“Turn it off”, she said, almost in a whisper. It was one of the bad days nearing the end, and the frustration was bearing down on her in ways her cancer had robbed her the ability to express. I could hear the tears gathering in her eyes, but she ensured I could not see them as she turned away in the bed which took up most of the available floor space in the already-cramped living room.
My mother made her swift and decisive way toward her, weaving through furniture and boxes and plastic cups, books, and folded napkins balanced precariously on footstools, through the living room in which my maternal Grandmother, Phyllis Granata Evans, was living her last.
The colours and light levity of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had burst through the barriers of fate onto our living room television screen – a screen blacker and less dramatic than the silver one upon which she would have first seen those dancing, vivid depictions of lovable characters and yellow brick roads reminiscent of the gold-paved streets her family had sought in coming to America from Italy so many years before. It was one of her favourite movies, and something she and I had shared for years.
Something about it all had long captivated both of us for as long as I could remember, and more times than I could remember, I on her knee in her coincidentally ruby red velvet armchair, I kicked together the heels of those shoes three times, and as promised, I was home. The vibrant colours, the vivid imagery, the powerful, understated simplicity – it was beautiful.
We would delight for hours on end in Judy Garland’s character – and as we watched together, so she became a silver-screen embodiment of Gram. That same strength and the class of its delivery, the bravery in standing up humbly with what knowledge she had, acknowledging fear, and those big, brown doe eyes. Judy Garland had been every little girl’s idol in my Grandmother’s day, surely – but only I was lucky enough to know a real-life version. We knew the lines by heart, though after the first or second time, I was really only watching her. Her undying, enduring fascination with the film reflected a great reverence for life and a joy besides which she retained to her last.
As soon as I was old enough to ask, I received and cherished my own “ruby slippers” – a plain pair of red leather Mary Jane shoes bows on the toes which I wore at every available opportunity. Gram was always the first to remind me to click my heels together and say the magic words which would get me home.
Cancer had also robbed part of her ability to communicate in her trademark, descriptive way, and the resulting directness was always a bare, minimalist version of what she really wanted to say and a reminder of the way things were ‘before’. But in her typical grace, she drove the disparity between communications past and present with great competence and careful consideration, crafting her responses thoughtfully but quickly in order to make the most of the changes like an artist working with a new medium.
Like a dance, my Mother’s agility and competency under pressure were among the only things she could give to ease her dying mother’s finals days, and she gave them freely with that singular goal in mind. Mom turned the television off at the end of an abrupt series of motions and with it, my childhood entered its final phase. “You want it off, Mom? Okay, she wants it off; Caroline, where’s the remote?” The screen went black, and then there was silence.
In my own attempts to ease our communal, hovering state of dread, I had been the one to surreptitiously stumble across those slippers, and like Dorothy, had found an unwanted assignment as my Glinda departed. Like my Mother, it was all I could do – flipping through channels, contributing to day to day goings on – all I could offer to our dying matriarch whose self-educated grace had held our family’s seams together even at their most vulnerable. And especially then. I was incapacitated by my inability to help, or to control the rapid passage of time like so much sand through some wicked witch’s poison hourglass.
At the time, I was newly seventeen with plenty of the less endearing characteristics that brings, a petulant teenager prone to frustration and misdirection thereof. But she, of course, ever tolerant in her aged wisdom in her mid-eighties and having lost none of her astuteness to the disease which had rendered her housebound and living with us in our already-cramped house, had not lost her ability to recognise that petulance.
Once, as my Mother and I concluded an explosive, nonsensical argument concerning the criminal misplacement of my high-top Chuck Taylor shoes – too close to the radius of the front door’s inward swing – she consoled my overworked mother, saying with wisdom and understated humour; “Sandra… It’s not about the shoes”. For the years of her absence to come, both of ‘her girls’ – my Mother and I – would cite that line like a ruling from the Geneva convention, mandatorily preceding the apology for each regrettable argument of similar calibre. She was “Mom”, she was “Gram”, and she had our number until the last.
This time, it was too great on the compressed emotions of a moody high school senior – we would not watch our movie. We could not watch our movie, and that meant that things were not normal. I didn’t press the issue because I saw her pain, and so I saw her pain as it became ours. She did not want to show the sadness she would otherwise have been incapable of hiding, she wanted to hide her sadness to remain strong. She couldn’t bear to see us see the effect it would have on her, to see her in the pain her brain tumour never delivered due to its merciful placement. I did understand. It would – and had – become a sad thing. We would never watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ together again.
Perhaps she remembered the last time we watched it together where I had forgotten it without realising its value. Perhaps she wished to keep it in her memory for its pleasantness or more frivolous circumstance. Perhaps the memory of me on her knee was too valuable to replace with these unhappy circumstances.
