Welcome Home from Goat Town

August 10, 2016

All Uncle David could talk about the whole car ride to the airport was frozen yogurt. “You know, I think they have a TCBY there,” he said, craning forward from his seat in the back. My little sister, Sarah, folded up her legs and turned towards the window, a sour expression on her face. I smiled knowing how much she hated sitting next to Uncle David. Throwing her an amused look, I said, “You mean in the Himalayas?”               “No, at the airport. I think it’s across from the bagel place.” He shifted forward so his seatbelt was no longer stretched across his chest. “They have the best froyo. I was just there a month and a half ago. You know, for the conference. The medical one.” He paused, as if waiting for someone to start cheering or something. Clearing his throat, he added, “The one for neurosurgeons.” He turned to face my sister, and poked her shoulder. “That means only people who completely understand the inner-workings of the brain can go.” She didn’t turn around, and I stifled a giggle. My dad called Uncle David a “blow hard”. I think I’m beginning to understand why.                           “Oh, will you look at that gorgeous building?” Aunt May called from the front seat. Everyone turned to look out the window. Looming ahead of us was what looked like a huge glass sculpture, with flags belonging to different countries lining the perimeter. Everyone oohed and ahhed, and from the backseat Sarah said, “It looks like an ice sculpture.”                     “That’s no ice sculpture,” Uncle David said loudly, so the whole car could hear him. At the front of the car I saw my father, who was driving, and my Aunt May exchange smiles. “And that’s no ordinary building, May. Don’t you know an airport when you’re looking at one?”  Having never traveled farther than my hometown in New York, the airport really did look like something from a museum. It resembled a piece of art more than a place where people go to walk around and eat frozen yogurt and wait for their planes. “Mom would love this,” Aunt May said, sighing.                                                          “You say that like she’s dead,” dad said. “She and Pop are probably on their way here as we speak.” I automatically looked up at the sky, imagining a great white plane cutting through the gray, leaving behind streaks of blue. “I wonder what they did up there,” I said, my eyes glued to the sky.          “Well, it was a meditation/silent retreat, so…nothing, I guess,” my dad said, slowing to a quick halt for a red light. Uncle David bounced violently forward and grumbled, “Ease on that break next time, would you, Bob? And I bet any one of you fifty bucks that Mom didn’t close her mouth once.” He put the seat belt back across his chest. “I bet all that quiet did a number to her mind. All those mountain goats, and all. Maybe I should take a look at her as soon as she gets back.” Sarah turned from her spot at the window and said, “But you’re not a psychologist. You’re a neurologist. You know,” she said, glancing in my direction, “you understand the inner-workings of the brain.” Aunt May laughed from the passenger seat and dad said, “Sarah.” She grinned and turned around once again to face the window.                                                                          “I bet Grandpa loved it,” I said. I imagined him standing on a lush green mountain, watching goats and birds and feeling the sun on his face. “He loves being outdoors. And besides, he doesn’t say much, anyway.”                                              “He never has,” Aunt May said, her voice low, as if she was remembering something and was trying to piece together all the little details. “Even when we were kids, mom would do all the talking. He never ordered her around. He just went to work, came home, and went to bed…” She trailed off, and the car was quiet for a minute.                                             “He always grabbed those little candies from work,” dad said, breaking the silence. “Five chocolates, one for each of us.”        “He always ate the melted one,” Uncle David said from behind me. We listened to the sound of the tires across the icy pavement as we rolled into the parking lot. “I’m glad they’re coming home,” I said, and everyone nodded in agreement. “It’s like everything is going back to norm-"                           “Look at those glass windows!” Aunt May exclaimed from the front seat. Everyone turned to admire a window, and I let the word fall off my tongue unsaid. Normal. Is that what we are? All I heard from behind me was Uncle David blabbing on about the “beauty of airports”, so I grabbed my headphones, turned the volume all the way up, and turned my back on my family to stare out at the slate gray sky.                                            It took what felt like forever to find a parking spot. Through the music pounding against my ear drums I could hear my family shouting words of advice to my father as he wound his way through shiny sports cars and banged-up mini vans.        “Bob-look-right there, between the motorcycle and that white van-"                                                                         “Robert, are you aware that you are almost completely out of gas?”                                                                               “Oh, my God, just pick a d---- spot already, I don’t care how far-"                                                                         “Here we go,” my dad said, and he effortlessly eased the van into a corner spot about 500 miles away from the entrance. Turning the music down in my headphones, I watched with admiration as he promptly ignored every piece of advice our family threw at him.                                                           “Nice,” I said to him quietly as we all climbed out of the car. He winked and said, “When you’ve known them as long as I have, Ellie, you learn when to listen and when not to.” He zipped his coat with some difficulty and pulled a large, pink, woolen hat over his thinning head. I grinned at the hat, and thought vaguely of Christmas 5 years ago when Sarah, barely 6 years old, gave my dad a wrinkly pile of wrapping paper and said, “This is for you, so your head doesn’t grow icicles when it snows.”                                                                        The two of us carefully shuffled over a thin sheet of ice and headed to the trunk of the car, where everyone else had already congregated, pulling on gloves and complaining about the cold.                                                                        “Do you have the keys?” Uncle David asked stupidly from underneath a huge red scarf. My dad wordlessly unlocked the trunk, and we all stared at the contents inside. On the old, shaggy car carpeting lay five large pieces of oak tag, each a different color than the next. “I’ll carry the blue one,” Sarah said, and soon everyone was clamoring over who got to hold the white one, the red one, the yellow one, and the sign with stickers covering every square inch. I stood off to the side, stuffing my headphones into my bag, and watched them act like preschoolers as they stepped on one another to get the sign they wanted.                                                           “Do you think they’ll even like these?” I called out, half of me not even expecting them to hear me over their shouts of “But I made the white one all by myself!” and “Whose bright idea was it to put on all these horrid stickers?”                                 “Well, I know Grandpa Frederick will simply adore them,” Aunt May called over her shoulder as she separated Dad and Uncle David, who were arguing about the stickers. “He’s always loved surprises.”                                                                 “True,” I said, though I still had my doubts. Sarah extracted herself from the mass of flailing limbs and joined me on the side of the car, the blue sign held tightly in her hands. At 11 years old, she looked on at her family through the eyes of a 40 year old woman. “Crazies,” she muttered, and looked up at me. “Grandma’s going to hate them.”                                       “It’s sort of too late, she’s already given birth to them.”      Sarah rolled her eyes and said, “No, the signs. You know how she hates…things.” This was vague, but true. Grandmother Pola has never believed in living with excess. “Now this is how you furnish a home, girls,” She had said when she and grandpa moved into their condo. She had swept a hand over an almost-bare living room with a small oak table in the middle of the room and a couch along the wall. The only livable (according to my standards) room in the place was one of the bedrooms, with lovely lavender-colored walls and stuffed animals on the bed. I really wanted to take the stuffed elephant home, even though I knew I was too old for that kind of stuff. Still, a room that was basically overflowing with things Sarah and I were too old for was odd to me. It just wasn’t in Grandmother Pola’s nature to live extravagantly.                                                 I was sitting on the couch in the living room, a bowl of chips in my lap, when Grandma Pola brought all of us into the room and said, clapping her hands, “Frederick and I are going to the Himalayas. We’re going for six weeks, and we’re not going to talk the whole time. It’s something we have to do, something we’ve wanted to do for a while. Can one of you pop in to feed the cat at least twice a week while we’re gone? He’s a chubby thing, he doesn’t need much. Just don’t leave your socks around, he might eat them.”                                                 I remember how we all stared at her, our mouths open but, for once, wordless. She had looked so small in her condo, her long yellow hair laced with white almost blending into the wall behind her. With her flowing blue dress and piercing green eyes, she looked more like a fairy-creature than a grandmother living in a condo beside the bay with her aging husband of 45 years. I guess, in a way, she really wasn’t human, because what 70 year old just chooses to go on some adventure to the Himalayas?                                                             