I watch as the photo printer takes a blank sheet of glossy white paper into its mouth. It whirs contentedly, hungry to create, layer by layer, moments in time. The paper reappears out the back with streaks of yellow across the horizon and in the crests of gentle waves. Other than that, the photo remains blank and undefined – like the beginnings of a childhood memory before we are told what to remember. The paper is sucked back in, reemerging with a clearer image. Red ink is layered over the yellow creating a new depth to the ocean as its shadows become darker and more defined. The sea meets the sky, drawing a line across the paper. The printer inhales the paper once more and adds the final layer of blue. I wait to see my memory solidified. The printer sighs and releases the photo, satisfied with its work. The picture gleams in the clarity it has created, immortalizing a moment in time. Even on paper, the sky has a subtle beauty that makes me want to whisper instead of speaking. The sun had sunk low, causing the sky to blush at the horizon. The pink melts into peach, which melts into yellow, then mint for a moment, then into a blue that deepens as it stretches to the stars above.
I take the photo and rip off a piece of yellow washi tape, searching for a gap on my walls. They’re painted white, but covered in photos from my childhood and savored moments of life right now, each one held up by the same tape. Handwritten lines of poetry and Bible verses are scattered on flashcards between each memory on my walls. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had
nearly so many photos, but for some reason this year, I felt the need to keep a hold of these moments – they seemed to pass by too quickly. I wanted to just keep them. To hold them in my hand for a moment. I feel like it has something to do with growing up. These memories are what created me, what built up who I am now. How could I allow myself to forget them? I would be losing a part of myself if I lost the pieces of my life that led me to today.
I look across at my reflection in the full-length mirror leaning against the wall opposite me, its white frame is chipped but barely visible underneath the various post-it notes and photos taped around it. I sit on the floor amidst the printed photos and rediscovered memories. Pictures from countless Vineyard summers frame my reflection. Cycles along Seaview Avenue to Edgartown; melted Mad Martha’s ice cream dripping over fingers; sunsets that kiss the ocean goodnight.
This morning, the sunlight that came through my curtains made me wake into a haze of reminiscence. It’s that summer sunlight that we keep returning to every year, the sunlight that has woken me up since I was a little girl. A beam of light had fallen onto an old jewelry box of mine that sat on my bookshelf, so I opened my curtains and opened the box.
It’s a scramble of leftover photos, ones that didn’t make it into the scrapbooks in the bookshelves or frames on our hallway’s wall. They would’ve been recycled or thrown out, but in my oversentimentality, I saved them and put them into that old jewelry box – wooden and plain with a yellow lid. I’m like my mom in that respect – sentimental. She sewed the quilt that sits on my bed by hand. It took almost a year to make. The squares and scraps of fabric she used are my old childhood clothes. I remember seeing her close her eyes and smile to herself, thinking back to a time when my hand could fit neatly inside her palm. Squares of crimson corduroy and denim are sewn together from pinafores I used to wear. Slivers of flower-patterned t-shirts and polka-dotted skirts piece together to create a strange yet sweet remembrance of my childhood.
My hair swings forward as I lean over the photos, just brushing my shoulders. I still haven’t gotten used to it. It used to fall right down my back. I remember the sudden lightness of my hair as the thick lengths of mahogany brown were cut and taken away. My friends think it makes me look older, “more mature,” but my mom thinks it makes me look younger – like the way I looked as a 3-year-old girl. When she saw it, she held my face in her hands, feeling the shortness of my hair, a watery smile playing at her lips. “You look the same way you did as a wee tote,” she said.
I pick up a photo of my 3-year-old self. I was so small that my arm had to stretch up to reach my dad’s hand, my head barely reached the pockets of his shorts as we stood in front of the glowing lighthouse. The loose curls of my hair were cut into a cute little bob, with a fringe that failed to stay in place. You can see random flecks of pink and yellow in my hair. I was so excited: mom had let me put in my own hairclips that day, so I put them all in. I remember mom’s laugh when she saw me come out of the bathroom after I had carefully put each clip in place. It was the first time I had made her genuinely laugh – not like the laughs she did after I told her my original jokes (Why was the monkey sad? Because he had no bananas!) Her eyes smiled as she laughed, they sparkled bright blue, like the sun glinting in the sea. I remember that I couldn’t help but smile too.
