In some ways, my grandparents are distant, like a misty haze hanging over the mountains. Yet, at times, they feel so close, a blanket of warmth which I wrap around myself. I envision their faces like the figureheads of Mount Rushmore, looming over me with a protective gaze, creases etched into their foreheads, crinkles carved into the corners of their faces. Grandma, Grandpa, Papi, Carol, Nana. Each powerful in stature yet for different reasons. Each emanating rays of voracious love.
Tucked in a back corner of my closet is a small wooden box, thoroughly scratched and nicked, with “LANE Cedar Chests/AltaVista,Va./Presented by MC MAHAN’s MERCED” inscribed on the lid. I am not acquainted with this “MC MAHAN.” However, the rural town of Merced, which lies nestled in the heart of California’s Central Valley, I know all too well. Beyond the pungent wafts of dairy farm, unending rows of crops, and fine dust that pervades its air, Merced’s charm lies in its nostalgia for my family. For, within it sits one-hundred acres of land purchased, plowed, seeded, watered, weeded, and harvested by the sweat and grit of my grandparents. 4515 Elliot Avenue, Merced, California.
The chest contains a curious collection of Grandma’s treasures: a faded photograph of a youthful her and Grandpa, smiling contentedly in the booth of some country diner, two precariously delicate, hand-crocheted gloves, various embroidered doilies, a rosary and Sunday Missal, a quaint wedding ring, and a pair of eyeglasses with lenses thicker than an old Coca-Cola bottle. I fear leaving the lid open too long will cause the sweet, musky perfume of my grandmother to escape the chest and dissipate into the air, lost forever. So, I close the lid and ponder. So many stories within a single object.
Sifting through the box’s contents reminds me of memories buried within myself, images of Papi that play back in vibrant color. December 2007, Jackson, Wyoming: Papi chortles as the funny mustache glasses slip down his nose; Papi swiftly deals me a “paddy whack” to the rear before proceeding with the rest of the grandchildren; Papi scoops up a glistening handful of snow to pack and hurl at Michael. May 2008, New York, New York: Papi, Mom, and I dine at a tiny Indian restaurant, clamoring with customers and aromatic spices and the knocking of chair legs against uneven floorboards. I think this was the last time that I saw Papi. Retrospectively, I am unsure if the restaurant was truly as cramped as I remember it to be or if it was Papi’s wheelchair that made the space feel awkwardly tight.
Regardless, the memory of Papi I savor most is dated from before he surrendered his hair to chemotherapy and his mobility to that clunky wheelchair, from the time he and Nana visited our family in Santa Barbara. August 2006, Moschitto Home: We relax together in the living room, drinking up the afternoon sunlight that filters through the front windows. Our voices join Dad’s tinny guitar strums; the music reverberates through the air:
“Country roads, take me Home
To the place, where I belong…”
The melody swells, filling up the room and floating out to the front yard on the breeze swirling through the open windows. The lyrics soak through our skin and into our souls, becoming consecrated as a part of us. That entire remembrance is tinged in a golden hue which I cannot un-envision.
There is one final memory of Papi but this one is not mine to keep. It is Mom’s. October 2008, Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, New York: I am perched on the edge of Dad’s hospital bed, cradling his worn hand in mine, lifting my voice softly, singing him Home, singing John Denver, his favorite. I ache dwelling in that moment as if I had witnessed it.
Mom told me that it was then that Papi entrusted her with his final words of wisdom: that at the end of his life, he judged his most rewarding endeavor not to be accruing assets or crossing the country or practicing law. It was raising his two children - growing them in love, leading them through life, releasing them into adulthood knowing that one day, they would be the ones releasing him.
Now, anywhere I hear that timeworn lilt, the soft plucking of the guitar and the sweet, sonorous croon carries me down those “country roads” of memory to a place of peace and comfort in belonging, to a family that calls me Home. Yet, the same winding country roads remind me how vast my earthly Home is. I have found Home watching shadows change on the mountains in my backyard and I have found Home gazing upon foreign peaks from an airplane window. I have found Home amongst utter strangers and in the familiarity of forever friends. On both paths of certainty and paths of wandering, I have been at Home.
Months ago, I stumbled upon Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses […] let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” I was mystified by this cloud of witnesses; the words lingered in my mind long after I first encountered them. Only when reflecting on my grandparents, whom themselves had likely never heard the phrase, did I understand its significance: each day brings an opportunity to bear witness to the faces surrounding us. This is perhaps what my Papi understood best of all: our greatest legacy is the love we leave behind. Our loftiest ambition is to call each other Home. And I think Grandma and Grandpa and Nana and Carol, smiling down from their heights, would agree with him.