Grandpa Frederick stepped in then, taking Grandma Pola’s white hand and enveloping it in his own, as if they were schoolchildren on the playground, seeking a moment of peace away from the toddlers with pudding smeared across their faces. They had always been that way; it was like they spoke a language only the two of them understood.                       While Grandma Pola looked fairy-like in their bleach-white apartment, Grandpa Frederick looked like a giant. But his hair was streaked with white and he walked with the stooped gait of someone who had been to the moon and back, 100 times. The silent type, his eyes swept over us all, and at the time I wasn’t sure if he was waiting for us to speak or if he didn’t know what to say himself. So I spoke, instead.                                       “That sounds…interesting, Grandma.”                                 And then it was like someone had announced free desserts. My whole family had launched themselves towards my grandparents, chattering excitedly, bubbling with curiosity, asking every question in the book. I remained on the couch, my knees holding the chip bowl tightly in place like a vice, Grandpa Frederick’s eyes sparkling silently into mine.                           “Come on, Ellie, you’re going to freeze!”                            Aunt May’s voice interrupted my thoughts and I hurried to catch up. The wind felt like ice against my cheeks as I half-skated over the icy parking lot towards the airport. With the exception of the howling wind, it was eerily quiet. Sarah must have thought this, too, as she said from a few feet ahead of me, “Shouldn’t we be hearing planes, or something?”           “The airport is a big place, Sarah,” Uncle David said, his voice a high-pitched whine above the wind. “The planes are…on the other side.”                                                                     “I don’t know,” she said, looking both ways before crossing the street. We all trailed behind her. “It just feels weird.”            We opened the glass doors and were immediately hit with the combined scent of cleaner and bagels. We breathed in the warm air and Uncle David quickly unwound the scarf from around his neck. His head whipped around wildly, no doubt searching for the famous TCBY, and I was momentarily reminded of a meerkat popping up out of his hole for the first time. The entrance way was bustling with people running this way and that, always with somewhere to be. A strange electricity filled the air, the kind accompanied only by the promise of travel. I slowed to a crawl as I watched my family get swallowed up by the masses. I felt like a lone ant surrounded by its colony, unsure of where to go or where I belonged, getting swept up into the chaos.                          We all marched, single-file, through the crowds of people, our signs held high above our heads as if we were protecting them from flowing water. “Grandma told us to meet them right in front of the exit ramp,” I called above the bobbing heads of strangers. No one turned around. I sighed, picked up the pace, and lead them to the first empty stretch of gray wall I saw, in front of the exit ramp.                                                    “Are we all here?” Aunt May stood on her tip-toes and counted our heads as if we were students on a field trip. “Okay. Does anyone know what time-"                                            “-5:27,” Uncle David said quickly, his eyes buzzing excitedly in their sockets. “Their flight comes in at 5:30. Bob made us late. It’s the weekend, you didn’t have to go 20 in those school zones.” He sniffed. “We better start lining up.”                       After a few confused moments in which we organized ourselves into the correct order, our signs held out in front of us, Dad said, “Ellie, go over towards the ramp to make sure they’ll be able to see us right when they get here.” I walked quickly to the ramp. All four heads looked tiny in the distance, Sarah’s head significantly lower and tinier than everyone else’s, but the words “WELCOME HOME FROM GOAT TOWN” emblazoned across the oak tags were clear as day through the crowds of people rushing past. I envisioned for a moment that I was the one returning home after 6 weeks away in the Himalayas, doing God-knows-what with the goats and snakes and whatever else is up there. It felt as if a surge of electricity was coursing through my veins as I stood at the ramp, at the entrance to the outside world. Sarah, I could tell, was looking at me with strange eyes that stared right into mine, just as Grandpa Frederick’s had the day they announced their trip. I knew what Sarah meant. I knew what she was thinking. It felt weird, being surrounded by hundreds of people who, in all honesty, really didn’t want to be here. It felt weird welcoming people home in a place other people want to get away from.               