This is how my vicar always addresses his emails to us: Dears. I like it. I'm adopting it.
I have had terribly good intentions these past few weeks, wanting to write about Easter at my church and the week I spent in New York with my mum and my brother, mourning my grandmother. But I haven't managed a word.
So I begin now, without finesse, at six in the evening on a Monday night, hours away from laying down the work of the day. When I was back in the US of A for a week, there were some good moments and some bad moments.
Here are some good moments--above all the snow that lays down and stays down for the cold winter months in western New York, the birds are visible--
visible on the ground,
on the cold waters,
in the leafless trees.
More birds than you could ever wish for and some in shocking colors--
the crimson flash of a cardinal
the cornflower blue of the mocking jays--
and Canada geese strewn across the landscape--
scattered amongst the corn stubble poking through the snow, pecking for scraps,
flying overhead, gathered in conference on the shores of the rivers...
Here is a bad moment. My grandmother died a week before we could make our way back to her side, so when we arrived she had already been buried, in a blue dress the color of the sky.
She was just gone.
There was no body,
no gravestone even,
as my mother thought it was probably yet to be carved
and did not want to go to the cemetary until it was ready.
Just her absence, with us as we planned her memorial service.
Although to be fair, it was mainly my mother who planned it, just as it has been mainly my mother who has carried my grandmother through these last years of her very long life.
We created a montage of photos from every era of my grandmother's life,
and my mother wanted to blow up a few photos
to put at the front of the church for the memorial service.
So we drove to Walmart, this being the only remotely nearby place
that could scan and blow up photographs on the spot.
We went into the Walmart, perhaps you have as well--
bright soulless fluorescent lights, tinny electronic music
of once loved songs, aisles piled high with things
at cut-rate prices--we were beguiled by the travel size aisle--
I forsook my No Walmart Purchasing principles for the
sunscreen tube that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand...
And then we found our way to the photo processing center,
an island in the middle of the large store.
The machines faced you to do your own scanning and ordering,
then women inside the island brought you your orders. Ostensibly.
We scanned the photos of my grandmother, one of her quite recent, grinning madly, her hair as white as snow, the other quite old, at least twenty years old, when her hair was still dark brown. Then we waited,
and then the woman came over to us,
bearing the photos in her hands,
and said we couldn't have one of them.
Because we'd scanned a photograph done by a professional company--she had seen the signature on the corner--and it was against the law.
This moment, under those soul-stripping white lights in an island in the middle of a store I hate,
was the bad moment.
Because not only was this woman saying we couldn't have the photo we had made,
she was holding it in front of us,
flaunting it, this perfect photograph,
and in the absence of my actual grandmother,
this photograph suddenly became her, signified her,
and we could not have her, we were not permitted to touch her,
to take her away and care for her.
It's just that it's such a good photo, my mother said, nearly in tears.
I'm sorry, the not-sorry-at-all woman said, waving around my grandmother.
I could lose my job.
We want it for a funeral, my brother said.
It's against the law, the woman said.
Look, I said, not very nicely,
what if we just take it for a day and bring it back to you AFTER the funeral? How would THAT be?
I could be fined $10,000, the woman said.
She would not be shamed.
She stood with that beautiful photograph of my smiling grandmother
clutched in her hands
safely behind the scanner,
safely out of our dangerous reach.
There was nothing, save violence,
to be done, so we took my mother's hands
and said, Come away, come away,
and left the photograph, the icon,
my dear sweet grandmother,
just over the counter,
just beyond our grasp,
in the most terrible store in the world.