Van Gogh, we always had a connection to his work because of it.
My mom is the person in my family who I can not only sit on the couch and watch The Mindy Project with but also go to museums. We like learning new things. We like museums. This was a sweet story to add to our collection of art memories together–particularly in Chicago.
When I moved to my new apartment, I ordered French Toast take-out. After the first and then the second bite, I began to weep.
It tasted so much like your French Toast–made lovingly and specially with Hawaiian Bread–I struggled to swallow around the lump in my throat. A part of me did not want to eat it. I wanted to take great gulps of water to drown the taste away. But another part of me, the part of me longing for comfort in the great mess I’ve gotten myself into in this last week, could not stop eating.
I missed you so much then, holding my plastic knife and fork, forgoing syrup because I did not want to dilute the taste of your French Toast, the taste of comfort I felt like God was offering.
Sometimes I forget that you are gone and when I remember the sadness hits me in the gut, as if I am a child fallen from the monkey bars and all the breath goes out of me. Each time this happens, it is less dramatic but it still happens regularly. It’s almost easier to pretend that you are a drive away, albeit a six hour drive, but a drive. I don’t consciously pretend but eating that French Toast, knowing and feeling your absence, I realized that’s exactly what I have been doing.
So I cried while I ate it. I cried the whole time because it reminded me of you and you are not here any longer and because I have been having such a hard time in this giant pickle and it felt like you, through this random restaurant’s French Toast, were offering some type of comfort, a kindness.
And it was comforting.
It hurt too though, because I was actively feeling, something I tend to avoid. But as I ate, slowly with tears falling on Styrofoam, I was glad to hurt. It felt healthy and right to mourn you then even as you comforted me over this stupid mess that has tripped me up. So I ate and cried because it felt right.
I cried because I missed you; I cried because I made a huge mistake; I cried because there are things I wish I could say to you; I cried because I remembered the picture of you and Nonno–two great men, both sides of my family, and me, the first grandchild for each of you–holding me with such pride and joy and youth.
I am grateful that I was first because it means that I am the eldest. It means I remember a younger and more tender version of you. I remember your bedtime stories. I remember your Lemon Soup; how I told you I liked it a lot to spare your feelings which meant you made it for me whenever I saw you. I remember how proud you were of me at every graduation and every important moment. I remember the rusty, “I love you too,” that sometimes was so hard for you to say.
You are the hardest worker I have ever known. You went through more than anyone else I have ever personally met and I know this because I listened. I asked you about things and you told me things you didn’t tell the others. I thought you could fix anything in the world; I thought you could build anything too. And you did. You did.
If you were here, you could not fix this mess. I know that.
I don’t forget that you blustered and yelled and could be grouchy too, but I do not forget the rest because to do so would be dishonest. People rewrite history when they forget your French Toast, when they don’t remember the way you would have done anything for your family or a neighbor or just about anyone you ever met. Did they ever sing songs with you like I did? Did they ever just see you as storyteller who just wanted to be listened to?
When I think about it now, I know that you loved me and were proud of me. I know you wanted the best for me and worried about me. I know you sometimes cursed me too but you were never indifferent, never unfeeling, uncaring. I know that you wanted to be loved and respected.
People can say what they like now. They can blame you for wounds, remember the hard parts of you instead of the good, even the great. I won’t do that though because it isn’t true picture of the man you were. If they endured one tenth of what you did, they would fold. I would fold. In that way, you were a prince of a man, a hero. Your shoulders bore more than any of us can even imagine, far more than you ever even told us. I do not and cannot begrudge the way you coped.
I miss you.
The ironic part is that if you were still here, I could not say that to you. I never shared my deepest fears with you or talked about my greatest dreams. You were a great man but talking about feelings was not something you knew or practiced.
So it made sense, that last week, when I did not want to see anyone or talk to anyone, because of my mess, when I did not want to talk about it, that God chose to comfort me tangibly with a part of you. You would not have made me talk about it and He did not either. He just sent me French Toast that tasted as if you had scooped it from the pan and placed it on my plate.
The sofa does not fit into the large, yet sleek SUV.
We’ve carried it out of my apartment, my dad and I. It’s not the easiest thing for someone like me with chronic pain to do but I am able to because there is goal. I just have to get it downstairs and into my dad’s car.
But the sofa does not fit, though it should, though it is supposed to fit.
In the moment, it does not feel like a metaphor but an impossible problem.
I don’t have the strength to carry it back up my apartment and my dad cannot carry a sofa by himself no matter how strong he is and so we are stuck with this sofa in the back of my building, the large spacious trunk of the SUV, its seats folded down, empty, because the sofa does not fit.
Any way you slice it, moving sucks. Everyone says so because everyone has done it and everyone knows the veracity of such a statement.
