It’s coming around again, as it has probably for time immemorial — the thing where someone who doesn’t knit discovers that there are people who do knit, and some of them are apparently under the age of 90, and then the next thing we know, someone is writing articles or spouting this line on TV or social media or something:
“This is not your grandmother’s knitting.”
Every time someone says this, picture the knitters of the developed world all crying out in unison as they slam their heads into their keyboards, tablets, smartphones, countertops covered in a newspaper, airplane tray tables beneath a magazine… you get the picture. Seriously. Just imagine us all casting our eyes upwards and beseeching the heavens for some sort of answer as to why THIS of all things is the line we’re saddled with hearing from the news media and our non-yarnish friends.
So I just thought I’d take a moment to say this:
Actually, this IS my grandmother’s knitting.
And these are some of her knitting needles. My uncle was kind enough to give them to me right away when my grandmother passed on last year.
My grandmother Rachel was a painter, potter, weaver, spinner, dyer, knitter, crocheter, sewer, embroiderer, cook, and countless other things. I cannot remember a time before she put yarn and yarn activities in my hands, and there was never a time growing up when I didn’t have plenty of clothes she made for me, in lots of ways. I have many of them to this day, and certainly, lots of household textiles that she made.
My grandmother was also a woman who spent most of her elder years living in Montana, part of the time fairly rurally. Letters from her often started with lines like “Today I saw a mountain lion and her cub out the kitchen window…” or “While I was gathering clay from the banks of the stream out in back of the house…” or “I had a few weaver friends over today, and we’ll spending next weekend at the mall demonstrating spinning and weaving! I hope we get to teach lots of new people!”
Right now, I’m also looking at what my mother told me had been my grandmother’s “summer house loom” — the small loom she kept for weaving with when spending summers on a remote island in the Great Lakes. She gave the loom to her new son-in-law, my father, in 1970, when he became interested in learning to weave. I should probably note the “small loom” is a floor loom with a 36″ weaving width.
Oh and by the way… the folded up pieces of paper in that photo? Among them are receipts for the interchangeable needle set and add-on parts ordered, and for $70 of yarn in 1983, with a note in her handwriting that says “Family heirloom.”
So yeah. I’m pretty sure that what I do today IS my grandma’s knitting. In lots of ways, in fact. And of course, it’s also my mother’s knitting.
Lots of things may not be obvious in this photo of my mother holding a 16th century icon, but the only stuff I really want to point out is that my mother sewed that dress (and had me practice embroidery on part of it), and she spun the yarn for the cabled sweater draped around her neck, which of course she knit. So yeah, it looks like this is also my mother’s knitting.
And actually, it’s my father’s knitting, too. It’s too sad for me to take a picture, but I have a small bag that I sometimes open and look at, and think about the contents. It was the bag in which he carried around his last knitting project, which he didn’t finish. They were gloves he was making for me when he succumbed to the cancer that killed him — colorwork gloves with a reinterpretation of one of my favourite Chinchero weaving patterns.
You know what else? It’s lots of people’s knitting all over the world. They look all kinds of ways and might be anybody. Like these gentlemen knitting while watching a presentation at the 2010 Tinkuy de Tejedores in Urubamba, Peru:
It’s also my great-grandmother’s knitting, by the way, as I was reminded when that same uncle passed on to me a pair of socks that were knit for him by my great-grandmother in the 1960s. And you know, that brings me to the next major point of peevishness about this whole “not your grandma’s knitting” shtick:
WHAT THE HECK IS THE MATTER WITH YOUR GRANDMA ANYWAY?
Seriously, I know a lot of grandmas, and lots of ’em are really quite cool. Some of my best friends are grandmas. And just yesterday I was thinking about my great-grandmother, who died while my mother was pregnant with me. I never met her, but I grew up on stories about her, and the ever-diminishing number of my relatives who did know her never seem to run out of those stories.
College educated, the eldest of 9 kids, a cigar-smoking, bloomer-wearing Suffragist, my great-grandmother is among the reasons I can do stuff today like “vote” and “own property and even a business in my own name,” things that she did AT THE SAME TIME AS SHE WAS KNITTING. Heck, you know what? My grandmother told me she remembered her mother taking her to see Red Sox games when she was a teenager… and both of them knitting on the T. That sure sounds like the knitting scene I know today.
So yeah. Not my grandma’s knitting? All I’ve got to say is, dude, you obviously know neither my grandma, nor her knitting. In fact, I’m willing to bet you don’t know anyone’s knitting, and the number one indicator that’s the case? It was when you said “this isn’t your grandma’s knitting.”
Next up, perhaps: I’m going to teach a yoga teacher to knit, so we can conclusively speak to the question of whether or not it’s “the new yoga.”
Years ago, I did a static-image blog post about how to use a half-hitch on a low whorl spindle. Thing is, I did it really quick, after finishing up a dye day, and I was never happy with it for a million reasons, not least among them that my fingertips were stained from dye.
What’s more, over the years, I’ve refined the way I demonstrate the technique — putting on half-hitches quickly using the spindle holding hand, which is advantageous for several reasons. First, it doesn’t matter how much yarn you have between your fiber hand and the spindle — you can maintain tension and put on half-hitches without risk of tangling, especially once combined with being able to wind your yarn up in a butterfly as you spin. Second, it doesn’t take much practice to get very fast with this, partly because you don’t need to look at what you’re doing. Third, well, you don’t need to watch what you’re doing, so that makes it pretty foolproof.
So, with all of those things in mind, I chose to make a video about half-hitches the start of a series of new short technique videos I’ll be posting much more frequently. Without further preamble, then, here it is! I’d love to hear thoughts about videos you’d like to see, by the way — feel free to share them.
Do you have a spinner in your life for whom you’d like to buy a gift, but you aren’t sure what he or she would like? I’ve pulled together a list of some favourite items in various price ranges to help, followed by a few tips on shopping for spinners in secret.
The Spinner’s Party Tool from FBN Plastics. Featuring a wraps per inch gauge, angle of twist gauge, and a bottle opener with a keychain ring, this little gadget is incredibly handy. I have several, in various places around the house, my car, and my luggage. Did I mention it’s TSA approved, so I can always measure my yarn AND open my beer, even when I’m on the road? I also keep one hanging from my wheel next to my orifice hook, and one in my spindle bag. $5.
Spinning Wheel Oil Bottle. If you’ve got a wheel, you need oil for it (typical motor oil works great), and you’d rather have it be easy to apply. I really like these Schacht oil bottles because of the long needle tip that lets you get the oil right where you want it. $8-9
Orifice Hooks. These are used pretty constantly with most spinning wheels, and most spinners could stand to have more of these. Sometimes the ones you have go rogue, and there you are, bending a paper clip to handle an emergency — if you don’t have a few extras lying around. Some spinners really like to have beautiful ones. They can be made from wood, glass, all manner of things. $2 and up, with a lot in the $10-20 range.
A Pretty Diz. Used to pull prepared fibers into their final pre-spinning state, dizzes are more of a hit-or-miss gift, but they’re usually inexpensive and fun. Many people make them or repurpose household objects like buttons, but you can also find really pretty ones. If your spinner has a drum carder or combs, this could be a win for a small gift. Prettier, fancier ones cost a bit more. You want smooth (so fibers don’t snag) and durable (because fibers are stronger than you might think). Around $20.
Fiber! Dude, there is so much fiber in this price range. Omigod, is there fiber in this price range. Sadly, it’s hard to say there’s one kind of fiber that makes the perfect gift. So instead, here’s a short list of a few of the folks whose fiber I personally always find delightful, and whose stuff I use in classes.
A Nice Spindle. At this price point, you can buy some really nice spindles! Some of my favourites are:
– KCL Woods
I have never had a spindle I didn’t really, really like (or more likely, desperately adore) from any of these makers. They’re all unique and individual and worth every penny as workhorse tools that are also beautiful. Even if your spinner doesn’t have a major spindle attraction, these are the spindles that, shall we say, I doubt anybody would kick out of bed for eating crackers.
Hand cards — if your spinner has none, then my choices for all-around hand cards are Schacht curved medium or fine, or Strauch fine, including half-size. Every individual spinner will develop his or her own preferences, so the curved or flat question is pretty much unanswerable. Your spinner won’t know until he or she has used them for a while. So don’t overthink it! If you’ve got a spinner who does not have hand cards, it’s time to remedy that. If your spinner does have hand cards, but only one set, see if you can figure out which set and then call a good fiber shop (like one of the ones linked in various places in this article) and ask for advice on what cards should come next.
Books and Videos! There are so many great resources out there now, many of them free — but I still recommend having an extensive library. The hot new release The Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith (you can even get a signed copy). If your spinner doesn’t already have it, he or she probably wants it. Here’s a short list of some other books I recommend:
Classes! Nothing helps a spinner get more out of whatever they’ve already got than taking some classes. However, sometimes they can be hard to justify for people, and so they make really great gifts. Contact your local (or most local) fiber shop or weaver’s guild to find out what options exist in your area.
Yarn Handling Tools — often overlooked, these tools actually make an enormous difference in the life of a spinner. Eventually, every spinner probably should have a way to make skeins of yarn, a way to hold those skeins to wind them into balls, and a way to easily wind those balls. So, that’s a skein winder or niddy noddy (for making skeins), a swift (for holding skeins), and a ball winder (for, um, winding balls). YES, there exist tools out there that do double duty, but I’m going to tell you the truth: almost none of them do a truly great job, and in the long run, your spinner will probably be happier with great tools that really work reliably for the purposes for which they were made. So here are my faves:
– Schacht Niddy Noddy. Like real antique ones, this niddy noddy is extremely lightweight, making it easy to work with when winding skeins. Unlike antique ones, this collapses and folds up small, and can make more than one size skein. $75.
– Fricke skeinwinder. I have both a motorized, and non-motorized, version of this winder, equipped with a rotation counter that tracks your revolutions so you know how long your skein is once you’re done winding. These are probably the biggest time savers of any single piece of equipment I own — no exaggeration.
– Swift! The umbrella style is terrific and sturdy and usually repairable, unless you get a really chintzy one (they’re out there — if the swift is half the price of most of the others, I would probably give it a pass). You want one that says it can handle 2-yard skeins. You can get them that clamp to a table or surface, that rest on a surface, or that stand on the floor. I have one free-standing and one clamping, because different circumstances call for different things. I’ve been very happy with the decades of hard work I’ve gotten from my Ashford swift and my Glimakra swift. But counter to what I said above regarding multi-tasking tools, I have only had great experiences with the Strauch skeinwinder, so that makes the list as well. One of the things that’s great about the Strauch ones is that you can get table clamps that work even with those newfangled plastic folding tables that have a lip on them — a perpetual irritation for the fiber artist who wants to clamp stuff to stuff!
– Ball Winder. I grew up with plastic ball winders that were pretty great, but sometime this century or so I guess the quality really diminished. I think it was 2004 when I went through 3 ball winders in 3 months, and swore off buying the cheap ones, having concluded that for the price of the three cheap ones with broken plastic gears I could have bought one really good one instead. As it happens, I still have that one really good one, which was a Strauch that I initially expected to be overkill for my needs. Turns out it hasn’t been. The other really fabulous one out there is from Nancy’s Knit Knacks — when Nancy says heavy duty, she means it.
– Bobbin Winder. My Schacht bobbin winder is my most reliable and dependable. After the skein winder, the bobbin winder is probably my biggest saver of time and money. With it, and an assortment of cheap plastic bobbins, it simply doesn’t matter how many bobbins I have for which spinning wheel.
– Combs! Oh, man, where to start with combs? If your spinner has none, then I’d go with either the double-pitch Valkyrie fine hand combs, or St. Blaise combs (designed by master comber and spinning teacher Robin Russo, and made by her husband Pat). These two are actually the ones I use the most, as generalist combs. However, your spinner may have specific wants and needs and if he or she has combs already, there could be another set that are needed in order to perform specific tasks, in which case, refer to the upcoming advice about sneakily finding out what your spinner really wants.
– Blending Board. These have been the hot item in fiber prep for the past year or two, and there are lots of designs. I really like the Clemes and Clemes one and the Ashford one, which can sit on your lap but also feature a keel that you can hold between your knees to keep things steady while you play, or set on a table in front of you.
This is a tough price range — it represents a price point where you can often find more expensive equipment used in good condition, and where you start to see the most entry-priced higher-end tools and equipment. However, most of the new equipment in this price range doesn’t wow me in terms of fit and finish, durability, and bang for the buck. If this is your budget, I’d put together a bunch of mix and match stuff from lower price ranges, such as a skein winder, swift, ball winder, and bobbin winder. Or a spindle and a lot of fiber. Or lots of extra bobbins for your spinner’s wheel of choice. Or, see if you can get your spinner to divulge a wish for an add-on to his or her wheel, because you can also find a lot of things like that in this price range.
Another good option might be to pick up your spinner a way to use up some of that yarn, and a great option in this price range is a rigid heddle loom with accessories. I’m partial to my Schacht rigid heddle looms because they’re laid out similarly to floor looms, and because of the range of accessories available (one of my faves is the heddle solution that lets you mix and match so you can do a lot of varied things with your warp). One of the great things about giving a spinner a rigid heddle loom is that it’s going to eat up lots of yarn, and it’s easy to mix and match and combine small skeins and leftovers into cohesive finished projects. I realize it’s a whole new slippery slope, but… you never know, you might just want to give your spinner a gentle nudge. You’ll doubtless be repaid in all kinds of new textile goods.
Now we’re in the entry priced spinning wheel price range! You might want to take a stroll through my article on choosing your first wheel to help you think this one through. The brands I most recommend are Ashford, Lendrum, Louet, Majacraft, and Schacht. My two top picks for wheels in this price range are the Schacht Ladybug and the Lendrum folding wheel, but all the brands I mentioned are dependable, excellent performers, and well-supported. I recommend finding the closest dealer you can for these, so you can get local help and support for the new wheel.
This is also the right price range for a drum carder. Myself personally, I have three — a Strauch, a Pat Green, and a Louet Classic. They all do different things, and it’s really no coincidence that these are the three I have: these are the ones that I’ve kept after working with lots of others. The Strauch is my best all-around, the Pat Green is the best for superfine fibers, and the Louet Classic is the best for more medium and wild and crazy fibers. Find whatever’s in your price range from one of those brands, and you pretty much can’t go wrong. If I could only keep one of these carders, though, it would be the Strauch, based on over a decade of extensive drum carding experience. My top pick for an entry-priced drum carder is the Strauch Petite, based on almost a decade of working with them in classes.
