Last night, on the long, lonely trip here, I drove through Queen Creek Canyon, the anticipation building as I crossed the first high bridge. I held my breath as I passed through the tunnel carved into the canyon wall. And though I was alone, I could sense my brothers and sister in the car with me, and I wondered if they were cheating, too, like I almost always was, to make it through the tunnel without taking a breath.
At my grandparents' house, I search for tendrils of smoke from crackling fires stoked by my grandfather in the stone hearth he had built, heat radiating through the living room as my cousins and I whispered secrets across the lumps of sleeping bags and pillows strewn about the floor. But now the sky is blue, and the sun emits a heat that burns so efficiently there is no smoke.
I listen for a loud family gathering, glass and silver clinking, feasts with far too much to eat, followed inevitably by pies. All of this is accompanied by laughter and stories and jugs of wine that my underage brothers sneak sips from. They know the adults will not miss a glass or two, imbibing in the happy tales regaled around the table while the dogs wait, patiently, to be fed. And I wait for my grandfather’s toast: I wonder what the poor people are doing. I never understood it as a child, but now as an adult, I see its irony: a joke born during the Depression, told during joyously rich family moments. But the only sound I hear is the hum of the highway, cars just passing through on their way elsewhere.
I seek the shadows of the oleanders stretching long across the backyard, the adults chatting within a circle of webbed folding chairs, drinks in hand, as we cousins wander back, parched from our adventures down in the valley behind the house. But today the noon sun affords no shade.
I think of phone calls with her. How she would ask how I was, listening to my news. I wasn’t the smartest grandchild, nor the most beautiful, and also not the most athletic nor the most musical, but she would listen as if I were her favorite: the one she loved best. I think of how when she deemed the phone call was over, she’d just say okay and hang up, and I was surprised, every single time, to hear the click instead of goodbye.
In front of the house, I see where my grandfather kept his boat, and I reminisce about picnics and fishing trips to the lake, us kids stuffed into the leftover spaces in the back of the truck, bumping along and wondering if Grampa meant to hit every pot hole in the road.
But then I see her, my Gram. She’s hurrying down the driveway in her button-down shirt, polyester pants and Keds, waving. She greets us as we tumble from the car, the warmth and softness of her hug, her squeaky greeting breathless. I blink and the driveway is empty. The shadow of a bird crosses the yard and is gone, and I know that fleeting apparition is as close as I’ll get to hugging my grandmother again.
I drive away, toward what is now home, feeling like there’s a rock or two in my belly. I wonder if I’ll always miss them. I think about those who have lost more than I have, and how it is that we go on, move on, without them. As much as we want to, as much as we think we need to, we can't go back. And somehow, later, I finally come to realize, that we carry them with us, safely ensconced within, glowing embers of memory. And that, I suppose, might be enough.