I had a remote job and a regenerating supply of wanderlust and an endless world to explore. For years I moved in froglike leaps from one place to the next looking for the coziest lily pads and the juiciest flies. In foreign cities I wandered the streets, talking to strangers, people-watching in parks and coffee shops. It wasn’t particularly glamorous, but it was an IV drip of humanity the break up my days that were otherwise spent alone behind a computer. Then my supply got cut off.
Several weeks into the lockdown, pessimism set in. Travel, once a straightforward endeavor, became complicated and dangerous. Those of us who explored for fun weren’t free spirits anymore, we were disease vectors. The cafes, parks, and museums I relied on for my daily dose of interaction all shut down, and so did the people. We gave each other wide berths and exchanged weak smiles that went unseen behind our medical masks.
I found a silver lining. With normalcy and nomadism off the table, I landed in beautiful, outdoorsy Asheville. It was as good a place as any to be stuck. I moved in with some friends under a verbal agreement of loose semi-permanence and, for a while, let nesting feel restful. Work kept me busy and I wrote about travel to scratch the ever-present itch.
Months passed. We instated game nights and got good at making homemade popcorn. We watched movies about human beings attending parties, eating at restaurants, and falling in love that made me ache to get back into a world that didn’t seem to exist anymore. The slowdown that felt for a time like rejuvenation was twisting into suffocating stagnation and tedious routine. With nowhere to go, no adventures or shopping or yoga or cappuccinos from a Lisbon kiosk, every morning felt a little grayer. I lingered in bed and let bad news scroll in front of my tired eyes and realized that looking on the bright side felt like swimming upstream. I wondered if my old life was dead.
Desperate, I scoured the Internet for ways to break out of the tedium. Sweet, crunchy Asheville delivered. Webpage after webpage advertised essential services like bodyworkers, reiki healers, and nutritionists. I decided on acupuncture because it was novel and a little adventurous. It was healing, and most importantly, it was open. This, I was sure, would be the shot in the arm I needed to feel alive again, because I figured it wasn’t travel that I was craving anyway. Venturing out had so little potential for being fun or breezy while we were all panic-stricken. I didn’t want to break rules or endanger anyone, I just wanted to be seen. I wanted to make a connection, have some proof I actually existed. I wanted to break out of the four walls of a Zoom conference or an Instagram DM. I was hungry for that real kind of interaction that was suddenly a little bit dangerous. On the morning of my appointment, I trembled and sweat. It had been months since I was out there. What was it even going to be like, and could I handle it? To calm my mind, I prepared my backstory for my consultation: I was new to the area, looking to establish a relationship with a local practice, just needed a tune-up.
Deep down, I hoped the acupuncturist would look at my tongue and tell me why the world was so weird and why I never felt at ease. I hoped he’d stick a needle in my third eye and show me why I craved newness so intensely that it veered toward self-sabotage.
I wanted to know exactly what was pulsing through my veins that made it impossible to settle down, stay put, and be normal.
My guts rumbled in apprehension as I gathered my purse, car keys, and mandatory face mask. New to the area. Prone to anxiety. Just need a tune up. Driving down leafy avenues, I rolled the windows down and let the warm breeze kiss my cheeks. The clinic had been carved out a stately Victorian mansion on the corner of two tree-lined streets. The lilac siding signaled healing.
I took a few final deep breaths before securing my cheetah-print face mask and walking through a screen door into a long foyer. Inside, essential oil diffusers puffed misty clouds into the air and I barely made out the woodsy scent mingling with the sharp smell of old hardwood. The receptionist sat off to one side behind a plexiglass sneezeguard in what used to be a parlor. She let me know that someone would be right with me. I tried to appreciate being out of the house in this positive setting, but the sneezeguard, the masks, the warnings pasted on the front door to STAY HOME tainted the moment and I felt the tightening grip of unease. I tried to breathe deep and paced across the polished wood floor. New in town. Just need a tune-up. Can I see your face? A sad-eyed statue of the Virgin Mary watched me sympathetically from one corner and several ornate paintings of the Buddha gazed down from the curving wall up the staircase.
