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The Eclectic Pen - Photographic Melody: The Song of Everyday Life (the Beginning)

By: Tanya H. (oscarprincess)  
Date Submitted: 3/14/2007
Last Updated: 3/14/2007
Genre: Literature & Fiction » Women's Fiction
Words: 3,011

  I didn’t notice the small blinking light on the answering machine when we arrived home. We had been out to dinner, nothing out of the ordinary, a regular day in our regular lives. My husband had to work all day on Saturday, so we went to bed fairly early. Saturday would be just another day.
Just another day – that would have been nice. That would have been perfect. However, that would not be my lot for that just another quiet Saturday at home with the kids. As I sat reading a magazine, something for women with a lot of pretentious fashions and advice on how to catch a man, the phone rang. I answered – it was my mother. “Didn’t you get your messages last night?” She sounded upset.
“No, we got home late from dinner and went straight to bed. I didn’t even think to check. Why, what’s wrong?”
“I wanted you to get the news when Mike was home, because I knew you said he was working today.” I could hear her trying to hold back tears. “Carin is dead.”
To say I was stunned would be a drastic understatement. I didn’t believe the words coming from my mother’s mouth. She had just told me that my cousin, Carin, whom I had seen a few months earlier while visiting home, Carin, who was only in her mid forties, had a son in high school, and lived one of the healthiest lives of anyone I knew, was gone.
All I could manage to say was “What?”
“Carin is dead. It happened yesterday. I didn’t want you to find out this way while you’re alone with the kids.”
“What happened, was there an accident?”
“We don’t know what happened. She came home from work and said she had a headache. She took something and lay down on the couch to take a nap. When Lisa came in to wake her up, she wasn’t breathing. When the paramedics arrived, it was too late. She had died in her sleep.”
I was devastated. Not just for me, but for my family. Carin was my aunt’s only daughter. Her son was supposed to be enjoying his carefree days as a teenager. Carin was the only one of my cousins I ever really talked to since she helped take care of my grandmother for my parents. My grandmother – how was she going to handle this? Carin was more like a daughter to her than a granddaughter. You hear about things like this happening all the time, but you never think the news is going to hit you personally when you are sitting at home enjoying just another Saturday.
After I got off the phone, having gotten all the necessary information, I walked silently over to the answering machine. There was the little blinking light, mocking me that it had vital information it would have shared with me under better circumstances if I had bothered to pay attention to it earlier. As I cried, I pushed the button and listened to the words of my mother coming from the little speaker that usually gave forth much better news. I listened to the horrid tale once more, to my mother telling me to call her as soon as I had gotten the message. She said she had hoped Mike would be there with me when I listened to the message, but he was at work, and there was no way he could come home and hold me and tell me how sorry he was. As the voice cut off, I just sat there by myself and cried. Death has a way of stealing the innocence away from quiet afternoons, doesn’t it?

After flying across most of the country, myself and my two small children to whom death meant practically nothing outside the realm of cartoons, I entered my cousin Jay’s home where a veil of sorrow hung in every corner. The children immediately asked when they could go to grandma’s house, where they would start seeking out the playthings they only had while visiting. To them this was just another vacation. Andrew was in preschool, Kelly was still a month shy of her first birthday. Their relaxed, smiling faces stood in sharp contrast to the faces of the rest of the family. We spent the afternoon eating and crying and wondering how this could have happened. My aunt was in such a stupor she could hardly function. To this day, she cannot understand how this came to be, how she outlived her only child. How could anyone understand?
My father asked me to help him plan the funeral. He and Lisa, Carin’s housemate, would do most of the work with the funeral home and the church. What he wanted me to do was go through the big trunk full of pictures from my grandmother’s room, as well as the family albums in their own collection, and look for pictures we could put on display at the funeral. They had to perform an autopsy to find out what had happened since she was fairly young and in apparently good health. He wanted happy pictures to surround the coffin, reminding all those in attendance that this was a bright, vibrant woman whose life should be remembered over the tragedy of her death.
My grandmother always had a lot of pictures from her very rich life. She used to tell me fascinating stories, like how she recalled walking down the street as a child with her mother and hearing the newsboys yelling out the information of the Titanic sinking to draw in customers. Carin had actually taken most of the family pictures in recent years, and had taken some of grandma’s stash and placed them in albums with captions, or in folders according to who was in the photograph. In her life, she had unknowingly made it a little simpler for us to make arrangements in her death.
I sat down on the floor of grandma’s room, the large trunk and albums scattered around me, and just started to look. I had to smile at all the happy moments unfolding before my eyes in a symphony of smiling faces and goofy candid shots. We never catalogue the unhappiness in our lives through photos. It’s just as well as those images usually stay seared in our minds much too vividly, though we would try to forget them. It’s the joy that unfortunately seems to fade from memory much too soon. So we steal moments in time and place them on shiny paper and hope that they will hold the goodness of the past alive in our hearts and drive away some of the indelible darkness that lingers from the drearier days.
A few minutes into my search, I came upon a picture of a Christmas tree. It was in my grandparents’ house, and at first glance one would think it was nothing special, nothing to really be remembered, compared to the usual fanciness that springs up around the holidays. But I remembered that tree, and it was the best Christmas tree we had ever had.

