Alaska Casey reads at Stories from Brooklyn and Beyond Showcase

December 12, 2020

Alaska is a 25-year-old published model, community educator, and writer. They serve as the Director of Impact Artist Education at NYC based non-profit Entertainment for Change and have a passion for performing arts. In their free time, they enjoy spoken word poetry, travel, and learning. So Alaska’s mother is named Theresa. Theresa, can you give us a wave? Theresa has been participating in the Life Story Club for the past few weeks now and asked if Alaska could share their absolutely wonderful story with us. Alaska, please take it away!

This one is about my grandmother. “Nanny, did you ever go out with any guys besides grandpa? I mean, when you were younger.” I have to project to be heard above the noise of the airport. I stab a chunk of watermelon with my fork and lean forward. How have I never asked her this before? She smiles under her tea mug. “I did. Yeah, a few.” “So why, grandpa? What made you choose him?” I meet her eyes with mine and hold the stare, so she knows that I’m really asking. “Well…” There’s a pause. She swirls her milky tea with a spoon, and for a few moments, there’s nothing but airport noise and the rhythmic clink of metal and ceramic. She looks down at her hands. “He was tall.” She says slowly. The fact that this is the first good quality of my grandfather’s that she can produce after 56 years of marriage is not lost on me.

“He was funny. He made people laugh sometimes, and we used to go dancing.” She closes her eyes the way she does when she’s remembering something. And finally, her face softens into a smile. Sometimes he made people laugh, not her but other people. Sometimes. “We used to dance at this joint in Brooklyn. It was run by a couple of Norwegian guys Pete knew in the Navy. And well, I liked it so much, I invited my sisters to come to. We’d get dressed up nice, all of us. Us four girls: Darby, Rosie, Lucy, me.” She pauses to count her siblings on her fingers to make sure she’s getting it right. She pops a grape in her mouth, a small smile dancing at the corners of her lips as she mutters almost to herself. “I loved to dance.”

Apparently, so did her daughter. My mother met my father at a dance joint in New York City. Funny how these things happen. I take a slow sip of water to wash down the words rising in my throat because I don’t have the heart to remind her what I asked about. She hasn’t forgotten. She leans back in her seat, silent, and remembering. I do that too sometimes, remember him. The way the sunlight dappled the floors, I sat into his feet, painting the years into rainbows on the backs of seashells sold to the man himself at the grandpa rate of 50 cents a piece. The way he would look at me with all in his smile. One little girl, one tiny finger.

My grandfather wrapped tightly around it memories of hugs, laughter. Lunch is out. His gravelly voice describing his faith in me, my intelligence, and my future. The crisp rolled up bills to soften what would pass his discipline. My heartbeats like a child does to remember him, but all I know of my grandmother’s memories are narrated by my mother. So I let her words flood in today. I want to remember like Nanny this time.

He never really took her anywhere. I mean, no trips, no vacations, Nanny loved to travel, but she wasn’t allowed. Unless it was camping, of course. She hated camping, but we went every month until I was in college. My mind’s photo album opens to old photos of my mother and her siblings in the backseat of a huge RV, of my grandmother young and tired. Dutifully bent over a hot grill, arms covered with mosquito bites when she hates bugs. The tent is cold, and she is profoundly unhappy.

Grandpa rolls up the window on his son’s face as punishment for sticking his head out of the van window, and my grandmother screams for him to stop. A napkin falls to the floor. Somewhere in the terminal, a flight to Haiti has been delayed. She had to be able to account for every penny that she ever spent. Every service, every bill. The day I finally told us that it was us, running up the water bill, I thought he couldn’t punish her for something that wasn’t her fault.

He told me that he hadn’t wanted kids anyway. I studied the lines around my grandmother’s mouth. She’s as striking as she was at age 35. A classic Italian beauty, her Raven features blur and how fast she’s moving in this memory. In her hand are crumpled receipts, the transgressions of her children, and she is alone. Moving room to room, his voice kicking down doors before he ever raises his hand. This is how she escapes him. An immigrant like her father, a stranger in her own home. She lowers her head and moves silently, with apology. Seeking asylum in the shadows of her own home, her coat pockets stuffed with bills that she cannot pay without him. She wants her kids enough for the both of them and the walls are shaking again.

My words tumble into each other. This was a clumsy mistake I should never have asked. But here in the terminal, here he is. Entering my memory with a ladder, ready to climb into the attic for a godforsaken computer mouse in the middle of the night. Also that I could finish the last level of a Barbie game, and yet behind my grandmother’s eyes, the final memory veiled and powdered as the years wind back. Head bowed on her wedding day, a Catholic, humbled before God and her husband. My beautiful grandmother, a vision in white, and my grandfather, tall and sometimes funny. Wearing his military dress blues to commemorate his most successful conquest.

She floats down the aisle like a woman who has not yet smelled a Secretary’s perfume on her husband’s lapel. Her eyes shine with the kind of hope that doesn’t yet know that it will stop by years to check-in, only to find the entire place has been boarded up. Today, he has a sense of humor. Today, he is tall and in the Navy, and she has porcelain skin and a future. The 1950s say that my grandfather is a good man, and in this moment, their hearts flutter with hope that that is the truth. “You got a lot of questions, kid.” I’m called back to the present by Nanny changing the subject. She’s remembering herself now, not just the past, and the conversation is covered in cobwebs.

She pulls the kind of face one might make if offered a root canal without anesthesia, and another heaping spoonful of sugar goes into her tea. I’m just curious. Reeling actually. The movie is over, and the complexity of humans strikes me as grossly painful. I want to kick my chair over and run until my chest is heaving for the right reasons, but she cuts me off. “You’re nosy, like your mother.”

My mother protects you. I almost say. Since she was old enough to stand, she has always protected you. My chest aches to remind her, but instead, I twist the burn into a hollow smile that doesn’t quite reach my eyes, and my mouth softens around the words, “So she got it from you then huh? Must run in the family.” I stick out my tongue playfully and nudge her leg under the table. My mother’s fire burns from the same source. This, I know. “What me?” She laughs and kicks me back. “No sir. I mind my own business.”

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