But if you can manage to keep your spirits up, with a little creativity, the kindness of strangers, and the willingness to ask for help, you can find the moments of gratitude in the midst of the chaos and frustration that is moving, in the midst of moments where the sofa does not fit. And that isn’t just an optimist talking, that’s me telling you, a girl who absolutely hates moving.
We carry the sofa (I am struggling) into the building’s offices, as they graciously allow us to store it for 20 minutes while we drive that sleek but useless SUV to Home Depot to rent a van. The sofa was supposed to fit in the SUV so we could drop it off at Nonna’s garage where it would live for two months during a transition time with roommates (it gets complicated) and then of course, my dad and I would go see Creed, the movie I have been dying to see (especially with my dad because I don’t think I would even know who Rocky is if not for him).
But the sofa did not fit.
I call my future roommate, asking if she is home. I ask her if it is okay if the sofa comes earlier to the apartment. She tells me: yes, and by the way, why don’t you pack the van with a bunch of stuff and bring that too? You might as well. It will save you a trip later.
I might as well.
So we are driving down Lake Shore Drive when my dad tells me about the song Lake Shore Drive by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah. Since my dad was responsible for my musical education, especially the songs that came before I was born, he felt terrible that he never introduced it to me. I may have been crouched in the back of the van holding a cart that was rolling. But I also may not have been in the back. I cannot recall (I cannot recall especially if my mother is reading this).
“There’s a road I’d like to tell you about, lives in my home town Lake Shore Drive the road is called and it’ll take you up or down From rags on up to riches fifteen minutes you can fly Pretty blue lights along the way, help you right on by And the blue lights shining with a heavenly grace, help you right on by”
It begins to pour. My dad, my new roommate, and I unload the van. The sofa is dropped in the very dirty, rainy, muddy street. This is devastating in that I bought that sofa with my hard earned money 16 months ago but also not devastating because when you move, things happen and you are just happy the sofa fits through the door (once you unscrew the legs, of course, and even then just barely).
The night ends at Starbucks where dad and I each order a drink. He’s on his way home even as I write this (In fact, as I proofread this, I receive a phone call from him about the horrendous traffic back to the ‘burbs. What can I say except today was the day where the sofa did not fit? Instead, since he has not read this, I mostly say nothing except I am sorry over and over again). I am sitting on my bed, in what will soon be my old apartment, which looks as if a tornado went through it because I was not prepared to move the bigger pieces.
But guess what?
They are moved. I am one step closer to being moved out and moved in at the new place.
And before the Starbucks, I played Lake Shore Drive, that song my dad told me about, while we sat in rainy traffic together, back in the SUV, van returned, the red lights in front of us blurred by the drops clinging to our windshield. I replayed it and then played it again. And again.
It’s a good song. Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes that is more than enough.
We never did see that movie (I will see it eventually!).
But if the sofa would have fit, I wouldn’t have spent the day with my dad actually talking; I would still have an extra truckload of stuff to move; we never would have driven down Lake Shore Drive which brought the song to Dad’s mind and so I would not know the song.
“And there ain’t no road just like it Anywhere I found…”
You’ve got to find those moments, those perfect moments filled with a cast of imperfect characters, when you’re sitting next to your dad as an adult, listening to a song he first heard in high school. When you find those moments, sit there as long as you can. It’s grace, pure and simple.
You’ve got boxes to pack, an apartment that looks like a scene straight out of the movie twister. Your back is so sore and you don’t know what the heck you will blog about tomorrow. The traffic…well, let’s not discuss the traffic.
“Pretty blue lights along the way, help you right on by And the blue lights shining with a heavenly grace, help you right on by”
So when you find those moments, even if the sofa doesn’t fit, even if there is traffic, if the piano in the song is catchy enough, if the melody is just right, it’s a memory you’ll tuck away forever. It could pass in the time it takes to youtube the song if you aren’t careful. Blink and you’ll miss it. So be careful. Pay attention. Forget the sofa that fell in the dirty, wet street. You’re sitting next to your Dad–a man you admire, a man you’ve butted heads with–and you are both singing the words to a song written decades ago.
He is remembering it and you are discovering it. And there is no reason that a day like today should give you such a moment. But it does. So take it with both hands. There are so few rare, perfect moments in this world.
“And there ain’t no road just like it Anywhere I found…”
So, thank you, Sofa. For starting it all by not fitting.
(Linking up with Emily for A Grateful Heart. After all, she was the one, who as I complained about moving, just told me to get off my butt and get started which I definitely needed).
A few weeks ago, a day came and went, marking the year anniversary of my grandfather’s death. His absence was and remains much harder than any of us expected. One of the most defining things in his life was his service in World War II. I don’t think men like him exist anymore–the kind of boy who at 17 tried to trick his mother into allowing him to enter the war early, the kind of man who saw way too much at too young an age.
It’s hard to write about because I do not want to cry about it. I remember his funeral, the 21 gun salute, taps playing. I could weep.
