Sunday, January 1, 2012

New

The mashed potatoes were starting to stiffen in the bowl. 
“Stop your whining and eat your meat,” Angela said to the four-year-old, before turning toward the others. “Sorry, Nathan, you were saying?” 
“Just that when we were young, our lives were always ahead of us. Perpetually ahead, rigorously being plotted out. Now that we’re older, we look to the past and feel nostalgic. But I think what we’re really pining for is a sense of possibility. Of not yet knowing where we’ll go, who we might become. So we pine, even while feeling a little betrayed by the simpletons we once were.”
He took a pea from his spoon and held it between two fingers. “Do you know that chimps experience the greatest surge in serotonin during the anticipation of a reward, and not during the reward itself? Humans romanticize their childhoods in the same fashion. We project bliss onto our deepest ignorance.” He popped the pea in his mouth and shrugged. “I mean, what if the reward’s not so great after all.” 
“I beg your pardon,” their mother said.
“Your cooking excepted, Mom,” he said and they all laughed. 
The girl dropped her fork to the floor. Angela got her a clean one and sat back down. They felt the strength of winter in the blackness outside, and unconsciously moved their chairs closer to the table.  
“So where’s the sweet spot? The magical place where we’re anticipating and realizing all at once?” Angela said. “Is it in our twenties? Our thirties? When we’re falling in love?” 
He opened his mouth but their mother cut in. “Sorry, dears, but--” her voice rose--”did you take your pills yet, Pop?” 
They looked dutifully toward the end of the table, where the old man sat. He straightened up, patted the front pocket of his flannel shirt, and painstakingly removed five small pills, lining each of them on the table's edge before washing them down, one by one, with an equal measure of water and effort. They let out a collective breath when he slumped back in the chair, exhausted. 
“Everything okay, Grandpa?” Angela said, noting the barely touched food on his plate.
“Fine, fine.”
“But Mommy, I don’t want to eat it.”
Angela plucked the knife and fork from her daughter’s hands. “Here. Let me cut it.”
“No! I want to cut! Me! Me!”
“Fine. I’ll give you five more minutes, then no dessert. And for the love of God, don’t gnaw on it like that!”
After a minute, Nathan cleared his throat. 
“The sweet spot, of course, is unique to the individual herself. And it’s too simplistic to view it as some one-time phenomenon. If human beings define any characteristic, it’s tenacity. We will invent new illusions for ourselves at every opportunity. We will retreat into others’ illusions, if we lack the creativity to formulate our own. We will invent new lines in the sand, like the arbitrary marking of a new year and the blank slate it pretends.” 
Their mother put down her fork.  “Heavens. Is this any kind of talk for the new year?"
“Sorry, Mom.”
“Now eat your sauerkraut. It's good luck.”
“Right,” Nathan said, catching his sister's eye, who smiled behind her napkin. “Because luck's just a big ol' helping of metaphysical roughage."
“You're making fun again."

"It's a joke, Mom."

"Well, I don't care to understand it. Why the two of you have to look down on simple things . . . simple people--"

"Jesus . . ."
The sparring devolved into bickering. Nobody noticed the old man catch the little girl’s eye and hold it for a good, long moment.  He took up his fork in his left hand and pinned the side of pork to his plate.  Then, sawing with his right hand, he forced the knife through the meat until a piece broke free. He put down the knife, switched the fork from his left hand to his right and lifted the meat to his mouth, holding it there for a good, long moment. 
He looked at her and nodded. 
She seized her silverware, looking at the individual pieces before her. A spoon clattered to the table. She gripped the fork in her left hand and stabbed the hunk of meat. Then, with her right fist held tight about the handle, she moved her knife bit by painful bit until a chunk of flesh ripped free. She looked up in surprise and found the old man’s eye trained squarely on her. He took the meat in his mouth and began to chew. The girl sat a little straighter in her chair and began to chew, too. 
“Fine, fine,” he murmured to her, beneath the din. 
She and the old man ate in silence, her legs swinging freely beneath the table. And when she smiled at him, a little bit of meat stuck through the gap in her mouth where a new tooth was just coming in.   

   
For my Granddad, whose absence is felt at every family gathering.

