Mon 1 Aug 2011
when my grandmother was not quite nineteen years old, she married a boy from the farm down the road. she was a country girl, a second daughter of four.
she did not get a honeymoon. she got a passport, expedited. a few weeks after the wedding she got on a train and went from Charlottetown, PEI, to New York City.
it was October 1942. my grandfather met her train, took her to a brownstone apartment on West 76th Street. he left the next morning, his mission and destination entirely classified. he was a spy, a communications agent for British Security Coordination. he was gone six weeks.
she had never, so my grandfather said, been off of PEI before in her life.
i found her passport yesterday afternoon, going through files in my grandfather’s basement.
i traced my fingers over her face: familiar and strange. or rather, i remember it well, but forty years older, lined, turned down at the mouth. in it. i peered in and a dozen family faces danced back at me at odd angles: my aunts, my half-sister, a cousin.
i cocked my head to one side and squinted and could see myself, for a second, diffracted. i smiled, surprised and wry and bewildered, all at once. because the girl in that photo is less than half my age, and yet my grandmother, undeniably. try holding both those things as equally true, at once. you turn into a country song.
i looked at her blouse, her jacket: probably her very best, if not the only ones she owned. i wondered what her shoes looked like, tucked away under the stool of the photography shop where that passport photo was taken. the grandmother i knew wore sensible shoes, always. but the grandmother i knew never quite had that look on her face, either. i wondered where that eagerness got to. it left no stamps in the passport to tell its story.
i kinda hope she was wearing those sexy strappy wedge sandals of the forties, the ones Shelly Winters called her Come Fuck Me shoes.
what is a passport photo for, really, if not grand shoes and grand hopes?
i use my own passport so little now i can barely remember where i keep it. i found it tonight, breathed a sigh of relief, realized i am six months from expiry. Dave found his. he has an extra year before he needs a renewal, because i put his last passport through the washing machine.
when we were first together, we had our passports on us nearly all the time. both of us stared out from the pages long-haired and wide-eyed: Dave held his shoulders like a rugby player and looked absolutely not at all like anyone you’d want to let into your country. still, he had twenty-some stamps. i did too. the little books were like condensed maps of the worlds we’d walked, tiny resumes, stories unto themselves.
now my passport has a single stamp in it: Heathrow, 2007. the U.S. does not stamp Canadians. when i flew to DC in April, i considered asking for a stamp, just to mark that i was there. but what can you say to a customs agent? someday, when i’ve been dead twenty-three years, i’d like someone to find this in a basement and know i was here?
we leave tomorrow, to take the kids to Dave’s parents, then on to BlogHer. i am reading. Dave is coming. both these things seem marvellously unreal to me, as does California in general.
after San Diego, we have three days in San Francisco.
in my grandfather’s basement yesterday, i found a souvenir book: Views of San Francisco. April 1945 is written on the front cover, in his handwriting: he was a member of the delegation at the first United Nations conference there. he must have brought the book home to my grandmother. she never saw the city, except through its splendidly titled black-and-white pages.
i will bring it with us.
and i am tempted, when we land, to ask the customs agent to stamp our passports.
what’s on your passport?
…and who wants to take me & Dave to all the cool parties in San Diego? he’s bringing his best heels.