05 September 2014

positions of the body

Your eyes wrinkled invisible when you laughed. I watched as you threw your mouth wide in these moments, your head tilting way, way back to let your curly mane catching the glare of the sun. A lioness. I can see you greeting us at the door, Grammy, your suitcase haphazardly thrown to the side so your arms could stretch on and on, your body ready to be hugged.

And we oblige. Thundering through the navy blue hallway and through the front door, our feet clapping in waves behind our bodies. We wrap gangling arms around you.

And so, I remember your arrivals, but never your goings. You slipped out the front door quieter than silent, grabbed plane after plane back to Chicago. I think whoever had the pleasure of sitting next to you on airplanes and buses and trains and even in traffic jams had it very good. The position of your wide, red lips -- permanently affixed bending upward. The very definition of contagious.

I never, ever saw you sad. Never, ever saw your body pulling inward. Only arms and fingers pulsing out and out -- giving and giving and giving.

When I visit your little brown house in Illinois, you set me free in the cornfields. Let me run wild through them, racing no one but my own lithe body. And when I am lost out there -- leaping to see over cornstalks higher than my body -- you find me. You wrap your arms tight around me and carry me back home.

And these are the things I remember about the positions of your body. Which are not so much about you as they are about me.

But, as for me, I will start by saying that when I am anxious, you might see me cradle my belly. Fiddle with my heel. Rub my toes against the sheets, against the edge of the couch. Pinch my lower lip between two fingers. Inching in and in, in tiny, tiny ways until I am altogether


But then, when I'm relieved -- oh, see how the arms stretch outward, everything grows wide and reaches. Like yours. Like saxifrage bursting from a seaside crag. Ad infinitum, and further.

When I look at photographs of you at 6, at 12, 18, 25 -- the girlish posture, lifting the skirt of a dress -- the line between what is I and what is you starts to blur until all I see is a widening amalgam of myself. Head tilts, nose down, the cheeks full with awkward, timid grins.

So, yes, I have learned the ways my body warns me of the tremors rising up in my gut. And, too, of joys. These little positions of the body are echoes of feelings felt, but harbingers, also. See the nervous fingers flutter toward the face, looking for a lock of hair to twist.

One would think you had never been sad, Grammy. At least your body never showed it. Not so aptly as your offspring's body, as your offspring's offspring's body.

Who think on these, and all other things, obsessively.

Who have learned the ways of her lover's body, too. The hand that cradles the back of his head and scratches the scalp, pushes the hair forward and back-- always followed by a sigh: frustration. The way his thin limbs go loosey goosey when giddy.

When he laughs, he is all cheeks.

He and I have shared tandem sighs, chests rising and falling in synchronized time. I sometimes try to confuse his rhythm, to let my breaths fall out of time with his...make him lose me and find me again.

And then, we sleep. I sleep on my side. He is still, but I turn often. And when I rise, I rise from looking like a crumpled flower, yawning long against the bed. A limb dusting the nightstand. He laughs -- all cheeks -- at the discombobulated body in his bed.

And, in the same place, he has seen me curled up with covers strewn on sad days. But my body can be smaller -- so much smaller, still, than he has seen.

Like when they told me you died, I fell on the floor, and I pulled my legs deep into my chest, deeper than the fetal position, past the embryonic -- what's after that? I don't remember the floor and what it looked like, and whether there was a window, or anything else, only my body tighter than you ever imagined a body could be, smaller than a human. And there is no harbinger for this feeling.

...But, somehow, also, the instinct to run. Far, far away.

This is not the last time I will feel this feeling in my life -- once more so far. But I am always hoping it will only be the first of two times...and not of three or four or five.

And I wonder if you, in your life, ever found that position? What with all the spread out arms and the wrinkled eyes, and the deep-belly laughs...did you ever find yourself curled up like that? And did anyone see it?

(It is confusing to be a kid when someone dies, when that person is the one you talk to about everything else. My instinct is to find you, to talk about this --
which is, of course, the only impossible possibility. )

And these -- these questions only you can answer -- are the things that take over in your absence. But, they slowly flit away.

They have to.

And then -- when we snuck into the field after dark, my father and I, and we spread your ashes in your favorite place, I twirled. I found a new movement for dealing with this feeling. Legs stretching long, I kicked off my shoes, let my toes feel the brush of dried-up September grass, and you, becoming one with it, caught among the stalks of grass, found a position that would finally suit you -- would have to -- forever.

For Grammy Ruth. 
Sept. 5, 2001


  1. Very beautiful and touching, your grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman.

  2. How is it, that I've never thought to observe the positions of a body and how they relate to emotion? I sit here lying in bed, worn by the events of the week, drawing inward, myself. Always drawing inward in a city that always rushes by and never takes time to give. I love your descriptions. This piece has given me a pause in my day to think and reflect on things that need to be reflected upon. How special your grandma must have been to remember her on this day, years past, and reflect on how she has shaped your being. The images you have conjured up reflect the emotions associated with life and grief perfectly...well done!

  3. A wonderful tribute to your amazing grandma! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I can't remember if I've said this to you yet, of if I've just thought it over and over, but I am so glad you are writing in this way again. Its beautiful to feel the feelings you feel and the movements your body makes. It takes us on a little journey through your mind and yet it keeps many doors closed which I very much respect. Don't stop writing.

    Your grandmother sounds like a breath of fresh air. Thank you for sharing her with us x

  5. Thank you for sharing your words with us - you are absolutely gifted. This is beautiful piece.

  6. this is really, really beautiful. been reading through your essays and this one is just tops, so far. wow.