(Story 1 - O Christmas Tree)

My senior year of high school was great. I could drive, I was doing well in school, had good college prospects, I had a lot of great friends and a boyfriend who was attentive at the time. Two weeks off of school were just beginning, and my brother and I were actually getting along pretty well, which was rare. Some great presents were waiting for me under the Christmas tree at home. Snow wasn't in the forecast, but, hey, that just meant that Dad couldn't take the car away claiming the roads would be bad. I couldn't have been happier.
Wrong. Grandpa B. had been in the hospital for a while. It had become clear that he wasn't going to be coming home again - ever. Of course the hospital picked the festive occasion of Christmas Eve to transfer him to the nursing home in which he would now be residing. Mom and Dad were driving over to pick Grandma up, and they were meeting my aunt and uncle at the hospital to all drive over with the ambulance and get Grandpa settled in.
I loved my Grandpa very much. He was kind of a crab sometimes, but he was fun to be around and just watch. He ate waffles for breakfast almost every day - the kind you put in the toaster and they are ready in three minutes. He would set them on the plate, carefully filling up each square with maple syrup, and then he would cut them exactly along the lines into little squares before eating them. Each night he would have a Metamucil and whisky as he ate dinner by himself in the tiny kitchen. He just liked it that way. Every day he would take a nap, I think it was around three o'clock. We spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house because it was close and there were a lot of kids our age in the neighborhood. Plus we could get away with a lot more over there and Grandma actually had cereal with sugar on it, and she always had cookies in the cookie jar - always. As often as we were there, we had to be reminded each time that we had to be quiet while Grandpa was napping or there would be hell to pay. We remembered to play quietly, on occasion. We never got in too much trouble though (not as much as we did for standing on the coffee table or wrestling on the couch anyway).
Grandpa was an interesting man. When I learned he had passed away in January of my junior year of college, I was devastated. I had to drive the five hours home by myself with what seemed to be a lingering bronchitis. It was so bad my mother made me stay home a few extra days after the service and the men at the funeral home were making jokes that if I didn't watch it I was going to end up there as well. I guess not all funeral home employees are graced with tact. My mother told me I could not cry because it would upset my grandmother. So I bravely fought back the tears at the funeral and just coughed the grief out of my system as best I could. A few weeks later, when a mass was said in my grandfather's memory in my fiancé’s dorm at school, I cried until I had no more tears to give.
It's odd though. Grandma and Grandpa fought every day that I could ever remember. I used to ask why they didn't just get a divorce, and Dad would tell me that's just the way they are. They love each other. I didn't really see it, but I supposed he knew what he was
talking about. I found out later how much truth there was in that statement, that they loved each other. Whenever we would visit Grandpa in the nursing home with Grandma, he just wanted to hold her hand, and kiss her, and tell her that he loved her and he just wanted to go home. There was no more yelling, no more insults, no more wondering why they had stayed married for over sixty years. Grandpa really did just want to be at home with Grandma when he knew he didn't have much time left.
So on the Christmas Eve when he was essentially moving out of his home forever, my brother and I drove over to the house we had spent so much time in as children playing, laughing, watching and exploring, asking questions and eating foods we rarely got at home. When we went in, it was depressing. You would never have known it was Christmas. There were no decorations, no tree, no lights, no nativity set that always sat on top of the TV in the living room at Christmas each year. It was just a bare house missing my Grandpa as much as we did.
Mom looked around with a sad look on her face. We weren't going with them to the hospital. As everyone walked out the door, she stayed behind and said, "See if you two can't find something, anything, to make this place look a little ‘Christmas-y’. I know Grandma gave most of her decorations away, but see if you can't find something. We're only going to be gone about an hour, so you don't have much time, but we need to do something to cheer everyone up a bit, especially Grandma." Off they all went, leaving us to stupidly stare at the blank room without a plan.
I finally turned to my brother and said, "Well, it's Christmas Eve, so I doubt we'll find anyplace open still selling Christmas trees. Even if we did, I have no money, do you?"
"No, I have some at home, but not on me."
"Well, we also have a tree at home, but I don't know how we'd get it here. I guess we could shove it in the back of my car."
"Yeah, but it'll take us twenty minutes to get home, another ten at least to put the tree in, and twenty to get back. By the time we're done, they'll be here."
"We can't just sit here and do nothing though. Let's just get in the car, start driving, and see what happens, okay?"
"Fine, but I don't know what you're expecting."
"I'm just going to start heading home. We can at least grab something there and bring it over here."
D.J. and I went out and climbed into my car. Our grandparents lived on a dead end street with a school at the top of it. To get back to the main road, you had to go up, circle around the school's driveway, and come back down. As we had done hundreds of times before, we drove up to circle past the school. Just then, D.J. yelled, "Stop!"
"What, what 's wrong?"
"Do you see what I see?"
"Where? What are you talking about?"
"There. By the door to the school."
I looked over. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There, just propped up next to the door was a small Christmas tree. It was still living, probably had been put out for trash pickup, and it was waiting for someone to take it away out of the cold.
We climbed out of the car and looked around. No one was there of course. The tree was nice, about five feet tall. It wouldn't fit in my car though. So we drove back down the
hill and parked the car. A short hike took us back to the school, and my brother and I dragged the little tree down the hill and up the steps to Grandma's house. After getting it inside we put it in the same spot a tree had always stood, right by a small window out onto the front porch. We quickly discovered, though, we had no way to stand it up.
After ransacking the basement and finding out what we already knew, that there was no longer a tree stand in the house, we called on mother necessity for an idea. It came to us very quickly and the tree was soon precariously balanced by using the cord from the window blinds to hold it somewhat upright. Perfect!
The matter of decorating the tree was still before us. We knew that Grandma had given away all of the ornaments she had always used to adorn her tree. So we headed back to the basement to look some more. My brother and I each stumbled upon something to use in place of the traditional bulbs and baubles that hang on yuletide trees. D.J. found some old wrapping paper and Christmas paper plates in a box. With a little effort he carefully cut out pictures from the paper goods and taped them to the branches. Good fortune showed me a large group of old plastic poinsettias, which I began breaking apart and placing throughout the branches of the tree. It wasn't the most elegant decorating job in town, but it would have to do.
When everyone arrived back home from their necessary chore, there was not much expectation of a happy Christmas. Upon walking through the front door, however, their eyes began lighting up as each person saw what we had managed. When Grandma came in, she just gasped and said, "My goodness, it's the most beautiful Christmas tree I've ever seen!" My mother happened to be wearing small battery powered Christmas earrings that had blinking lights on them, and she quickly placed them on the tree branches. "We have
to have some lights!" she exclaimed while everyone started relaxing a little and allowing the Christmas spirit to enter the house. We took a few pictures that night, we laughed a lot, and we talked about going to see Grandpa in the morning. It wasn't the bleak Christmas we all thought it was going to be. I don't know what my brother believes, but I think an angel must have left that tree out for us that night. My grandma passed away a few months ago at the ripe old age of 98, but she always told us that our Christmas tree was the best she ever had in the house. I think everyone present that night would have to agree.

