Imagine a Chicago apartment in the nineties, the second floor of a three-flat, hardwood floors and smells of cooking and cigarette smoke. Imagine old windowpanes with paint chipping off in chunks, a painted-white brick fireplace in the living room, original crown moulding, still. My grandmother lives in the apartment above ours, and my mother doesn’t like entertaining, because her own mother is such a natural that it makes her feel inadequate. On Easter and birthdays, my grandmother might only have 25 guests, but on Thanksgiving and Christmas, she doubles that number. There’s a front sunroom with a fold-out bar—open it up and surprise! Clear bottles of vodka and rum, a chest of ice and a box of wine, pretty Czech glasses. Help yourself, my grandmother says, as the sun goes down over the green river. Her living room has shag carpet and a television usually playing a sports game for the men or an AMC classic movie for the kids. There’s a long narrow hallway with doors, and one of them leads to her bedroom where she sends women with hangovers and maternal fatigue for naps while she cares for their children. A red rotary phone rings next to her bed, and I imagine she picked it up for me several times, when I called from my backpacking trip or anytime I needed her liberal political ranting or simple declarations of love.
She is the granddaughter of Caroline Polacheck, better known as the best friend of Jane Addams, so it’s not a surprise that she’s competent and independent enough for all of us. After all, she spent some of her most formative years with the women of Hull House: social workers, translators, theater producers and midwives. She calls her extra bedroom the guest bedroom, though it’s usually reserved for my youngest aunt, who was a teenager when her father died; my grandmother says this is why she’s such a disaster, and when my grandmother tells a story enough times, we all start to repeat and believe it. She was not particularly shy about telling us that she took that aunt to get an abortion when she was twenty years old because she’d been dating a man who didn’t love her.
I might have been about twenty years old the night my grandmother asked my cousin to sing Queen of the Night. She’d been asking Katie to sing at every family function since she was in kindergarten and started showing interest. Katie was my uncle’s daughter, and they were the closest thing we had to black sheep. They bought a home in Evanston while we all still lived in the city, pretended they had money, but didn’t. The children were badly behaved when they were young; the parents didn’t drink or salt their food enough; my uncle was my grandmother’s only boy.
My grandmother asks, “What are you working on in the voice lessons, Katie? Where do you take them again?”
“The Fine Arts Building,” Katie says. “Downtown, Grandma.”
“That’s right. Maggie’s boyfriend recommended that teacher,” she announces to the room. My boyfriend at the time was a stage actor who had taken his share of lessons, and we were just starting a storefront theater company together. Maybe he was there too that night, leaning against the kitchen door frame. My God, we could fit a lot of people in that room.
“Tonight I’ll sing Queen of the Night,” Katie says.
“Her teacher says it’s amazing she can sing this one,” my uncle adds.
Later we would learn that this particular aria was only ever attempted by the most daring of sopranos. In this apartment-sized, window-less dining room, she will perform it for her extended family who knows nothing about the form. In the dining room, there’s a hutch filled with my grandmother’s wedding China, and a hand-carved table surrounded by bench seats. My sisters are there, my mother and aunties and cousins. The children drink cream soda and root beer in glass bottles; my father and uncles drink cans of Old Style.
Although my grandmother is a devoted theater subscriber in Chicago, she doesn’t know the first thing about opera. She was an early subscriber at theaters like Steppenwolf and Wisdom Bridge, and she knows her post-war American drama, but not as much about arias and cadenzas. It doesn’t matter because she is proud of her grandchildren’s talents, whatever they are, and will do anything to encourage them. I often perform monologues in her dining room, and once did a cringeworthy recitation of a poem about how my aunt was an alcoholic, but I loved her anyway, which must’ve made everyone a little uncomfortable. One of my sisters plays the trombone, my aunt plays the accordion, and my cousin plays the saxophone; my grandmother tells us how fast Little Ray ran last weekend and makes him flex his muscles. She wears hearing aids in both ears, so her bragging is always very loud.
“Everybody be quiet now!” my grandmother scolds. “Katie’s gonna sing Queen of the Night!”
My cousin doesn’t have many friends in this world, but she has facility with languages, and speaks German and French fluently, which helps with her opera dreams. Today she is still a child and stands against my grandmother’s magenta dining room walls underneath a vaulted ceiling, cracks in the walls like veins. There’s a panoramic painting of umbrellas on one wall and this small marionette looking girl with big eyes is about to open her mouth and swallow us with song.