It wasn’t until the last 10-20 years that he opened up at all about the toughest parts of his service and still I know there are unplumbed depths of his memories, situations I cannot even begin to imagine, moments he had to forget and moments he could not speak of because to speak of them would bring them back to life, giving muscle and bones to old ghosts.
I loved this strong and sometimes hard man. As his only granddaughter, I saw more softness than most. In eighth grade we had an assignment to interview a veteran and than create a project around that interview. I interviewed him and I wrote about the experience because writing is how I deal with things. Unbeknownst to either of us, my mother, his daughter, sent it all of to Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan was the last war movie he saw; it was so real that it brought back so many memories and was incredibly painful–before that he enjoyed war movies for what they were and they weren’t realistic enough to cause issue). Tom Hanks wrote back on thick and beautiful Cartier surgery, type with an old typewriter. He was so proud of that and proud of me.
I was proud of him.
Billy Joel has a song he wrote about the Vietnam war and I can’t listen to it without crying. I especially could not hear it when I was at the Billy Joel concert and it was played with servicemen and women, their arms around one another, as they sang the chorus: And we will all go down together.
And we held on to each other Like brother to brother We promised our mothers we’d write
And we will all go down together
Marking this day is hard for me. I am not sure how to do it. But letting it pass without saying anything is hard too. I miss him–his heart and his strength. I wish very much I could talk to him now, knowing what I know now since he has passed. I know he is with Jesus and he knew he was going to be with his savior and that brought him a great amount of solace at the end. It brings me solace now.
There are no tears where he is now. There is no war. He was nearly the last to go of all his friends. Now, when you are somewhere and they ask WWII vets to stand up and be recognized, there are few left. He is with his brothers now.
They tried to give him the purple heart for an injury he sustained from barbed wire but he refused it. I have cousins, younger than me, who have created stories around his service and what happened. Maybe it helps them in some ways. In many ways, I hope it does. In other ways, I want to correct their facts. You’re wrong and you don’t even realize it. You never sat with him and talked about it. You didn’t interview him in great detail. It’s because I want him to be mine alone but he isn’t. Instead, he is mine shared. But because he is mine at all, I want the facts of his life and sacrifice and death to be accurate.
Day is done, gone the sun, From the lake, from the hills, from the sky; All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
People post on social media about their loved ones who served on days like today. I understand the day should be marked. I am marking it. But let’s be sure we are doing it for them–the people we love and gone away–and not for comments and likes on social media. In many ways, my grandfather gave up the man he could have been when he went to war because he was forever changed. So I mark it for him because today is only about him.
I can’t even reread this to edit it. I just don’t want to cry.
Nonno was a barber who played Billy Joel records all day long. His favorite song–Scenes from an Italian Restaurant–is also mine. My memories of him are dim since I wasn’t even three when he passed away and yet I feel the legacy he left in our family so strongly. From everything I know, he was just one of those truly extraordinarily awesome people. He loved people well. He was funny and he had integrity. So maybe that’s why I’ve always loved Billy Joel. It’s a connection to him. I think of him, singing the words under his breath in his shop while I sing them too.
I was fortunate enough to see Billy Joel at Wrigley a few weeks ago–with my nonna, aunt, and dad–Nonno’s wife, kids, and first grandchild: me. I can’t say I only love Billy Joel for Nonno because let it be known: all of the people I attended the concert with? They are older than me. They are of different generations. And yet, who knew all the words? This girl.
I think the concert was different for all of us (Dad and Nonna sat by some crazy fools making it a little less than fun for them) so maybe it’s kind of like the song and we were living Scenes from a Billy Joel Concert. But standing there singing at the top of my lungs (bet everyone loved that) with my family, I danced and even teared up when he brought up men and women in the armed forces during Goodnight, Saigon. And I waited for the song, Nonno’s song. He was on my mind the whole night.
And I thought, when the song was finally played: isn’t this kind of magical? That the four of us are here singing Billy Joel with the city of Chicago as a back drop as a famiglia? We are a part of his legacy and here we are and bad things have happened, hard things. Some of those things are still happening. We’re still trying to fight through it. But we are okay too. We are making it–not always well and definitely not perfectly. But here we are, the four of singing the words to a song my nonno sung and loved, a song that might be the soundtrack to our family: Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. And I found the whole thing kind of beautiful.
Sometimes I feel like the memory keeper in my family because I know that my family may be reading this and thinking: I mean, it was a great concert, Nina but I didn’t think too deeply about it. And that’s okay. That’s wonderful. Because I love being the memory keeper, I love collecting stories that happened before I was even born, because it’s all a part of a larger puzzle, a legacy, a history, a story. I don’t mind guarding the memories or putting the words to them. In fact, I can’t exactly help it. I’ll collect the scenes and someday they will be a song.