I should feel closer to this little Ava now that we share the same hair, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve betrayed her. The purest form of my identity. I remember dreaming of having long princess hair. I would lean my head back as I lay on my tummy in the bath, making my hair feel longer than it was. Trying to feel what it would be like to have hair like a princess’s. But now I’ve cut it off.
I tug at the blunt ends of my hair, willing it to grow. I had put on my blue t-shirt dress this morning, the one with the sun embroidered onto its breast pocket. In my reflection, you can see the effect of the sun already: splatters of freckles on my nose and cheeks, my newly-acquired tan makes my eyes look even more blue. I’ve always been told that I have unique eyes, like the silhouettes of little sparrows.
My eyes flutter over to the stack of books beside my bed: The Chronicles of Narnia. I always get a twinge of guilt when I see those books, when I remember the rows of classics and poetry anthologies that sit unread on my bookshelf. But I’m making up for lost time. I hated reading when I was younger, preferring to read my own written words and inventing my own stories. I remember, instead of bedtime stories, mom and I would make up our own stories. “Little Birdie,” – my nickname – “what do you want to dream tonight?” she would ask me, as she tucked me into bed, making Everywhere Bear kiss me on the nose. All those nights blur into one memory. Her blonde hair tickling my face as she leant over to kiss me goodnight; the laugh lines around her eyes, heightened by the shadows cast by the glow of my nightlight; her yellow flower earrings gleaming like treasure as she tucked her hair behind her ears, thinking of a new story for me to dream.
I gather the photos together and return them to the jewelry box, feeling the click of the lid. As I lift the box to return it to its spot on the shelf, I notice a flask of pink. An envelope pokes out from between two of my childhood journals. I pull it out, instantly recognizing my handwriting. The words are carefully written so that each pen stroke spirals into a tight curl:
A Letter to My Future Self
I turn over the envelope and open it. The pink paper looks like it was ripped from a notebook.
To Older Ava,
How’z it goin’? I saw Curious Gorge George do this on
TV with the man in the yellow hat. They put a letter in a bottle
and hid it in their favorite spot in the Park. Mom won’t let me
hide this at the beach, so I’m just hiding it in my our room.
But I have another note for you. I circled where it is
on this photo of me and mom.
I take the photo out of the envelope. In the picture, mom has her arms wrapped around me as we stand in front of the gap to Chappaquiddick. I think I’m about 8 in this, my head doesn’t even reach her shoulder. We’re smiling the same smile – dimpled and content. There’s purple sharpie marked on the paper – a circle lies on the white wooden post to the right of us.
I wrote you a note in purple sharpie where I’ve circled it. Come and find it!
9 y/o Ava
I watch my yellow flip-flops glow in the morning sun as I walk down the main street, looking out for melting ice cream scoops, dropped from children’s cones. Drips of yesterday’s ice cream flow into the cracks in the redbrick sidewalk. Edgartown is quiet this time of morning; most tourists don’t arrive until around midday.
When I make it to the boardwalk looking out to Chappaquiddick, I breathe in the salty air, letting the cool reach the innermost parts of my lungs. This is where I belong. This is the constant place that has watched me grow summer after summer. The place that I have returned to in my dreams in the cold seasons, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin and the breeze gently rippling my hair with longing.
Only a few wisps of cloud streak the blue morning sky. These were my favorite clouds as a kid. I always thought that they looked like white Northern Lights in the daytime. I hold the photo in front of me, the white wooden post is right where it is supposed to be. So, somewhere on here, I should see a note written in purple sharpie. I look up and down, searching for a flash of purple to catch my eye. Nothing.
