I attended a press conference Thursday, one that was in the news a lot that day, one called by a great man who is facing the end of his days. He said he’d like to finish eradicating a disease before he dies. Being who he is, with the resources he has — including his own personality — it’s entirely likely that he will. And that’s quite a legacy.
Not everybody gets to pick their legacy, though, or what reminds people of us after we’re gone. I was thinking today about how I’d like to be remembered, and how I hope it’s nice things that spark memories of me, or at least innocuous things. I hope it’s something cheerful. But I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ll get to choose — or that it will make sense.
When I was a child, we visited my grandparents at least once a year, flying from our home in Vermont to theirs in Los Angeles in what felt like a trip to a different world. Everything was different in Los Angeles: the smell of dry, dusty air and eucalyptus; the dining out at restaurants that offered chopsticks and served things with tentacles; the vast tranquility of the Pacific. That little theme park with the mouse. An amazing chain of kid-friendly Tex-Mex that nobody back home had ever heard of called Taco Bell. And *pools* in back yards, like everybody was some kind of millionaire.
My grandparents’ house was mysterious and full of treasure. There was an impossibly luxurious guest suite with its own access to the yard and pool. The chandelier’s crystals fell off every time there was an earthquake, which happened often enough to have scarred the table below — but which somehow never happened when we were visiting. One room hid a World War Two service revolver about which we never spoke. The dog came and went on his own schedule through a flap in the door, because the weather was never too cold to make that nonsensical. There was a pool table in the back room, a room itself full of odd books and old games and a letter to a young fan from Charles Schultz. These things remained the same every time we visited, and we checked them, like we were greeting old friends.
The house itself had a perfect floor plan for entertaining. The front door opened into a large, ranch-style living room, behind which ran a unified dining/living area bleeding into an open kitchen and then the yard. Guests could flow freely among the three areas almost as if they were all one room. The house invited dinner parties, and I love to think of my grandparents hosting them.
On one particular occasion, the daughters of my grandparents’ best friends wanted to throw their parents an anniversary party, a surprise, and of course my grandparents offered their home as a venue. This was especially fortuitous for us, because Lynn and Diane were amazing, stunning young women on whom I had a massive child-crush. They spent an entire day cleaning and cooking and decorating my grandmother’s house, and I spent an entire day stalking them, listening to every word they said about life and college and joining something called the Peace Corps, and then I watched them sleep when they collapsed in exhaustion on the couch.
Eventually the guests arrived, and most of my memories of that evening are lost in the haze of boredom with which children see adult events. Days before, my grandfather had presented me with a new Madonna tape. Actually, it was the same Madonna tape he’d given me for Christmas the previous year, but I knew this was because he was old and had just asked the store clerk what a 10-year-old girl would want. So I carefully hid away my old copy and the new tape, my Walkman, and I headed for the back yard, where I could sit and watch the adults and the sparkle-light of the pool and pretend I was on La Isla Bonita.
Eventually, a guest I knew wandered into the back yard and approached me. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an unmarked cassette of his own, handing it to me with a serious expression. “One side of this is Michael Jackson’s newest record,” my uncle said. “And the other is a group called Aha. Ever heard of them?”
I shook my head no.
“Yeah, didn’t think so. Your dad’s a good guy, seriously, but he’s a dork. Somebody has to make sure you learn this stuff. Listen to it, you’ll like it.”
I remember regarding the tape and wondering whether I would end up listening to it or throwing it out. They might be brothers, but nobody should talk about my father that way. My father made tapes for me too, and I liked the things on them, by groups called the Beatles and the Kingston Trio and songs that were actually stories by Rogers and Hammerstein. My father was not a dork.
I don’t know if my uncle saw me frown. He tousled my hair. “Hey, kid, do me a favor, willya? Go get me some limes from that tree. I’ll show you something.”
There was enough novelty in picking limes in your own yard that I didn’t have time to resent being sent on an errand. I skipped around the pool and selected several fat limes. They yielded in my hands as if they had been waiting for me to arrive and ask them to dance.
My uncle waited for us near the area set up as a bar. “This is the best, you’ll see,” he said, slicing the limes into quarters with a knife and squeezing two quarters gently over a plastic cup. He added ice and then, unbelievably, topped both with the contents of a can of Diet Coke. He handed me the cup. I regarded it suspiciously.
“I’m not kidding…*the best*,” my uncle wheedled. And I drank.
When Coca-Cola decided in 2004 to release versions of its cola beverages with lime flavor already added, I almost cried with excitement. I also felt a bit of hipsterish betrayal. It was my secret, adding lime, not something to be marketed to the public. When I finally found some for sale, I liked it. It is better than cola without lime flavor. But at the same time, it is utterly *unlike* cola with fresh limes, let alone fresh limes from your very own tree.
And this is why I love Mexican restaurants. No, not a non sequitur, Dear Reader. I’ve learned that most restaurants will serve you a cola with lemon, if you ask, or even automatically as a fancy decoration. But for some reason it is much easier to find *limes* at Mexican restaurants. At our local fast-food burrito place there is an entire bin. Yes, it’s next to the salsa, as if the limes were actually intended for putting on my food. But I never mind carrying my cup over to the salsa bar and squeezing in several wedges before heading to actually get my drink. There is nothing better than that first sip, especially on a day like today, when it is a million degrees outside and I have been sweaty and gross all day. That first sip is my favorite part of the meal.
And inevitably I immediately think of my grandmother.
This is the weird part of the memory-link, of course. I have no memory of my grandmother that particular night in Los Angeles: she was busy hostessing, I’m sure. My grandfather lived in that house too, until after his untimely death my grandmother relocated to a condo, and then later to Des Moines, which is to Los Angeles as a potato is to a lime itself. My uncle was the one who showed me the secret. But there’s the unpredictability of the triggers. I can’t help it. Grandma it is, and I suspect it always will be.