As another thought for this price range, sending (or taking) your favourite spinner to a class (these can be pretty cheap and local, or they can be pricier with national instructors and involve travel), retreat, or fiber festival would be the kind of gift they’ll talk about for years.
At this price point you can either buy a heavier duty drum carder, a higher-end spinning wheel, or put together a spinner’s studio package. My top picks for spinning wheels in this price range are: Schacht Matchless, Majacraft Rose and Suzie, Louet Julia, Ashford Elizabeth, Lendrum Complete package. My top picks for drum carders are Strauch Finest and Pat Green Blender/Carder.
For a package that will give your spinner pretty much everything he or she really needs, here’s what I’d do. This list is ordered by priority, based on my experience.
– spinning wheel
– skein winder or niddy noddy (go for the skeinwinder if budget allows)
– books and videos
– bobbin winder
– hand cards
$1200 and up
Okay, I’m going to talk turkey here: if you’ve got this kind of budget for gifts for the spinner in your life, you probably shouldn’t be taking the word of some stranger on the Internet, even if it’s me. Chances are good that your spinner already has a wish list of things he or she really, really wants, and you’re going to have to get that information somehow.
There’s always coming right out and asking, but if you wanted to be less direct (so you can definitely surprise someone), you might consider contacting the fiber or yarn shop that he or she frequents, and asking if they know your spinner and whether or not there’s anything the folks at the shop think he or she wants or needs. That’s also a way to find out what’s new, what’s hot, and that sort of thing. Your spinner also might be a member of public fiber arts groups online, and while I wouldn’t ordinarily suggest stalking someone on the internet, you might well find that a public forum contains posts where your spinner has outright stated what he or she most wishes they had. It’s been known to happen. Lastly, it’s possibly slower to get answers, but watch your spinner doing what he or she does and see if anything seems slow, cumbersome, or awkward. Then ask if there’s something that solves that. For example, “Hey, that niddy noddy thing seems kinda slow. Is there a faster way?” You’ll probably hear “Oh, yeah, there are skein winders, but they’re $100 and up and I can’t warrant spending that.” And then you’ve broken the ice! Then you can simply say things like “Wow, I had no idea there were so many things like that! Tell me more about some other interesting ones!” and there you go, you’ll probably hear more than you ever imagined.
Believe it or not, I get asked this question pretty regularly: “If you were going to set someone up with a really awesome spinning studio for the best bang for the buck, what would you get?” As with all things spinning, the answer is really “It depends,” but if this were some sort of game show which I’d win by just handling that question, I’d budget $1500-1700 and go this route:
The fall teaching schedule is always jam-packed and exciting, and when I get home — usually just before Thanksgiving — I tend to have a huge email backlog from being on the road, and a staggering to-do list that I always expect to complete in the relative lull (well, at least it’s a travel lull) of late November to early January. Topping that to-do list is always “update the class list.”
Throughout the year, I keep notes about the things people ask me to teach, and the things I hear people asking. In November, I do outlines and descriptions and materials workups for the new classes, check out all the details and work out pricing, all that sort of thing. I’m always amazed — even though I should know — at how much longer this takes than I expect! But, I’m done for the year! Huzzah! Here it is.
It’s a PDF and there’s a ton of information in there! So I figured I’d summarize things a bit. My class list allows for three main ways to hire me to teach for you (although there are always unique considerations and special cases). First, in what I call the “hosted model,” you can hire me and pay my flat daily rate, plus travel and lodging, and then I’ll show up and teach while you promote the event, deal with registrations, and fit things into your pre-existing routine. This usually works out well for guilds, shops, and some festivals and retreats. Second, in what I call the “grassroots model,” you can have me handle registrations and collect an all-inclusive per-student fee, while you find a location where you are, do some on-the-ground logistics and advertising (like arranging for the location and telling your friends). This tends to work out well for informal groups or for a group that doesn’t have a pre-existing structure for holding classes. Third, you can come where I am with a small group, and we can put together a retreat with me at the Golden Lamb, where we’ve held Stringtopia retreat events over the past few years. This can be done either paying me the flat rate to have me deal with the logistics at this end and for you to show up with up to 7 of your friends (more by quote), or it can be made into a grassroots model retreat which I host and handle registrations and so forth.
The hope behind having three ways to do this is to try to have as many ways as possible to be as accessible as I can be to the widest range of people in the widest range of places. Of course, next year I’m going to finally have developed the online automated quote generator system with date scheduler and a robot that handles everything. I say that every year, but somehow, I never seem to do it. So if you’re interested, just email me — abby at abbysyarns.com — and we can go from there! And if you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments for all to see.
Looking forward to seeing lots of you this coming year — and beyond!
A year ago I got up and, looking out the window, realized that the winter’s first snow had fallen overnight. It wasn’t much, but it was on the early side for southwestern Ohio. I thought about how I wasn’t ready for winter, and about how you were probably, at that very moment, waiting for a flight from Lima to Cusco. I wished I was there, and not only because of snow.
I didn’t know then — wouldn’t for another day — that it would be the last day of your life. That the next time I’d see you, you’d be gone.
It isn’t fair.
Yeah, I know. Nobody ever promised fair. But still. I had this amazing mom. And I’m too young for this shit. I expected at least another 25 to 30 years. All your grandmothers and aunts and great-aunts living well into their nineties led me to believe it was a foregone conclusion that you would, too. How come there are people who don’t even *like* their family that get to keep them until old age, and I gotta be in my early 40s and they’re all gone?
I don’t know if you ever fully believed it, but all my life I so desperately wanted to measure up not only to you and all the things you were, but to all the things that in hindsight I realize were your hopes for your firstborn little girl.
Do you remember that one recurring nightmare I used to have? The first one — the one that started when I was five. We all got up in the morning in our house in Chinchero, and set out to go to the other side of Antaquillka, to look at a refrigerator. You said if we could have a refrigerator then we could do lots of things with it and it would help everyone in town. Ed said we had to go look at it because who knew if it would really work, and since there weren’t any refrigerators in town it was a big decision.
Well, when we got to the other side of Antaquillka — I’d never have expected it — everything was all pink and white stripes. The sun was high in the sky and all our feet were covered in dust, except Molly, because you and Ed carried her. But as we went downhill, the pink and white stripes gave way to foliage and the only real dust was on the carretera. You could see the tracks where trucks and buses had gone, and would go. And then just inside a mostly-open courtyard, there was the fridge.
You and Ed opened it up, inspected it, checked it over fully. Some sort of discussion of technicalities happened. There were pros and cons. I wasn’t interested in the discussion, really, until Ed said, “Come on over and take a look, Abby. Whatcha think? Will this do the trick?” I straightened right up then, realizing I had to take this seriously and offer an opinion. I walked around the fridge and looked at the back. It had a cord coming out of it, with a plug. I thought it looked like a plug should look, so I walked back around to the front and opened the door. It was a white door, with rounded edges and a big silver metal handle like a lever. I looked inside. There were shelves, and a small silvery box, like a freezer but with no frosty ice around it. It was all empty, and it wasn’t cold inside it, because fridges are a thing you plug in, to electricity. But it looked like it would work. So I closed the door and turned back to tell you guys I thought it looked okay.
You weren’t there, though. I was shocked to see you were out at the road, about to head away to the left. We’d come in from the right. “Wait!” I hollered, and ran to the carretera. Ed had Molly in a kheparina on his back, and you’d unsnapped your down vest and braided your hair. You both laughed, a friendly happy laugh, and I thought, allright, I’ve gotta run and catch up, then. So I did.
By the time my feet hit the road though, you guys were already running down it, ahead of me. I ran after. You kept going, all three of you. Molly turned around and looked back and waved. You kept getting farther away, and you were laughing and smiling, all of you guys. I kept running but I couldn’t catch up. My legs got tired and my breath came ragged and you never stopped to wait, none of you guys. Molly just waved. It wasn’t funny. I was getting left behind and I couldn’t stop getting left behind, and you guys wouldn’t stop either.
But when I woke up you would be there. You, and Ed and Molly, and you’d hold me and tell me it was okay. Just a dream. Just a bad dream. It’s not true. It isn’t real. And it wasn’t. It was just a bad dream.
So, it turns out it is real. You guys are all off and gone now and I’m left behind. I feel like I’m left standing in the road, trying to figure out how best to get a fridge from the road somewhere down the other side of Antaquillka, home to Chinchero, through absurd pink and white stripes all over the side of a mountain, without you guys. And then what? That was always the scary part of that dream — and then what? First I got left behind, and you guys knew I got left behind, but you went anyway, so then what was I supposed to do?
That really does sum up the past year. You wouldn’t believe — actually, you know, you would. You always would. You would believe the outrageous was impossible, and in the best possible ways. You believed all chaos was survivable. You believed in the amazing stories, and you just… did the amazing things, and you took all the rest of us along for the ride. I know a lot of people don’t realize it, but I do.
“Motherless children have a hard time, when the mother is gone”
Your brother’s moving closer to us. That’s a great thing, though the sad thing is, of course, that he can do it now your mother’s gone too. I saw her just this April. Her hands were strong and we talked about knitting sweaters. And then a month later she was gone too.
I guess pretty much everyone figures Molly is gone. I know you’d never give up hope. Not even on the hardest hard scenarios. Somewhere you’d always find hope. So I tell myself, well then, I’ll find some hope. The only thing is it’s hard to figure out what to hope for. So I guess every so often I just… hope random things. Like that someday we’ll know for sure. Or maybe that we never know. I don’t know.
It’s all been one blow after another. It’s been a year of bad dreams that stay bad dreams when I wake up, and the whole year, my mother’s been gone. And you know what really sucks about that? (Yes, I see you rolling your eyes because even after I told you the jazz etymology for ‘sucks’ you don’t like it) What really sucks is, I can’t even call you up and just whine about it.
Also, I was at a fantastic concert. It was one of those things that could happen when you’re a mom, and I know you understand. We’d gotten the tickets to send your grandson and his date to see Trombone Shorty, but then it turned out the two of them had a band competition, so his dad and I went instead. But then they played “St. James Infirmary” and I broke down and couldn’t stop crying.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her, whereever she may be…
And the minor tones like funeral bells. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sing that song again myself, if I can’t even hear it played.
You know your book won an award, right? I can’t believe you died without signing a copy of it for me. The very nerve.
Another good thing is I’ve been catching up with a lot of people, and lots of them with each other too — folks from the farm, folks living all over, you know? I like to imagine you’ve seen all that, been there somehow.
I hope that you are resting well, at the bosom of Our Lord of Earthquakes, sleeping beneath the apus, celebrating September 8 with the Virgin in Chinchero. You have earned a rest. You have done so much for so many. And none of us can really quite believe you’re gone, let alone gone a year. Nilda’s having a mass said, this Friday, so everyone can be there.
I wish I could have made this a better letter. I’ve read a lot of old letters you wrote, since you’ve been gone. I’ve read old letters I wrote to you, too. I don’t know what to say about it all, except to say how badly I miss you, although even there, I can’t find the words.
Rest well, and in good company. I’ll keep putting one foot in front of another, and try to figure out what the fuck I’m doing with this fridge I know you’d have wanted to see handled. And someday, who knows when, I hope I’ll see you again. I miss you.
It’s been a long year. Like, a really really long year. The kind of year I wouldn’t wish on anyone ever, actually — a year that has really tested and tried my ability to stay calm and keep things together. It’s been the kind of year where I’ve stopped thinking “At least this must be as bad as it can get,” and instead started to wonder, every time some new blow lands, what’s coming next and how much more surreal it could possibly get. There remain things about this year which I won’t speak of publicly, but I’ll talk about a few things — things that became public regardless my family’s wishes about if or how such things might become public.
When my little sister disappeared, that was pretty bad. It’s hard enough to just have a loved one missing. But it got harder when we learned her disappearance was classified as being under suspicious circumstances. Then it got harder when my mother, my niece, and I were all asked for DNA samples — not, as my mother put it at the time, because they think that she’s dead, but because the police said it was “routine at this point in such an investigation,” and that obviously, the reason to have DNA samples would be to identify a body.
When my mother died suddenly in Peru, her body found in a hotel, that was covered by the news media in Peru. They’re not really governed by the kind of rules journalists in the US are, I figured, as I read news articles which misspelled her name, and which featured photos — hopefully stock photos — such as a black bodybag thrown haphazardly into the back of a pickup truck. I scrutinized those photos, wondering if that was really her, and concluding it wasn’t, because my mother was not tall and could lay down flat in the bed of a typical Toyota pickup, and that body was too tall. My God, I remember thinking, I have to put out something that people can read that informs them of her death, before things like this spread around the Internet.
The experience of having a lifelong family friend call me from Peru to tell me she found my mother dead? Answering the phone call from the US Embassy a few hours later? Traveling internationally to retrieve my mother’s autopsied body from the third world morgue in which it awaited me? These are all experiences that would challenge anyone’s ability to describe them, let alone endure them. Fortunately for me, I faced those things with the support of not only my family, but the extended community in which I was raised, and mostly, after the immediate flurry of Latin American press had died down.
With my mother dead, many things fell to me — many hard things, most of which remain private: concerns about the wellbeing of immediate family members, my mother’s estate, and all of this on top of being a self-employed small business owner. How to handle these things is not something you can google. There is no “Dummies’ Guide To Handling International Death And Probate With A Missing Beneficiary And Other Major Issues.” I made lists of the things I could identify that needed handling, and set about making phone calls, writing letters, informing lifelong family friends and the entire extended family of where things stood. Of course, it also fell to me to become the main point of contact regarding the investigation into my little sister’s disappearance.
One moment of surreality occurred while I was at the supermarket with my husband, and my cell phone rang. It was the detective leading the investigation, and he was calling to bring me up to speed on where things were. Walking through the aisles and picking up dish detergent and paper towels, I can remember saying, “So after the state crime lab finishes building the DNA profile, what are the next steps?” and “Is the expectation that remains will be found?” I realized a stranger was staring at me. Don’t worry about it, I thought to myself; she probably figures you’re talking about an episode of some crime drama show. “I understand,” I told the detective. “We still can’t really discuss this whole thing widely, so we don’t compromise the investigation.”
These are sentences I don’t think anybody ever imagines they will have cause to utter. Then there are terms you don’t expect to learn in your early forties (unless you’re an estate lawyer, in which case you learned them earlier, in law school, I presume). By the time you have a day in which you discuss DNA evidence and know what “per stirpes” means and that GAL stands for “guardian ad litem” and what that means, and by the time you’ve explained stuff like that to your husband and son, the surrealism has ratcheted up even further.