Suddenly, as if a shot had exploded under their feet, all four of them started to jump up and down, waving the signs wildly in the air. I heard a rush of footsteps from behind me and flattened myself against the nearest wall, narrowly avoiding the stampede of relieved travelers. I ran from the wall towards my family, searching the many faces for the two faces I most wanted to see.                                                              And there they were. Bringing up the rear were my grandparents, looking considerably darker than before, my grandfather carrying a small bag I didn’t recognize over his shoulder, my grandmother blinking in the florescent light as if her eyes had to adjust to non-natural light. They walked with slow steps, looking around, saying nothing, as if they were shielding us from something they didn’t want us to see. Then Grandpa Frederick turned his head and saw the signs. I saw him mouth the words, “WELCOME HOME FROM GOAT TOWN”. He stopped walking, and nudged Grandma Pola. She, too, read the signs, and stopped straight in her tracks. We all just stared at each other.                                                                 Then Grandpa Frederick started to laugh. Big, booming shouts of laughter bounced around the crowded airport. People nearby slowed down and watched as my Grandfather, the silent friendly giant, laughed so loudly he could probably be heard from the top of the Himalayas.                                             “Where did you get your information?” He gulped in air, trying to steady himself. “There are barely any goats in the Himalayas!” His face turned red, his eyes closed, and he sank to his knees as more and more bubbles of laughter burst out of him like firecrackers. I had never seen him laugh so hard before, and it felt like a balloon was expanding in my chest as I watched him transform from a giant into a man.           Standing beside him was my grandmother, her lips pursed tightly and her green eyes flashing with suppressed mirth. We all dropped the signs and ran towards them, but she held out her arms, causing us to crash into each other, confused. Grandfather Frederick slowly pulled himself together. Grandmother Pola looked down at my grandfather, who nodded and, still kneeling, turned around to look down behind him. He gently reached out his left hand and whispered, “It’s alright. Here they are.”                                                           From behind my grandfather’s tree-trunk legs came a little girl, no taller than Grandpa Frederick’s knee. She held on tightly to my grandfather’s hand, looking up at us with eyes that have been to the moon and back, 100 times. Beside me I felt Uncle David shaking as it all sunk in at once: The condo. The Himalayas. The obligation they felt for so long, but were unable to act on. And then, the child. The child.                           “This is Grace,” Grandpa Frederick said, his voice warm and crackling. "Grace...meet your new family." Near me, I heard my father gasp. My heart felt like it was going to burst.           “We didn’t really go on a meditation retreat,” Grandpa Frederick explained, slowly, checking our faces for reactions. But we were all blank, staring. I glanced at my father. His pink hat hung loosely from his hands. Aunt May stood like a statue, unable to take her eyes off the little girl, tears silently falling down her cheeks. Sarah stood with her eyebrows clenched together, her mouth slightly open. I could tell by the way she was breathing that she didn’t know what to do, how to feel, what to say.                                                                 And next to me stood Uncle David, still shaking, his eyes focused on his father. His mouth was moving slightly but, for the second time, no words came out.                             “We’ve wanted to do this for a long, long time…” He licked his lips, unaccustomed to so much talking in such a short period of time. “We don’t need a lot. We just need you all to understand…sometimes, you can’t stall. You can’t wait. You have to go.” He stopped talking. An air of finality settled among us as we collectively wondered what to do. I finally looked up into Grandpa Frederick’s eyes, waiting for him to explain, really explain; to do something, to say something. But he didn’t. So I did.                                                                                  I slowly knelt onto the ground, ignoring the people rushing to and fro around me. They were too wrapped up in their own destinations to notice a new home being formed directly in front of them, what was left of “normal” unceremoniously being thrown out the window, right in the middle of the ice sculpture airport, with the best TCBY the country has ever known. I whispered,                                                                   “Welcome home, Grace, from goat town.”  

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