My mother and aunties put their hands dramatically over their hearts and look at her father and mother like Oh my God. My cousins and sisters and I try not to catch the eyes of our own fathers, who stay home when we go to the theater and have a ritual of playing pirate whenever they see each other.
“Captain my captain, may I get you a brewski?”
“Argh. And if you don’t join me, walk the plank!”
My grandmother swats at them until they stop, then my cousin transforms into someone with excellent posture and unmistakable confidence and begins singing in German, her head swiveling to look at each of us:
Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Something about it spooks me, but I don’t know German. The only words I know have been learned from my dad and uncle who like to speak fake German in addition to playing pirate.
My cousin’s singing expands the dining room and sails through the back sunroom, out the windows and into the nighttime alley, over the geography of garage roofs and multi-unit mazes of wooden back porches.
Katie starts doing some bird song with her voice—this is the impressive part called coloratura—which makes the beer drinkers flap their imaginary wings and fly around a little. She doesn’t seem to notice, and the notes she’s hitting are so high, it seems like the doors to the hutch are shaking, like the dishes on the shelves might shatter. My uncle, the pirate, places his hand over his heart and starts lip-synching as if he is the opera singer now, and my father can’t catch his breath, he’s laughing so hard. My sister, when she sees my uncle, does a spit take and rushes out of the room before my grandmother notices. Katie finishes with a flourish, and my grandmother, and everyone in the room, breaks into applause. Even my father and uncle straighten up to congratulate her.
“Nice work, Katie,” they say. “Good singing.”
“She’s gonna be famous!” my grandmother cries.
Katie wasn’t my grandmother’s favorite; I think I might have been, but then again, maybe her particular brand of love made us all feel that way. I do think my grandmother liked me because I was a combination of a handsome man drinking beer and a small girl singing. I loved, even then, the opera swells mixed with alley sounds, and more to the point, a family and a city that could accommodate all of it.
My family fell apart in a spectacular fashion as soon as my grandmother started needing us, and at the age of 40, I watched us turn into an ugly family. My grandmother had never driven but had taken the bus all her life. When she started to lose her vision and hearing, we knew the bus wasn’t safe anymore, but her children seemed burdened by the organizing of pick-ups and drop-offs. When my grandmother asked us to speak up or repeat ourselves, my own mother would yell in agitated response or roll her eyes and ignore her. When I told my mother that her behavior was uncalled for, she turned her anger on me, and when my aunts defended me, she turned on them. My grandmother had always said my mother was her brightest child, so she wasn’t used to being wrong. I had stomach cramps every day for the last year of my grandmother’s life, and my hair fell out in clumps.
“I spoiled your mother,” my grandmother said to me once. “It’s my fault, partially. Oh Maggie, it’s hell getting old.”
In the final year, she went in and out of the hospital, and my mother didn’t visit. A few of us sat in the room with the end-of-life doctor who said loudly in her ear, “Do you know why we’re here, Charmaine?”
“It’s my time,” she said, lying on her back, looking up at a panel of clouds on the ceiling. She did not cry, even though some of her favorite people were not in the room.
The grandchildren planned the memorial, tried to create a neutral space for grieving, because the children all were fighting. My mother didn’t show up because she said she would never be in a room with her sister again and would never forgive us for choosing my aunt over her. My childhood had been all happiness in the form of crowded apartments and these sisters laughing like witches, but at the memorial service, there were empty white linen tables without ashtrays, and we had to strain to hear the music.
Many of my friends grew up in dysfunctional households and say they feel sorry for me having to learn these lessons so late in life, because grief and fear are all they ever knew, while I had to unlearn trust and love. Listening to a recording of Queen of the Night recently, I was reminded of the strange anger in my cousin Katie’s performance and found myself translating the lyrics from German to English.
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
The aria comes at a point in the story when the queen’s power and position are threatened, and she fears she’ll lose her daughter.
If Sarastro does not through you feel
the pain of death,
then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
abandoned may you be forever…
When I see happy families now, they are familiar to the point of pain. When I see them now, I think, “It could happen to you, too.” But how could I hear the anger then, when Queen of the Night meant something entirely different? Queen meant the women in my family, and nighttime meant safety and warmth. I didn’t yet know my own mother’s rage and selfishness, or the fury that would come over me whenever I had to bring my own child to her, a grandmother who did not brag loudly about him or fill a room with people and demand they love each other. How could I feel the anger then when I still only knew how to love them?