It’s February 1991. Nana’s house isn’t on my list of favorite places to go, and nearly every justification I have for the sentiment is rooted in the pungency of cigarette smoke. It permeates every room here, like paint on the walls. Thankfully, we don’t go to Nana’s often, even though it’s just a mile away from our house, but we’re here today, on McCall Road.
My dad knocks on the weary white door at the front of the house. Nana is his mom; Rose Marie Berry (Ciaccia). The door is scored and scratched. The dogs she used to have must’ve been responsible for that, and there are dirty hand and foot prints all across it, too, at or below my eye level.
I’m in my navy blue winter jacket, which is covering my black Ninja Turtles t-shirt. A pair of my favorite gray sweatpants are keeping my legs warm, while a pair of duck boots snuggle my feet. This is pretty much my favorite outfit, and if it weren’t for mom’s insistence that I occasionally change out of the sweatpants, then the only thing I’d ever change is the t-shirt. My mom and my baby sister, Sarah, are with me too. Sarah is six months old.
Cars flash in either direction on the busy street behind us and the sky is painted in the same hazy, faded shade of Rochester gray that’s been there for what feels like months. The trees are naked and cold.
My dad knocks again, and within seconds, my Aunt Debbie opens the door, a smoke in hand, a puff of its exhaust at her lips. She’s wearing a faded black night gown that looks like it’s coated – and maybe colored – by Marlboro 100s. She sees us through unmoved eyes – acknowledges us even – and gestures to let us in. “Hey,” she says, and she moves ahead of us into the house.
I follow through the front entrance into the living room. I’m a step behind my father, who moves at a slow, almost hesitant pace through the room. He’s wearing a plain gray crewneck sweatshirt and a pair of stonewashed jeans with white Reeboks on – classic dad. The furniture is all worn down – Nana’s got one of those plaid sofas that I see when I visit a friend whose family hasn’t been able to update the furniture in their home, or probably can’t afford to. For what it’s worth, We have one at my house too, but ours has been cared for.
Nana’s is light gray and light blue, or at least it used to be. Parts of it still are. There’s a matching arm chair, and it’s actually worse for the wear than the couch.
We walk to the end of the living room, into the small dining room, off to the side of an equally small kitchen. Nana is seated at the table, which is set-up like the corner table in a diner. A pair of ashtrays and some half-empty soda and beer bottles adorn the chalky Formica table top. My Aunt Tina sits next to Nana, and Aunt Sharon is resting on one elbow at the kitchen counter. She’s drinking a beer.
“Hey there, Chuckie!” It’s my Aunt Sharon who acknowledges us first. She’s happy to see my dad. All of us, in fact. She’s the oldest of my father’s siblings, all four of whom – including him – are here in the kitchen. My dad is the second youngest, the only male in the family; his father died at age 39.
No one else calls my dad “Chuckie,” and it’s still weird to hear them call him by that name. His name is Charles, but I usually hear him referred to as Chuck. To me, he’s dad. He walks to my Aunt Sharon and gives her a hug, a smile on his face. But it disappears as he approaches his sister Debbie and my Nana. They’re both still seated at the table. He reaches over to give Debbie a kiss on the cheek, and then does the same to Nana.
Dad doesn’t smile much, though it’s been known to happen on occasion. But he doesn’t do it at all around his mom or sisters. Just Sharon. He looks uneasy as he sits down at the open wooden chair. My mom takes the seat next to him with Sarah in her lap, and Nana takes a deep breath before heaving over a vague inquiry, her eyes turning toward my dad with what feels like a glare: “So how ya been, Chuck?” She doesn’t sound curious; she sounds accusatory. Her fingers flick off another chunk of ash from her cigarette butt, a waft of dancing smoke rising from its smoldering tip.
Like the acridity in the air, I know things are wrong – but these things are away from grasp where I might impede their spread.
I’m unsure of how to break in to the conversation – Nana hasn’t said anything to me yet, but I want to move out of the room – now. I look back at my dad for some indication that it’s okay to interrupt, but he doesn’t see me. Instead, his teeth seem clenched in place, his angular jaw pushing at the sides of his cheeks. He’s looking through the window. So I step over to Nana on my own and she gives me a flat, half-hearted greeting and a kiss on the cheek while looking back somewhere between my dad and her cigarette – but I’m on the run, down to the end of the hallway where the bedrooms are, or more importantly, where my cousin Nina – my Aunt Tina’s daughter – is sure to be.
Grandma and papa’s house – where my mom’s parents live – is much different than this. It’s clean and if anyone wants to smoke cigarettes, they have to go outside. I like it there. When we visit, grandma meets us at the door, bends down to give me a big hug and a kiss, and then she hangs up my jacket for me. And she smells nice, like the way the first full week of spring smells.
Then she gives us snacks – Fruit Roll-Ups, Hershey’s chocolate squares, you name it. Her toys aren’t the best – maybe some Matchbox cars or Micro Machines – but that’s fine; I bring my own.
But we’re at Nana’s today.
In Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” he negotiates with the memories he has of his dad, but laments being “…left with mostly images that appear and die off in my mind like distant sounds.”
So now, in the summer of 2008, as I answer a call from an Aunt whose name I recognize but whose face I wouldn’t, those words ring familiar. But I don’t remember distant sounds; just the diner-style kitchen that I felt conflicted about visiting, and the stink of the air that filled it.
“Is this David?” comes the bewildered voice.
I pause, on the cusp of discomfort. “Yes…who’s this?”
And then the tears start. “It’s your Aunt Tina, sweetie. I’m so sorry. Nana died.”
I recognize the magnitude of the moment, but I don’t emote accordingly. In Obama’s memoir, upon receiving such a phone call of his own he remarked at how he sat down “to measure his loss.” But on the other side of the phone line, a dangling white cord connecting me to my Aunt’s voice through the wall, I know that measure now – one single mile in distance. 17 years in time. A gulf that will never be traversed for a chance to change my mind about Nana.
And so her memory to me is perhaps as her existence; the stink of smoke.