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What's Left

What's Left

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What's Left

446 pages
7 hours
Jan 2, 2018


When her father is swept away in an avalanche halfway around the globe, young Cassia's world falls apart. Who and what can she trust – now or forever? She turns wary of everything, especially her family. Just what holds hers together, anyway, other than their restaurant? At first, she yearns for a normal life out in the suburbs, rather than the spacious pink Victorian manor with its witch's hat tower in the heart of town that's the headquarters of her large, extended family. But then her brothers remind her that normal is what their father fled when he married their mother and was warmly accepted into their Greek-American clan.
In due time, three aunts guide Cassia on a long road to recovery – never mind she's proclaiming eternal mourning and dressing accordingly. Thea Pia's a passionate earth mama who revives the kefi they need. Crucially, Thea Nita, who had been his professional colleague, conscripts Cassia to investigate a trove of photographs that established his reputation and then helps her piece together a much bigger picture. Thea Yin, an outspoken accountant who runs the former church they've converted to a playhouse, hires Cassia as her assistant in managing rock concerts. Not bad for a teen, even before you throw in her big circle of cousins – the squad – and their support.
Step by step, Cassia discerns how much their comfortable existence rests on a legacy her immigrant ancestors built by working hard and pooling their resources through hard times and sorrow. In escaping scandal in the old country, were they shouldered with a curse and its lingering stain? Troubles exist, for certain – deep fractures imposed by death, divorce, greed, and now Cassia's own generation having to choose whether to remain with the family business or move elsewhere. When these threaten to sweep away their treasure, the insights she's learned in her recovery from loss come into play as she looks to sustaining their future. Once more, as she discovers, help comes from the most unanticipated sources.

Jan 2, 2018

About the author

It’s been a while since I’ve been known by my Hawaiian shirts and tennis shoes, at least in summer. Winters in New England are another matter.For four decades, my career in daily journalism paid the bills while I wrote poetry and fiction on the side. More than a thousand of those works have appeared in literary journals around the globe.My name, bestowed on me when I dwelled in a yoga ashram in the early ‘70s, is usually pronounced “Jah-nah,” a Sanskrit word that becomes “gnosis” in Greek and “knowing” in English. After two decades of residing in a small coastal city near both the Atlantic shoreline and the White Mountains northeast of Boston, the time's come to downsize. These days I'm centered in a remote fishing village with an active arts scene on an island in Maine. From our window we can even watch the occasional traffic in neighboring New Brunswick or lobster boats making their rounds.My wife and two daughters have prompted more of my novels than they’d ever imagine, mostly through their questions about my past and their translations of contemporary social culture and tech advances for a geezer like me. Rest assured, they’re not like any of my fictional characters, apart from being geniuses in the kitchen.Other than that, I'm hard to pigeonhole -- and so is my writing.

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What's Left - Jnana Hodson


Within a daughter's own living Greek drama

. . .

A novel by Jnana Hodson

. . .

Copyright 2018 by the author

Dover, New Hampshire, USA

Thank you for selecting this story. Please remember this ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please order an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

= + =


. . .


Crying for Baba

Into our age of golden grease

Wake-up call

East, Midwest, and a slice more


Our Queen of the Hill

Table Talk

Anyone pronounce xadelfia?

With Orpheus underground


Run with a torch

Hardly independent

A radiant mind is not to be avoided

Second time round


Hunt, childbirth, the moon

Not any old pickle

Double dorje

Endless knot

About Jnana Hodson and this book

= + =


. . .

By the way, it's pronounced Ba-BA. Greek for daddy.

Watch out what you say about him.

= + =

Crying for Baba

. . .

How dare he — just disappear like that? Oh, I know I shouldn't blame him, it wasn't his fault he couldn't fulfill his end of the deal, but tragedies are always more than mere accidents. Like I'm gonna lay this one on Buddha or the Virgin Mary? The final time he hugs me and whispers Be Good is at the airport. Promise Me, as he'd say. Listen to Your Manoula. And I would. We did this maybe hundreds of times and, in the end, he always came home. It's our routine.

Has his daughter been good?

Yes, Baba, yes.

Have I obeyed?

Yes, Baba, yes.