For years, I couldn’t grasp the emotional magnitude of her request to simply turn it off, her concession to privately experience her emotions where I denied myself the same experience. I noted my Mother’s swift follow-through and tight-lipped silence. I reeled in shocked silence, I grasped at the absence of experience, thoughts swimming in a sea of vacant space bereft of the familiar comforting songs and joyful imagery, a shock like the missed step of a staircase. I walked myself through it a thousand times.
We had sat together in the silent living room on days just like that before, but there was never a lack of movement and life about her like there was in the moments which followed that decision – whether reading or watching my parents go about the day to day, flitting from work to chores to family time to sleep and back again to start each day, she faced the future as boldly as she had lived her past.
She died on a quiet morning as Mom and I slept on the floor next to her bedside in the living room – only after looking up one last time to be sure we were there, together. Mom put on Israel Kamkawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World”, and to this day, I can’t listen to it without crying every tear I held in during her illness. Her soul left her body on the holy ground she had built – she had given my parents a place to raise me in her tiny nine-hundred-and-fifty-square foot home which now hosted her death bed.
The days following her death were first years, then moments, and finally seconds. Time has since quickened the course of the hourglass, only slowing down for moments in which we choose to acknowledge memory, and within those moments, more are made.
At first, her absence made home an impossible place to return to by its original definition. No matter how many times I clicked my heels, no matter how many times I closed my eyes and said the words (figuratively and sometimes in desperation, literally), I couldn’t seem to get ‘home’, and my spirit sunk. For the years which followed, and as the world threw me to the wind as it does many young people, I searched for a path by which to return to it wildly, incensed at its evermore present inaccessibility, not understanding how to return to what I would only understand to be an intangible concept after leaving it.
I felt at home only when I lived within the memories she shared which so had made our own memories as a unit, and therein her laughter would surface in my memory at last. The bitter moments of her absence would teach me that, while you really can’t go home again, the power to do so truly is within you just as it was within Dorothy.
Three years after leaving the town in which we said our goodbyes and two after leaving the state I had called home for over twenty years, I came into the belated but clear understanding that home was not a place to return to – it has no familiar qualities, no tangible way of entry, no key which directly signifies its locked up return address. Home is the construct of memory alone, of relayed generational experience, and critically, at the centre still, anecdotes, stories, and oral tradition. We are each the construct of innumerable overlapping fractured pieces represented only by the retelling of memory and buried if not cared for – the stories which make it across generations and ages which perpetuate not only our personal and cultural identities but our sense of family and so, home. Those memories transcend genealogical significance or pure cultural pride and themselves hold the power to unite the entire human race through the commonality of this overlap. A tale of adventure from one city to the next – a snippet of someone’s life passed down over generations will reveal coincidence and irony evident only to later generations, proving global citizenship and unfolding a valuable story to understanding our humanity.
My Grandmother was a champion of liberal ideology: she won her open-minded, humanist intellect through self-bought and hard won education. She was flawed as all human beings are, but she was strong, kind, persevering, educated, and all the things I aspire to be. She believed in equality for all, she listened to all, and she cared for all, and through her stories, she imparted these values on all who knew her. Her journey through life embodies the experiences which become stories and so build the house upon which a ‘home’ stands.
Our remembrance of family stories is of integral value to broad-scale cultural acceptance in a world which desperately needs reminders of it. Within these stories, proof of cultural overlap abounds, proving both multiculturalism and global citizenship at their most deeply-rooted levels – and proving to be a powerful tool in gaining ground on cultural acceptance. No person belongs purely to a single race or culture but instead are each the construct of every culture which has, even minimally, touched our own, and within our stories, those cultures deserve recognition. It is critical to our acknowledgement of ourselves as cultural beings to examine and revisit these stories, memories, and to embark on our own journeys towards self-discovery so that we can, in turn, contribute to the cycle. To place our pride in people, not in place, is at the centre of our ability to understand ‘home’.
I can’t go home again – not to the place I knew, because her final lesson has divorced me from my faith in place and instead seen me place my faith in time and memory. Home is all about me because of what she taught me. But nearly ten years later, it’s just about time to symbolically watch that movie together.
We are living in a world which could have benefited greatly from her presence, and so, in her absence, I found a pair of modern-day ruby slippers, and for the next year, I will be undertaking a project which aims to document the stories in my family through travel, photography, and writing – travelling all over the world in these shoes on a pilgrimage which acknowledges my own origins and exemplifies the global citisenship of humanity through story to prove that there really is ‘no place like home’ in the hope that others will do the same.
This is a journey through life in her shoes, viewed through the lenses of love and will to learn through which she saw the world. It exists to exemplify the confluence of cultures in our lives and to honour her memory by illustrating the multicultural facets which construct each of our life stories. And yes, Gram, you’re right…
It’s still not about the shoes.