I pull out the album that Bud and Estelle gave me and leaf through the photos. I know I can’t skip ahead. To get as much time as I can out of our relationship, since I only have a limited number of photos, I need to go in chronological order so they’ll remember each time I visited them last.
I take out the second photo—my mother, looking more pregnant, sitting at a small, round wooden table in an old kitchen. She’s wearing an oversized gray sweater with a washed-out dolphin on the front and she’s laughing and holding her palm up in front of her face. She’s clearly trying to dodge the photographer, who’s sneaking a photo of her as she’s eating. I bet the sweater was a gift from Estelle.
I touch the photo and say the words I know will reunite us. When I transport to the kitchen, my mom nearly chokes on her mouthful of food, she’s so surprised.
“Hey, sweetheart!” She wipes her mouth on her sleeve and jumps up from the table. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
My dad stands smiling in the mirror behind her. I turn around and he puts down the Starflash to join in on the love. “How’ve you been? We’ve missed you.”
We move into the living room and sit down on the leather sofa and update one another on what’s happened since the last time we saw each other, which for me has been only a few days but for them has been a few months. I let them know that I’m living with Estelle and Bud but never mention Leyla and Jet. I know that the idea of my being placed with strangers would only create worry, fear, and questions. So I let them think I’ve always lived with my grandparents.
“So, I just got hired for my first job,” I offer.
My mom’s eyes glisten. “That’s fantastic!”
“That’s great, Gav,” my dad puts in. “You make sure you always have your beeper on vibrate when you’re at work.” I don’t call him out on this, but the thought of beepers makes me smile inside. It’s easy to forget I’m in a completely different decade.
“Yeah, and make sure you listen to your boss,” my mom adds.
“Tardiness is a sign of laziness,” my dad goes on. “Make it a point to get to work on time. Early, if possible.”
“And make sure you eat, too.”
“You guys.” I interrupt them, laughing. “It’s just a job. I’ll be fine. But I promise—full stomach, on time, no beeper, listen to my boss. Check. I got it all.”
But the joking around stops entirely when I switch subjects and start telling them what happened to me in Salem. They both look alarmed.
“You need to be more careful.” my mom says. “You went into an era where you stuck out like a sore thumb. What were you thinking?”
I’m paying attention to the gentle reprimand in her voice, but I also feel reassured about them. I can now feel pretty certain that they don’t remain there. Maybe this conversation today, in the past, will lead them to go there in the future when they need to escape from the fire. Now they know I go there. It makes sense now.
“I just thought it’d be cool, you know? I mean, I definitely won’t be doing anything like that again.” I say, trying to reassure them.
My mom puts her smooth, small hands over mine. “We love you, pumpkin. But you’ve got to be careful.”
Her voice is so soft and caressing that all I can do is just stare at her hands and say nothing. Pumpkin. I kinda like it. I usually cringe when people refer to their loved ones as animals or foods or inanimate objects, but there’s something different about it when she does it. It feels so special. It’s like it’s only for me.
My dad interjects, “It’s okay,” and I know right away that he’s going to do the same thing I always do, which is to try to change the mood by changing the subject. “He’s a big boy. And if he’s anything like me, which I have a feeling he is, he’ll be just fine.” He smiles at us both, lighting up the room with his pearly whites.
I start fake-casually asking them about places they’ve traveled to. Maybe something they say will give me a clue as to where they will have gone next, after Salem. They already know from my last visit that I learned about photo traveling later in life, when I let it slip about their having disappeared from my life. Go me.
They throw around ideas like Egypt, Rome, and the Greek Isles. My dad’s face lights up when he talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty being unveiled. He calls it magical. My mom mock-bickers with him and says she prefers having seen the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. I agree that both are probably equally cool.
I can tell that she likes things that are visually pleasing because everything she mentions has an element of scenic beauty to it, while my dad seems to prefer traveling to times of historic importance. He explains what a big history buff he is and recounts how exciting it was for him to be able to see Hoovervilles firsthand.
“What the heck is a Hooverville?” I ask.
He frowns. I guess because I’m not as fond of history as he would’ve hoped. Maybe I take after my mom.
“Hoovervilles were the epitome of American struggle and resilience,” he explains. “Those were the shantytowns that people who lost their homes and jobs built during the Great Depression, and...”
He launches into a history lesson, but my ears have heard only three words—The Great Depression. That’s what Elizabeth heard. They were talking about the Great Depression!
So that’s it. That’s where I’m going!