He'd come back. Had always come back. The airliner would touch the end of the runway, bounce once or twice, settle in before rolling past our view and slowly taxi up to the big window outside our waiting room. At long last, in a trickle of sagging bodies, he'd shuffle through the portal, look around for us in the crowd, and finally sweep us up in his arms as I'd shriek in delight before we could wheel about to slither together down the corridor toward the parking lot. At the car, perhaps, he'd hand us trinkets and treasures from his latest adventures.

But then? There's an exception. Everything falls apart.

In the middle of gym class, I'm called to the principal's office. That in itself is enough to make any sensible kid jittery. Just what have I done?

I'm given forever to get spooked as the school secretary marches me down an endless hallway that leads to the steel slammer into a space my brothers call the snake house, like one at the zoo.

I'm pushed past her scuffed-up endless countertop and her massive mud-color desk as she squeezes my shoulders to steer me toward the dreaded sanctum beyond. And then I jump back.

Sitting together on a small sofa are my Manoula and her sister, my Thea Nita. This has to be really serious. I glance again. Their eyes are red and puffy. This can't be good, no way. I writhe away from the Vulcan grip before looking again and seeing something even worse.

My brothers Gyatso and Billy are with them, and they're both uncommonly stiff and silent.

I have no memory of who makes the first move. Everything blurs as I'm swarmed in an intense embrace. Nita, bless her, cuts off the principal before he can utter the cliche, Your daddy's not coming home.

The first words, I think, are Gyatso's. We won't be driving to the airport.

This really throws me. I spin. What?

Manoula struggles to say she's received a scratchy long-distance phone call. She pauses before telegraphing the little she knows. There's been an accident. And she breaks down, sobbing.

Thea Nita picks up next. Koukla, she says, we can't say for certain. She pauses, chokes back her own tears, and adds the ultimate. We're afraid he's died.

The possibility sinks in. Dead.  Not the way it happens in the movies, with a shootout or a fluffy deathbed scene, or the cartoons, where the collapsed figure stands back up again, dusts off, and smirks. No, this is entirely different, cold and foreboding, like a really sharp knife.

This isn't a divorce, either. There will be no custody issues, which I've heard about from classmates.

No matter how often Baba is off lecturing or teaching or doing research or simply practicing things we consider normal, he always comes back. We're happily intact, even when we're apart. We have a home together, where he's our king or knight in shining armor or the leading man in our fabulous movie. Something like that.

So, he's off in the world's tallest mountains. His photographs make the snowy crests magical or mysterious, nothing like our part of the world or the endless cornfields where he grew up.

This time, though, something's gone terribly wrong. Baba isn't keeping his end of the promise. It's so confusing, I want details, need proof, swear they're all mistaken or even making this up to drive me insane. You're all lying to me, aren't you? I'll wake up in a minute, right, and scream? If he were here, he'd comfort me and set you all straight.

But he's not.

I can't get out of the principal's black hole fast enough. It's like one of those cold mountains has fallen on top of me, and I can hardly breathe.

Once we escape the school office, we shoot straight to the big old house that's the headquarters of our humungus family. As we enter what my great-grandparents had claimed as their Victorian castle all those years ago, it's already crowded. The news is only beginning to spread. My blessed Thea Pia, married to Manoula's brother Barney, is the first to do her best to comfort me. Oh, Cassia! she moans. My heart sank when I heard the story, it's so unbelievable. Our life's coming apart at the seams. Without him what will we do? If my hugging you could take away all your pain, I'd start now and never stop.

She would, too. She's always been a second mother to me.

One arm lets go as she reaches out to Manoula. Oh, Diana! I'm beside myself with grief! How are you bearing up? Under all the suspense? Is there a glimmer to cling to? I've always had a soft spot for him, as you well know — for you both. How are we going to get through this ordeal? You've been together how long now?

She knows the answer. She met my Theos Barney the same time my Baba met Manoula, so it's way back in history. (Twenty-four years, more or less, if you're counting.)

Everyone in the room knows my Baba in a particular way.

Manoula, of course, as his wife, lover, soul mate, partner, and, especially, as the father of her babies.

Barney and Pia, as a devoted brother-in-law.

Thea Nita, as a professional colleague from college on.

Gyatso as his first child, or Billy as his second.

And as for me, the youngest, isn't this all about our unique father-daughter bond, something all our own, that kind of thing? Now I might have to reinvent us. Look at me. I'm your creation, through Manoula, once you coronated her for your dream. All I know is he is very important, not just to me but in many circles around the world. How could I possibly doubt it?