Walking around it now, I continue to examine for some sign that 9-year-old Ava was here. My heart beats faster, as I glance back and forth between the photo and reality. It has to be here. Walking around the boardwalk, searching the other posts, it feels like I’m breathing through a straw. Nothing. Just white shining paint. I look once more to the photo – the paint is peeling there, revealing cracks of greying wood. But when I look up, the paint is unbroken and glinting with reflected sunlight. Of course. Years have gone by, why shouldn’t they repaint it? It’s nothing, just a note, just a stupid message. But I can’t help but feel like a hole has ripped inside my chest, like the air I breathe escapes out again.
They’ve painted over the mouth of my 9-year-old self. They’ve painted over my words – my futile attempts at marking something permanent. No one can tell me what I was going to tell myself that day 7 years ago. I can’t find that message in home movies or in scrapbooks and stories.
I look out to the harbor between the boardwalk and Chappaquiddick. The reflections of light that dance on the water scar my vision. As the waves move gently in the morning breeze, Chappaquiddick feels so close and yet so out of reach all at once.
The waves are too small. They ripple and flow, rolling over each other benignly like murmurs of slurred words. These should be shouting waves but all I hear are the soft laps against the boardwalk and between the docked boats. The waves reflect the sky: blue with clouds of foam and bubbles suspended in the waves. The sky should be red, or gray – not this harmless blue. A pure, summer-stereotypical, one-dimensional blue. It seems to stretch on forever, yet at the same time it is just a ceiling placed over my head. How could this sky become unrecognizable? It has been constant, painted above our heads every day. How could this sea – that for my whole life has welcomed me home – become unfamiliar? What would it feel like to see a face reflected in the water – distorted by the waves, but still a face – and not know that those are your own eyes that you look into?
The afternoon sun beats down but the sea breeze ripples the heat, making it hover above my skin. The warmth only settles in the moments of rare stillness. The salty ocean air mingles with the smells of fresh waffle cones that waft down the street from Mad Martha’s ice cream parlor. Laughs of children’s gratitude ring like bells around the harbor as they slurp from cones of cookie dough or cake batter ice cream, as it melts and drips down their fingers and hands.
“How’re you feeling, Birdie?” Arthur asks between licks of ice cream. He sits next to me on the bench, looking out to Chappaquiddick. I shrug. He takes my hand in his, the same way he has done for 23 years now, brushing his fingertips over my knuckles then threading his fingers in mine.
“I know it’s hard – I can’t imagine how hard – but it’s like you said when we first found out: we’ve got to just make the best of right now,” he tries to console me, but it doesn’t soothe the pain. He can’t sew together the hole that has been burned inside me. But I know he would if he could. I know he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation. So, I rest my head on his shoulder.
Make the best of right now? How can I make the best of right now when right now is the worst I’ve seen it? Today when I came to see her, bringing with me the yellow jewelry box of photos, she didn’t even recognize me. The blue eyes that used to look into mine with love, now look at me like a stranger. She used to hold me, trying to savor the moments when I was her little girl, her “Little Birdie,” but now she doesn’t know when her little girl stands beside her. Today, she kept relaying the story of how I got that nickname.
Mom kept repeating herself over and over, “Ava means bird. She came home crying when she found out – upset that she was named after the likes of a seagull – but her daddy cheered her up with the little nickname and a sing of a song,” not realizing that I was Little Birdie, holding her hand as she rocked back and forth on the white wicker rocker. She kept patting the quilt on her lap – my childhood remembrance quilt – fiddling with the loose threads and running her fingers over the corduroy and embroidered flowers. She kept calling Lily “Ava.” (“No, mom, that’s Lily, your granddaughter. I’m Ava.”) Eventually, I gave up correcting her.
Arthur runs his thumb over the back of my hand, in time with the lapping waves of the harbor. Chappaquiddick is close today, the island becoming more of a peninsula. But I fear that the moving waves are causing it to steadily drift farther into the horizon. I turn to look at Arthur and find that he was already looking at me, I can see myself reflected in his eyes. The roots of my mahogany hair show hints of grey and lines are faintly etched beside my eyes. Arthur’s brown eyes are warm and flecked with amber, still as bright as the day I met him. 2 kids and 20 years of marriage haven’t worn him out as much as they have done to me, it seems.