They taunted me with their detached contentment and I pondered if the holy mismatch was holistic, or wholly inconsistent.
After a few minutes of ramping up my own panic, swinging doors leading to what used to be a kitchen creaked open and revealed my practitioner. He greeted me warmly, led me to the slice of the mansion that would be my treatment room, and invited me to sit. He’d be back in just a few minutes, he said, and left me alone with my spiral. My nervousness warped the perfectly normal scene into a grotesque trap, tinting my vision to make everything look pallid and sketchy. I saw evidence of a worst case scenario in every mundane detail. An old fireplace sat in one corner to remind me that this was not in fact a doctor’s office but just some creaky old house. The sheets on the treatment table were faded terracotta red – how many times have they been used? The walls in the room were lime green and matched the leaves of the giant fluffy catawba tree outside the single window that was painted permanently shut. A small cart held stacks of towels and cleaning supplies next to bio-hazard labeled receptacles for used needles.
I felt my heart pounding and speculated that hypoxia was setting in from mask-wearing or maybe there was mold in the ventilation systems of this old house. The whole place was old, it was definitely probably haunted. Floorboards groaned above and I imagined Appalachian ghosts roaming the halls swinging clay jugs and copper-dusted pickaxes under the light of the full moon. A gentle knock on the door scared away the mountain ghosts, and I re-entered reality to find my practitioner settling in across from me.
We ran through my short health history – I never feel grounded so I get anxious and the anxiety makes everything weird. He asked about my lifestyle. I talked about my carnivorous tendencies and yoga practice. My nerves shifted as he made an effort to find my eyes as we spoke, and nodded encouragingly while he took notes.
He didn’t ask me what I was doing there or how I slept at night knowing I was defying a lockdown. He was non-judgmental, curious, supportive. When I told him I was a meat-eater living with vegetarians, he raised an amused eyebrow and asked, “on purpose?” My arms and legs uncrossed and we were just two people interested in holistic wellness having a conversation. He told me to undress and hop up on the table so he could feel my pulse.
“How’s your sleep?”
“You ever get night sweats?”
“Only when I leave the heater on.”
“How do you feel your life is progressing?”
“Do you feel you’re on the right path? Or do you feel stuck?”
“Oh, I always feel stuck. I mean, I am newly on the right path, stepping into my own, you could say. But I had been stuck. I am untangling what kept me stuck.”
The line of questioning continued. How was my cycle? Was I prone to UTIs? Then, a pause, “tell me about your relationship with your maternal grandmother.”
“Jeez, I didn’t really know her.” He told me how the meridien that relates to our maternal ancestors was strong on my feminine side, before moving on to other parts of my wrist, where he detected an ‘’artist pulse” and excess liver fire and a thin heart line that could be contributing to my angst.
He stuck needles in me and left me to relax, and I thought about Peggy.
At first I could only see her through my little kid eyes. I felt her pokey chin whiskers on my face when she kissed me and saw her dentures soaking in green liquid by her sink. I heard her loud, pitchy singing voice rising to the rafters at church.
I watched her pull a bag of frostbit french toast sticks, which she stockpiled because she knew I loved them, out of the freezer. Peggy used to take me to offbeat attractions like the Circus Museum and LeReau’s World of Miniature where we strolled through a leafy garden filled with hand-made miniaturized replicas of world wonders like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. Afterward, we had popcorn shrimp at a supper club called the Hitching Post where it seemed like she knew everyone.
I was maybe six and she took me to see “Hocus Pocus” at the little theater in the town square where she lived. When the movie explained that the black candle had to be lit by a virgin on Halloween to break a spell, I asked her what a virgin was and she told me. I nodded in the dark theater, pretending to understand.
Despite these few warm memories, I didn’t actually know her. I remembered glimpses but not a whole person with dreams or inclinations that might course through the veins of her descendants. Silly little kid memories didn’t help me understand her, our relationship, or what she wanted me to know.