I try to recall the look in your face when the overhead voice calls you to board your flight followed by your confidently march away into the tunnel the very last time we have together.

What made Nepal more important than me, anyway? Or the rest of your family? Why didn't you take us along to the jagged heavenly white summits you'd shown me in your photos? You promised to someday introduce me to the Tibetan monks and temples that were your central purpose for going. And then?

What if you hadn't just vanished? Halted on a well-worn trail to set up your tripod for a stunning photograph? More than a side of the mountain crumbled. Baba, you out and out disappear just when I need you to move into a new role in my life. How could you leave me, half a world away? How could you leave us — your family — in what you would have called the transmigration of the Voidness of intelligence? I do remember your teaching me that phrase and making me repeat it, as it that's any comfort now. Those words quickly became an inside joke with my brothers and me, but there's no jesting now. No, there's only our unspoken hope. Besides, it's not like that mountain is rising into some heaven. No, tons of ice and rocks break loose and crash downward in a roar followed by echoing silence. Chant Om Mane Padme Om in a rumbling voice all you want, but the empty repetition only angers me.

It's not that I don't have people to comfort me. They're all around but utterly useless. They keep fingering the wound, thinking it will help.

Baba, a side of me crumbled away with you. I veil myself in privacy as best as I can — wrap myself in a robe of mute secrecy to mask my endless pain — but the abrasions remain raw. My gut's ripped open and left exposed. In the night I become a boulder falling through space.

I swear nobody's ever going to hurt me like that. Nobody, Baba, not like you have. Never again. Not that I blame you.

Go ahead, I dare you. Tell me about human sacrifice in the old days or living in a holy awareness that any moment could be my last. You think that works? Who are we kidding?

Apparently, this will never cease. I steel myself for the long haul. My wardrobe goes black. A sweatshirt at first, then a plain high-neck sweater. Baggy pants, sneakers, a flowing maxi skirt, a headband, wide belt, flats.

My, as Thea Pia remarks, aren't we looking awfully formal?

Well, she could as easily say I'm just looking awful. Still, this is better. My new attire feels right. It's ever so expressive. Nobody can see through layers of blackness, can they?

No need for me to take a vow. I'll be loyal. Already I sense long nights, months, even years ahead as I struggle to recover that path you walked up to the point it vaporized into nothing but air — the very route I now desire to cross. A bridge to you, a rainbow, an opening. Maybe, too, I'll become a bird wrapped in feathers for healing or flight where you'll sing to me before the sunrise. Restore my nest. Bring clarity to my discombobulation.

If this were only back antiquity. With some injustice to avenge, I'd raise my ax and scream lines by Euripides — the madness of a wounded woman. Alas, no such release in today's world. I'll howl at the gods anyway, no longer letting them off the hook. They're all guilty. Bad things happen to innocent people, and real villains run on unpunished. Baba, trying explaining that one to me. Already I've grown enough to no longer look at you as a god, not the way a child worships a parent.

Baba, you weren't mean, not like Manoula. Make your bed, Pick up your clothes, Finish your homework. Dah, dah, dah! You were more like, Can I help you make your bed, pick up your clothes, work with you on your homework? Sometimes I just liked telling you I can do it myself. I'd even figured out that you didn't know everything anymore but you could point me in a right direction — the classic you-have-to-ask-so-and-so ploy, that sort of thing. And I'm lucky you'd never been a monster. Not once. Well, maybe once. Or twice. Make it a short list.

So, here it is. Death. What a perplexing approach to be awakening to the big world, as this terrifying reality repeatedly insists. I'd rather stay numb. Drown myself in a river of tears. Fall unconscious at the foot of a cemetery angel statue. Make myself a haven for crows.

The closest comforting figure in my life is my cousin Sandra. She's the daughter of Manoula's brother Tito. She tells me I'm lucky that I didn't have to please you. You loved me the way I am.

Mostly, she just listens. But she does see that most kids' first exposure to a funeral or open-casket wake comes with the death of a grandparent. One classmate does try to comfort me by telling of her baby brother. None of it's the same as losing you, Baba.

We were too young to understand when Theos Graham and then Theos Dimitri departed this life. They simply weren't with us anymore. Sleeping, as we were told, sleeping forever, never to wake up again on this planet.

As for grandparents? For Sandra and me, ours were both gone before you arrived, much less us.

