Jessica Ackerman, C’20
I never knew my uncle, but I always liked to look at his photo. It was framed and perfectly placed on a top shelf in my mom’s childhood home. The house was home to many, the side door—never the front—constantly opening to welcome in family, both blood-related and otherwise. When I walked through that door, I knew I belonged there. Baba would always offer a delighted, almost surprised, greeting as if she wasn’t expecting anyone (even though she had just prepared a lunch fit for at least 20 people.) The groceries from the morning shopping trip always remained on the kitchen table—easy access for hungry grandchildren and friendly neighbors popping in for an afternoon visit.
I miss those innocent days, when my cousins and I would laugh and squeal as we chased each other round and round the cozy rooms, my Baba in the kitchen humming along to the radio, our mothers gossiping around the table, my Pap taking a nap on the couch, still wearing his cap and shoes. Occasionally, he would awake to quietly scold us for running in the house, to which we would respond with shamed faces and bowed heads. Two minutes later, we were back at it, and Pap would relocate to the backyard to feed the birds or water his garden.
There, I was loved and safe and precious. Just one piece was missing, one question unanswered—
“Who is that?”
Every one of us kids would ask the question at some point. The boy belonged here. I knew it, we all did. But, I didn’t know him. He had my mom’s eyes, my Baba’s smile, my Pap’s nose. Maybe, he even looked a little bit like me.
He was so terribly absent, but yet, so present—I could almost feel his stare. I thought maybe he was hidden in one of the upstairs bedrooms, but when my cousins and I investigated, the case grew colder. His presence seemed to follow us up and down the stairs, kindly urging us to keep asking questions. But when I opened my mouth to speak, chills ran down my spine and the air grew thick. To open old and delicate wounds takes skill, skill I just didn’t have. Or maybe I was scared.
He was fifteen when he died—they didn’t have inhalers in the 70s. He was the first-born son, the oldest of nine, the leader, the athlete. The details are still a hazy fog in my mind. As I grew, I tried to piece them together, asking simple questions in response to the ghostly urging I felt, but couldn’t quite explain. So, every once in a while, when someone would say something about him, I would store it away in my memory. One day, I thought, I would finally piece him together.
A cousin and I found his little league trophies in the basement. We showed my Baba, expecting a smile or a laugh or a fond memory, something to add flesh to his transparent form, but she turned away. I found his baby pictures in a dusty photo album and showed my mom, wanting her to recall her childhood like she always did; she turned the page. I told my aunt that my mom never wanted to talk about him during a car ride to the mall; she was a captive audience, so she spoke up.
“You know he had severe asthma, right?” I nod, a strange surge of fear and anticipation mingle in my chest. “The day before it all happened he was in the hospital for it. But they released him. Most of us weren’t home when he stopped breathing. You know we were never really home, always outside roaming and running wild. But, little Annette was, and Baba and Pap. Your mom was at a pool party I think—a little boy from the neighborhood. The phone rang and a minute later the boy’s mother called him inside. Your mom said she just felt like something was wrong. She got out the pool, dripping wet, and listened. She heard the whisper, ‘he’s dead,’ and she ran all the way home, like she just knew, to find Pap and the police officers arguing over his lifeless body. They didn’t get there fast enough.”
My hands and my knee caps start to shake, and I will them to stop. My aunt changes the subject.
“Oh, look. They’re putting in a Dairy Queen where that drugstore used to be.”
I was haunted by a concocted image—the smiling boy in the photo, morphed into something cold and hard and gone—lying on the porch where we played and ate and laughed and loved. I was haunted by the image of my mom as a frightened, horrified little girl—her little bare feet frantically slapping the concrete as she raced home. And I began to grieve for this person I never knew. And I stopped asking questions.
But, when I stopped, answers came rushing in. I had opened some kind of floodgate that I didn’t understand and now all I wanted to do was build a dam.
Someone, maybe my mom, maybe an aunt or a cousin, told me that when he died, Grandma D (my great-grandmother)was taking a nap, during which she had a dream. Her late husband was assuring her that everything was okay, the boy was safe with him. Panic-stricken, she awoke to the phone ringing; the voice on the other end confirmed the reality of her dream—or nightmare. I never met Grandma D, but I didn’t have to piece her together. No one censored themselves when talking about her, they only laughed and longed for her cooking. She died of old age.
When his son died, my Pap wouldn’t get out of bed. The strong-willed Italian immigrant, who had sailed here on a cramped boat when he was six and had eaten out of dumpsters and had served in the army and liberated a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, couldn’t bear this horror. My Baba had to beg—beg for the 8 children who were still alive and breathing and hungry. He didn’t budge, not until a group of pious and charismatically gifted women prayed over him. The Holy Spirit is a force not even grief-stricken fathers can resist for very long. And though he served the God he loved—the God who giveth and taketh—for the rest of his life, his sorrow never left him. Suddenly his quiet, almost heavy nature made sense, and he became canonized in my heart.
My Pap would eventually develop Alzheimer’s. He forgot our names, except for his son’s. I guess grief even consumes the diseased mind.
Love and loss are two sides of a coin. And I’ve come to realize that those who know how to love the best have lost the most. And just as love is always present—always binding—so is grief. My curiosity was satiated and so I fell into the pact of silence, bound alongside everyone else. I didn’t say his name, I didn’t look at photo albums, and I didn’t look at the framed picture on the top shelf—and if I did make eye contact, I quickly looked away.
When the youngest of the cousins was just barely old enough to form clear sentences, he told his sister, who is significantly older than him, that he saw a man in the kitchen. Her first response was fear—they were the only ones home. But, when she peered cautiously into the kitchen, it was empty. Relieved, she questioned him, but he only told he that the man was nice—smiling and waving.
As is customary in Italian families, the story spread, and we were soon all discussing our theories as to who the man in the kitchen was. We never got any answers despite the “nice man” making another appearance in the same way—my little cousin scaring his sister to the point where she refused to watch her little brother for a short time—but still, he gave us no clues.
That is, until he noticed the picture.
“What’s his name? That’s the nice man!” he gasped, and everyone else gasped too—except for Baba. She laughed.
It was the first time I heard laughter alongside my uncle’s name, and it was that laugh that finally broke the silence.