Then comes a moment when someone asks you how you’re doing. What do you say? To a casual acquaintance you smile and say “I’m good, how are you?” and hope the acquaintance isn’t really asking in earnest. To a close friend you say… what? “I’m doing as well as I think I could be, considering,” was one thing. “I’m in one piece,” has been another. “It’s been hard, and it’s not over yet,” still another. And everyone wants to help but there isn’t really anything anyone can do. I tried to think of things someone could do, and again and again I’d come up short. Again, no guidebook, no checklists, no known etiquette.
There’s nothing that tells you how to think about putting family stuff in boxes because your sister would want it. I thought about those women found in Cleveland after being held captive for ten years. I imagined my sister being found after some such horrible ideal, and what she would want or need. I asked myself over and over, what if she is never found? What if we never know what happened to her? Rationally you know that people endure that, but how will you? How will I? What should I say to someone who was there when my sister and I were babies, toddlers, little girls, teenagers — how do I explain that right now, all we can do is wait for the next steps in the investigation, and face people wondering why I’m not doing something more? How do I not feel let the pain and anger about it all derail me but good?
When complete or relative strangers become involved, in the most well-meaning of ways, then whether they’re really helpful or not, you just express your appreciation. The list of things to be handled is so long you develop new worlds of skill at simply letting go of things that don’t get handled, or are handled poorly, or which someone else handles in their own way. You just put one foot in front of the other, go back to your list, and pick an item from it to see if you can handle it. If you can, you do. If you can’t, you move on to another item. You try to not drop any more balls than can’t be helped. You try to remember to eat healthy and you try to sleep. At least, that’s what I did — except I’d wake up in the middle of the night, often after some strange and perturbing dream, with memories swirling in my head or else plagued by doubt as to whether I’ve done everything right, done everything I could, battered by to-do lists and hopes and fears. It’s June now, and I haven’t slept through the night since November. Every new hair growing in on my head is grey.
My cousin and I are action item people. Something happens, or there’s a question, and she and I are the type to formulate lists of action items and start going through them. So naturally, I’ve talked with her a lot about all of this. The other day, I told her that probably the only thing keeping me from having a nervous breakdown is that I have no idea what the action items are that let that happen. I wouldn’t know where to start. I asked her to run through a checklist for me as to whether or not that was an indicator I was already having a nervous breakdown. We went through the lists and concluded that, sadly, no, I’m still stuck soldiering on. But neither of us said “At least it can’t get worse from here.” We’ve learned it really can. So now, instead, we start wondering at what point Godzilla will rise up from the pond across the road and start smashing his way through the countryside. It doesn’t seem any less plausible than most of what we’ve already faced.
In early May, my grandmother took a sudden and major downturn at the nursing home where she’d resided for many years. This was hard in so many ways. Because of her advanced senility, she no longer really recognized anyone, and had been unable to process that her daughter had died. The time we spent with her was bittersweet — always wonderful just to have those flashes of the amazing woman she had always been, though they’d last a minute or so at best. Her hands were strong the day I last saw her, in late April on my sister’s birthday. We talked about knitting, and spinning, and I handed her my spindle and some silk. I made her a little piece of silk yarn and she wound it through the arms of her walker, stroking it, and saying that it was soft. What was it? she asked several times, and silk, I told her. “I used to knit lots of things,” she said, wistfully. “Like sweaters.” I thought about the hats and sweaters and mittens and so many things she had knit for us all over the years. “I used to knit sweaters for my granddaughters,” she said. “I am your granddaughter,” I told her. “Who is?” she asked, surprised. “You are? Whose granddaughter? Mine? Mine are little. What day of the week is this?” And so it went on, as we sat in the sunshine and shade on the patio of her nursing home. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know her son, my uncle, who had taken me there, who would go see her many times a week.
The diagnosis came in: she had many kinds of cancer, and aggressive treatment did not have a favourable outlook considering her age and mental condition, and it would be painful. They recommended end of life care. My uncle and I agreed. It wasn’t long; she died the Friday before Memorial Day. Now my uncle and I shared the common experience of apparently being the last one left of the family in which we were children.
Unless, of course, my sister were to be found. It has been a long year of hope and despair and fear, on that front. Ever communicative, the detective in charge of the investigation would keep me up to date. There was no reason to believe she was alive, necessarily, except perhaps that she hadn’t been found dead yet, and so I’d think again about women held hostage in basements, women sold into slavery overseas, all kinds of horrible things that could have befallen my sister and what I could do to help her when she’d escape. Because whatever else, my sister was always smart and resilient and able to find a way to survive. She had fantastic survival instincts. If someone were to survive some horror of captivity or something, surely it would be her. Or maybe she’d suffered a memory loss. Maybe she was somewhere not knowing who she was — somewhere thinking, like our grandmother about her knitting, how she had always loved growing plants, wondering what day of the week this was.
How twisted is it, I thought, that a comforting notion is that maybe my sister is being held hostage in a basement? How does one even speak such thoughts aloud without the world thinking you’re crazy? How is this something reassuring I can say to loved ones wondering what we’ve heard about Molly? Is it? Isn’t it? Does it really make me feel better? Should I be saying “My sister is” or “My sister was?” I realized over the past year that I’d gradually, and not really consciously, shifted to saying things about her in ways that avoided that question, like “My sister was always crazy about plants,” instead of “my sister loved plants.”
The word from the detective was that they were close to being able to take next steps in the investigation — more involved search, more involved questioning, different warrants and charges and stuff. He told me a lot of the background, in general terms — which was enough — and with us all understanding, hey, this can’t get spread around everywhere because there’s an ongoing investigation. “What do I tell people when they ask?” I wondered, and the best we could do was “The investigation is ongoing, right now they’re working on a DNA profile at the state crime lab, then there’ll be more things they can proceed with, and that’ll be sometime sooner rather than later.” But the more I heard the more certain I was that I should probably start practicing saying “Molly was my sister” instead of “I am Molly’s sister.”
On Thursday, June 5, I set my cell phone down on the counter and went to do something, then came back to see “MISSED CALL + VOICE MAIL: ALAN HARNETT.” My husband was starting the grill to cook dinner and my son was playing a video game. I listened to the voice mail: there had been developments in Molly’s case, and could I call him back? So I did. I did, and standing on my back deck remembering standing there with Molly when she’d come for Thanksgiving one time, I listened to a story unfold. They had finally gotten to where they had warrants both for a full search of the suspect’s house, and for his arrest for Molly’s homicide. The plan was to bring him in and question him while searching the home.
“Holy shit,” I blurted, then apologized. “It’s okay,” he said, “I’ve heard it before.” He went on to say that they had gone to the suspect’s home that morning to serve those warrants, and unlike times when they’d visited him in the past, he didn’t immediately open the door and speak with them. In fact, he yelled from inside for the police to leave, threatening them. “Holy shit,” I said again. “That’s an understandable response,” the detective told me. He went on to explain that then, after 20 minutes, two teams of two officers forced entry via the front door, and found the suspect barricaded behind a locked bedroom door in the back of the house. He shouted that he was armed and intended to shoot. After some minutes, he emerged carrying a long gun (which is to say a rifle or shotgun — not a handgun, basically) and ran to another room in the house. For 35 minutes the officers followed him as he did this, shouting threats; and then he ran for the back door, at which point one officer hit him with a “less-lethal” rubber baton, which did not stop him. At this point, the suspect raised the long gun to a shooting position towards the officers, who shot and killed him.
“Holy shit,” I said again. “Holy shit.” There was more, lots more. I was shocked.
“Please,” I said, “please tell the officers that my thoughts are with them in what I’m sure is a tremendously difficult time for them. I don’t really know what to say, and I’m not sure what to think, except that I hope they all go home to their families and that my thoughts are with them.”
Nobody wanted things to go this way. And then I realized… “So,” I said, “I… I imagine this will be on the news.”
“Yeah,” the detective told me. “Pretty much any Bay Area news outlet. Shooting at Fair Oaks and Maude. Yeah.”
I thought about how many times I’d been through that intersection when I lived blocks away. I’d looked right at that house. One year there was a pair of shoes hanging from its laces over a traffic light pole next to the homeless shelter next door, and we’d talked with our preschool son almost every time about how those shoes could have ended up there. I thought about my son’s kindergarten and elementary schools, right near there. I tried to picture all this happening, and knew I’d look at the news. But first, I hung up, and explained everything to my husband and son.
The news stories were mercifully brief. Nobody was named. But I knew that was just a matter of time.
I called family. I had a drink, and then I had another one. I sat on my patio and listened to birds singing. It was an absolutely beautiful evening. The lilies were starting to bud and even bloom, some of them.
Suddenly I got three voice mails on the work voice mail. They were all from reporters. I swore. This, then, must be the pond across the road burbling like Godzilla’s about to surface. Then I had a couple of new emails — also from reporters. “I’m not doing shit about this tonight,” I said. “I don’t have any idea if I want to talk to these people or not.” What would they say if I didn’t? Nothing I didn’t know. I went to bed.
I woke in the night, not from dreaming, but just with a sense of malaise. I was wide awake and it all was right there at the surface. Finally I slept again, and woke in the morning, and with my coffee, began to look at my email (more reporters) and the news (with videos even, and I guess I should have realized they wouldn’t know how to pronounce Franquemont). Friday. This was Friday, I told myself. That’s what day of the week it is.
By afternoon, one news organization stood out as having not been rude, manipulative, and horrible. I called them back. They had some questions, but the only ones I really could speak to were the simple facts: when did my sister move to Sunnyvale? When was she last seen? Were the police in contact with you about the investigation? 2000, March of last year, and yes, yes they were. In fact all I really have to say is that our whole family’s hearts go out to the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety and others involved in the investigation and difficult events of yesterday. I sent the news network three family photos and told them how to pronounce our name. That night, this story ran.
Kudos to KGO TV for contacting me in a courteous and respectful manner, speaking civilly and without being pushy, for taking time to check names and facts, and for a pretty non-editorialized piece of reporting.
To the rest of you… not so much. Like especially not so much to whoever it was who contacted my previous business partner, with whom I hadn’t spoken in a year, and asked her to contact me and tell me “they think they’re about to find your sister’s body.” Seriously? Talk about manipulative and false. Same to “We just want to tell your sister’s story!” on my voice mail. No you don’t. You have no actual interest in my sister’s story; you want to put grief and heartbreak and stress out there on prurient display. You want someone to break and make exciting TV. Also no points to “We are contacting everyone named Franquemont who we can find any information for,” and “We’re calling every Franquemont in the phone book,” when you just called an unlisted cell phone number.
I think, though, that the Facebook message I woke up to this morning takes the cake. Being of greater conscience than the news media, I have elided the name and contact information.
Let’s just step through this, shall we?
Let’s start with “I believe you are Molly Franquemont’s relative.” Hey, if you went to the trouble of tracking me down on Facebook, you could also go to the trouble of reading things I’ve posted publicly and figuring out whether or not I’m Molly Franquemont’s relative. Who else did you ask? How widely did you spam this message? Do scores of Franquemonts now have in their Facebook messages this stellar example of media sensitivity and thorough research?
“I’m sorry for all you’ve been through.” Unconvincing; after all, you only THINK I’m Molly’s relative, right?
“As you may have heard – police shot and killed the man Molly was living with and they believe he had something to do with her disappearance.” Yes. Yes, I may have heard that. You know why I may have heard that? Because the police actually did their job — exactly as I came to expect of them when I lived in Sunnyvale, and exactly as they have continued to do, with diligence, respect, and sensitivity even in life and death matters such as this. And one of the things that is their job is sensibly, reasonably, and respectfully keeping family informed. Along with knowing who the family is.
“Wanted to reach out to Molly’s family to find out more about her.. “ Ah, no. That’s what you want me to think you want to do, but it isn’t. You’re not interested in Molly, unless perhaps you discover there are salacious details of her life that you can serve up without concern, at least until the next thing you can imagine might be shocking enough to grab viewers comes along. What are you expecting me to believe you want to know about Molly? Her favourite colour? Was she a cat person or a dog person? You didn’t even google very hard, because I’ve blogged about Molly before and she’s had an interesting life.
“how do you feel knowing the person who may know something is dead?” Ah, here comes the truth. Here comes what you really want, right? You want to pour salt in a wound, or pick scabs to see if things’ll still bleed. I imagine you sent the same Facebook message to the suspect’s family, except saying things like “How do you feel knowing the police shot your apparent relative when he had a BB gun?” Do you have templates that you can draw from to stir up a frenzy on web forums where people rage about the police? What other angles are you working on this?
“Would like to help.” Okay. How? What are you suggesting you can do that is help? When you contacted the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, what help did you offer them?
And more to the point: what help are you offering, RIGHT NOW, to someone whose sister only just disappeared? How do YOU feel about your job and how you do it? Did you ask yourself what impact your messages could have on the recipient, or whether you might be breaking this news to someone who didn’t know it yet, who might be fragile about a loved one’s disappearance? What if Molly were your sister, your mother, or your daughter? How would YOU feel, and what would YOU say?
And the real crux of the matter might be this: do you feel that your questions and approach would give me a sense of confidence that you would treat my sister’s story in a way I’d want to see plastered around the public eye? What would inspire me to trust that you would present my sister, or myself, or our entire family, in a light anyone could find remotely comfortable?
When I started this, I didn’t mean to single you out, and I still don’t, really; it’s just that your messages are such a perfect example of the type of media contact my family has mostly received in the past several days. You might, however, be the only one to come back like this from a non-response:
” I saw you saw my note and wanted to reach out again to see if your family members want closure in this case and are holding out hope your loved one is alive..”
I really only have two things to say here. First, are you fucking kidding me? And second, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Now, I realize that technically, that’s only one thing, but I felt it was salient enough to say twice.
(Okay, I got that rhetorical construct from an episode of Red Dwarf, and wouldn’t want it to go uncredited, as that would really be poor form.)
Also, I lied: I have more to say, now that that’s out of the way. It’s this: do you honestly imagine that if law enforcement and judicial authorities feel there is sufficient evidence to issue a warrant for homicide, it isn’t based on some pretty substantial probable cause? Do you really think something like this goes down and the authorities have not been in contact with the next of kin? Because if you do, wow — that sounds like a story that’s really worth digging for. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t bleed. It won’t potentially break down on camera and allow you to capitalize on the pain and suffering of real human beings. It’s probably not as straightforward to manipulate as some people with whom you interact must be.