I expanded my investigation to include other people’s memories, but that felt wrong. Every person I asked was simply projecting a Peggy hologram from their own flawed recall, just like I was. My mom and her sisters shared stories smeared with resentment that painted Peggy as cruel and dismissive. They eulogized a problematic, dispassionate despot who left them to run the household while she worked a job in the lingerie section of a department store.
If I wanted to know her, it would mean building a mosaic from the smashed pieces of our collective memories.
She lived alone on the edge of a small town square, her boxy white house sitting squarely between the school and the administrative buildings of her Catholic parish. The church itself was a short walk away on the other side of the square, past the florist, the boutique, and the movie theater. My dad used to call her “Sister Margaret Mary” to poke fun at how churchy she got later in life. She would smear on lipstick, clutch her mauve purse and walk to Mass twice a week, and often had the priest who she called “Father Fitz” (to signal their divine closeness) over for coffee.
My older cousins portrayed an entirely different version of her, enhanced at least partially by their own small-town fantasies. Around the table at Thanksgiving, they gossiped about how they heard from their friend from bowling league whose great uncle said Peggy used to hang with this motorcycle gang that hung out at the tavern outside of town. I pictured grandma as I knew her riding on the backs of hogs through the Wisconsin countryside and hoped to heaven it was true. But if there was any validity to her wild past, she had buried it as she aged into a pious matriarch.
As I knew her, she claimed a life of purity. She wore purple and attended Red Hat Society events that took place in hotel ballrooms, and leaned hard into the church lady persona to the point of claiming loudly at Christmas dinner that she never smoked and most certainly never drank. Her children who were present rolled their eyes into their wine glasses and later reminisced on how the Peggy they knew loved to sip brandy and puff Pall Malls.
They thought she was delusional.
I think she had layers.
Right about the time she turned 80 she started having mishaps while driving her aubergine Dodge Dynasty. Her kids made the call to take her car keys and packed up her house to put her in a well-appointed assisted living facility in a town called Pleasant Prairie. She traded her weekly coffee with Father Fitz for checkups with the doctors at St. Catherine’s. To overhear my mom’s exasperated phone calls, it seemed Peggy was forever in and out of the doctor’s office, making a hobby of collecting prescriptions and replacing body parts. She fixed a valve here, lost a breast there. She became a bionic version of herself that shunned group bingo in favor of conversations with an automatic pill dispenser that she named ‘Jenny.’
In her lonely apartment, away from her connected life on the square, she was forgotten. And then, she forgot. Among my mom’s family, most people only remember Peggy for who she was at the end, struck with a powerful case of Lewy Body dementia that gave her vivid, troubling delusions. She regaled her caretakers with accounts of her teenage son Paul having an affair with her nurse. When Paul, a successful and 60-something entrepreneur, heard the rumor about his torrid affair he shook his head and sighed, Oh, mom.
She died the year I graduated from college. I found the obituary online, “Margaret L. “Peggy” Finn, 85, of Kenosha, passed away Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, at St. Catherine’s Medical Center in Pleasant Prairie.”
The family had selected a glossy glamour shot to honor Peggy’s legacy. A tasteful string of beads rested atop her merlot satin blouse. Enormous glasses tinted a third of her face in a 1970’s sepia tone and behind them, her light but deep-set eyes betrayed our northern Italian blood. She smiled warmly in a shade of lipstick that matched her blouse. Her hair was done in puffy silver roller curls to Midwest Senior Perfection. (If I’d seen her with her blue-permed posse driving her purple Dynasty through town, I would have called the scene a “box of q-tips.”)
All her kids and their kids came together for the funeral. It was more fun than it had any right to be, since the cousins were all fully-cooked humans in our twenties and thirties by then. We walked as a raucous group to the Target and bought a football to throw around in the prairie while our parents dealt with Peggy’s things, sorting the things they wanted to keep from what would be left for the makeshift estate sale. Eager opportunists with my grandma’s jewelry on their minds circled like vultures in the hallway. When they opened her door, it was a free for all. Half a dozen looters on scooters pushed past my mom and her sisters to paw through Peggy’s furs.
