Some Marcel Proust Shit
The D-Train #31
I feel like I made a mistake with last week’s newsletter in not linking to an actual Daniel Johnston song, so here you go. Confidential, to anyone who needs to hear it. True love will find you in the end.
My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up. When my mother was pregnant with me, and we were on the verge of becoming a family of five living in a one-bedroom apartment, my ridiculously resourceful grandparents gave my mom their house. They then bought another one across the street at a fire sale price — it was slated for demolition to make room for a new hotel and condominium development —and they got it for next-to-nothing. They subdivided the land around their old house into two lots, and had their new house literally picked up on a truck and moved next door to ours. And voila, two homes for the price of one.
Fun fact: Biggie Smalls and Lil Kim lived in that condominium complex that was built across the street, and both were arrested there. How much do I love this mug shot of Lil Kim from when she was my neighbor?
My grandmother was a tiny spitfire of a woman, and a diehard New York Giants fan, who never hesitated to voice her opinion on anything from football to politics, and everything in between. Once she was visited by the secret service after Bill Clinton held a press conference at the hotel across the street. She stood outside with a sign and heckled him, yelling “you’re immoral!” It wasn’t his politics that bothered her, it was his lack of decency. (Our current presidency would have likely killed her, had she lived to see this mess we’re in). When my mom tried to tell her that she had gone too far – after all, the secret service came to her door — she said, I have not gone too far. The President needs to know that we do NOT approve of his character!
My grandfather had no interest in football, or politics, or voicing strong opinions of any kind. He was a tinkerer, and a builder, always fixing something in his basement workshop. I loved to ride in the back of his electrician’s van, with all the tools and equipment. Sometimes I was recruited as his assistant. I would watch a tiny hole in a basement wall, waiting for him to plumb an electrical wire down to me, and then I would fish it out from the wall. That was my job, I caught the line. I named my youngest son, Jack, after him, because he had the most kindness, the most integrity, the most character of anyone I have known. In high school, when my brother’s friend’s mom passed away and he needed a way to get to work, my grandfather quietly gave him his car. That was the kind of person he was. We spent many hours playing poker together when I was a little girl, a way he learned to pass the time, I suppose, in the army. He was a radio operator and codebreaker in World War II, although he never, ever spoke to anyone about the war. At most I could get him to teach me a few words of French, or Italian, or German. He knew a lot more than he let on.
While my grandfather went off to war in Africa and Europe, my grandmother was born and died on the same street. They met when he was driving a bus, and he whistled at her. For fifty years, she talked about how mad it made her. Still, she married him the minute he came back from the war. My grandparents had a little house at the Jersey shore where they spent summers, and for most of my life as far as I knew that’s the only place my grandmother ever traveled. She was very content not to see the world.
But she did surprise me from time to time. She told me once that my grandfather had a close friend in the army who was killed in the war. Before he died, the man asked my grandfather to get his watch back to his parents in Kansas. Terrified that he too would be killed before fulfilling the obligation, my grandfather sent the watch back to his girlfriend, my grandmother, in New Jersey. He said that he would bring the watch to the man’s parents when he returned from war, but if he didn’t make it back he asked my grandmother to please deliver the watch on his behalf. My grandmother did not hesitate. She knew that the parents should have that watch as soon as possible, and I imagine, too, that a part of her wanted to carry that burden, as much as she could, for my grandfather. So she didn’t wait for him to come home, and instead she took a bus, alone, from New Jersey to Kansas, to personally hand deliver the watch of a man she had never met to his family. She was nineteen years old, and had never left New Jersey, but she bought that ticket and boarded the bus, duty-bound and headstrong. In the 1940s, I imagine, that was a pretty brave thing to do. No wonder my grandfather loved her so much.
My grandmother was a bird watcher, and at the end of her life, after my grandfather had passed away, she would sit by her window and watch the birds at her feeder across the lawn. She said my grandfather visited her in the form of a bird. When a neighborhood cat started attacking her feeder, we bought her a super soaker water gun, and she would watch from the window and wait. When I came home from school she would open the window to talk for a few minutes, and she would howl with laughter and brandish the water gun. That cat didn’t stand a chance.
In hard times like these, when my heart hurts, and I don’t know what the right thing is to do, I sometimes think about my grandparents. Their house next door was where I sheltered from the storms. I imagine now that they visit me in the form of cardinals, paired for life, the brightest birds in the sky. The other day there was a cardinal sitting on the roof of my car when I came outside, and I thought, what a strange place for a bird to perch. I know it was just a bird, but still, you don’t usually see them on top of cars. I like to think that cardinal was there to deliver a message, its bright red plumage saying, stop, pay attention. When I listen I hear my grandparents’ voices saying, when someone chooses you to deliver their watch, to bear their longing — take care in your delivery. That’s all you can do.
On dark days when my mind wanders to this story, I wonder what happened to that watch, where it is now, how much it even mattered. Who knows if it’s anywhere at all, lost to time.
And then I realize, maybe it’s just here, an idea sitting in the stillness between us, on a line plumbed down from another time to remember. And then it occurs to me, the message is clear. What happened to the watch itself is irrelevant, because what mattered, the thing that is still right here, eighty years later, is not the watch itself. It’s what they did with the watch. And how they delivered it. And how it would have astonished them that so many years later, their granddaughter would still think of it in unexpected moments, how her grandmother took so much care to deliver that watch in person, when she could have just put it in the mail. Not just because it was the right thing to do, but because she loved. A small thing, a story she told me one time, and yet.
It matters. But the thing is, you have to catch the line. Otherwise it’s all just plain brown birds flickering across the sky, a million of them, all the same.
Ps. Stay safe everyone. Here’s another song for this week.
Listen to The D-Train, The Playlist, a soundtrack for a shitshow.