I feel for a lot of people. You don’t know them, or have any interest in them. I feel bittersweet relief my mother didn’t live to be plagued by the news media these past few days. I feel for family members who I won’t mention because being hounded won’t help them with their grief and doubt. I feel for the family of the dead suspect. I feel for the officers involved and their families, and for all the authorities who worked hard on this investigation, and who are continuing their search for answers about what happened to my sister, and whose jobs are now that much harder. And you know what? I even feel for you, because I’d hate to have a job that either made me so jaded to basic humanity that I could send such messages and not think twice, or required me to do it no matter how it made me feel.
Most of all I feel for my sister. You didn’t ask, but she always did love plants and green growing things and she had the most amazing green thumb. She was an artist and a person of tremendous sensitivity. Did you know English was actually her third language? That she graduated from middle school in Japan, speaking and reading enough Japanese to do that and withstanding the pressures a gaijin girl faces there? She was smart and funny and she loved so very, very deeply; she worked hard, and she tried hard, and even when she did not succeed she never just quit. She took a lot of hard knocks in her life and she always got back up and kept going. Except apparently this time. And she deserves to be remembered not as a victim, but as a living woman who was a daughter, sister, friend and more. I don’t want to tell you how she ended up down on her luck. I don’t want to tell the world about the demons she faced. I want to tell you that she loved life, and that I miss her, and will always miss her, and that more closure from knowing more won’t change that. I want to tell you about her life and why she changed mine and made me a better, stronger person.
So Molly, this song goes out to you, because I remember you would always sing along with it. Wherever you are, girl, don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be allright.
Tonight there was heat lightning, and that always makes me think of this one time. It was a long time ago but it’s always what goes through my mind.
So this one time, and I haven’t gotten that far in reading old handwritten notebooks yet, but it was 1978. We’d been living in Lircay, Peru, where my parents were doing anthropological work for a mining company, and well, that’s a long story. I was in second grade — I’d passed the test to be there, oral and written, and the phrase I had to write on the blackboard was “Mi mama come sopa.” I had an awesome little patent leather maletin or briefcase, and I felt so grown up. But the job fell apart, the life fell apart, and the country was pretty unsettled too. And so it was that one evening, probably about this time of year, we were in a white Toyota truck getting the hell outta Dodge, as they say.
In Huancayo we found a hotel, and we holed up. Outside in the streets there was gunfire and lots of yelling. There were explosions and stuff. I remember my mother taking her evening pills and insisting I had to eat my vitamin C pill. My dad wrote in his notebook and my sister cried. Nobody slept well.
In the morning we got up and got on the road. We drove all day and after dark. It was slow going, and it was way dark, and there was this one spot where we had to ford a river. We drove through. The water was up past the doors and it seeped in a bit in the footwells but we got through, going fast, going fast, going fast, don’t let the river take us, and we came out the other side.
I was afraid it was going to rain. There was thunder and lightning and some of it was lightning that covered the whole sky. First, it lit up everything, and then there were little tendrils of lightning everywhere. Rayos, pues, in Spanish. Rayos. Heat lightning, my father said. I was alternately kneeling and standing in the middle of the truck’s bench seat, and my sister was on my mother’s lap, because she was barely three and she was always little. She wouldn’t speak English then, just Quechua and sometimes Spanish.
The next day we were in Lima and everything for us was okay. But I was more scared the night there was heat lightning and we forded the river in the white Toyota truck than I was the night we holed up in the hotel in Huancayo. And heat lightning always makes me think of how I thought maybe we’d all be swept away down whatever river that was and just be gone. But that’s not how it went down.
So tonight there was heat lightning, and in half a second watching fingers and tendrils cross the sky and feeling the electric charge that makes your heart hold still a second before it hits, I remembered all that. Just like I always do.
Happy Mother’s Day, Chris. I miss you. You’re such a badass. If I had that second grade written test to do over it would say way more than that you ate soup.
Yesterday morning five months ago, my mother got off a plane in Cusco, Peru. I can’t begin to guess how many times in her life my mother had done just that, or how many times — just like this one — she was met at the airport by Nilda and her husband Paulino. I was imagining it, actually; I would have been there too, except that my plans had to change and I couldn’t attend the 2013 Tinkuy de Tejedores put on by Nilda and her Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.
When all is said and done, I suppose that really, I spent more time with my mother in the Cusco area of Peru than any other single region. She first took me there when I was a small child, 37 years ago, when it was a whole different world than it was the last time I saw her there, with my own son in tow, for the first Tinkuy in 2010. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of my mother and not thought of that part of the world; even before our family went there together in the 1970s, my parents spoke of Peru constantly (it was where they had met) and I’d seen pictures and desperately wanted to go. My mother was a teenager — barely older than my high school sophomore son — the first time she set foot on that ground.
Christine Robinson, high school senior, 1964
The night before her arrival, she’d texted me from the Miami airport, with sparse words as you’d expect from a text: letting me know that my sister’s daughter (whose guardianship she had assumed in 2008) was an inpatient at the same hospital where my father spent his last days. “She’s safe and making progress,” my mother said, “I will get email in Peru if you want to send any messsages. Hope all is well or even better.”
I didn’t answer quickly. I didn’t really know what to say. She hadn’t even really explained why my niece was hospitalized, but I’d gathered it was psychiatric. I’d probed for information, but she really hadn’t wanted to tell me anything. The next day — six months ago today — I finally texted her back. “All is fine here. I can only imagine having to go to that hospital more. Ugh. You should just move. Like to Cuper finally. Or anywhere. Fuck it, La Paz sounds better.” That’s right, La Paz — long known to be my least favourite place in the world, a place where my mother and I had never shared a less enjoyable time — except for those final weeks of my father’s terminal illness.
I went on. I figured she’d see the iPhone message sooner or later, when she had net. “I am so unbelievably sad not to be there with you,” I said. “Not to be in Peru but more than that, not to be there with my mom. Please give everyone my love and let me know if there is anything I can do. And when you get back, don’t be afraid to call me and vent about Q or anything all. I love you, and I miss you.” She didn’t answer, but then, the message didn’t show as delivered yet either.
Ed Franquemont and Christine Robinson, 1966
The next day about noon, I was at my studio getting started soaking some silk fiber to start showing my intern-turned-staffer how to dye it with low water immersion. Over the sound of running water and suchlike, I didn’t hear my cell phone the first time it rang, or the second. But moments later I felt it shake and when I took it out, there were two missed calls from an unknown number, two voice mails, and a VIP email alert for email from Nilda, in all caps, saying it was urgent and I had to call her about Chris.
Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, 2013
I dropped everything — didn’t listen to the voice mails or anything, just called. I couldn’t get through on my cell phone, and the studio phone would connect but then you couldn’t understand a thing the other side was saying. I finally replied to the email, what seemed like forever later but it was only minutes, telling Nilda I was having no luck and asking if she could try me back on my cell again.
She did. She was upset. I wasn’t surprised; there was clearly a problem and I knew all of this couldn’t be good news. But then she said it: “No hay Chris,” she said, Chris is gone. I was stunned, and at first, it didn’t sink in, and I asked stupid things. Gone where? She isn’t there? Did her plane not arrive? Did she miss her plane? And Nilda said it again, several different ways, ultimately telling me that she’d just gone into Chris’ hotel room and found her there, fallecida.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. Such a stupid thing to ask, but… there you have it. Shock makes you say stupid things. “There’s no mistake?” But no; there was no mistake. And Nilda was there with the police and the fiscal and my poor dead mother, who was like another mother to Nilda, Nilda with a cell phone in her hand and me with a cell phone in mine, the both of us stunned, her right there and me some four thousand miles away as the crow flies, looking around a daily life that suddenly made no sense at all.
I called my husband. I went home. I talked to Nilda again. We all tried to make lists, and determine actions to take. Nilda’s Tinkuy was to start in hours. My son would be home from school in hours. Phone numbers I had for family turned out to be out of date. There were a million things, even apart from the shock of it all. But at least these were action items.
My son arrived home from school, and we sat down with him in the living room. My husband told him the long sad story, beginning with the stuff we’d barely touched on with him: how my sister was not just missing but genuinely a missing person with a police investigation; how his cousin had serious problems the scope of which we couldn’t even speak to accurately yet; and how yesterday, his grandmother had arrived in Cusco — and we knew he’d wanted so very much to go, too, just like I had, and that he had such fond memories of going there for Nilda’s 2010 Tinkuy — and that she’d had a good morning in Cusco, a lovely lunch at the Trattoria with the good tortellini, and then… that morning… that Nilda had found her dead at the hotel.
My son Edward, 2010, at Machu Picchu
My son sat there, stunned. He looked at me and, you know, I just looked back. “That’s… not where I thought this story might be going at all,” he eventually said. “Are we sure?” I knew exactly how he felt, and then some. It was all so implausible — the kind of thing that happens in some strange movie. But then it’s not like my family’s life was ever staid or predictable. Indeed, there were times we all talked about how it would have been easier to let people believe a fiction than to try to convince them of the truth, like about how English is actually my sister’s third language, and Japanese her fourth; or how it was the old bluesmen from Chicago who ultimately convinced me life would be easier if I just answered “Where are you from?” with “Chicago,” and didn’t try to explain. Nobody believes you anyway, when you tell them that your father was captain of the Harvard wrestling team 3 years in a row and your mother is the chick from the first Indiana Jones movie, and compared to them, a would-be musician turned computer professional turned handspinning teacher is pretty ordinary.
But, we were sure. Nilda was sure, and we talked with her again throughout the afternoon, while the coroner and the police and the officials removed my mother’s body and her personal effects, and Nilda passed her phone to the fiscal after briefly pointing out I might try to sound like I didn’t have a normal Cusco accent so I was plausibly the daughter in the United States. I asked the fiscal to allow Nilda to have my mother’s cell phone, to try to access her contacts. He agreed, but there was a passcode, and we failed to guess it. “We’re sealing up her things and taking them into custody,” the fiscal said. “It’s routine. We can give them to you as her next of kin, or to your embassy.” There with the whole scene, apparently, were other members of the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, and I spoke with them too; it was moments from when everyone needed to be at the kick-off parade for Nilda’s Tinkuy. “The press is here too,” Nilda told me. “This will probably be on the news.” Which only meant I had to make sure to get the word out, here, sensitively, before… well, before who knew what stories started flying around. Oh God, I thought, how horrible would it be if I can’t reach her brother before the Internet and social media and stuff start to hear.
Around four that afternoon, the phone rang. “Hello,” said the man on the other end after asking for me, “I’m calling from the US Embassy in Lima, Peru, regarding your mother, Christine Robinson Franquemont.” I paced alongside the kitchen counter while we spoke of funeral homes, repatriation of remains, timelines, and next steps. I numbly gave him my email address for him to send forms and contact information for funeral homes, officials.
My husband poured me a shot of Jim Beam, and I tossed it back like a pro. My father would have been proud. I stared at my handwriting filling page after page with notes about what needed to happen. We made lists of who to call, in what order, what to say, how to ask family to help spread the word carefully. When, I wondered, should I call the detective in charge of investigating my sister’s disappearance? Would that hospital even let me talk to my niece? What was her condition and how should we best handle telling her? Who should we first contact in New Haven, where Chris lived — had lived? Did we have keys for everything? Were my frequent flyer miles enough? What did we have in our emergency savings? What does it cost to do something like this? Oh my God, how is Nilda holding up?
Molly and Abby, 1980, in Florida after Earthwatch expedition
“This is the most surreal day I’ve had in a very long time,” I said to my husband. I could only call the look on his face incredulous as he poured me another shot of bourbon and said, “Since when? What day in your life has actually been more surreal than this one?”
I had to admit he had me there. Not even the days when we’d fled Peru (1978) or Ecuador (1983) during national strikes; not the time we took the train to La Paz, Bolivia (1977) and it crashed and we thought, should have taken the bus, but no, that day the bus had blown up; not the day when we were trapped on a train between two landslides (1986); not the day when I told my mother I was leaving for Chicago on 24 hours’ notice with a plane ticket bought for me by an old bluesman I’d met once (1990); really no day was ever more surreal or implausible. But at least all those days had trained me up to be someone who just proceeds through the list of action items. At least a lifetime of explaining the complex and unorthodox events of my family’s lives made me able to tell the tragic news calmly, again and again, to family and lifelong friends who — just like me — never saw this coming.
Abby Franquemont, Christine Franquemont, demonstrating in 1980
It took time to get ducks in a row and things figured out to get me to Cusco. I was floored by the generosity of many, helping me to pull that off. It took time and effort to figure out what I needed in documentation to be able to start handling things on my mother’s behalf, on my niece’s behalf. I needed to assemble paperwork sufficient to make everything solvable in Cusco, and in Lima, and at the embassy, to get the certificates I’d need in Peru to get the certificates I’d need in the US, and that’s not even getting into the question of my mother’s remains at the morgue in Cusco.
“A number of folks from Chinchero went to the morgue,” Nilda told me. “Everyone wanted her body, to dress her and sit with her. But they said no; they can’t, because she is a US citizen. But in Chinchero everyone knows she is one of ours. It is hard.” I pictured that scene. I thought about the times when things were crazy, when my parents, my sister and I all half-joked about ending up a puzzle for future archaeologists, gringos buried in the cemetery in Chinchero. Those were jokes in the beginning, maybe, but we all knew it could really happen. I knew when I was five years old and saw my friends die and get buried that I could be there with them. I thought of the countless loved ones in whose funeral processions we had all walked. I thought of walking, sobbing, through early rainy season rains in 1985 when we buried our comadre Benita, and how when the sound of her tomb being sealed up took all the strength from my legs and my best friend Angelica caught me before I hit the ground and we cried and cried. I thought of Nilda’s letter in 1988 telling us Angelica had died, again just before rainy season, and the many times I had imagined her body there beneath the eucalyptus trees and the apus (spirits of the mountains) that watched over us all.
Antaquillka, seen over Chinchero
I thought of all our comadres, compadres, and my god-siblings — of a vast community that had claimed our family as its own, where we had all lived and loved and struggled and laughed and sometimes perished, unflinching and unfaltering in our shared humanity, even when it would bring us to our knees. I thought about the mothers of my girlhood friends (including the ones who didn’t make it to adulthood), sitting outside the Cusco morgue, asking for the body of a beloved kinswoman with whom they’d shared motherhood in a way that transcended culture or background, and in conversations with close family, we all concluded that Chris could find no better resting place than that same graveyard in Chinchero where more of our family’s loved ones rest than anywhere else in the world.
