On August afternoons, windows gape and fans yawn. The cats venture across the deserts of drab carpeting searching for a breeze, but my mother—outside with garden shears—hears music in the heat. Humming and the percussion of snapping lilac branches refresh her more than any succulent storm.
If my father heard me tell you that his mother died twice, he’d rock back on his heels, dip his chin so the tip of his cotton swab beard glanced off his sternum, and declare that she died all of three times. He would not elaborate. As you can imagine, these stories are not pleasant to recall; he rarely brings his mother up in conversation. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing her name.
Our differing sums can be attributed to absence. I forget about the first time my grandmother died because it happened before I was born. Unfortunately, all of this means you must rely on me to tell you stories of which I only hold shards. I will do my best.
In 1951 my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were sitting or playing or napping in a house across town from the courtroom in which my grandparents slouched. A stoic judge restated the charges of The State of Michigan v. James and Romine, which I imagine includes public nuisance and several counts of child neglect. The case ended with the word guilty and three swift knocks of a gavel. Later in the week, a social worker came to the house, gathered the three children’s belongings, and drove them to three different houses full of strangers: foster families. And on his third or fourth night in the new house when my dad was lonely and confused and crying, his foster mother peeked into the room and told him that she was all he had, his mother would not be back. That was her first death.
The other deaths begin with phone calls placed to my father from strangers claiming to be relatives. The first one happened in 1983 and went something like this:
“This is your niece. My name is Karen*.”
“What can I do for you, Karen?”
“I thought you should know your mother has cancer. They caught it late. Things aren’t looking too good.”
“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I do not count myself among them. Goodbye.” Dad hung up believing that was that.
The second phone call was less abrupt. It happened in the summer of 1989.
“This is your Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting.
“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Loretta.”
“Yes, well, this is her. Your mother is sick and she’s asking for you. She doesn’t have much time left.”
“You must be mistaken. My mother died years ago.”
“No. She’s had cancer before, a couple of times in fact. But she never let it kill her until now. Will you come?”
“I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake because my mother has never once wanted to see me.”
“Well, there’s nothing I can do to change that, but I’m telling you now that your mother is dying and she wants to see you.”
Dad didn’t go.
Two years ago, I connected with Karen’s daughter on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. He never told us he’d gone.
My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. But even if I hadn’t been a self-absorbed teenager I still would not have known of his loss. He kept his family secrets. I resented his attitude then; I always felt like he was withholding himself. Now I understand that it was protection. It was my father’s determination to leave his past behind, to give his sons a less complicated family life.
I know facts about my grandmother now. I know her name was Mary Louise Romine. She was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan. I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress.
She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.
*names of living people are changed
On the first warm day of the year my mother became a mastermind.
We lived, the five of us, in a peach* house that knelt into the apex of a gentle hill. I use the word hill in the relative sense, though. A hill in eastern Michigan is very different from, say, a Hill in Colorado. When you walked in our front door, you were greeted with a good-sized living room protruding to your left. The kitchen table lay straight ahead twenty paces and a picture window hung just behind it, framing a large backyard stippled with freestanding bird feeders.
There was only one way into the other side of the house. If you turned right when you were halfway to the kitchen, you’d be confronted by a hallway that grew darker before taking a sharp turn into light once more. Doors to a bathroom and two bedrooms stood sentry in the darkness. The light at the end of the hall was from my bedroom— the door was left ajar because I couldn’t reach the doorknob then.
Because of the bottleneck of the hallway, heat would build up in the closed-off bedrooms during the day. It was because of this build-up of hot air that, every few hours, my mother would stop what she was doing in the kitchen to reposition one (or all) of the three box fans in the house. It began as a way to get her family to sleep through those sticky August nights. It turned into her responsibility. A responsibility that eventually glommed onto me when I grew older.
Every night, before us three sons would go to bed, she’d open the front door wide and pry open the stubborn panes in the picture window. She’d put the strongest fan right at the beginning of the hallway so it would blow down the corridor and fill each of our bedrooms, as if they were balloons. The other two fans she’d place in bedroom windows blowing outward. I’ve since named it ‘the flow technique’—sucking the hot air out and replacing it with the fresh air from the main part of the house.
Dad didn’t see much sense in facing fans out windows. He tried more than once to convince her that aiming all the fans inward would cool the house down just as fast and give each of us a breeze. But Mom insisted on flow. This was years before the idea of feng shui was common knowledge. Mom was certainly ahead of her time!
After the first week, Dad no longer argued with her. The bedrooms cooled down in record time. We started sleeping with sheets over us again. That was the best part for me— the youngest—because with sheets covering me I didn’t have to worry so much about midnight monster attacks.
I don’t remember the exact words Mom and Dad used to state their cases, but I’m sure they were very similar to the cases my partner and I have made to one another on these unbearably hot nights recently. He’s learned to just let me keep repositioning the fans. Thankfully, we’ve added an AC window unit to the mix.
*Note: my parents still live in the peach house I describe here, although I don’t think it’s peach anymore. I only used the past tense here because I haven’t lived there in over 20 years. Mom doesn’t practice the fine art of fan positioning anymore. They installed central air about a decade ago. I remember when they first got it, Mom said to me, “I just don’t know how we lived without AC for so long.”