Arthur’s hands are worn and rough, but his palms are still warm and strong. Soft when he holds precious things. I remember when Lily was brought home – Arthur would just sit on the edge of the armchair, bent over his knee as he cradled her head, rubbing her back. She was barely bigger than the length from the tips of his fingers to midway down his forearm. He was just looking at her so intently; this little life that could fit in the palm of his hand.
“You’ve got memories – and you’ve got right now,” he says. I break his gaze, my throat feels like it has closed, the air has struggle flowing. “Don’t think about those statistics, you can defy the statistics.” He gives my hand a squeeze but I don’t feel encouraged. It’s hard enough to lose someone you love to unrecognition, but to know that you will inherit the same fate, it’s agony.
I look over to Lily and her brother, Oliver, laughing as they dangle their feet over the edge of the water. Lily takes a spoonful of Oliver’s Cookies & Cream ice cream, he takes some of her rainbow sherbet. My kids. Our kids. You can see both of us in them.
Lily has her father’s eyes. In how they are seen and how they see. Both are squinted in the sun, the shade of brown that matches the insides of a tree trunk; both look hungrily at the world around them, perceptive and curious. I’d often see them huddled together over a book, lips both moving to the rhythm of the flowing words; or lain casually on armchairs, immersed in their own separate worlds – yet united in doing so. She has my hair, and my empathy. But I always thought that as she got older I’d see more fragments of me emerging from her – but also fragments that were neither Arthur’s nor mine, simply uniquely hers.
What if I never see those parts of her? What if I lose my daughter, lose the memories of her, to the same disease that stole my mother from me? What if I look at her and all I see fragments of features and qualities that muddle together, unrecognizable? I feel an urge to take my girl into my arms and just hold her. Just keep her. To hold her in my arms for a moment. Forever, maybe.
Having lived more life than I have left to live, I have choice but to look back in nostalgia. Scenes from my childhood replay in front of my eyes. Three children play on the redbrick sidewalk opposite the house, drawing hopscotch with sticks of chalk. The one I think is me goes first, throwing a pebble, landing on the number 8. She hops, her blonde curly hair bobbing up and down as she goes. But I didn’t have blonde hair when I was three? Looking in my reflection in the window across the street, I have white hair, cut to above my shoulders. I’m sure it was brown, not blonde. And I don’t recognize the boys playing with her – maybe they’re the friends I would make on those summer days at the beach.
The little girl looks over, her brown eyes sparkling with delight when she sees me. “Granma Birdie! Granma Birdie!” she calls and runs over to the porch. She climbs onto my lap and hugs tightly around my neck, making my rocker almost topple backwards. I smile back at her, confused, but I like this girl. I pat her back and she kisses my cheek. She hops off my lap and runs inside the house, the little boys run after her, bickering like brothers as they go.
The sun is low now, giving the white clapboards a coat of watered down copper paint; or maybe it’s more like the sun is seeping honey. Next to me on the porch, Arthur’s breaths and the creak of his rocking chair have found a strange syncopation that makes it seem as though the seconds don’t know when to pass. The quilt on my lap quivers as I add more squares to the spread. I’ve just finished sewing a patch of blue, an embroidered sun smiles up at me from the breast pocket. It makes me think of summer and Chappaquiddick, for some reason.
The sky is that blend of pastels now, dusted with pollen and blusher, when the sun has vanished from sight and pink and yellow blur together.
A woman walks onto the porch from inside our house – what is she doing here? How did she get in? The man on the rocker next to me smiles a sad but loving smile towards her and he gets up to give her a hug.