“She always looked so nice,” a guest confided before rifling hungrily through my grandmother’s brooches.
Costume jewels. Red hats. Silk scarves. Faux furs. It hit me like the snap of a clip-on against your earlobe. This was my ticket to the woman herself. Peggy, in all her permutations – a woman-about-town, a panty-peddler, biker broad, or church lady – embodied that everyday glamour. If I wanted to get to know her, I could start with the scarves I scavenged from her things that day.
I printed her picture and pulled my basket of accessories from a high shelf in my closet. I sorted through dozens of textiles, each with a story. The native print pocket squares I plucked from trunks in vintage stores on Telegraph in Berkeley, a map of Joshua Tree printed on a kerchief from the park welcome center, an American flag bandana that I shared with my dog before he died. Mingled with my own, I found the stash of Grandma Peggy Originals- bright floral silks, layered statement necklaces, brooches that I never knew how to wear. This was the key to unlocking our connection.
I pulled a richly jewel-toned floral triangle from the basket and placed it on an empty bookshelf in my room. I remembered her favorite colors were purple and green, so I grabbed chunks of amethyst, green calcite, fluorite, and moldavite from my rock shelf and used their structure to prop up her glamour shot. I dug out a purple rosary that I purchased, with her in mind, in Vatican City and strung it across the stones.
Recalling the art in her home – softly lit oil paintings of praying hands and the blessed virgin – I added a wooden carving of Mary to the emerging altar. I topped the collection with an individually wrapped dark chocolate peanut butter cup, just in case they didn’t have good snacks in heaven.
I was getting closer, but I still wanted to tap into the real thing without obstruction, to get as close as I could get. There was one way I knew how to understand someone who wasn’t around. I pulled her astrology chart.
Peggy was a Pisces with a Pisces moon. Her Mercury was in Pisces too. I didn’t track down her birth time to discover her rising sign since her birth in 1924 must have predated clocks, but I had what I needed. Pisces. She would have been a sensitive, likely psychic woman raising six kids in Wisconsin in the 1960s. With three out of six born under Cancer, the emotional intensity of the household probably felt like treading water in a thunderstorm, especially in an era when people were actively discouraged from exploring their emotions and their intensity.
Next, I asked a friend who is an expert on water sign energy because her own chart includes a stellium of planets in murky watery Scorpio. I set the scene that my dead Piscean grandmother was showing up in intuitive settings and asked how I could let the message through. Instantly, she went into the depths and navigated my question like an thunderbird navigates the open skies, “Her energy is related to your inner muse. She carried a sensitivity, maybe she was too sensitive, but she wants you to know that sensitivity honed is your ability to feel and interpret what is around you and within you, and this is the fuel of your creative fire.”
“She is delighted by the way her sensitivity has manifested in you. She maybe had a pattern of getting overwhelmed in her lifetime, maybe even got sharp with people when she was overwhelmed. Maybe sometimes you feel that way, too. She sees herself in you. And she loves the altar.”
I stood back and closed my eyes and thought about being shoved into a home, believing my teenage son was sleeping with my nurses because memories comingled with experiences and the edges blurred in my brain. I felt her anxiety, confusion, and that powerful need to validate if what she was feeling was real. I understood why someone, feeling scared or lost, would reach out to authorities like priests, social clubs, doctors, trying to exorcise herself of the dis-ease she felt because the man who loved her died in 1984 and all her children left to live their lives far away. Maybe she just wanted to be seen, too.
Maybe Peggy was just hoping someone would come along to let her know it was okay to be all of her. Maybe she saw something like that in me, and that’s why she bought me my favorite french toast sticks when I stayed with her, and took me to see movies about witches. She might not have known what she was doing. Maybe she did.
Either way, I see you, Peggy.