The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue



One day when he was 101 years old, my grandfather took the vase off the windowsill in his house and gave it to me. That vase had sat by the living room window for as long as I could remember. It is luminous blue, with an oval portrait of a lady painted on it.

He told me he’d bought the vase from the man moving out of the apartment into which my grandfather was moving his own young family. This was toward the end of the Depression. The man’s wife had committed suicide. He was short of cash and was selling her things, including the vase, already antique, or at the least, old. My grandfather told me he bought it out of pity for that broken, broke man.

He handed it to me.

My grandfather died the following year at 102. (“It all went by so fast,” he said, not long before he drew his final breath.)

The vase sits on the top shelf of my floor-to-ceiling bookcase—too high too reach, or break. Every day I see that face, surrounded by luminous blue. The woman is serene, young; her brown curls lustrous, falling as they may. Above a diaphanous gown, her bosom swells. She gives away nothing.



In my nightstand, there is a small white envelope holding a single golden ringlet. It came from my son’s first haircut. Now his hair is thick and dark and coarse like mine. He is tall and deep-voiced. When he was smaller, he kept a little box, like a treasure, of his jewel-like baby teeth. Whether he keeps it still, I do not know. I held onto my own yanked teeth for years and years. Some people cherish relics, finding divinity in a fleshless finger bone. Why do we cling to the body’s pieces, as if they can tell us who we are, and what was lost, and how time passed?



I have two of my sister’s paintings on my walls—one a beachscape that was a wedding gift and the other an enormous vermillion flower that she gave me on my fortieth birthday. I have a clay pitcher she made, which is next to the luminous vase with the lady from my grandfather. I have the usual gifts an older sister gives a younger over the years—bracelets, earrings, blouses. And then there is a ridiculous stuffed creature that sits on the arm of the chair that I read in; she gave it to me one year on my birthday when, she said, she had run out of ideas. I think it’s supposed to be some sort of bear, although it has gossamer wings sewn on. It’s neither cute nor pretty. It stays on my chair because it is an impossible life form, a fiction, like our childhood, as my sister and I remember it.



They take forever to make. I am lazy. They are bad for you—high calorie, low fiber, high cholesterol and fat—as in Crisco. They wouldn’t taste the same, I am convinced, if I made them. The cakes would fail to rise. That’s not why I don’t bake them. I can’t bear to open that stained scotch plaid box of index cards, on which her handwriting—loopy and blue—is fading fast.



The sleeveless jersey dress is far beyond repair. It’s stained.  It doesn’t fit. The fabric has faded. Goodwill would not want it. I keep it in my closet because it holds in its weave a long-ago summer—the heat, my young body, the necklace—all hearts—that I wore with it that broke—our rooftop in twilight, the city below us, the promise of the life I planned to live.  That dress was so green.


Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel's short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is just out from Dzanc Books. She is also the author of Carrying the Body, In the Year of Long Division, and The Secret Life of Objects, which is a memoir in vignettes. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, Open City, The Mississippi Review Prize Anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Art & Letters, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues