Anne Germanacos
Guilt: the debt one owes the future


Grey hair isn't everything--I'm not that old yet. When I look in the mirror (how else to take the pulse of one's features?) I'm relieved to see a rather younger woman than I'd been picturing, here beside the old woman.

She's right there, sitting in a rocking chair not rocking. The t.v. is on, the sound muted. She's reading a book, her legs stretched out on the ottoman.

I feel I need to listen carefully to everything she says, but this compulsion makes it almost impossible to hear much less register her words, and I want more than anything to escape, to walk the green line around the city that divides two countries, a palpable human mandate, an invention.

After spending these hours with my mother-in-law, I want to walk the line, then step over it into enemy territory.

Stealing

It's one thing to steal the stories, another to steal her life. Through me, the family stories will go back to her offspring, my children, to nestle in the very repositories of her DNA.

What are we anyway but thieves of our ancestors' bones, marrow, stories? Wherever they are now, those things are useless to them.

Still, I keep wondering: Is today's pleasure tomorrow's pain? Keeping for myself today what tomorrow I'll be denied?

This is the crux of guilt: what's mine is mine until it's someone else's. Is there anything, after all, that's not owed?

So, I steal her life, or try to anyway.

Biblical

Rachel and Leah?

Notes

He says, come on, wanting to pay and leave this once-posh cafe in a once-posh city he's always called a province, and I speed up my typing, wanting to record as much as I can before we leave and everything escapes my memory.

Blue Robe

She's old, my mother-in-law, but steady and appropriately fierce. (Lately, she's down on the village relatives, transplants from the mountains who'd do better to go back where they came from.) Last night she didn't have her bottom teeth in and as she ate, bits of rice and spittle came out. She wiped them off her blue robe, matter-of-factly. One takes one's cue from the older person, wanting to learn not just how to grow old but how to be with an older person.

I'm quite hopeless.

Emilita

The maid, Emilita, comes through, puts her hand over her mouth, says "sorry" almost, carrying a bag of garbage (I can see the bright orange of the clementine peels, the dark green cucumber skins—we ate something else, too, palm-sized pieces of white radish, cool and salted, with a single bite).

Later, my mother-in-law requests that Emilita bring in the photographs.

I like and don't like looking at the pictures this woman from a faraway country brings to show me. The pretty daughters, the adorable twin grandchildren. Who wants to have her face in someone else's pain? Who wants to have one's privilege (and luck) pointed at so starkly?

Family Stories

My mother-in-law's narrative overflows with the phrases: we adored her, she adored us, we adored him. One becomes aware that in the end, what's left is love and its telling. Or perhaps it's all a ploy, a charade. These traditional peoples and their stories.

My family's stories: all busted up, twisted around.

What's a family story, anyway, but narrated theater, easy to imagine because the characters are people you've seen in photographs, people who look like you or, if not you then certainly one of your parents.

Chicken

The only story that means anything to me, and perhaps that's how these things go, is the one about my mother-in-law, herself.

She told me that her own mother-in-law, a huge woman who ruled the household with an iron hand—all the men were gone to sea—had once required her to slaughter a chicken, with her bare hands. My mother-in-law's mother-in-law lived in a country foreign to her. In thirty years, she never learned the language, didn't adopt the new country's customs or give up any of her own. She told my mother-in-law to go out to the chicken coop, catch a fat hen, bring it back and wring its neck.

I don't remember whether my mother-in-law succeeded, but she passed the test, somehow, married my father-in-law, conceived and gave birth to my husband, as well as his sisters. The point of the story, I suppose, is that there are distances between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law that must be bridged by certain tasks.

That she never asked me to catch a chicken and wring its neck makes us contemporaries, almost.

Green Line

My husband walks me around the perimeter of the town, toeing the green line that divides it. Turkish military gaze down from their posts. There, he keeps saying, right over there: We used to be able to walk there. It's ours. Now they've taken it. Streets and houses, toys and dogs.

I thought dogs were supposed to be loyal.

Spittle

Yesterday we went to see Auntie Mata at the old people's home. Kissing me, she left something wet on each cheek. I panicked a little, looking around for something to wipe it off with.

Her very brown dyed hair was cut in a sort of pageboy. Her teeth, large and white, were set in almost brownish gums. She laughed as she sprayed us with a little something, then the nurse brought in her lunch.

Does it look good? Take a little, she said. We refused, telling her she'd better eat it herself.

Her philosophy: that this is life and life is hard. She said it smiling those big teeth. "I was once," she told us, "a beautiful woman."

My mother-in-law kept her lips tight during the fifteen minutes of our visit. Repeated several times, loudly: I've brought you a fruitcake!

It was the packaged kind, in cellophane, and again I watched Auntie Mata ignore her.

From the game attitude that This is life and life is hard, we've all got to bear life's difficulties, she retreated for a minute into something else: This place is a prison and you've got to get me out. I watched her tilt and sway between the two, knowing that neither statement was true, and both were.

I found a piece of used kleenex in the pocket of my jeans, wiped away the spittle. Then we were gone.

Questions

The cousins, including my husband, ask: Who of all the various grandparents was happy? Who wasn't living a vast compromise? And it wasn't just the women. Pappou Nikola gave up the love of his life for some reason no one will ever know. And Yaya Tanta—Did you know her? Who knew her? She had no sense of humor. She was unhappy all her days.

Mirrors

I'm really not that old, yet.

Corn Flakes

Skeptical of the protein bars I eat for breakfast, my mother-in-law asks: Have you eaten? Yes, I answer.

What? she asks.

I point to the empty foil wrapper. She shows hurt, upset that I haven't touched the corn flakes she says she bought for me.

She pops another pill (one of the morning's eight) and says: Won't you help me die?!

I say: What? And go to jail?!

A little later, her son comes in and she tells him that you need to separate each of the frozen raviolis so they don't stick and turn to mush.

One

For her, I say: I am you back then. You are me later on. We're one.

But still, I don't want to sit around watching t.v. And even more: I don't want to watch her watching television. The identification is too exact. Abrupt and unmitigated by anything but time's camouflage.

Youth!

Happy to be young enough to be able to laugh, we laugh all the way to the busy street.

I tell him it's the this-is-your-life show, and hum quirky
sentimental music, making up the words of the theme song for the show that is our lives, which are here now, and now, and now. But not forever.

We laugh in this moment that protects us from all other moments, a blessing we bestow upon ourselves, stealing (without guilt) from the future as we walk down the long busy street.