13 comments:

Wendy said...

Wonderful, Sarah.

I always marvel at your way with words, normal English words that you put together in such striking ways like... "they felt the strength of winter in the blackness outside" or describing how man takes pills with "equal measure of water and effort..."

I always enjoy when you have a new blog post.

Catvibe said...

I love this! I adore your young speaker of wisdom here. ;-) And the ending was so sweet, a new tooth. Perfect. A beautiful start to the New Year. :-)

j a zobair said...

Sarah, this is beautiful and so touching. The piece, and the dedication.

I like the phrases Wendy has pointed out, but what I am grateful for is the idea of possibility. As you know, I am one who likes to know what is going to happen. Who does not suffer uncertainty well. But reframing the waiting and wondering as possibility--that anything is still possible--is the perfect message for this control freak.

Thank you for sharing this.

Happy New Year!

Charles Gramlich said...

Lovely. Your ability with language always amazes me

the walking man said...

It is your love for your departed grandfather that shines through the brightest (though I did like the metaphysical roughage line quite a bit) and keeps hope alive as a reality in an otherwise drear world. so to you and them like you be well Sarah and keep it up.

Society needs you.

Aniket Thakkar said...

Thank you so much for this. I was SO looking forward to it. This was as far as it could get from the super sultry older 'New' that I absolutely love, and yet this was just as beautiful. I loved this. I loved the photo too.

How often we talk and wonder of what drives the universe and not see the little tricks it plays right in front of us. (Not that there is anything wrong in wondering what-drives-the-universe :))

It was my job to make sure Grandma took her pills when I was at home. She always made it hard on me. But it was her way of finding joy in a task she abhorred.

Also, this is an exception. I enjoyed the anticipation of this post and enjoyed reading it more. Sometimes, just sometimes, things do go as you want them to go.

Happy new year to you and all the lovely folks and Jazz out here.

Sarah Hina said...

Wendy, thanks for that. I enjoy your blog posts, too. Always.

Cat, I'm happy you liked this! It was satisfying to write a more domestic vignette.

JA, I despise uncertainty too. It's so, so difficult to relinquish control and reframe that uncertainty as possibility.

I liked the idea of these smartypants quibbling over all this while something real and tangible actually happened right next to them. And I didn't need to look very far for the perfect photo. :) Thank you for mentioning the dedication. The holidays made me miss him anew.

Charles, that's very kind of you to say. I'm deeply appreciative of your comments here.

Mark, love is all there is, isn't it? Even when the ones we love are gone, the feeling is as palpable and real as it ever was. We've got to honor that somehow, I suppose.

The world needs you too, Mark. Thanks for always being so kind to me.

Aniket, thank YOU. I'm consistently amazed that you remember these things. You really were the inspiration for my writing this "New." Especially since I slacked off last year...

And you know what? Your comments are eagerly anticipated, and better than that, they always bring a big smile, too.

So there. We're even. ;)

Happy New Year to all of you!!!

Margaret said...

Sarah, your piece shows us just how precious and valuable an older person is to a family. He achieved, with simple gestures (and love), a seemingly impossible task.

A beautiful dedication to your Granddad. Happy new year to you and yours, Sarah.

Richard Levangie said...

Such a lovely, sweet story, delightfully rendered. I like to think that I see the world through the grandfather's eyes.

The poignancy of your loss is felt keenly, too. You know why.

Sarah Hina said...

Margaret, happy new year to you and your beautiful family, too. Thank you for your kind words here. You always brighten up the place! :)

Richard, I hate to think what you and your family must be going through now. All my ardent wishes for your sister's recovery and the grace of love to guide you through this.

strugglingwriter said...

Beautiful.

I love the dialogue in this. I also love the parallels between the old and young and their alliance.

I saw this quote the other day on author Jay Lake's blog. He was talking about cancer and mortality:

"I realized what mortality *meant*: you don’t get to find out how all the stories end."

This reminded me of that a bit.

Sarah Hina said...

Paul, and what could be worse for a writer than not knowing how a story ends?

Thanks for the great comparison. I'm glad this touched a chord for you. It felt good to write.

attalenell said...

I love the way this winds down. So beautiful.