My brother, Erik, was living in Queens then, working as an orderly at one of the hospitals in the city, but since he disliked Brenda even more than I did—having borne the full brunt of her overcompensations when our father first married her—no one expected him to contribute, even though he was the one with the specific expertise for it. Still, he came around the house much more often than me or my aunts expected, driving down to New Jersey whenever he had two days off in a row. Mostly, we got drunk and watched old slides of our father’s childhood, our childhood, and the scant years in between. We’d both developed into pretty big drinkers by then, and if we hesitated at first, it was because our father had never been a big fan of alcohol, and this had always made us a little embarrassed of how much we liked it ourselves. I think we were afraid he’d think the story of our family was taking a step backward, but since he spent most of that summer—his last on earth, as it indeed turned out—shuddering in and out of consciousness in his room upstairs, that didn’t seem to matter much any more.
Brenda didn’t drink either, but she was more than happy to run down to Westhaven Avenue to get us more beer. Even though it was her house, she knew she had to purchase the right to remain in the room. “Now who’s that?” she’d ask, and when Erik, who was three years older than me, would make a rough guess as to which of our parents’ relatives we were looking at, Brenda would squint at the screen and remark that the person didn’t look at all the way she’d pictured. What we were to understand was that not only had our father painstakingly described our former lives to her in their entirety, but that she’d paid strict attention to every word. That was how much she cared about him, and us.
Brenda would also make comments about our mother. They were generally good-natured interjections implying that the two of us must’ve been particularly exhausting as children, and I suppose she wanted us to know that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our mother in front of her. “She looks so tired there, that poor woman,” she’d say, and Erik and I would grit our teeth in the dark. We would’ve much preferred to be flipping through those dusky frames without her, swirls of dust suspended in the projector light as we tried to decipher the secret meanings behind the looks our parents gave one another through the camera lens, tried to figure out who, exactly, our mother had been.
In one series of slides, our parents smoked marijuana. They were smiling, as if it were something of a novelty to them and they couldn’t help feeling a little silly. Our father may have been liberal in his politics, but he was strait-laced in his personality, and our mother had grown up in a strict Pentecostal family in Washington County, about as far up the coast you can go and still be in the United States. It’s quite possible that this was the first, or maybe the only, time they ever did it or did it together. In one photo, our mother was crossing her eyes as she inhaled, and in the next, she was standing in the middle of some unidentified kitchen, still holding the joint and laughing,