The familiar scent of earl gray tea sends me back to my grandma’s living room. When I was in elementary school, I’d come over multiple times a week and we’d sit on her off-white couch drinking black tea from one of her many fancy ceramic tea sets. I was often too impatient to let my tea cool down enough to drink it, perpetually burning my tongue in the process. She would take her saucer and pour my tea in it, blowing lightly to cool it down faster. I still taste the burning.
I remember carefree summers back in elementary school. We’d take the B49 to the beach in the late afternoon when the heat was more bearable. The bus was rarely crowded, so we had our pick of the dark blue cushioned seats. We spent our days playing dominoes with her friends, hidden away in the shade. They claimed one of the few faded, concrete, chess-marked tables and we crowded together on the deteriorating wood benches. Sometimes I played with them, other times, I sat as a semi-silent observer, snacking on the various fruits my grandma brought for me. When the last of her friends departed, we stood waiting for the bus in the fading twilight, sand crusted feet and large straw hats flopping in the wind. My skin is now paper pale white, any semblance of sun-kissed freckles having long faded.
When the winter came, we traveled to the Russian theater nearby to watch Russian fables put to life. When it snowed, I dreamt of the evil Snow Queen taking me in my sleep. Sometimes, we arrived separately—her as a spectator and me as a performer. Somewhere in one of her many photo albums lies a picture of me outfitted in a tulle pink tutu accompanied with a plastic pink locket and an expression of misery. During this time, the buses switched to blue hardback seats. We mourned the change.
In the spring, we traversed the length of our neighborhood. I learned to identify the area by the flowers growing in the street—the corner house with multicolored tulips, the area with the pretty but excessively thorny roses, the one block where quaint and fragile white bellflowers grew. On every special occasion I can remember, she’d get me different colored roses wrapped in corresponding colored nets. We went to the corner flower shop together, spending half the time arguing over which rose color was prettier. We settled on a sunset red-orange. I haven’t been able to find the bellflower block since, and I haven’t tried.
On all the days in between, we sat inside sipping on tea and eating various foods. I’d insist I wasn’t hungry, but she persisted in shoving homemade soups, cold cut sandwiches, and fruit in front of me, as though she were an unyielding vendor at a market. She had a particularly special way with desserts, making a delicious spiced apple sponge cake. After eating, we’d toy with her boxes of yarn, her embroidering, me braiding. She’d hold the three threads of my braid to prevent them from tangling.
On days she was too tired, I explored her apartment. I found my mom’s love letters to someone before my dad’s time, my brother’s extensive Pokemon card collection, and boxes upon boxes of photo albums. Some were more recent like my brother’s high school graduation. Others were of me from a time that I did not remember, rocking back and forth in my high chair. The rest were filled with pictures of unfamiliar people, taken in a distant country far before I was born. As I explored her past, her future glared unblinkingly at me from the corner of her bedroom—transparent plastic tubes extending from scary machinery next to her bed.
The summer I left, we met her friends at the park across the street from her apartment instead of at the domino beach. They gathered in the shade of the benches outside the handball court. I wandered off to the tree overlooking the concrete soccer yard and waited for the time to pass. At the end of that summer, I moved to Florida and came back a year later. We never went to the domino beach together again.
Our paths diverged slowly at first—a trickle departing from the stream. Instead of coming over for the whole day, I stayed for hours. When we walked through our neighborhood, we paused every half a block so she could catch her breath. We stopped taking the bus. Soon, we existed as two adjacent streams, running side by side, coming so close to touching, but never intersecting. We only saw each other a few times a month during family dinners. I was always too busy or too tired or some different generic excuse to see her otherwise. In the periphery of my life, her deterioration felt more gradual. At a distance, I could remain selfishly ignorant of her increasingly shaky hands and tissue paper skin. She couldn’t take the stairs anymore. I rode with her in the elevator. Despite my distance, she continued to call me every holiday, give me Hallmark cards from CVS for my birthday with handwritten Russian messages I couldn’t read, and send me sunset roses. The roses wilted, but the guilt remained.
I didn’t have anything to say at her funeral. I stood in front of her tombstone, dropped a handful of dirt into the hole, and walked away. I left the post burial dinner early to do homework. I sunk deep into my hatred of my heritage to keep the memories away. The guilt remained.
I hoard old memories like a pirate hoards treasure—her pack of dominoes in my nightstand, all her Hallmark cards, boxes full of colored yarn. When I go off wherever I go post-college, I will take her tea set with me. I still go to the domino beach, almost always alone, rarely during the summer, rarely when there are other people around. I don’t take the dominoes. It’s all I have left. In college, I am learning how to read and write in Russian years too late, and one day I will muster up the courage to read her cards, and one day I will write her my own. One day, I will learn how to make her spiced apple cake. Never today, never now, always one day ahead, sometime in the future. It’s the only way I know how. It's the only way time doesn't run out.
I still walk everywhere when I can. On Friday evenings, I walk alongside towering maple trees, the army of time at my heels. Soon, it will be winter—the already fading sky will turn to darkness during my walk, and the golden leaves will fade into skeleton branches. But tonight, the light hits the falling leaves in a way that makes them look like shooting stars, remnants of an elusive past.