Up In Smoke
A mother's memories, a grandmother's smile. To what could have been.
“There it is!” My mother parks her new silver Hyundai in front of a small, one-story brick house, the car looking decidedly out of place.
The lawn was freshly cut, but colored a dying yellow. The shutters, once a vibrant blue, now hung a weather-beaten gray and riddled with bullet holes, as if it had been used for target practice and then forgotten like the rest of this sleepy town.
As I get out of the car I smell cigarette smoke, pungent but not entirely unpleasant, wafting towards us from the neighbors’ door stoop, their judgemental looks screaming “You don’t belong here” at us as we walk across the street.
The empty lot contrasts starkly with the surrounding suburban houses, the grass growing to my thighs, and the area where a house once stood now littered sparsely with weeds. If you look closely, you can still see small charred pieces of wood, the last remnants of forgotten memories. For a second I swear I can almost see smoke still billowing, violent red and orange flames dancing into the night sky. I glance down at the photograph clenched in my fist, and I hold it up to the landscape.
A family smiles at me, the daughter clutching a large teddy bear, the son with his arm around her shoulders, the other holding a bb gun. A mother and father proudly stand behind them, him in a cap and workers overalls, her in a simple floral dress and apron.
I smile back.
“I haven’t seen it in so long, but I still remember the small details.” My mother’s words break me out of my thoughts, and I look over to where she’s standing, over by an old tree that had luckily escaped the flames. “Look,” she points to a barely legible carving on one of the lower branches, reading L.D., “It’s still here! Your Uncle Louie’s initials!”
She traces her finger along the letters, her eyes growing misty.
I have never met my Uncle Louie, all I have of him are some photographs and time-tattered stories told on nights when my mother feels particularly nostalgic. I know I have his thickly curled hair, his smile, a thing of beauty that could comfort my mother at her worst.
I also know how he died, how his pleading screams rang along the walls of the hospital he was taken to some thirty years ago. His agony as his loved ones, his eight-year-old daughter, had to watch him swiftly die, only a husk of who he had been only hours before.
It’s here, where my mother’s childhood home was erased from existence in a blaze of fire, where my uncle was killed in the same careless accident, that I feel closest to the family that I never knew. Closest to my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle, who I am often assured all would have loved me. Closest to family Christmas dinners, to weekly calls from “Nonna”, to seeing those eternal smiles captured in that photograph in person.
To what could have been.
The wind blows gently, swaying the grass in the yard. It is only the second time I’ve ever been here, but just like the first, I feel like every charred blade of grass, every fading line carved in that tree is screaming at me to never take my family for granted. Feeling a sudden sense of urgency, I search for my mother and finally find her crouching down about twenty feet away in the barren dirt. When I walk over, I see that she’s looking at a small dandelion, bright and healthy against the surrounding gloom. She laughs, the sound traced with a slight bitterness, and I ask her what’s wrong.
“Your grandmother always loved dandelions, she loved all flowers really. Since we couldn’t afford real flower pots, she was always trying to grow them in metal cans we had to spare. But she never could manage to grow any, so we always had these little containers of soil sitting on our kitchen table. Hah, she wouldn’t even let us throw the dirt back outside, either. She had too much hope for them. It’s kind of funny that there’s one growing here now, when she can’t even see it.”