This is Not a Poem, but It Could Be
You are right. There is something beautiful in the lines of those lockers, a sort of static simplicity. I miss the shiny tiles of the bathrooms in Spain. I guess that’s easy for me to say when I’m not the one cleaning them. This makes me think of the poem “Singapore” by Mary Oliver. Do you know it? I somehow missed it during our study of her last year and just stumbled upon it a few weeks ago. I have a few poems coming about in what we could loosely call my “wren series” next month, so how can I not fall for a poem that contains the line, “A poem should always have birds in it”?
But I digress. Last Saturday, I wrote about a Saturday rituals on your (other) website. This past Saturday involved another kind of ritual, this one of the monthly variety: visiting my grandmother (GG) in Harlem. We have our routine down to a T. I leave work as quickly as possible on Friday afternoon and start driving. I call her from the dreaded Charlton Plaza after being stuck in traffic for at least an hour. I tell her I’m going to be late. Sometimes she can hear me, sometimes she can’t. I arrive in NYC 5-7 hours after leaving Maine. I get off the West Side Highway at 125th, drive down Broadway and circle around to 123rd St looking for a parking spot between Amsterdam and Broadway. If I get there before 8 p.m., there’s usually a spot on the left near Broadway. If I get there later, I have to park in the garage to the tune of $35/night. I used to ring her buzzer, but now I have keys, so when I get up to the 21st floor and push open the door I say, “Bing bong” for no other reason than that’s just how it’s always been. If her television isn’t cranked up too loudly, GG turns around and grabs her walker. She usually says, “Ach du liebe! My granddaughter is here!” Sometimes she tells me to get my hair cut. Sometimes she asks if I have grown, again. She sits back down and I head to the refrigerator. I throw out a few moldy items (usually lettuce) and ask about some suspect chicken. Last weekend, my pal Sammie came with me, and so GG had ordered Chinese food “from downstairs,” as she calls the restaurant just around the corner. I sat down with a plate full of spicy noodles in some sort of peanut sauce. “What is it?” I ask, to which GG replies, “I have no idea. I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying.” She has a manila file folder that says RECIPES in block letters that contains takeout menus. We chat for a while. I catch her up on my week in school, explain again that I do indeed know the names of all 87 of my students and tell her I’m planning on traveling to the Azores next month. “What the hell are you going to do in the Azores?” she asks, cracking herself up. “I’ll tell you,” she says to Sammie, “my granddaughter sure likes to leave.” Around 11, she yawns loudly and we all get ready for bed.
Saturday morning is one of my favorite parts of visiting GG. I get up early, open the shades, peak out at her view of Riverside Church, the 1-train and the George Washington Bridge in the distance. I measure out four heaping scoops of coffee, put water in the percolator and open the door to grab the paper. I set it on the kitchen table with a glass of orange juice and her pills. I feed her cat (Annabelle Lee). I clean up from the night before. I read my book. I wait for her to get up, enjoying the solitude, but also enjoying the anticipation of hearing her loud yawn and how she will talk to Annabelle when she first wakes up.
Drinking tea, waiting for GG to wake up. A small shelf of eggcups in the distance.
Sure enough, after a few hours I hear, “Where is my granddaughter, Annabelle? I smell no coffee, I smell no elegant breakfast.” Sammie might have been alarmed by this, but I’m used to it. It’s our ritual. I know that she doesn’t want me to go in her room. I know she will first go to the bathroom. I know that she will find her robe. I know that she will fix her teeth. I hope she will put in her hearing aids. I know that she will pad down the hallway, wheeling her walker, all the while saying, “Where is my company? Is she still here? Did she leave me alone? Did she make me my coffee? Ach, what a good granddaughter. Why didn’t you wake me up?”
I ask her what she wants for breakfast, knowing the answer. We always have soft boiled eggs, served in those eggcups you mentioned in your last letter, a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and toast.
To make the perfect soft boiled egg, boil a pot of water while soaking the egg in warm water to heat the shell. When the water is boiling, place in the egg and cook for 3.5 minutes. Meanwhile, butter toast and slice into strips (“soldiers”) to dunk in your egg. GG likes to add a hefty amount of salt.
For as long as I can remember, GG has had a shelf of eggcups hanging in her kitchen and various displays throughout her apartment. When I began to travel, I started to collect them for her. My two years living in Europe proved to be a boon for her collection, and for me, they are a porcelain diary. I see the small cream eggcup with delicately painted lavender that you helped me pick out in that weird store we found in Provence while searching for lavender fields. I see the Delft blue eggcup I bought in Amsterdam and the painted tulip egg cup I bought in Delft. There is the eggcup with a French mustache my pal Lili bought for GG in Paris, the one made of olive wood from Kefalonia in Greece, the rabbit shaped one I found in Dublin and the pristine white eggcup I bought last May in her hometown of Heidelberg, Germany, which she left at age 16 during WWII. She doesn’t talk too much about “those years,” but she did once tell me the story of Mr. Rothschild, a “real Kosher Jew,” who would sit in her mother’s kitchen while she boiled an egg from her father’s hen house. He would eat it with a silver spoon he kept in his breast pocket.
93 years young.
When I tell her the breakfast is ready, she always thanks me and tells me it’s “real elegant.” She says, “I don’t know about you having an English mother, because you sure make a good cup of coffee. Did my son teach you?”
After breakfast, we read the paper for a few hours, occasionally chatting, but mostly just reading alone together. I make lunch. She takes a nap. Sometimes I do, too. Sometimes I go for a walk. We play Scrabble before dinner. She almost always wins. This time, she played the word booze with the Z landing on a triple letter score and the word landing on a double word. I was sunk. I leave Sunday morning before she wakes up, but not before making coffee and feeding the cat.
A blizzard approaches as I type. School has already been cancelled for tomorrow; my first snow day in three years. I have vegetarian chili on the stove, biscuits in the oven and a pile of books to read. I finished (and loved) Lila this weekend, as well as the hilarious and somehow endearingly narcissistic Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. I am currently working my way through a fascinating collection of essays: The Empathy Exams. Next up is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (but I know how you feel about fiction).
24-36 inches of snow on the horizon. Wish you were here to drink tea, bake and shovel.