“Don’t go down there,” my grandmother says, as soon as we walk through the door. “He’s in a mood.” But we had driven for an hour, which, to a child, feels like a day. And so I go barreling down the steps into the rec room my grandfather built to sit near him.
When she says “mood” I do not think “for love” or even “bad.” In a mood means he won’t look up; he won’t shower; he won’t laugh. He won’t sing; he won’t paint; he won’t build—any of the things he is good at.
We sit in a darkened room as my mom visits upstairs with her mom and sisters. The rec room has a console t.v., a stocked bar, wall-to-wall paneling, an organ, and velvet paintings of animals. My favorite is the dogs playing poker, with the one in the middle, holding the cards, looking straight at the viewer as if to say, what are we doing here? The velvet background is black. This is my grandpa’s best, his funniest, although I daren’t say it. He was supposed to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to paint for real, but stayed home to put my grandma through nursing school.
Everyone stays away from Grandpa in a mood, but I am drawn in. We watch on mute as the Cubs play a long nine innings or men play a round of golf. He lets me take sugary soda out of the mini fridge and drink right from the bottle. He doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no, either. I think he likes me. We are silent, left handed friends in a mood.
I sit by my Grandpa and try not to think about the other side of the rec room in the basement—the room and bathroom he built for his youngest, where it still smells like puke if I think about it. She gets into moods too, she told me later, and spent her entire 13th year shivering in the dark room, refusing to eat. She coveted her private bathroom for vomiting; when her mom yelled, she just turned on the shower to cover up the noise.
With the voices humming through the ceiling and down the stairs, you might never guess which of the sisters get into Grandpa’s moods. But they all do. Make no mistake. My mom isn’t an alcoholic yet, but she will be soon. Most of my aunties’ talk is exchanging dieting tips—frozen cool whip for a meal; ready whip if you want real dairy. Ex lax for a few consecutive days is very easy and not too gross and over the counter.
When Grandpa closes and then slowly open his eyes, I swear I can see black velvet wings move over his pupils. I want to tell him they cover my heart and my brain and my eyes, too. Like when I would wake up my mom in the night because I was crying. But sometimes, like when you are running or painting or gardening, the wings lift off for a little while–and that heavy draping suffocating feeling dissipates, letting you breathe.
Two of my cousins with wings in their eyes committed suicide. The one nearest in age to me hanged herself over a door in a dark apartment. She is an artist. Was an artist. Today I wonder if she ever sat in the dark with Grandpa drinking grape soda, looking at the snarky dogs. We should have sat together.
I used to think that these moods were universal—that everyone had them, more or less. Kristin B and I talked about it once, walking through the London streets. It was a bad day, raining all the time. Then Gil walked up and we asked him about his moods. “Oh, no,” he said. “That is not typical. There is medicine for that.” I was forty at the time. I nodded silently and moved along. But I don’t take medicine because it will undermine my reason for being—managing the tightrope act, the things I do to keep wings from beating.
The last time I saw Grandpa he was holding my newborn son on his lap, sitting at the bar at my sister’s country club wedding. Eliot wobbled to and fro, looking like he was going to slide right down his lap and onto the floor. My mother glanced at me sideways, judging me, and picked up the baby. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I was looking for the velvet wings… first in Grandpa’s eyes and then in my son’s, like it was the most natural thing to do. But when the baby blinks I see only light. I sigh a little, thinking maybe he will not be prone to moods.
I guess it is silly to romanticize the depressed artist, but in retrospect I feel connected by our velvet wings. Grandpa dug burial plots in the city cemetery his whole life, earning a high wage, pension, and skin cancer. Funny how my grandma, the nurse, never caught on—never understood her five daughters on their way to killing themselves faster or slower, never understood her granddaughters who sat in the dark with him in the rec room watching baseball.
I think we go on and on and on for Grandpa, creators in his place. Besides, when the velvet lifts for a minute or an hour or half a day, or a week when the mania sets in, there is a sense of indescribable freedom, elation too elusive to grasp. There is a sense of personal victory before night sets in, with the bulletproof promise to last.
Aimee is a Professor of English and Director of English Graduate Studies at Central CT State University. She is the author of three monographs on trauma in literature and will begin a term as co editor of Philip Roth Studies in March of 2019. She lives in New Britain, CT with her family and two dogs, Athena and Finn.