A tribute to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
My grandmother walked in with her many folds of skin, wrinkles around her eyes and across her hands. If you were to cut through her body and counted the rings they would show her age. She carried her famous potato salad in a plastic Tupperware bowl labelled LASAGNA. It was made with mayonnaise bought at the discount store because the sell by date had already passed, the manager had simply used an old cloth and some alcohol to wipe the tiny black numbers off of the glass, the chickens who had laid the eggs destined to become mayonnaise were long dead. Her handbag was heavy, in it she carried all the things she always carried: an old lipstick, nearly used up, its colour best described as ‘old lady lips’, a handkerchief, a packet of tissues, because who still uses cloth handkerchiefs?, a cell phone which battery could last for weeks on end, yet was always out of juice, her fear of dying, her trust in God, the forbidden knowledge, hidden underneath all the broken pens, bits of paper, and old candy wrappers, that there was no God and she had been lied to ever since she was a little girl, and her bus card, with a discount for the elderly. She smiled at her eldest, wondered where the time went, had a chat with her youngest, wondered where the time went, put her potato salad on the counter, in between all the other dishes, a mishmash of old Tupperware and dishes brought from home or bought at the store, on the way to the gathering, hastily transferred from its supermarket container to a disguise of the homemade, spilling some bits on the car seat and having a minor argument about it, and wondered where the time went.
When my uncle walked in he didn’t just bring his famous spaghetti meatballs, but also a general sense of disappointment, shoulders that were never not-hunched over, and a bottle of cheap Merlot, its 30% off sticker almost fully taken off. His famous spaghetti meatballs was famous mostly because he always declared it as such. “Ah, hello Janelle, how are you? I brought my famous spaghetti meatballs!” It wasn’t that good.
His bag, a black, faded backpack, was mostly empty, though he always complained of it being too heavy and full, it had a button on the front, which had lost its message, leaving behind a shiny silver surface.
My aunt walked in with her daughter, a girl of seventeen, who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, not hidden very well inside of her bright red very-in-right-now backpack. Right next to the Spanish homework she still hadn’t done even though it was due tomorrow and Mrs. Jackson was very strict and had already talked to her twice before about not doing her homework on time, was a sense of failure she always felt whenever her mother compared her to her brothers, both older, who had always been better.
“You know, I never really wanted three children, was fine with two. But I really wanted a daughter, a little girl, so I convinced your father to try again, sometimes I wonder if I should have. Three children is so much more of a hassle than two, more expensive too. And I never did get my body back, which I did manage after your brothers. Somehow being pregnant with you was the hardest pregnancy. Make of that what you will.”
Her breath had smelled of cheap sherry and her movements had been slow. Make of that what you will.
She also carried things all teenage girls carry: a notebook full of dreams and aspirations, deodorant, mascara, the knowledge that she was always just a little bit too fat and that yes, she should definitely skip lunch today, even though she had already skipped breakfast, a lip-gloss that had little pieces of glitter in it, and the certainty that all would be even worse if The Big Secret came out. They brought a salad with little pieces of feta and sundried tomatoes, and a tray of cooked and under seasoned chicken legs, still slightly warm despite the 30 minute drive.