“Are the kids all in bed, Lily?” he asks. She nods and looks tentatively over at me. She holds a yellow jewelry box in her hands, but the paint has begun to chip and peel. She sets it down on the table next to my rocker. Faces in framed photographs look up at me from the table. They look like autographs; each one has a name written in sharpie over it. One of them looks just like the girl who brought the box. Lily is marked on the bottom right corner. I look between the photo and reality. The features in her face seem to break into shards and splinters. I can see Arthur’s eyes but her nose and lips swim in a pool of unfamiliarity and her hair looks like how mine used to be. She looks a lot more tired now than she does in the photo. Her eyes are somewhat sunken and the glint in her brown eyes from the photo have been replaced by the gleam of tears welling up. The sunlight trembles in her eyes, it quivers then slips down her cheek. She looks over to the man then back at me.
“Mom––” her voice tremors then breaks as she suddenly flings her arms around me. I feel her body shaking in my arms. I hold her and stroke her hair. Unrecognition fades away as I feel the perfect fit of her head on my shoulder – like it has been there many times before.
I close my eyes and see her as a little girl, held in the arms of her father, curled up and asleep. Arthur carries her from the car to the house as I open the door. When he rests Lily on her bed, she stirs and looks up at me, her eyes sleepy but curious. “Mommy, why was the moon following us?” she asks. I smile and tuck her blanket around her, I tell her I don’t know but maybe she can dream up a story why. She lets out a soft giggle that turns into a yawn and holds out her arms to hug me. I reach down and hold her close to me. Her head cradled neatly in the crook of my shoulder. She won’t be like this forever; a whisper says in my head. Some day she might not want to be held like this anymore. So, I hold her tighter to me, closer to my heart, not wanting to ever let go.
Arthur moves his rocker closer to mine and puts my hand in his, it feels warm and safe. It feels like his hold on my hand is the only thing that is grounding me to this moment. The sun is long gone now. Dusky purple spreads like a blanket overhead and only now do I really see just how vast and deep the sky is – it’s like when you look up at a skyscraper and it feels like it’s going to fall on top of you. The sky just keeps on going as you look up; dizzying and engrossing at the same time. The white shingles, clapboards and picket fences are dusted with a mauve and heather tint.
He doesn’t say anything, there’s nothing to say. There’s nothing to be said that I’d be able to hear and understand. Everything is so fragmented – where I am, who I am, who I’m with, who I’ve been. It’s hard to decipher right now when there are so many holes in my memory. So many rips and tears. It’s like my life is held in a bag and it’s so worn and threadbare that nothing can stay in the bag anymore. As I walk around there are more and more pieces falling out onto the ground and I can’t pick them back up or put them back in because the holes will only let more memories escape. And these holes can’t be sewn back together. I just have to watch helplessly as more and more rips appear until all is left of my life is a bundle of threads and scraps of fabric.
The stars have started to appear in the sky as dusky purple has deepened to a twilight blue. The light is too dark to see the stitches I’ve sewn into the quilt anymore, but the moon and stars illuminate the yard. Arthur isn’t in his chair anymore, he stands under our crabapple tree, fiddling with the leaves. The moonlight dapples through the leaves onto Arthur’s face – worn and tired with a little bit of unrubbed sunscreen on his cheek. It’s late but he’s still awake, keeping an eye on me, I suppose. He looks at me. I recognize him now but it takes a lot of trust for me to live. When the people around me are blurred in clouds of unrecognition, I need to allow my hand to be held by the one who takes it. I need to trust that these are people that I love and who love me. It may seem impossible to do that without years of memories telling you who they are and how you feel about them, but I have no choice.
I feel a sudden prick of a needle on my leg and see my skirt attached to the quilt. The yellow fabric intertwined with the faded blue of my youth. In the darkness, I hadn’t realized that I was sewing myself into the quilt, but I don’t move to unpick the stitches. I simply sit and run my fingers along the seams, feeling the corduroy of childhood pinafores beside the cloth of my skirt right now.
The man in the yard walks over to my rocker and looks at me with tired eyes. I let my hand be held in his, as I feel a hint of familiarity in the warmth of his hand around mine.