“Minnows” by Lauren Jo Sypniewski

Minnows (Bird in Clear Box)
Bird in Clear Box by Karen Bell

Start with an idea. Say, the idea of forever.

No, too big. Go simple, go small.

Say, now. Say then. Weave in and out, create that metaphoric, clichéd tapestry—eccentric shades, muted beneath a light layer of dust. Unused loom cornering the shambled edges where floor, walls, and ceiling collide. Not unlike lives.

I grew up a mile from the edge of Lake Michigan, and yet I was surrounded by half a dozen small lakes. A country girl at heart, I took refuge in the outdoors: the fields, maples, sparse evergreens; the water was no exception to the rule. I called them “swimmers,” the minnows that infiltrated the shallows of lakes: Sand shiners, Bluntnose minnows, Emerald shiners—the ones with the iridescent green backs.

I’d roll up the pant legs of my brother’s hand-me-down jeans, treading gingerly into water and brushing the rolling hills of sand with the flats of my feet. Furiously, the swimmers flickered away for cover, backs rippling like the surface of water in sunlight. And I would wait. Ever so slowly, they’d weave back into sight, congregating at my ankles, occasionally lapping my skin with their translucent fins and their puckered lips.

I wanted to catch one. To cup it between my palms. To know the power of suspending a fish above water and then putting it back safely into its liquid home. But they were always too fast, and too free.

Our rusted green van shimmies backend first into one of the small parking spaces. I don’t want to exit the car. In the midst of a conversation via text, I enjoy the distraction. In fact, I fixate on the green word bubbles: the way they pop onto my phone like pebbles plopped into a river. The way they tell me intimate things I’ll never know to be real. But mostly the way that they aren’t anything to do with what awaits outside the van.

“Come on, get out,” my father says. My mother, my brother and sister-in-law are already near the complex’s doors. I slide my phone deep into my winter coat and hasten across the lot without looking back.

My father catches up to me.

“Don’t forget to thank Grandma for giving you her car.”

“I know, I won’t.”

“She really, really loved that car, you know. She even kissed it goodbye before I drove it away.”

I force a chuckle. “Yea,” I say.

Unusually bright, the snow reflects a little too cheerfully, as though I’ve walked into the last scene of a sappy Christmas movie. The crisp, wooden cherries that cling to the frosted miniature evergreens don’t help the situation—their rounded bellies curl close to the fake green plastic needles sprinkled with fake plastic white. Everything about this place disgusts me, right down to the uniformity of the buildings and the landscaping poking above the snow. Right down to my family name in block letters written over her mailbox in the entryway. Right down to how the handwriting isn’t recognizable. Though if it had been her scratchy, small, perfectly indecipherable cursive, I would only hate it more. It would be a sign that she checked herself into this place. That she is okay with it.

She greets us, hunched, nearly fifty degrees from vertical.

“Hiya, sweetie.” Her head stretched back and eyebrows raised, she tries to see up into my face when her posture forces her to look constantly at her feet. I wrap an arm gingerly around her frame; she can’t weigh more than eighty-five pounds. She moves back into the doorway and shuffles about the assisted living apartment to break out snacks: Chex mix and Cheese-its, chocolates and nuts. None of us are hungry.

Scattered about the apartment, she has managed to decorate for Christmas—a significant holiday in terms of decorating for my grandmother. Various nativities used to snuggle into corners all about the old house. The small Christmas tree with the Peanuts ornaments and half-shelled nuts with photos cut and glued to the flat surface.

She catches me looking at the decorations.

“You can take anything you like.” She looks around at the room. “I hope I’m not here to put them up next year.”

I am startled by her apathy. Or is it exasperation? This is the woman who kept a rifle above the front door to shoot “those pesky red squirrels” that smuggled their way into her countless gardens: vegetable gardens, fruit gardens, and into the day lilies. This is the woman who tended her land for hours a day, who raised six children while working for the city, taking classes, and receiving her associate’s degree. Who went hunting for “stumpers,” mushrooms that grew at the base of oak and maple trees, canned them, and cooked with them. Who became a skilled painter and antique collector, and began to refinish furniture.

And now, stooped over the edge of the couch, I want this woman to be the same. To be untouched by time. I don’t want to recognize her as my grandmother.

