Unlike regular days, holidays seem to be burned into our memories in technicolor. When times are good, when we’re surrounded by comfort and loved ones, that’s a great thing. Sitting around the dining room table after a nice meal – a day to cook, an hour to eat – reminiscing about holidays past can be magical. But when times are tougher, when families are separated by time or space, the omnipresence of those memories can be suffocating.
Although Easter has never been a big deal to me, this year is proving no exception to the vivid memory parade. The color-coordinated outfits my mom made us wear. Polaroids from the year my great aunt gave me a camera. Hollowed out lemons filled with citrus risotto. Duck. Lamb. Dessert wine. Friends, family and the first warm afternoons of spring.
Last Easter, I visited my grandfather. The rest of my family was traveling, so I had to go by myself, which I don’t really like to do. He’s 98 and not much of a talker. After the first couple of minutes, I can never tell if my being there makes him happy or inconvenienced. If there isn’t a Red Sox game on, we’ll watch a Lifetime movie or Walker, Texas Ranger. I’ll try to make conversation over the blaring television, but topics are hard to come by with a guy who’s barely left the house since the Clinton Administration. Once we’ve covered the weather, baseball and which family members are in the hospital, there’s not much left to say.
Last year was different. As soon as I got to his house, he shut off the TV. As I often do when faced with awkward silence, I filled the void by asking incessant questions. Surprisingly, he answered. And so for three hours my grandfather sat and told me stories about his life. He shared things I’d never heard before, or, if I had heard them, I’d never bothered to listen.
My grandfather is a first-generation Sicilian immigrant from a family of commercial fishermen. He began helping out on his family’s boat when he was 8 or 9. By 14, he had to quit school so he could fish full time. During WWII, his father, a native Italian, was barred from entering the city wharf for fear he was an enemy combatant. Since his older brothers were headed off to war, my grandfather was named captain. He was 26.
Talk to any fishermen from that generation and it’s a miracle any of them survived. Accidents, hurricanes, shipwrecks. Near misses, close calls. I guess once you reach a certain age, death becomes a common topic of conversation. The people I know in their 80s and 90s speak about death with a matter-of-factness I find completely disconcerting. But maybe what I’m finding so uncomfortable is the visceral awareness of death’s inevitability that comes only once someone realizes that nearly everyone he knows is dead.
Today is Easter and so I visited my grandfather. This year he’s in the hospital recovering from surgery. In and out of consciousness, the topic of choice is still death. For hours he’s been telling the nurses, “What’s today? April 20th? That’s a good day to die.” Over and over again. “Today’s a good day to die.” He’s a fighter, there’s no denying that, but it’s still hard to hear.
As someone who isn’t religious, I associate Easter with bunnies and chocolate and a chance to play around with new recipes. But as I’ve gotten older, holidays have become more about loss. People who were once around are somehow gone. Their memories, some happy, some sad, linger like ghosts. Their absence seem to take up far more space than their presences ever did.
Today was hard.
Three cheers for Chuck Norris.
• One of my favorite children’s books for adults:
• I’m not usually a big Longfellow fan, but “The Wreck of the Hesperus” has been rolling around in my head for the past few days. No idea what to make of that one.