Chris, Simeona, Nelly, Wilfredo and kids
So I said this to the funeral home guys, on the phone: that we would plan to retrieve her body from the morgue, and bury her in Chinchero, with no flight to Lima or coffin on an international plane trip and contacting funeral homes in the US also. They said okay, and then later called back to say that when they checked, they were told there was no room in the cemetery in Chinchero. I told them that there was room for her there. Nilda concurred, and her parents in turn proferred a family mausoleum spot. The guys from the funeral home continued lining up which papers had to be done in what order on what day of the week to retrieve the body from the morgue. I proceeded with digging up documentation that would satisfy anybody in Peru that I was, in fact, my mother’s next of kin, ultimately settling on the passport I had been issued in 1982, featuring a stapled-in resident alien visa with an Ecuadorian consular seal stating — in Spanish of course — that the purpose of my visit was to live with my parents, and their full names.
“Don’t panic about the timing,” the embassy told me, “but it’s usually at least 3 weeks before they’ll release a foreigner’s body under these circumstances.” But with Nilda’s steady work, and various other people’s assistance, and perhaps the constant visits from folks from Chinchero asking to at least visit Chris and dress her, it was only 6 days until the morgue signed off as willing to release remains to next of kin.
In just-before-midnight dark of November 20, not quite 8 days since Nilda’s call from my mother’s hotel room, I cleared immigration in Lima, rented a Peruvian cell phone and then, on the first flight up after the dawn of Thursday the 21st, landed at the Cusco airport that has always meant I’m almost home. It might seem strange that the thin high altitude air, the dust of the city and the smell of Andean life all around, would always be so comforting, but it was even more so this time. Somewhere in this city I’d be united with my mother’s mortal remains, and here — where she had spent more of her adult life than anywhere else — surrounded by loved ones, we would take her home for the last time. I walked that airport and claimed my bags where I had so many times before, imagining my mother on that final day of her life, doing the same.
Edward at the Cusco airport, 2010
Nilda and her husband met me, and we went essentially straight to work. That’s not the easiest thing to do when you’ve just hit over 11,000 feet above sea level, but Nilda’s an old pro at dealing with folks arriving at altitude and I, of course, know my routines and what works for me, which is good because it’s counter to the usual advice. We dropped off my luggage at Nilda’s sister’s house, and went straight to a restaurant to feed me lots of food. While I ate my second entire lunch, Nilda laughed: “This always cracks me up,” she said. “You’re supposed to sit still, drink mate de coca, and have a light broth.”
Paulino, Lino and Nilda, 1992 o 1993
“You know that doesn’t work for me,” I said. “When we’d get here, Chris and Molly would do that, and it worked for them, but me and Ed, we’d go right out and eat big, rich meals, and then go for a walk in the Plaza de Armas, and then by evening we’d basically be fine.”
Sopa de moraya — a kind of freeze-dried potato
While I ate, the representatives from the funeral home joined us, and we traded papers and documents and made plans. They’d go over to the morgue and determine the schedule of things there; Nilda and Paulino and I would go to the Policia de Turismo office and work on retrieving her personal effects. But at the Policia de Turismo, we learned that her things were in the custody of the other team, who didn’t work Thursdays; they were there, but come back Friday, they said. So we went to the fiscal (like a district attorney) to see if he could help us there, and he wrote us a note urging the tourism police to help us out. Returning, though, it was still no go; first thing Friday morning, and that was that.
Nilda’s cell phone rang; the funeral agents had been successful getting the next needed form from RENIEC (Peru’s civil status registry), which would need to be signed and sealed appropriately by the medical examiner and the coroner, after which, it could be returned to request issuance of the Peruvian death certificate (signed, sealed and apostilled), with which a burial permit could be issued, after which, the morgue would release her body, after which she could be buried and a certificate of burial received; in turn, all of these things could be presented back to RENIEC for the truly final, internationally valid RENIEC certificate which, when combined with various passports and such like in the presence of a United States Consular Agent, would transform into 24 copies of a Consular Report of Death Abroad, retrievable by me at the US Embassy in Lima.
Even better, the coroner and medical examiner were to meet the funeral agents mid-afternoon, and thus the forms could be back and the papers issued Friday morning, and so we were clear now to do things like select a casket and firm up the mortuary plans. And so, despite no luck retrieving her personal effects, Nilda, Paulino and I found ourselves at a mortuary desk, negotiating the selection and pricing for casket, capilla ardiente, and transport, whether in the very fancy Volvo hearse exactly like my station wagon and so many cars my mother had owned, or the Mercedes van.
My mother loved that car — a 1972 Mercedes 250
We picked the Mercedes, remembering how very much my mother had loved the used Mercedes she drove in the 1980s, and went back to her sister’s home to review the clothes I’d brought for my mother just in case: what if we encountered delays, if we couldn’t get her luggage, if we couldn’t get permission to go dress her and the funeral agency had to do it, what if, what if, what if? So many what ifs, and we tried to cover all the bases, and went to the market to fill out what gaps might be in the wardrobe we needed to hand over. Plus, of course, a hat for me, to keep me safe from the burning tropical sun. I always get a hat in Cusco.
Tom and Flora’s wedding
Nilda’s sister, Flora, married a longtime expatriate friend named Tom; in 1985 and 1986 when my mother was doing her doctoral fieldwork, our family had an apartment just a few doors up the street from where Flora and Tom now live, and Tom had lived just a few doors further up. This was just around the corner from the post office, ah the post office, once the only real line of communication with the world beyond Cusco, back when Chinchero was so much more remote than it is now, only half an hour from Cusco. It’s another of those things that seems implausible, but I sometimes take for granted — that we really did used to rise before dawn, run down by Angelica’s family’s store and in front of the sanitario, and ride cattle trucks for hours to reach Cusco and do things like go to the post office to learn if the world beyond Cusco was even still there or remembered our family existed.
Envelope from a letter from my parents to my grandparents, 1977, mailed fro that same post office
I took ten minutes to call my husband and son and make sure they knew I was in Cusco and all was well and, indeed, not about to go stay alone in a hotel considering, you know, everything. Nope, I was staying with family, which was conveniently also just a few doors away from the consular agency in Cusco. Progress was being made, I said, but was probably at a standstill for the day. Nilda and Paulino and I went to meet the other members of the Andean Textile Arts board who were in Cusco with the ATA tour group who’d come for the Tinkuy. We shared a snack and coffee, and news of how things were progressing since I’d arrived that morning. I thought of all the board meetings, and past textile events, and how this meant now I’d be the last Franquemont on the board — unthinkable. I left with Flora, and she and I and Tom spent the evening talking about old times and how Nilda was really doing, with all of this having fallen upon her just now. We’d have stayed up late, for sure, except Nilda and I needed to be at the PolTur by 7:30 the next morning. I fell asleep, exhausted, against the unmistakably Cusco city sounds of a block I’d once called home.
In the morning, right on time as the PolTur building opened, Paulino dropped me and Nilda off and went to check up on the tour group. For whatever reason, Nilda and I had expected this part of things to go fairly quickly, as the incredibly helpful fiscal had come to expedite the approval of our request to retrieve my mother’s personal effects. He waited with us until the first officer of the team in charge of the personal effects — the same team which had removed them from the hotel room, you must understand, and thus the ones accountable in the chain of custody — arrived, and things finally began to happen at about 8:15.
The officer carried in three bundles, swathed entirely in black plastic which was in turn covered entirely in packing tape. Very formally, the fiscal turned to Nilda and asked her, as she had been present at the retrieval of these effects from the hotel room, to verify that they were undisturbed and as they had been when she saw them taken into police custody. She concurred, and the fiscal asked if this was satisfactory for me, to which I assented. “Proceed!” he said, leaving the office. The officer picked up the smallest of the bundles, and began to pick at the tape with her fingernails. After a moment, Nilda silently reached into her bag and handed the officer a nail clipper with a small knife, which the officer used to cut away the black plastic and packing tape cocoon around what proved to be my mother’s purse (a handwoven bag from Nilda’s Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco) and shoes (a pair of black Danskos).
On a decrepit computer, the officer began to type, unsuccessfully, as the purse and shoes sat on her desk and Nilda and I sat in chairs along the wall next to the desk. This resulted in some muttering and rearranging as a series of (RS-232, I noted, trying to remember what year I last had one of those) keyboards were swapped in and out from a locked cabinet across the room, and finally, things were go. “Time of day,” the officer stated as she began to type, “8:30 AM.” She took my name and documents and verified me as the next of kin, asking my residence while in Peru and what my occupation was. “Escritora,” I told her, writer. She verified Nilda as a witness to the retrieval of personal effects into police custody, and as a witness to their delivery into the hands of the verified next of kin. Our document numbers and copies of identification and so forth were all duly recorded, and at last, the entrega de los efectos personales started to actually move.
“One pair of shoes,” she stated, typing this, “Brand: Dansko. Size: 38.” Oh God. You never think about this, when you know you wear the same size shoe as your mother; you never imagine someday you’ll find yourself sitting in some run-down pastel-painted 1960s office building with machine-gun-armed guard out front, watching some students apparently gather for a protest of you don’t know what, while the tourism police documents your dead mother’s shoes. I mean, even when you’re me — even when you lead an implausible life — you just don’t see that one coming.
Nilda and I concurred with this description, and her cell phone rang. She hit ignore. “And this is a purse,” said the officer, typing again. “Handwoven, Peruvian, tourist goods.” We did not argue with that either. The officer reached inside. “This would be her cell phone,” she said. “Would you say it is in good condition?” I looked at it where she held it in her hand, across the desk; I couldn’t tell if the screen was cracked, but something was funny-looking. “A ver,” I said, leaning forward. She pressed the black button on the front, and a banner of a text message popped up. “It does turn on,” she said, handing it to me. “Is it an iPhone 4, or 4s?”
“4,” I said, numbly, the message in the banner reading: I am so unbelievably sad not to be there with you. Not to be in Peru but more than that, not to be there with my mom. Please give everyone my love and let me know if there is anything I can do. And when you get back, don’t be afraid to call me and vent about Q or anything all. I love you, and I miss you.
I was suddenly short of breath and my eyes were stinging. It wasn’t the altitude. I put the phone down on the desk and, in a moment, the screen went black again. I breathed carefully, steadily, not too deep, because gasping at high altitude never helps. The officer reached into the purse again. “Package of facial tissues,” she recorded. “Chocolate, estadounidense, tipo Snickers. Here is a list. Does this mean anything to you?” She handed me the paper. “Yes,” I said. “This is my niece’s handwriting. She… my mother was her guardian. This is a list of things my niece wants from Peru.”
Nilda’s cell phone rang again, and again, she silenced it, and silently, took the list from me. Tourist goods. Peruvian candy. Some earrings or similar.
“This is the wallet, yes?” the officer continued.
“Looks to be,” I said, “although she usually had another one, that looked exactly like this one.” It’s true — by coincidence, my mother and I both had these small CTTC zippered bags that were made from the same exact warp. We’d confused them for each other’s on several occasions, mine holding ipod cables and the like, and hers being her wallet. So this was a different one, smaller, just sized for credit cards. The officer unzipped it, pulled out this cards.
“This one,” she said, “It is a VISA, yes? Is it credit, or debit?”
“Credit,” I said. “Tarjeta de credito VISA, American Airlines AAdvantage Miles,” she repeated, typing it in, and the same for a few more similar cards. “And this? What is this?” I took it from her. “It’s a… it’s a frequent buyer card from an heladeria,” I said. “You buy an ice cream, they punch it, when it’s full you get a free ice cream.” I resolved to clean my wallet of all kinds of things before travelling internationally ever again. I imagined my son having to explain a yarn shop frequent buyer card to this uniformed lady with a badge and a nametag reading Y Cardeña A. and a computer older than he is.
Nilda’s cell phone rang again, and she answered it. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I think we’ll be here for… I think this is going to take all morning, maybe to after lunch.”
It did. I could see why the Thursday crew hadn’t been willing to get us the personal effects; if this was required, then indeed, nobody’d pick that up and just handle it.
It didn’t get any less creepy for me, either; definitely not when the medium-sized bundle proved to be her backpack, and from it emerged my mother’s brand-spanking-new lightweight gray jacket that said “Radcliffe Class of 1968” on it. She’d just been to that reunion, and been so happy about it. And now she was dead, somewhere in the morgue somewhere in this town. Nilda’s cell phone had been ringing like crazy, and she’d made a few calls too, commanding calls, dispatching troops like the general she is — this person to retrieve these clothes, from here, and take them to meet with us at the morgue because we’ll be there about 2, and that person to confirm things proceeding as expected at Nilda’s house in Chinchero for the velorio, and so forth.
It wasn’t any easier when they pulled from her backpack her copy of Faces of Tradition, or when the other book in there was called “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” And nothing at all prepared me for the moment when we unzipped her suitcase and opened it up and damned if it wasn’t packed exactly like I pack. I mean, of course it was; who taught me to pack, after all? How many times did my mother oversee my packing when our family traveled, which we did, you know, constantly? Of course I pack the same way. I just never thought about it. And now I’d never even be able to tell her I recognized her in me. Talk about parents, children, and the search for identity, although I know I wasn’t the reason for a book like that to be in her backpack.
It was a little after noon when we were finally done. The funeral agents said everything was ready except flowers. Nilda’s armies were running everywhere, doing everything, and Paulino picked us up and drove us to the street of florists. Everything in Cusco has a street where it’s concentrated, or at least, it used to always be like that, and sometimes — in a lot of things — it still is. So if you want flowers, you go where the florists are, and just walk from shop to shop and get it all handled. I mean, you could call a florist, but why would you when you can just go to the street of florists?
At the street of florists, I thought briefly about my parents approving of me taking my high school’s controversial “Death and Dying” class, which covered many things including funeral norms and what to expect — and how very helpful that would all be, if only it had included words like “carroza” and “capilla ardiente” and “embalsamamiento.” But still, it had given me enough to not feel out of control or railroaded at the funeral home — to be able to ask about each line item on the price sheet, to ask why there’s a fee for embalming when we requested no embalming, and somehow to balance in with my Peruvian upbringing to find logic to “Well, in Lima, they do a thing where they pump fluid into the veins, but that doesn’t get done in Cusco, but it’s a national requirement to have the certificate stating that embalming was done, so this is just the legal fee for that.” Of course. And flowers. How many times, I wondered, had I heard the bells of our church in Chinchero toll for a funeral, and walked in its procession, lamenting, holding a flower whose petals I tore off one by one instead of wringing my hands in helpless grief, to throw those petals on the casket of someone I loved while we processed through the streets? Flowers.
