It is late August and I am 7 going on 8, never quite old enough in years or in looks. My dad is a school teacher and my mom works at the bank so I stay with my grandparents for a couple of days because my dad and mom are at work and I need somewhere to go. I’ve gone in with my dad to prepare his classroom, he teaches science and the room smells of ammonia, of thick desktops made from black stone good for cleaning up spills. Glass beakers, plastic goggles, a large periodic table of elements. A break room where my dad gives me a coin to buy a soda.
For reasons I’ll never know, we call my grandmother Nana. There’s Nana and then there’s Nana Weiss, her mom, who’s forever old from the time we meet until the time she dies. And they have a Mediterranean look, they could be Italian, with olive skin and dark eyes, but I later learn they’re German with the name Weiss, and that gets Nana’s brother Frank beaten up at school, accused of being a Jew.
Nana drives a big brown sedan and takes me to the mall. It’s funny picturing me in the passenger’s seat, my legs hardly touching the floor, Nana driving and humming a tune. It’s 1978 and things couldn’t be better. I’ve been watching the TV show Battlestar Galactica and they have some action figures of the Cyclon Warriors I’ll later buy, or Nana will, as a treat for me starting school. And having a day with my grandma at the mall.
We go to the German restaurant Dunderbak’s that’s dark inside with foreign music playing, an accordion she says, and colored flags on the ceiling that change the light. I always get the root beer that comes in a frosted mug and nana the iced tea with a big straw.
Nana buys me new clothes, a book, and a Cyclon Warrior so I’ve got handle bags from different stores and lots of stuff we load into the trunk and it feels like my birthday. And maybe I’ll talk to my parents on the phone because my mom will check in, and maybe I’ll watch some TV in the den with my grand-dad. Or play ping-pong with him in the basement. I go to sleep happy even though summer’s over and I’m nervous about going back to school. And wake to scrambled eggs and toast with cinnamon and sugar.
It is 2015 and I’m making the rounds as we always do on our way to the airport. We stop at Nana’s because her house is the furthest east, an easy stop on the way to Newark.
I never performed well on visits like that. I was distracted, in a rush, worried about making our flight. We would stop at the Panera Bread to buy sandwiches and lay everything out on the table with paper plates and napkins, plastic bags with chips.
The kids weren’t old enough to be swallowed in their phones yet so they’d take turns sitting on Nana’s lap, but then she’d get tired or need to go to the bathroom. We’d take pictures but no one looks good in photos like that, everyone looks vaguely solemn. You have to take them anyway, you take anything you can.
I think that’s the time my grandma really sobbed when we said goodbye, she never cried that way before. And I thought about it driving away, was this the last time? Was that the reason for her crying like that? She’d even taken me aside and absconded me, she was angry and hurt. She’d been reduced to a little girl, that look she wore, when she said we never came enough. She was right. And she was an old lady with her cane now and her hair all white, just watching the TV and taking her pills, sometimes talking on the phone. Maybe I didn’t have it in me for all that.
So I take Charlotte to the book store and afterwards the mall, and we stop at the Starbucks even though everyone’s in masks and it feels like we shouldn’t be in public now. And I recount for her what it was like when I’d go with my grandma to the mall this time of year. But she was probably too young, and doesn’t remember her.
Nana Marie?, she says. And she remembers for a bit, but then she doesn’t.
So it’s just for me then, all this. The big brown sedan, her humming behind the wheel, us stopping for lunch. Being seated in the back and opening our menus. Me going to bed happy, knowing that one day I’ll be older.