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Tanya H. (oscarprincess)

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Comments 1 to 5 of 5
katzpawz - 3/14/2007 4:30 PM ET
Tanya, thank you so much for sharing this with us. It is simply beautiful. I feel as if I know Grandma & Grandpa because of your words.
IONE L. (zaneygraylady) - 3/15/2007 4:09 PM ET
Great story. You should submit it to the Chicken Soup series.
Sharon M. - 3/17/2007 4:14 PM ET
Very nice! I wanted to keep reading. It reminded me of several of the Christian fiction I've read and enjoyed so much. Keep up the good work and let me know when you are published.
Linda S. (Dreamin1) - 3/30/2007 4:15 PM ET
I must confess I read the second part first because I didnt see the first part listed. This is a nice story and it's easy to read, and it has all three things-beginning/middle/end. The characters are believable and each are unique. I like the descriptions too. There is one sentence that stood out for me though> My mother told me I could not cry because it would upset my grandmother. I think that people do believe that by not crying it helps someone else from not feeling so sad, but I am not sure anyone would say this. Maybe the character would say it to herself. an internalization. Maybe in spite of herself, she couldn't help but sniffle and blow her nose indicating she is upset...yet not fully crying. I read somewhere that the more a character crys or laughs, the less the reader will. Just a suggestion. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Tanya H. (oscarprincess) - 4/4/2007 11:12 AM ET
In reply to Linda S, thank you for your kind words. The reason I added the sentence about not crying is because my mother actually did say that to me at my grandfather's funeral. My grandmother was a very loving but stoic woman, and my parents honestly believed if we could hold it together it would be better for her. Sometimes reality doesn't fit well with fiction I guess.
Comments 1 to 5 of 5