12.08.2005

Whistling in the Graveyard

I haven’t had a damn thing to say lately.

I went to my grandfather’s wake on my 35th birthday. We buried his ashes in Lebanon Tennessee two days later on a sunny Wednesday. We ate leftovers at my aunt’s house afterwards and I watched my nephew Sam play in the sprinklers on a hot August afternoon, while my husband good-naturedly tolerated the ribbing of my aunts and grandmother.

There are days when I feel as if a hat that’s been on my head for a long time has suddenly blown off and I’m in the wind. Days when I forget to whistle.

My grandmother gave me one of his paintings, taken from a photo on their trip to Greece. A small herd of sheep, a tree next to them, a low white stone wall behind it, and beyond lies a field of orange wildflowers.

He once said to me while we sat on the beach together listening to the surf, “Listen to that, that’s the heartbeat of the earth.”

He once said to me, long after most of his eyesight was gone, while we sat at the little round glass table in the kitchen, “Anyone can look, but an artist really sees.”

He also worried that the blacks and the ignorant immigrants were taking over the country. He thought the only answer to terrorism was to ‘kill every last one’ of the Arabs. He put a boycott France bumper sticker on the van during all THAT brouhaha. This, after many highly praised trips to Paris with my grandmother. Fox news got into his blood toward the end as badly as the cancer that killed him. He would watch it – or rather listen to it – while lying on his bed in his converted room on the first floor, set up for him because he could no longer get up and down the stairs.

Even while the cancer ravaged his body, and the chemo poisoned him, that fucking channel ravaged his keen mind, like a splinter too far dug in for a needle to extract it. He’d emerge from his little room, shuffle out and sit at the table asking his Ruthie – my Nanny - for a cup of coffee, then spend what was left of his energy spitting venom sucked from O’Reilly and Hannity. But only a few days before he died, he asked my uncle Paco to remove the bumper sticker. “I’m over it,” he said.

Katrina roared through the Gulf coast at the end of that week and the world turned on its axis. I flew home the night she pounded New Orleans, feeling the outer edges of her fury at 35,000 feet. Too high for that, I know, but try telling that to my white-knuckled, panicked self while sitting in the exit row willing myself not to scream at the top of my lungs, repeating under my breath Hail Marys hard-fucking-wired into my Catholic-school raised brain as if She might intervene on my behalf and save me from death by hurtling airplane into the sea. Perhaps She did because I’m here to write about it now. I don’t care to speculate.

Pappy taught me how to whistle. I thanked him for that when I put a single rose in his grave. His painting is propped against a vase on our china cabinet, right next to the empty Mexican candle of the Virgin which burned every day and night after I returned to Florida.

Years ago, Pappy painted a portrait of me, taken from a photograph made of me in London at a swank salon, right after I’d had a great new haircut. The portrait is unfinished and I have no face. The photograph is taped next to the painting, a reminder of high school daze, where the look on my face reflects the fact that I knew it all. I think I shall leave the painting unfinished.

Her of the blank face I know.