LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE STRANGER IN MY FAMILY
BY KIKI PETROSINO
You were eighty-five the summer I lived with you. Mornings, we rose early, settling into the strange and ever-present hum that seemed to surround the condominium. That hum: part air-conditioning, part asphalt, part geranium-bright Cadillacs spinning down Westlake Terrace on their way to the capital. That summer, I learned to associate this soft, metropolitan drone with your lucky mid-Atlantic elder years. To me, your life was sunshine, breezes, comfort.
I was between worlds, having just graduated from the University of Virginia on a muddy Sunday afternoon in May. My parents, freshly divorced, had attended commencement but refused to interact. I’d had two graduation dinners in Charlottesville, two photo sessions featuring me in academic dress, my sandals sinking into Jefferson’s Lawn. My last days of college were rain-soaked and stormy, a dissolving kingdom. I’d already started to tell myself that I was a happy wanderer, a young adult who could find her home anywhere in the world. I imagined a family of my own making: long dinners with laughing friends, road trips to beautiful places. That summer, I’d finally packed away all the photos of my study-abroad boyfriend, a Florentine dental student who’d dumped me the previous winter (I think you are not the woman of my future). Now I was moving back to Europe, but to Switzerland, this time: a shinier country. I’d be a schoolteacher there. I would build a life I could keep.
On Tuesdays at the condo, I’d roll up my bedsheets for laundering while you unfolded your Washington Post in the den. Sometimes, you’d watch the local news. One of the anchors reminded you of my grandfather. He’d passed away when I was a toddler, but I remembered certain things: the way he bent his tall body to fillet a catfish at the sink on Kennedy Street; a single, hand-in-hand walk through his early spring garden, where he’d pointed out the white look of a tiny alpine strawberry still on the vine.
Until that summer, Paw Paw was one of the only things we’d ever shared, and that was because you’d already chosen him, decades before, to be yours. So I offered you these few memories like foreign coins I’d been saving without knowing why. I always had the impression that you didn’t necessarily like being a grandmother; there was something about it that puzzled you, as if you’d received the odd gift of a tureen with one more lid than necessary. We saw each other at holidays, mostly.
That summer, you took me in, keeping me out of my parents’ post-divorce transitions.After breakfast with you, I’d take the bus from Montgomery Mall to the National Institutes of Health Metro-Rail stop. Then, I’d ride the Red Line train over to Tenleytown, where I worked as an unpaid intern for the local NPR station. I sweltered on these commutes, and quickly exhausted my cycle of office-suitable clothes. I couldn’t afford new outfits; as it was, the daily costs of the Metro-Rail were digging into the remnants of my college money.
But I was silent about this. I didn’t want you to think I was foolish for agreeing to work without pay. Having left your father’s farm at the age of twelve all alone, you were a woman who made her own prosperity. The little Negro school in your rural Virginia neighborhood only went up to sixth grade andyou wanted to go to seventh; just like that, you willed yourself to D.C., leaving your girlhood behind.
For the first time that summer, you told me about the two uniform dresses you had to wear in your job as a nanny for a wealthy white family: blue for playtime with the children, white for dinner service. You and the cook would eat in the kitchen afterwards, and then you’d study all night. This family had an indoor washroom that you described in detail—it was an urban luxury they forbade you to use. Do you see why I didn’t think you’d have much sympathy for my money troubles?
But you surprised me one day, when I accompanied you to Sears. You pulled out two simple pencil skirts in my size: black, navy. These will look nice on you, you said, and bought them for me.
That summer was our closest, our best time. In the evenings, you showed me photographs of your younger self, wearing mid-calf versions of the skirts you’d bought me for the office. And on the very last page of an album: a handsome portrait of Paw Paw, taken in his early 20s. You showed it to me, before quickly placing your hand over the image of his face. Oh! I can’t look at it, you said, and the sudden spark in your voice—the bright bolt of something with wings—told me that grief had surprised you in that moment. Grandfathers die, and mine had been gone so long that, for me, looking at his photograph was like visiting a national park or hearing a story about a solemn king. You were my first lesson in living memory, how it leaps and snaps. How it nips at you, unexpectedly.
Sometimes I still miss my boyfriend, I confessed to you, in the condo hum.
I know you do, honey.
That summer, we discovered that we liked each other. We didn’t know it would turn out that way, or that another opportunity would never come again. But for those few months, there was an opening we both stepped through on our way to something else. When I left for Switzerland, you and my mother came to see me off at Dulles. And because it was the very last summer before 9/11, when our American universe still felt luxuriously unassailable, you waited with me right at my departure gate, and I didn’t board my flight until the very last call. You held my hand in both of yours and—with that same surprised note in your voice, same bright flick of a wing—you said:
I’m going to miss you, child.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kiki Petrosino is the author of two books of poetry: Fort Red Border and Hymn for the Black Terrific, both from Sarabande Books. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing Program. Her latest poetry collection, Witch Wife, is forthcoming from Sarabande in 2018.