“You’ll want to get an arrangement from each family unit you’re responsible to,” Nilda prompted me gently, “for the velorio.” How many times, again, I thought, taking candles and flowers and some small token of food to a family, sharing food and drink and sitting with a loved one, and oh my God, here we are. Flowers, and a short note, and names. For myself and my husband and son I chose a bird of paradise like had grown at our California home and orange lilies similar to our Ohio ditch lilies; from my in-laws I chose roses, lilies, and rare irises from the jungle, that look like the irises that bloom in Ohio in spring; from Chris’ brother I chose simple white Peruvian lilies; and from Molly and Quilla, the largest bouquet of all considering the love of plants they shared with Chris, the centerpiece for Chris’ casket: enormous orchids, roses and lilies. I thought how exotic and extravagant it would be to have flowers like this in the US, and how here, these are just some of the flowers that of course you can have, and I spent a hundred dollars of the money so many friends and students of mine had gathered to help me with this. Nilda called the funeral agents and told them which florist to come get the flowers from. It was really no surprise to see other friends and family also there, also buying flowers. We parted ways and went, at last, to the morgue.
It was on the corner, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly outstanding or noticeable about it; it was just the building on the corner. Nilda’s sister-in-law dashed up suddenly from across the street, handing us a bag of clothing. Nilda handed her some of the soles we’d just changed from dollars. “10 kilos of potatoes,” she said, “and about 5 of carrots, and probably 5 kilos of lisas, and get a medium sized sheep, maybe and another half sheep above that, but make sure it’s medium, because we’ve got to feed a lot of people but if it’s a big sheep it’ll be older and have to cook too long. And rum! Also rum.” She nodded and off she went.
Inside the morgue, there was an office portion with a cashier in it, where we met the funeral agents, and then we went outside and were let into a small people-sized door next to a car-sized door, into a courtyard. Back across the courtyard there was a large room with steel tables, one bearing a mostly complete skeleton too new to be archaeological in nature. I mean, you learn to easily recognize and look at such things when you’re raised by anthropologists. At least to some extent. As the morgue officer came in to join us I realized, oh God, this is all really happening. I thought about Nilda finding her in the hotel. Suddenly I couldn’t talk. Nilda clenched my hand and I clenched back.
“Buenas tardes,” she said, clearing her throat. “We are… we have come for the lady from the United States who died last week. This is her daughter.”
Chris Franquemont, Cornell University 1986
“Just so,” said the morgue official. “She is here.” He began walking toward a small room, almost a breezeway, that we’d passed coming in. The funeral agents moved with him, and as we turned, Nilda and I saw eight steel-fronted drawers mounted in the wall to which we’d previously had our backs. We stood side by side, clutching each other’s arms and the bag of clothing, and from the bottom row of drawers all the way towards the back of that alcove, a steel-fronted steel slab emerged with my mother’s body on it.
Chris Franquemont, Ollantaytambo 2012
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body; far from it. Heck, it wasn’t even the first time I’d seen the dead body of my beloved parent. But ten days of international wrangling and logistics had all been leading up to this, the moment when we could take her, dress her, lay her to rest… and this was, for me and Nilda both, the first time we’d seen the body of someone we loved autopsied and frozen ten days prior. Even though Nilda had been the one to find her, this was different. We clung to each other, sobbing, as the funeral agents prepared to dress her. The morgue official took from her ears an inexpensive pair of hoops, and from her left hand, her wedding ring. I remembered standing with my mother when she slipped my father’s wedding ring from his dead hand, reminding me he couldn’t have grave goods since he was being cremated. But that was almost ten years ago, and in another world.
I slipped her ring onto my pinkie for safekeeping, her hands being thinner than mine. Her poor, dead hands. Oh my mother, my mother, my mother. This is why we beat our breasts and rend our hair. This is why we wash our dead, we dress them, we lavish them with the last opportunities we have for a touch in this world, before it all slips away from each and every one of us. This is why we put on black clothing if we must walk forth in the world, so the whole world can see we are the walking wounded, the ones who remain when our mothers have gone and we are now orphaned children no matter our age. This is our last chance to take a deep breath and do for you as you used to do for us, when we were helpless and frail and our lives were entirely in your hands, oh, your poor, dead hands. Soon even this will be gone. Your dust will join that very same dust that’s always welcomed me home in the high altitude air here. Your bones will last who knows how long, joining here with the bones of so many we loved and remember and so many we never knew. Oh, my mother, it has all come to this, and here we find ourselves, no more nor less human than we ever were, soon to take you to the home that always loved our family — and especially you — the hardest, the most unflinchingly, no matter what.
The funeral agents did fine with the Western clothes from the waist down: a comfortable knit skirt, warm socks, those battered black Danskos. But Nilda and I had to help with the dress of a real Chinchero woman: embroidered blouse, embroidered vest, jobon. But finally she was ready, and in the casket, and as she was loaded into the Mercedes van we were met by Betty and Jan from the board, who did not know if they would make it to Chinchero for the velorio. And then we were off, Nilda and I riding in a van completely filled with flowers, out to Nilda’s house in Chinchero, where the funeral agency had gone ahead with that mysterious capilla ardiente among other things.
Velorio location, at Nilda’s Chinchero house
It is a blur, mercifully so, and the next thing I really remember is everyone cooking, cooking vast amounts of food, and the big public room set up with candles and all the many many flowers, surrounding Chris’ casket. There was no one but family and the funeral agents in the room as we made the final preparations. These included finding Chris a good warm hat and a pretty scarf, and making sure she had everything she would need for the next part of her voyage: a spindle for one hand, and the alpaca fiber being spun on it for the other; in one jacket pocket, $10 US, and in the other, 10 Soles; in her montera, the traditional Chinchero hat, some coca leaves. Normally you’d also supply her some tobacco, but in her case, we all decided she wouldn’t have approved.
Velorio. A capilla ardiente in this case means all the pedestals and stuff for candles, and the draperies, and the various stands and so forth, so you can do all of this. We had the option of an electric one with light bulbs, or one for candles, and opted for candles.
Beneath her in the casket, two handspun, handwoven, natural-dyed llicllas cushioned her body, and a pillow covered in the same was laid beneath her head. This done, the lid was placed on the casket, with the upper part opened revealing the viewing glass. With these things all handled, it was time for the velorio to start.
The velorio is like what people in the US think of as a wake. The objective is to stay up the night with your loved one, gathered together, eating and drinking and talking and remembering. Everyone pays their respects and says goodbye to the deceased, and shares in the loss with the bereaved.
Casket, with flowers
As the afternoon progressed, more and more people came, from all over. The word spread by every means available: esta noche vamos a velar, tonight we bring candles, and tomorrow, we inter.
Vamos a velar
Weavers from Chinchero had started cooking before we all got there, and continued throughout the night and into the following day. There was food and drink from the start of the gathering, and everyone who came was given food and drink.
As new mourners arrived, they would come in, light a candle or if the candle holders were all full, place candles to be used if one burnt down, and then proceed to the glass-covered casket to say goodbye. After this, they would go on to the bereaved family, speak briefly, and then find a seat and stay as long as they stayed, some of them all night.
As the night went on, conversation shifted until eventually it was essentially all in Quechua. People came from near and far; some walked a day’s walk and didn’t arrive till the following day, to march in the funeral procession. A million stories were told — like about the time in 1977 when all the women were afraid to go to Cusco in traditional dress, and Chris said “Let me borrow some clothes, then, and I’ll go first, and we’ll see what happens to me.” In traditional dress, they pointed out, it was true, with her almost-black hair she looked Chincherina at a glance; and after that, many women said, they weren’t afraid anymore.
1977, on the steps from the plaza to the churchyard
I would translate these stories, as quickly as I could, remembering them all myself, for the non-Quechua speakers. These were heartfelt, amazing tales — things that I remembered, mostly, but as a child remembers them. Old women remembered, while their kids a little younger than me listened, how Chris had sat with them while their babies were sick; how Chris had trusted the town with her own little ones, how she had worked as hard and right alongside, in that hard year in 1977 when the harvest had all but failed entirely because it barely rained in 1976.
A moment in the shade to write field notes in 1977
Remember the time, someone said, it was on a market day, and toddler Molly fell of the cursed wall in the plaza? And even though Chris didn’t know what to do about the angry Inca spirits who were bound to take Molly’s life, Chris trusted and believed what had to be done with herbs and rituals, and Molly lived.
Molly (right), our godsister Nelly, and a chicha jug
Remember, when it was time to fix the road, and Ed went out with the men from Cuper, and worked just as hard swinging a pick and hefting a shovel, fixing the road so you could get to and from Cusco?
It’s not building the road; everyone was too busy for pictures that day.
Your parents, Abby, they were different. They didn’t come here to study only what they wanted. They came here to live, like a family. They were willing to know it all, even the hard stuff.
Do you remember, in 1980, they brought back the Chujchus, the dancers that hadn’t been able to be fielded in so very very long, for the town’s patron saint festival? They took on the cargo; they bore the load.
Christine Robinson Franquemont, born 1948. Virgen de la Natividad, painted 1572. Hat belonging to Ed Franquemont, photographer, 1980.
Remember when it came time for the mojonamiento, the running of the boundaries? Nobody thought someone who wasn’t from Cuper Ayllu could run the whole way for Cuper, but your family did. Everyone knows you are Cuper people.
People from all over, feeding mourners
And over and over again, thank you, people said. Thank you for trusting us with Doña Cristina. Thank you for letting us hold her here in our hearts forever. Thank you for letting us honor her for all that she did; all the young ones now may not really remember, but when we were ready to throw away our legacy in favor of digital watches and someday a television, your mother said no, let us build a museum, for everyone in town, so you’ll know what is amazing; so you’ll know what it’s worth. It was worth a mother bringing her young family here from far far away in the United States, before it was too late and it was all gone. We just hope, so very very much, that what we can do to honor her here in some small way measures up to what a woman of her stature would surely receive from the thousands who must admire her in the US.
When I translated that last to our longtime friend and fellow ATA board member Betty Doerr, Betty cried. “I know,” I said. “I know.”
“Did you tell them,” she asked me, “did you tell them that in the US, a funeral lasts a few hours?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And nobody walks to it from a day’s walk away, do they?”
I kept translating for her. “You know what happened,” someone said, and not for the first time, “is that she was suffering. But then she came home, here, to Our Lord of Earthquakes, and he said, take a load off. Stay. You’ve done enough. Let me take your burdens.”
“I can’t disagree with that at all,” said Betty. Neither could I.
They came from Pitumarca, probably 200km away, by crowded minivan to bring their special chicha, which normally doesn’t get taken places
In the morning there were more people still; it had been hundreds and hundreds of people already. Still they came. Groups of weavers from other communities came, tearful and missing Chris. From far-off Pitumarca they even brought their special chicha, that they only make there, from barley instead of corn. I was drinking a glass — the first time I’d ever had it — when I looked up and from Ollantaytambo, there was Beverly, and Adela, and Wendy and Ishmael who years ago laid Wendy’s husband and Ishmael’s father to rest when he was probably the first of our crazy Cusco-area-dwelling gringo set to fall.
Inside again, my late friend Angelica’s parents were waiting. It had been many years since I’d seen either of them; Angelica’s tragic, untimely death from typhoid when she was only seventeen, well, it broke all of our hearts. “I thought you’d want to see this,” Angelica’s mother (also Cristina, just like my mother) said, pulling out a battered old photo. I cried, immediately. “It was 1986,” I said. “I remember that day. I was 14, and she was 15.” It was me and Angelica, dressed up for festival dancing. Angelica’s father Manuel, once upon a time the mayor, sat with red-rimmed eyes and we mourned together, again, like we’d done before.
Mote — mainly corn and fava beans
Mutton stew over rice. If you’re ever looking for comforting food for most of the world, try some sort of stew over rice.
The weavers’ delegation from the town of Patabamba began to carry out the flowers, to get ready for the procession.
Patabamba weavers carry flowers. These are all the flowers and bouquets and everything brought to the velorio, and they will be carried for the entire procession and stay at the cemetery with the deceased.
And that’s when the band struck up, the first notes of the dirge that walks you a funeral procession.
Funeral Band — a family band, more often than not
Oh, you know that tune. Well, maybe you don’t, actually. But I do. We all of us did. Every person there who ever laid anyone to rest with full indigenous Cusco-area honors knows that tune, and it breaks you down with its minor key brass and drums.
Young escort, Abby, Simeona
The priest came down from the church, and he read the 23rd psalm. There was a girl, maybe 8 or 9, who took my hand, and stood beside me; and at my other side, my godmother Simeona. And then the walking started: out the gates of Nilda’s courtyard, to the street and turning right.
Leaving the couryard
Procession. Can’t count how many times I looked up I saw Wendy sending me peace.
Up to the corner, all houses all the way now when so much of it used to be fields.
It used to be all fields.
It’s not all fields now.
Procession from near the front, approaching the corner
And left. Left, past what was Angelica’s family’s store, the procession swarming around a Coca-Cola delivery truck.
Because of her family I always wanted to someday have a store on the corner with a balcony above.
Past the medical post.
He was one guy, with a nurse, and limited supplies, and people came walking, carrying the sick on their backs from almost day’s walk radius — he served probably 25,000 far-flung rural people for whom a small cut could end up costing a limb, or diarrhea could end a life. He had this table, and a medicine cabinet.
Past where we caught the trucks for Cusco all those years ago. First the flowers and then us, me and my godmother and my godsister Nelly, and Nilda, and the white casket on the shoulders of strong young men.
Up to the next corner, walking my old route home, the band behind us, and then left, left towards where the trucks would arrive on market day, toward the albergue where my parents had once housed research volunteers in the early 1980s, towards the ruins. On the right, the same Inca walls; on the left, now houses and storefronts where it used to just drop down a level to some fields.
By the small chapel beside that albergue we stopped for a rest, and for words, spoken in Quechua by Don Tomas Huaman, one of my parents’ closest friends, the man long in charge of the ruins, a man who’d hauled me out of a thousand silly scrapes in those same ruins when I was little.
Abby, Tomas Huaman, and Ed, 2002, on Ed’s last trip to Chinchero.