“Joey, you’re the smartest man I know.” Her head quivers from side to side as she looks up at my father. I no longer understand what is happening to her. After the cancer, there were issues: in and out of the hospital, gastrointestinal problems, paralyzing anxiety, her husband’s sudden death. But I don’t ask. “I feel like I’m going crazy,” she tells my father. “I need your help.”

It’s hard to say whether the shaking is from her age or her desperation or the anxiety, but what I am sure of is the look. It is the same look I gave my father growing up, standing waist-high with blonde pigtails: the look of total dependence.

My body shakes inside, somewhere deeper than my gut as though small creatures were brandishing my nerves like rattles. Slowly, it seems—in the most inexplicable way—as though my grandmother and I are trading places. Around me, no one speaks. I don’t want to be the one to talk, because I can never make words sound better than silence.

“I’m going to do everything I can,” he says to her.

She looks him in the eye. “You know, I don’t care if I die. I don’t want to live if it is like this.” Wide and distracted, her eyes remind me of a thread from that never-ending tapestry, vibrant once, but cloudy and disowned now.

My mother huffs in a way that is meant to be supportive, in a “you’re being silly” sort of way. I stare at the carpet. Anger and shame battle inside me: anger for her disinterest and shame for feeling the anger. For wanting to grab her frail shoulders and shake. But I can’t say anything.

Instead—as my father details to my grandmother what other prescription options she has, what hospitals she might go to for a second opinion—I step out of the living room into a side room that my grandma seems to be using primarily for storage.

Memories fill picture frames on the shelves and walls. My father and his siblings caught in their youth, bordered by white matting, thick glasses that are sure to come back into style. Family weddings. My grandparents at benefit dinners before his passing five years ago. Cousins’ middle school class pictures. My own face looks out at me, maybe nine years old, in a sunflower-patterned dress stuck in a cedar tree. And I know it is asking me something, but I can’t hear the words.

The faces overwhelm me, berating me with the idea of “what is left?” Being a Sypniewski feels as though it means something, something that I have to carry on. I’m just not sure what it is yet. I am overwhelmed by the idea of time: poured, caught, and steeped in my temporal pockets, struggling to store it up like Halloween candy for the rainy days that I never actually wait for. Thinking if I hold onto something hard enough, long enough, I can make something—an idea, a feeling, a person—last forever. And then how do I let go, accept, something—someone so close—when she’s already let go of herself? I feel as though I’m standing in the lakes of my youth, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of minnows. I try desperately to catch–barehanded–just one swimmer. So I can let it go again. But they are already free, and everything feels so backwards.

At the age of seventy-five, writer and feminist supporter Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide by chloroform. In her suicide note, she wrote: “No grief, pain, misfortune, or broken heart, is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.”

I rebelled against this. Not only the thought of taking one’s own life, but the idea that there’s an acceptance to ending, and that an ending can be mutually agreeable.

I thought, then, of my other grandparents. My grandfather died suddenly five years ago. I never knew my mother’s mother. My mother’s father died of lung cancer when I was seven. Mom tried so hard to be there with him when he went. She had told him, “Dad, I know you’re hurting. And I’ll be back on Tuesday, but if you want to go home to Jesus, that’s okay too.” My grandfather died on a Monday, the day before my mom was to return to town.

My mother said, years later, that she completely understands the idea of wanting to die.

“Why can’t you?” she asked me.

And while I could understand wanting to die, I couldn’t accept that my grandmother would desire to have an end when I didn’t want that. That she could be ready when I wasn’t. And I didn’t know what I was supposed to carry on for her, what memories and traditions. I never asked her what she wanted me to carry forward.

I make my way back into the living room when I feel as though this is as calm as I’m going to get. They’re talking about books now, trying to remember Nicholas Sparks’s name. Grandma tells me I should read him, that I’d really like him. I catalog it in the back of my head in the file under “I never want to read, but then again I actually do because it’s the one thing she asked of me.”

We have to go soon, and I want to talk to her desperately. I lean forward near her hunched and bony shoulder. I want to know every story she’s ever been a part of; all of her joys and troubles. All of her traditions.

I say: “Thanks for the car, Grandma. It drives really nice.”

 

 

Lauren Jo Sypniewski grew up in woodsy and earthy Northern Michigan before moving to Boston to obtain her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she also taught writing. Since then, she’s wound around the world searching Australia for new words, new moments. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The American Council for Polish Cultural HeritageDiscovering Arguments, and the Pine River Anthology.

Read an interview with Lauren here.