My dad recently scanned and emailed a handful of old photos to me, black and whites he’d found of his parents, my grandparents, when they were courting. In one my grandfather is cooking pancakes on a camp stove atop a picnic table in some unidentified woods. He is younger than I am now, handsome and tan in just his shorts, his stand of shiny black hair curling over his forehead just as it did until the day he died of a brain tumor, frequently prompting speculation about “Indian blood.”
My grandmother is not in the picture because she is obviously the one who took it. I say “obviously” because there is something in the ease with which my grandfather stands shirtless, the giddiness of the smile he shines at the camera, that makes it so I can almost see the shy, curly-haired girl my grandmother must have been at 20, with her finger on the shutter.
Before my grandmother died, shortly after I graduated high school, I remember her daily “beauty nap” around two in the afternoon. Grandpa would watch the clock, often while he prepared what would become our dinner, and after 20 minutes he would go back to their bedroom, sit softly on the edge of the bed, and kiss her on the forehead. “Time to wake up,” he would whisper.
I remember her lying with eyes closed in the living room of that same house, on a hospital bed with the metal bars along the sides, probably the last time I saw her. She was comatose from a series of strokes and at home because my family had decided not to force her body to live any longer. I was leaving for a 10-month exchange program in Costa Rica and everyone said I should go anyway. There was nothing more to do. I remember grandpa leaning over her and kissing her on the forehead. I remember thinking it was time to wake up.
The year my college friends and I held our annual reunion in a cabin near Mt. Rainier, we never once saw the peak for all the fog laying on top of the pines that surrounded us. Who knows what we were expecting, visiting the northwestern-most state in late May. We drove up the mountain one day to go hiking and suddenly found ourselves, many in tennis shoes, walking through snow pack. I love the pictures from that hike: all of us atop a lush green boulder, hoods and sleeves pulled tight to protect our tender skin.
I remember everyone in the hot tub later (there must always be a hot tub), retelling the story of Dave and Erin’s engagement. Although we’d all known Dave for years, we had a loose rule that no significant other would be invited to reunion until a ring was involved, so this was his first year joining us. Erin and I went to high school together, then college, then NYC, but I had moved to San Francisco that year and missed the engagement, which involved all our friends and a surprise sail around Manhattan. Below my excitement and happiness for them, I felt a loneliness, the pang of being left behind, rising like fog.
My second spring in SF was a magical one. The day after my March 12 birthday that year was a hot, sunny Saturday that seemed to have have gotten confused and wandered up from Southern California. I woke up with a hangover from complementary Kir Royals at the French bistro my girlfriends and I closed out the night before. Laying in bed, I texted my friends to tell them my birthday wish was not to have to leave my apartment that day but to see all of them. They trickled in over the next few hours, bearing gifts of candy and blood oranges and ‘80s sci-fi movies. We sunbathed and took Polaroid photos of each other and made a nest of pillows and blankets on the living room floor where we fell asleep on each others shoulders as the credits rolled.
My friends and I that spring frequently referred to ourselves as “The Thon,” a diminutive of “marathon” denoting a friend group where everyone routinely spends days in each others presence and lovingly shames those who want to leave early to, say, sleep in their own bed. There were seven of us, four girls, three boys, and all single. A typical weekend might consist of camping in Big Sur Friday night, waking at 1am to drive to the hot cliff baths at Esalen, where we would soak and whisper for two hours, then return to our tents, sleep late, and wake for brunch on the sunny patio of the Big Sur Bakery. We would nap in human size “bird nests” lined with mattresses and perfumed by wild flowers. We would lounge on the porch at the Henry Miller Library, drinking complementary tea and reading Kerouac’s haiku to one another. Or we would take our new books to a restaurant-bar where seating included heavy wood Adirondack chairs placed in the bed of a sunny, ice-cold stream.
Our love for each other then was a current that ran stronger for running equally between us all, though it was constantly waxing and waning between any two of us at any given moment. Several of us ended up dating, two couples moved in together, one broke up and moved back out. One of us was abruptly married after a few months of dating when a Green Card was needed. The Thon has shifted again, mostly to those who are still unattached. The love of a group and the love of a single person are difficult to balance. Neither can stay magic for long.
The summer after college, I went to Europe for a month. A tour of Spain, France, and Luxembourg with my cousin, a meet-up with my parents in Edinburgh, and a week touring Ireland in a van, staying in cheap hostels and cooking Ramen meals with five other young and/or frugal travelers. Our guide had grown up in Belfast and never once took us to a tourist attraction that we paid for. I remember hopping fences and hiking through sheep pastures to find disintegrating castles, or ignoring “unsafe path” signs to climb to the edge of “fairy caves” where people wished on pennies and I accidentally cast my new bracelet into the clear pools along with my coin.
In particular I remember the Cliffs of Moher. We pulled off the road a mile or so from the tour-bus turn-around and the glassed-in observation deck and crawled onto a precipice on our hands and knees. We took turns laying on our stomachs and peeking over the edge of the cliff, a dizzying drop into tiny waves like the white half-moons of my fingernails. The sheer height scared me less than the question my mind refused to stop asking: What would it feel like to throw myself into that abyss? I could feel my stomach pulling toward the buffeting sea breeze, feel my legs twitch to know the sensation of weightlessness.
Later, as we passed a thermos of hot chocolate around the van, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” came on the radio. With the wind coming in from the rolled-down driver-side window and the pink afternoon light on my face, I suddenly understood those lyrics in a new way: not that he hadn’t found the thing he was looking for, but that he hadn’t even figured out what he was supposed to be looking for in the first place. I was 23 and I didn’t know either.
In less than two weeks I’ll be 30. I don’t think as much about finding things now as I do about losing the things I’ve found.