Tomas’ voice was always booming, a natural orator’s gift. Here we all looked back out across the pampa, the soon-to-be-an-airport pampa. I was glad, suddenly, that my mother would never see that. I hated that I would. I thought about hundreds, maybe a thousand, people who I’d already seen, and how many of them had asked: if there remain any of the pictures you and your parents took all those years ago, if there remain those stories, please save them. Please save those stories and images and make them so we can show our grandchildren, who don’t know. Go another generation with your family joining us in reminding everyone that these things we take for granted are treasures.
Pampa de Chinchero, 1977.
This town is our home. It will always be. It will always own me. Small wonder, truly, that my mother should end up resting there.
1977, at the corner of our house on the plaza
Albergue Chinchero, 1980. Volunteers for my parents’ Earthwatch project stayed here when my parents rented it that year for that purpose. It featured the only indoor bathroom with sit-down toilet in town.
At the albergue, where now there is a checkpoint to go up to the archaeological site — which is to say, my old home and community — a right, and up the hill. And a left, and a right after my comadre’s house, and up past the old casa comunal, through the arches into the plaza.
Straight through vendors of tourist goods we went, diagonal across the plaza, past our family’s first home; past the wall that Molly fell off; up the steps to the main church yard; past the cross, and into the church.
Chris is, in this photo, exactly where Molly fell off the wall.
In this photo, exactly where she stood raising a glass to everyone in that 1977 group photo.
The steps are worn smooth, but you can still see the carvings in them from probably 500 years ago.
The young trumpet player is standing right where Chris stood with that 16th century icon in the 1980 photo.
The church’s construction began in in 1572, and was completed right around 1600. It’s a historical site, but also just the church in town. It’s not a big, fancy cathedral, really, but it’s pretty awe-inspiring, and most importantly, in my entire life, it’s the only church my agnostic mother ever attended with any regularity. Indeed, she was pretty well bound to it in 1980 when she and my father took on the cargo for that dance troop at the September 8th festival of the Virgin of the Nativity. So it felt right to see her casket carried inside and set before gold-covered altar, under the saints and angels painted four centuries ago. It felt right to hear all of this said in Quechua, Tomas’ words echoing from the stone floors to the frescoed ceilings, witnessed by the selfsame icons that bear mute testimony to every other Chincherina’s life events — the baptisms, the weddings, the burials, everything in between.
There is no photography allowed in the church, so naturally I have no idea how these photos turned up.
After these words, back out to the churchyard, and back down the steps, as the churchbells ring the funeral tones.
Fourth niche from the right, that’s where Molly fell. She was sitting above eating an illicit popsicle (we weren’t allowed to have ice because they wouldn’t have boiled the water for it), and she leaned too far out and fell. Everyone will always ask me if she still lives; everyone still worries about her, that the angry Inca spirits will someday claim her. Perhaps they have. This time when they asked I had to tell them we don’t know, that nobody does, se ha desaparecido, and that the police keep investigating, but it has been since March of 2013 and we fear greatly.
We lived under that belltower; there was hardly anyone closer. You could hear them all through town when I was little — and far away, far out into the ruins down that valley, across the pampa, up the mountainside behind the church and well into Ayllu Cuper. The funeral bells would ring, and people would pour out of houses to meet the procession if they didn’t already know. You would follow the sound of the funeral band, triangulate against the route to the graveyard, come forth to share the grieving.
In front of our first home we stopped, the band silent as Tomas removed his hat — well, everyone removed their hats, of course — and in Quechua, booming across the plaza that had been the old market square, Tomas spoke of when, in January of 1977, written down in the books and everything, the town elders voted to allow our family to rent the upstairs of this house that was the home of Mateo Pumaccahua, here in the heart of the town; here it was that Cristina and her husband Eduardo, became comuneros del Ayllu Cuper, and their daughters Abby and Molly, children of Cuper.
And later, Tomas continued, in 1980, Chinchero’s elders asked of Doña Cristina and her family to build of this house a museum, with Chinchero people, for Chinchero people, about Chinchero people; so Cristina and Eduardo went to the United States, and came back with volunteers, and built that museum.
This upstairs room had been the room we mostly lived in, in 1977, because it had windows. Transformed into a music room, in the museum it would play recorded traditional music at the touch of a button, had displays about instruments, photos of fiestas and dancers and celebrations. Standing here are, from right to left, Manuel Chavez Ballon, his wife Frida, and it looks like their son Sergio.
Chavez Ballon, and really his whole family, were pillars of Peruvian archaeology; the Machu Picchu site museum is named for him. My parents were friends going back to when they had lived in Cusco in 1968 and 69; when we arrived in 1976 our family visited theirs frequently, to both socialize and pore over pot sherds and the like.
Manuel Chavez Ballon y su esposa Frida inaugurando el museo en Chinchero
Museum crew, minus some volunteers who had already gone back to North America, plus Chavez Ballon family
Comprehending nothing of Tomas’ words, tourists watched, snapped pictures. In retrospect, I wonder if to them we seemed a strange and motley crowd, clearly assembled of people from many towns, and including a handful of gringos — or if they didn’t even have the eyes to see it. But at the time, I thought only, yes, it was always thus — my family here just living, and the passing-through gringos snapping pictures they’d take home and say “Oh, we saw this indigenous funeral!” while I’d think, like I always had growing up, but don’t you know, don’t you realize, this is real — it’s someone’s spouse, or parent, or sibling, or child. This is grief. This is saying goodbye. This is what Americans do in a formal, contained way, standing still, in special places dedicated to keeping death well out of our daily lives. It is only that here, we do it in our homes, and take it to the streets, and up to the church at the heart of town, then back through the streets to where we lived. We do it in the open air, in sunshine or in rain, for all to see, for all to come join, and we don’t care if you take pictures. This isn’t about you. This is about our family, our community, our strength to remember and keep going even when it is one of our best beloved in that casket.
Strong men lifted the casket from its stand again, while mourners threw flower petals.
Once, twice, three times, they surged forward with the casket toward the door of our old house, and then back: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, Chris, say goodbye to this home where you raised your little girls and sat in the courtyard knitting and weaving and spinning, goodbye to this home where you cooked whatever food was to be had with a Primus for a stove all year, where we huddled for warmth in our sleeping bags on straw pallets on the coldest nights of the year, where in the corner of the patio we piled the vast heaps of potatoes from the shared labour of our family with our community, where you chronicled your time and your work with ballpoint pens in whatever notebooks could be bought. Goodbye; in the memory of Chinchero itself it matters as much that you lived here as that Mateo Pumaccahua did. Outside of here, who knows; but you are an elder of Chinchero, much loved, desperately missed.
Back down the hill we went, a growing throng, the bells tolling again as we left the plaza. Back past the “show me your tickets” checkpoint; back past the albergue, the little chapel, the view of the pampa soon to be forever changed. And here and there as we went new people would join, and we would stop and wait and someone would speak, or pray. Back around the corner, back to what used to be the main road where the trucks would come and go; past the medical post, past the new weaving center named for my late friend Angelica, and then on out the road.
From mud to… sidewalks
When I used to walk that road every day to school, it was dirt; in the rainy season, it would be mud where sometimes I’d sink in as deep as my knees. Barefoot in skirts made sense, considering that, or in rubber tire sandals so you could wash off easy in the streams or at the outdoor faucet in wealthy courtyards or municipal areas. But now this road is paved. The houses all have two storeys, and windows with glass, and there is electricity everywhere, and toilets. And down this road we carry one more of the last few people who’ll remember Chinchero without those things.
Such were the things people said when we stopped. I’d have said them too, if I could have spoken at all. My little girl escort, my godmother, and I, we clung together and alternately sniveled, sobbed, and simply walked. It was the middle of the day and the sun pounded me hard every time I took off my hat. My mother would have scolded me, reminded me how much I hated burning so bad I scabbed. My girlhood friends knew it too. “Stop taking your hat off,” they chided. “Tin-head.” Because my hair had been so pale, and my head so hard like metal when I was stubborn in school, and when we were all little girls my mother helped us all learn to read and practice our letters, so of course they were all here with me to bid her farewell. If they still lived, at any rate. And we all remembered this walk from even when we were small, when it was our classmates sometimes, from the sarampion or escarlatina or other things.
And then we were at the cemetery. We gathered once more around the casket on its stand, and raised the hinged part of the lid for last goodbyes — this time for real. This would be the last time I’d look upon my mother’s face. There was condensation forming on the underside of the glass, and gently the lid was raised and the condensation cleared. For the last time, the high altitude tropical sun touched my mother’s face, her hands with her spindle and alpaca fiber, her garb of Chinchero woman, those Danskos and knit skirt out of sight.
“Wait!” someone said, putting in a handful of camellias. Once the last goodbyes were all said, the casket reclosed, again the strong men — including Paulino, Nilda’s husband, who had been carrying her every time I looked, every step of the way — lifted the casket and this time, through the cemetery gates we went.
I admit I did not look at the cross closely this time, but from when I was little, I recall the base of it saying 1603. At the top, of course, it says INRI, as in short for what Pilate wrote. I always mean to take a survey in the United States to see how many crosses say INRI on them; in Peru it is basically “all of them,” but as noted, many of the crosses are rather old.
When I was little, there were still some dug graves in the ground; but now, the cemetery so much fuller, it is pretty much all mausoleums with niches. There had been discussion about the nicho, whose nicho it would be, what part of the cemetery, and finally it was concluded that nothing but family ties would be right. So, past the stone cross at the center of the cemetery, a bit to the left, and we were at the Callañaupa family mausoleum.
The flower bearers placed their flowers on bamboo racks and stakes as her casket was slid carefully into the nicho, its grate unlocked and metal gate opened wide. Tomas spoke more words of farewell, and then it was time for me to say … to say words. It is customary to talk, at this time, about all the rest of your family who’s here in this same graveyard, and so I did; I named so many, like Benita and her husband Julian, huasi masi, cancha masi (partners and sharers of house and courtyard), and I thought of so many more. I could smell eucalyptus on the breeze and in every direction, see the snowcapped peaks of my childhood, the mountain guardians of my mother, my family, my community — the things a Quechua girl learns to work for, in that order: mother when you’re small, family when you’re a bit bigger, community when you’re a near-adult, all of the above plus your own family and children when you’re a grown woman. Nothing stops an Andean woman; the Andes have her back and she belongs to them, and you’ll notice nothing’s ever really ground the Andes down flat.
My mother was seventeen when she first set foot in the Andes, and I think — I always thought — that they knew her. They knew who she really was. She might have been born on the plains of Illinois to parents whose lineage on both sides goes back to the start of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; but she was in a hurry to leave the plains, and she dreamed of adventure all her life. She may have been the youngest person in her class at Radcliffe by two years, but she spent half that time in the Andes and she hurried back there just as fast as she could. She may have married a Harvard guy and settled into a commune farm in then-rural Massachusetts to have her babies, but as I’ve come to really understand since reading old correspondence, she spent the bulk of those years too trying to get funding to return to the Cusco area to do specific textile study — and when she couldn’t get anyone to fund it, well, she just went anyway, and so did we all.
So in a way maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising that my mother managed to get back there just in time, hours before the apparent stroke that she did not survive — that she would not have survived in the United States, either. Maybe it really was Nuestro Señor de los Temblores, or the Virgen de la Natividad, or both of them, who chose to keep her when she came back into their demesne. But with bricks and mortar sealing her nicho she became forever one with the Apus who claimed her in her youth.
We went back out to the courtyard, with the band, and case upon case upon case of beer. For hours we drank to her, and then as shadows began to lengthen, still accompanied by the band, we wound our way back to Nilda’s house, where we ate and drank and remembered more, until the wee hours of the night when almost all had slipped away.
In the morning, on Sunday, masses were said for her in multiple cities and towns, and again each week for a month; and in December, another memorial (traditional after a month) was held in Cusco’s Iglesia de San Francisco. I couldn’t go; I was back in the US on the 27th, and pretty much straight to New Haven and starting to sort through all the rubble. But now that it’s been five months, and close family has all seen the pictures and heard the story from me firsthand, now I can share it publicly.
I can never express enough my gratitude to everyone all over the world who made this happen for my mother; there are so many of you who deserve thanks. First, my community of Chinchero, who keep tending to my mother’s grave even when I can’t be there; secondly, my family, friends, colleagues and students in the US who pulled together to get me to Peru and help with expenses; thirdly, the staff of the US Embassy American Citizen Services and the US Consulate, along with every single official everywhere in Cusco and Chinchero who amazingly, managed to handle all the logistics and paperwork in only 2.5 business days; thanks also to all the family, friends and colleagues in Peru who came from all over to remember Chris, and to the wonderful folks who took photos and videos for me so I could bring these memories back to those in the US who couldn’t be there.
The job was soul-sucking. In retrospect, I realized it was that way in part because they really did just want me to quit; no amount of determination or work on my part was going to change anything. But at the time, it seemed like the right thing: like what I had to do.
My office phone rang. That happened occasionally, but really, not that often; nobody actually cared what I was doing there in that cubicle on Page Mill Road. I’m not sure if I could have been more surprised when the person calling was Nilda. “Do you have plans for lunch?” she asked.
“What?” I replied. “No, why?”
“Because I’m at this conference on global philanthropy at the Stanford Alumni Center. Come meet me and the family for lunch.”
I checked the clock, not that it mattered — it isn’t every day someone who might as well be your sister, but who lives eight thousand miles away, happens to be a mile from where you’re sitting. I headed over there posthaste.
Even before I saw her and her husband, I saw two young Peruvian boys running and playing at the edge of the courtyard. Called by their father, they came over and nodded solemnly and returned to playing. The grownups talked.
“Your father,” Nilda asked me, “do you think it’s as bad as he does?”
I bit my lip, against the tears filling up my eyes. “Yes,” I said. “Maybe even worse. It could be… it could be days, only. It could be right now. He’s suffering, too.”
We neither of us wanted it to be true. We both knew I wouldn’t exaggerate or pull punches and that Nilda would never wish I could. We would just both wish the truth was something else.
“I still wish you would do textile work,” she said, changing the subject, if only slightly. “It would matter if you did.”
“I can’t see how,” I told her. “I’m trying to see how, and somehow… somehow, I’ll come up with something. But I can’t afford to do it and live here. I need to make a living, and where I live is here.”
We parted, too soon. I lingered longer than I should have, knowing I had to get to the parent conference at my son’s first grade. I thought about the places I’d been with Nilda, no more or less varied than those I’d been with my parents. I thought about us all, about all of it, about the smell of the highland plains in the Andes, the Stanford alumni looking to donate money to someone like Nilda for her projects, about being so poor we caught hepatitis trying to upgrade from just having a pot to piss in, about the vicious rumble of my Trans Am’s engine while I hauled ass down southbound 101 trying to make up a few minutes of time.
