When I smell pine needles on a hot sunny day I am in British Columbia, my mother’s place. British Columbia is her place. I don’t think anyone else has ever heard of it. Just like Hungary is my father’s place. These are our places. They belong to our family.
The Ranch was a wild place with a barn and a couple of corrals where once I watched with everyone else while men grabbed and sat on animals, laughing and branding them, a pond where you always had to pull the leeches off you after you swam in it, and acres and acres of woods and open pastures. It was my aunt’s place, my mother’s sister, a woman with dark gray hair cut short like a man, a wrinkled face that didn’t smile much, a cigarette and a smoker’s voice. She wore men’s clothes. No one on the ranch made things easy. When I was six I slept in a tent with my cousins, all older than me, all kids who had been growing up together, kids I didn’t know at all. They talked with glee about the snakes outside in the dark and I was too scared go out and pee and just wet my sleeping bag. When I was twelve I watched three boy cousins shoot a chicken for fun and smash its head with a rock.
But when I smell pine needles on a hot day I think of that land. I told this to my sister many years ago when we were still speaking and she surprised me. “Yes,” she agreed. “That’s what it smelled like there.” She remembered it that way too.
On the bus drive in this morning I asked myself, “If Mum died tomorrow would you go to her funeral?” The only thing stopping me is that my two sisters would be there. Right now the answer is no. I wouldn’t go, but I know that could change. Death is a powerful event and it changes the landscape. Slowly. I am learning this.
I was lying on the floor of my office yesterday afternoon, taking a stealth nap, when the thought that I no longer had a father scared me intensely. As if something had fallen away, some kind of foundation stone, the kind you take for granted.
When he died last August it didn’t feel like a momentous event. I didn’t cry, or mourn, or regret our lack of contact. I knew that even if I’d been at his side the way he would have liked, contact would have been nonexistent. My father was far away, had always been, even when he was in the room. To talk with him you had to make sure you were far away too.
I have been thinking about him more though lately. He is easier to be with now. I bite into a piece of dark chocolate flavored with espresso and think, “Dad would have liked this.” I don’t have to fight him off anymore. I took his old watch to the jeweler the other day. I wanted them to make it shiny again, the way I remembered it, and I wanted to know what kind of watch it was. I wanted it to be a fancy and expensive one – the kind of thing that made me angry when he was alive – the way he could never buy the cheap version of anything – now makes me proud and affectionate. Though I know if I had to go meet him for dinner tonight everything would be as impossible as ever –each of us disappointed in the other.
At lunch the other day I sat with two men I knew only slightly. Kurt used to be the football commissioner for some state and looks the part. I’ve talked with him about what it’s like to referee a football game and I can easily imagine him with a whistle around his neck, calling the shots on the field. And Rick, whom I’ve always thought of as a casual aging hippy, his hair still long and dark, his body skinny and wiry.
“Back in the 70s,” Rick says, “we were all shooting heroin. And then AIDS came. We didn’t know you could get AIDS from needles. We thought you had to be gay.” And I am relieved to be sitting with someone who can talk about shooting heroin instead of light therapy or chakra cleansing. I listen and encourage him to keep talking. He tells us about working in a hospice. “You’d see people come in – young and vital – they didn’t even look sick – and you’d watch their bodies just shut down, day by day,” he said, his face still holding the surprise and shock of seeing this. “Suddenly they couldn’t talk no more, couldn’t hear. I had to quit after a couple of months,” he said. “I couldn’t take it.”
And Kurt nods. “My wife died a while back,” he says. “When she got really sick in the hospital I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘Come home.’ So I took care of her at home – the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do, nurse someone like that.”
“Oh, Christ, I’m like a little girl,” I hear Rick murmur, and I turn to see him wiping his eyes and laughing gently at himself. “But you did it, Kurt, and, you know,” Rick says, “it’s just not so scary after that.”