In the upper level of my house, I hear my granddaughter and daughter laughing, an echo of familiar tonal variations that makes me sit down on the stairs, as if preparing to faint – or pray.
This visit is the first time I’ve seen the two of them in over a year because of the pandemic. But because I reunited with my daughter when she was 25, after giving her up for adoption decades before, any extended absence feels ominous and possibly permanent, dredging up long years when I thought I’d never know her at all.
That’s not all I fear – there’s the worry that I might say something wrong, or make some fatal gaffe; that she’ll reassess my bond with her and feel that I haven’t given enough, paid back enough. Or, lately, that she will choose her recent close relationship with her African American father and decide she doesn’t need me, and my cool Protestant family anymore.
The allure of this African American world is one I understand, since she is the embodiment of my own desire to join in with the warmth and music of her birth father’s life. The scent of his mother’s house, fragrant with baking, the endless cousins with their lyrical names – Lucious and Temple — streaming through the door, the aunts and cousins swaying to the Modern Jazz Quartet. And me there, on the sidelines, with my beige hair and gray eyes, treated like any intimate, despite the wounding encounters each must have had with whites like me.
This is the soil out of which my daughter grew: from my deep yearning for this world in which I could never really belong. But she does, I remind her, as well as my granddaughter, who as if on cue, interrupts my thoughts as she clomps down the stairs.
She rounds the corner and stands in front of me as if she were a piece of art. The pure fact of her makes my eyes smart and my heart leap in my chest, like a trout. I can’t take my eyes off her cheek, her neck, her eyebrows, etched like seabirds across her brow. Oddly, I don’t worry about her disappearing, since, thanks to my daughter, I was with her from the start.
What’re you doing, grandma?
In her face I see traces of my anxious Aunt Bernice, who wore white fox stoles to church each Sunday; my grandfather, an electrician by day and poet by night; my tipsy Aunt Tine, the first woman in the family to smoke or work, let alone drink.
I wish she could have met these vanished ancestors, or I could describe the complex, circuitous route that has brought her here today.
Instead, I reach out for her golden hand. She is the answer to every question; in her flesh is my trail, faint and glittering as a snail’s. Along with a few books and a leaning house near the Hudson, this, unaccountably, is who I will leave behind.
Lynn Lauber is the author of White Girls, 21 Sugar Street, and Listen to Me, all published by W. W. Norton, as well as essays that have appeared in The New York Times and the Boston Globe.