I crested the small rise next to Moffett Field in the far right lane and gunned it to pass a semi on the right. Yeah, I know, I thought. But whatever. I took a moment’s pleasure in the car’s response, and that’s when I saw what I hadn’t before: the CHP car one lane left of the semi. Well, fuck. I came off the throttle but it was too late, and no sooner had I passed the Mathilda exit than he was behind me, rollers lit up. I pulled to the side.
He walked up on the passenger side, and I rolled down that window. He looked at the booster seat in the passenger seat, the motorcycle helmet in the back seat, and I handed him license, registration, proof of insurance.
“So,” he said, “were you aware of how fast you were going?”
“Just keeping up with the flow of traffic, sir.” He gave me a look. I sighed. “I’ve got a parent conference at my son’s school,” I said, “in three minutes.” He looked over my documents, looked around the inside of the car.
“I’d expect better situational awareness from someone with a motorcycle license,” he said, blandly. “You should have seen me before you passed that semi.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you’re right, sir. I should have.”
He tore a page from his ticket book, handed it to me with my documents. “I’m writing you a fix-it,” he said. “I don’t think the tinting on this car is to spec.” It was, but I just wanted done with that, and really, he could have written me for the 82mph my needle had briefly touched. I took the ticket, thanked him, and was only 3 minutes late to the conference.
“He’s refusing to write his journal again,” the teacher said, “and then he had a tantrum about it, so I sent him to the principal’s office again.” I reiterated — we’d been around and around about this — that this was exactly what he wanted; in the principal’s office, he was supposed to just sit and read quietly, which was all he wanted to do, and so sending him to the principal’s office just reinforced that all he had to do to get out of writing the journal was have a tantrum. She shrugged. This, just like my job, was going nowhere. The first grader and I went home.
* * * *
The ringing phone woke me from a fitful Saturday morning sleep. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and the phone’s display said 203-something and ST RAPHAEL HOS.
It was my father. He spoke with difficulty, past pain, past morphine. “Well, Abbo,” he said. “I’m shutting down here. I was a farmer long… enough… to see lots… of animals get here. Stuff’s… shutting down. Not coming back. So you… gotta get everyone here.”
I squeezed my eyelids as tight as I could but it didn’t stop any leakage. “OK,” I said.
“Quickly,” he said. “I won’t… I won’t make it long. I can’t wait.” I told him I knew. “I won’t… I can’t… none of this… just keep him alive till someone gets here,” he went on. “Just bring… them all.”
I promised I would.
“Make sure… about Quilla… that she knows I’m dying. That they haven’t… been telling her I’ll… pull through. That she’s coming to… say goodbye.”
I promised that too.
He hung up, and I turned to my husband and we started setting it all in motion.
* * * *
“I have a huge favour to ask,” I told the mom behind the counter. Her whole family ran that bagel shop and I can’t begin to count how many mochas and lattes and bagel breakfasts and lunches I’d had there. We all laughed about how often I’d see my sister Molly, and my niece Quilla there, often. Pretty much every Sunday like today.
“Sure,” she said. “What is it?”
“If my sister comes in –” I gulped. “Well, she’s not answering her phone and either she’s not home or not answering the door. If she comes in, today, call me when she does and see if you can get her to wait a bit. We have to get to my father because he’s dying.” I handed her my card, with my cell number on the back. And true to her word, she called me and she stalled my sister there over her Sunday late morning bagel.
With everyone back at my house, the bereavement fares were being sought and it was too late to make it from California to Connecticut that day. And there was nothing on Sunday. Tuesday was the soonest. Tuesday, my mother’s birthday. My husband and son would stay behind; it would be me, my sister, my niece, on Tuesday into JFK.
I took seven-year-old Quilla aside. “Ed wants me to talk to you,” I told her. “We have to have a big girl talk about this trip to see him.”
“I like planes,” she said, “it’s fine.” My sister interjected: “Hurry up. We have to go. This is bullshit. I can’t just go on Tuesday. I can’t be ready then.” I didn’t say that I could never be ready to go to our father’s deathbed. I could never be ready to see him die. I could never be ready to face a world without him in it, but who the fuck cared if I could ever be ready? I kept holding Quilla’s hand.
“It’s not a regular trip,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I know,” she said. “Grampy’s in the hospital, so we have to visit him there.” Molly was gathering her things to leave. I was running out of time and maybe she didn’t want me to do this. But I’d promised.
“We’re going to say goodbye to him, Quilla,” I rushed it out. “This will be the last time we get to see him.”
“NO!” she screamed, and “Oh, fuck this,” her mother muttered, loudly, at the same time. I took a deep breath, and my son tried to take Quilla’s other hand. She wrenched both hands free from anybody’s grasp and glared at me. “He is going to be fine,” she said.
“No, Quilla,” I said. “No, I’m sorry, but he isn’t. He is dying. But we get to go say goodbye.”
“That’s it,” said my sister, and grabbed her daughter by the shoulder. “I’m all set with this. I’m out of here. Fuck this.” And they left.
“Well,” said my husband, “that went well.”
I just cried. My boy handed me a tissue.
* * * *
At least the flight was a nonstop. At least Molly and Quilla didn’t dodge me when we went to pick them up. Molly kept reassuring Quilla that Ed would be fine. I kept looking Molly square in the eye, and she’d look me back and keep saying it. She said it so much I wondered if she believed it too. I switched to an unoccupied seat a row or two forward, and kept crocheting. It was my handspun tussah silk and I finished the scarf. I gave it to the flight attendant who kept distracting Quilla, thanked her for her help. “Is your father really dying?” she asked me. “Yes,” I said. “I just hope we’re in time to say goodbye.” She brought me a whisky.
Walking out of the terminal I pondered just how much fun it was going to be to get this crew to Grand Central, onto the Metro North commuter train. I walked up to a guy standing by his limo, and quietly, while Molly and Quilla wrestled with heavier coats, I asked him if there was a price I could pay him to drive to New Haven.
“I could lose my medallion for that,” he said. “Nope.”
“It’s a matter of life and death,” I said, and gestured with my head at my sister and niece. “My dad’s in the hospital there, dying. Today’s our mother’s birthday.”
He looked at me in disbelief.
“Cash,” I said. “How’s $200?”
“And tolls,” he said. “There and back. And if we get stopped, we’re just friends out for a drive.”
“To the hospital door,” I said. He nodded. We got in. I sat in the front. We were just friends, out for a drive, after all. Friends listening to the muttering and wailing from the back seat.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to mutter and wail. It was that it wouldn’t matter if I did.
It was just about dark by the time we got there. There in the semicircle drive I surreptitiously handed the limo driver $260. I had another $24 left but whatever; there are ATMs in New Haven.
We left the suitcases in the hall outside his room in the oncology ICU. I scrubbed my hands to the elbow and then I hit the disinfectant gel dispenser by his door. He was there in the bed, asleep, breathing hard, oxygen mask on his face. Our mother was beside him in the recliner, sitting up. She stood. We hugged, and hugged hard.
“Some birthday, huh?” she said. Ed didn’t wake. He didn’t move. He just breathed hard, unsteady, gasping. One of the nurses had explained it on my previous visit, weeks earlier: with no red blood cells to speak of, there wasn’t much of anything to transport oxygen. What a fucking bitch of a disease; what a way to watch someone you love go down. No white blood cells, so immunities are gone; no platelets so if he gets a nick or a scrape he’ll bleed and bleed and bleed and never clot and all that precious, single-donor, carefully-sorted transfused blood product won’t be enough; and in the end, no red blood cells so you can’t even breathe.
“When’s the last time you left here?” I asked my mother. “When did you eat?” She was vague; said something about coffee and the morning, and a shower Monday. “Damon was trying to get me to go to dinner,” she said.
“Go,” I urged her. “Go. Have a birthday dinner, at least. Even Ed did that for his birthday. He had an ice cream sundae even. Go.”
She didn’t really want to. But she did. And then she came back. “Do you guys want to go to my house to sleep?” she asked. And amid argument I convinced her to go sleep in a bed, to let me take the watch sitting with her dying husband, my dying father, this dying man. Molly and Quilla would go with her, help her, keep her company. She could sleep in a bed, and not be alone.
That recliner… it was as good a place to sleep as any you could really ask for in a hospital room. Things went beep and whir and click and whoosh and thump. It smelled how only hospitals do. I watched him gasp for air and wondered how my mother had stood it since he called me Saturday. I wondered if I was that strong. I cried for my mom. I cried for my dad.
He woke once, or roused. Or something. He looked at me. He pulled off the oxygen mask.
“Abby,” he said. “Abby. What are you doing here?”
“You said it was time to come, Ed,” I told him. “We’re all here. Everyone’s here.”
“It’s 1969,” he said. “Why are you here?”
“Ah,” I replied. “Well. If I’m here, obviously it’s not 1969, eh?”
“Hrmmmm,” he said, “hrmmmmm.” If you knew him, you’d know exactly how he always said that. It was distinctive. And then he sat up, most of the way up, and subsided again as fast as he had. He looked at me, fully lucid. “I’m the dog catcher,” he said, “and I wouldn’t let a dog live like this.”
His eyes closed again, and he resumed that gasping breathing. I put the oxygen mask back on. Weakly, he swatted at it, then stilled. Gasp. Rasp. Whoosh. Click. Whoosh. Click. Whoosh. Click. Beep. Whir.
He never really spoke to me again. He might have spoken to his brother, the next night, Wednesday night, his final night. I don’t know. He did sort of speak, though, that Wednesday: he would pull off the mask, and he’d say, over and over, “Quickly.”
Sometime that night I think his brother and I realized what he meant: quickly. Let it be over quickly.
The arrangements were in place to move him to hospice in Branford, to the place right on Long Island Sound, about a 9 mile ambulance ride. Thursday morning was a blur of doing what had to be done; standing by my mother’s side while she signed papers, while she authorized things, while her drawn and exhausted face looked a million years old. She’d dyed out even the white streak that, once natural, she’d always kept; but it had been long enough sitting in the hospital that the white showed in her roots. There was a lot of it. She was thin; thinner than she’d been a month before, when we’d thought he would go for that stem cell transplant, and I had thought she was thin then, even for her.
She would ride with him in the ambulance. I would follow, driving Ed’s Volvo; his brother, my sister, her daughter, they’d ride with me. I went down to get the car, bring it around to meet everyone by the ambulance loading area. I wanted to make sure I had the right truck number, that sort of thing.
“One thing,” the ambulance driver told me. He was a young man, mid-twenties. He looked so much younger than me, but I was only 32. I was too young for this. He continued. “We’re not allowed to pronounce patients,” he said. “So… so, if he dies on the ride, I’m legally required to bring him back here to this hospital to be pronounced dead.”
“Oh God,” I said. He nodded. “We’ll go slow,” he told me, “to keep things smooth, but not too slow, because… we need to get there quickly.”
“Yes,” I said, “Quickly. He doesn’t want to die in this hospital.”
“If he goes on the way, what I’ll do is pull over to the side of the road, and everyone can say goodbye. But then we have to come back here. So stay right behind me.” I nodded, numbly.
My uncle Gerry was in the passenger seat beside me, silent as I was. My sister and niece sat in the back, sobbing. I never drove a longer 9 miles in my life. Every second of that drive I watched and waited for the ambulance to pull to the side; I envisioned saying a final farewell to my father on the shoulder of the interstate while relentless traffic whipped on by buffeting us all with its wind. Please no. Please not that.
I pulled into the hospice tight on the ambulance’s bumper. “Get out,” I told everyone. “I can’t park here.” I looked desperately for somewhere to park; there was nowhere close. It seemed like it was miles away across the parking lot. I whipped that car in there and jumped out and started running, running, and the ambulance doors were open and my mother was standing beside them looking at me.
I knew. I still ran. I knew, though. And when I got there, she looked at me, looked at Ed on the stretcher in the ambulance, at the young ambulance driver standing ready to pull the stretcher out.
“He stopped breathing,” she said.
I looked at my mother, there, in that moment, the moment when death did them part. There was nothing to say.
“Wait!” my sister shrieked. “He’s got a pulse! I can see it! Right there!” She pointed. It was true; in his temple, there was a vein pulsing. But he wasn’t breathing. His eyes were open, but he was gone. “Do something!” Molly sobbed.
“No,” my mother whispered.
“No,” I concurred. “Molly, we can’t. He has a DNR. He’s gone.”
“Just a second,” said the ambulance driver, clipboard in hand, and ran inside the hospice.
“How could you?” my sister raged. “How could you just let him die?” My mother and I looked at each other. Birds were singing. The air was warm. It was spring. I could see gulls. I could smell the ocean, faintly. The sun was shining. There was Ed, that pulse fading, in the warm spring air, outside. Not gasping desperately. Not pleading. And not there in his body.
The ambulance driver came back, with someone from the hospice. Seconds passed, and the pulsing vein went still. “Time of death, 2:11 pm,” someone said. “Admitted, 2:10 pm.” More hospice staff were gathering, taking everyone in hand. We all went inside.
But then… “Wait!” I ran after the ambulance driver. He turned.
“I just… I just want you to know when you go off shift tonight? When today’s over? That this was a win. Thank you.”
He looked back. “I know,” he said. “We lost my mom last month.”
* * * *
They laid him out in a viewing room at the hospice. He was in the street clothes he’d worn when we went in to get him that transfusion right before he was supposed to go to Seattle for the transplant. And after everyone said goodbye we were supposed to take the things to remember him, before he went to cremation.
I watched my mother take the wedding ring from his hand. “You made him this scarf,” she said. “You should take it.”
“Leave it with him,” I said. “It’s his.”
Resignedly, sadly, she looked at me. “He’s being cremated,” she reminded me. “It’s not like he can have grave goods.” It sounds wrong, perhaps, but it was the truth, and the truth of the two of them: ever the archaeologists and anthropologists.
“Whatever,” I said, putting my hand on his where they lay loosely crossed on his abdomen. “Whatever.”
I took the scarf. But then… then I put into his hand the small vending machine bag of Fritos I’d bought numbly a few moments prior.
“Goodbye, Ed,” I said. “I wish I had a beer to give you with these.”
My mother and I turned, and left the room: she, a widow, and me, half-orphaned. Outside the sun was shining and spring was springing. Gulls were flying. And the world without my father in it just kept right on turning. And so it has, every day since, for ten years now, and every year at this time, I relive that week. But this is the first time I’ve been able to write it down.
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