Excerpt from “Motherland”
This essay was published in Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute, on April 28, 2016, as part of the “Encounters with God” series. You can read the essay in its entirety, as well as companion pieces from the series, here.
As my grandmother was dying on the sofa in her mid-century ranch house, she called me to fetch her tweezers.
“Sister,” she said, “you see these chin hairs? Just pluck them for me.”
My grandmother was not a vain woman. And yet.
So I leaned over her, tweezers readied. I reached for the lamp on the end table, turned the dial once, twice, three times for the brightest light. “I don’t see any chin hairs,” I lied.
“Oh, they’re there. Just a few.”
Still, I resisted, tweezers hovering mid-air. “It might hurt,” I said.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Go ahead.” As matter-of-fact about suffering as she was about everything else. She was Catholic, after all.
I studied my grandmother’s face. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted back in peaceful, steadied waiting.
So I leaned over her, plucked three careful chin hairs. She smiled as if relieved, and we went back to watching television. The living room walls were covered in fake wood paneling and an oversized portrait of the Pope, reaching out to us from the mantel, hand extended in perpetual blessing.
I was nearly thirty years old. I was supposed to know that my grandmother was dying. Still, when all was said and done, I did not know how to know a thing like that.
Not long ago, I bought my first car and drove it across the country to a little college town in New Jersey. I felt like a pioneer in reverse, the golden paradise of California’s central valley shrinking behind me in the rear-view mirror. Some days, it haunts me, this California.
I have lived in the northwestern corner of Spain, the south of France, a small town along the Mexican border. Nothing has felt so far from home as New Jersey, this great suburban land that is comforting and infuriating in equal measure. Still, I am trying it on as home. I keep trying it on, taking it off, trying it on again. It is mostly an exercise in trying. Some days I move a little more slowly, not recognizing this new land, muttering under my breath, as if afraid I might forget: I am not from here. I am from someplace else. I repeat the words like a mantra.
For a time, I lived in a perfectly suitable apartment in graduate-student housing. The building was less than ten years old, with central heat and air conditioning, university-subsidized rent, and scalding hot water that never once turned lukewarm in the middle of a shower. I lasted six months before I broke the lease in favor of a yellow farmhouse more than a half-century old. It has scuffed walls and hissing radiators and a decidedly less reliable stream of hot water. But somehow, lining the walls of the kitchen, three thousand miles from the ranch house I left behind, there they are—my grandmother’s cabinets, pistachio-green beauties with black fifties-era ironwork and the smell of the years locked away deep inside.
As a child, I used to wake up to the scent of coffee wafting down the hallway from my grandmother’s kitchen. It would be early morning yet, the house dark and quiet, no one bustling to ready themselves for Sunday Mass. I’d peek around the kitchen door and slip onto one of the barstools at the counter. My grandmother would be there, as there as the sun of California’s central valley, leaning over her prayer books with her housecoat wrapped around her and a cup of steaming coffee on the countertop.
Leaning over the kitchen counter, coffee and prayer books in hand, she would tell me about sightings of the Virgin Mary, the pilgrimages she and my grandfather had made to see the mother of all mothers in distant holy lands. I would sit in awe, absent-mindedly tracing the vein on the back of her hand with my child-finger as her words made their way through my head. My grandmother’s stories were so convincing, her own faith so compelling that as a child I often lay awake in bed for hours, unable to sleep for fear the Blessed Mother would somehow mistakenly appear to me, ask me to build her a chapel or make a pilgrimage or do whatever it is that unholy people are compelled to do when confronted face-to-face with the divine.
Even now, all these years later, when I open the door to my third-floor walk-up and breathe in the rich, warm scent of coffee rising up from the shop below, it is like a call to prayer. A call to come home.