On your side, Grandpa and Grandma Mac are still breathing, but I wouldn't miss them. They're out in Iowa. They wanted a Methodist service, too, even though you'd long ago left that faith. Under the circumstances we can't exactly say you Passed Away — the event's too catastrophic, more like being Ripped Away — but they do believe their son's Gone Home to His Maker. I'm left wondering what kind of home they expect, but I doubt it's anything like ours, the apartment just down the street from our family's Victorian behemoth.

Their interpretation of death and the ways to act baffle me. So Heaven's a place where you reunite with family? Somewhere we'll at long last meet face to face with Manoula's parents and grandparents and thank them for all you, Baba, embraced in their household? You're up in the stars, right, in your golden slippers on golden streets humming along to endless harp music? That entire notion strikes me as ridiculous.

Many people have no idea what to say beyond I'm so sorry. Others bite their tongue while others are distinctly perplexed. Are you even going to Heaven or are you instead unsaved and damned? After all, you were raised a Protestant but found refuge in Buddhist sadhana. Maybe you were, what, Tibetan all along, just born in the wrong place? So going home means coming back again?

Thea Pia wanted a Greek Orthodox service, just in case. She went through all the steps as a safeguard. Figured the fat memorial candles flickering in red jars in front of the angel doors can't hurt. She will always light one for you.

Brother Billy sings of how the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, but I'm sure you'd much rather have your carcass feed eagles. And, yes, Baba, you taught us that song, so I suppose it's fitting.

It's a struggle. When we first hear the news, we react with disbelief. This can't happen, It's not true, There's no corpse as proof. You'll turn up, we silently believed. You'll walk through the door with your silly grin and a rucksack. When you don't, I get angry. At times, all alone, I scream at the ceiling and walls, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US! And later, trying to deny the obvious, the charge becomes, I DON'T NEED YOU! Even before, I DON'T WANT YOU! I DON'T WANT TO NEED YOU!

Who am I trying to fool? Of course, I need you. We all do. That's what Thea Nita sensed soon after she and you met. Maybe other kids grow up fine without a father or a mother or whoever, but that's a cruel thing to say. Some of the kids I know don't even like theirs.

I did and want more.

My history? Everything's just ducky with us. And then it's not.

No, you're tempted to take a photo of some extraordinary view up on the roof of the world, so you're standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when everything starts whirling like a row of prayer wheels with me inside one. Don't you dare tell me God lifted you away to some bigger purpose. As far as I'm concerned, it's just not fair, that's all, I need you. Don't I have any rights here?

None of the initial shock's relieved by your thin blue-paper airmail letters and postcards that show up weeks and even months after you're gone. Never with the unlikely development we're hoping to hear. And then even those arrive no more. One more vacuum.

Up to the time we lose you, I feel blessed and safe. After that, I'm swept up in disturbing possibilities. Is there some curse on our chromatin, starting with my great-grandparents' escape to America? Or, on your side, some whammy echoing from its own mute past? Why aren't the holy incantations to protect us not working? Where are the dakinis and holy angels in my endless woe? Off on a holiday or coffee break? Please! Even the sound of chanting accompanied by horns and cymbals reminds me of an avalanche. It won't stop. Neither do the recurring nightmares.

No matter how hard I try to suppress them, other worries foment within me. What if Manoula, too, simply vanishes? Just leaves without explanation? Or is diagnosed with a terminal disease? I don't have to look far for confirmation such possibilities. She's just sixteen when her own parents die in a car crash. She'll rarely talk about that, even when questioned. No, she turns stony quiet.

Those thoughts won't go away. When it comes to daily trust, how safe is any of us? How reliable is life, anyway? How fragile is this existence, even before we get to loving and love itself? When old people die, it's expected, more or less, right?

But this?

= + =

Baba, your disappearance shatters my world in every way. I'd already begun seeing that our fam isn't exactly like others. As we kids knew, ours is superior. We're a lively tribe living more or less together on our own little island surrounded by busy asphalt between downtown and the college. Doesn't every fam flip hamburgers for a living? Doesn't every kid have a readymade bevy of playmates and teammates — along with clothes and toys that keep getting handed down? Doesn't every princess have a grape-colored bus and driver at hand for loud outings to the lake or zoo? So what if our classmates don't celebrate Christmas and Easter when we do? They don't even know about most of our holidays. So what if we work nights and weekends? We're all in this together.

Up to the catastrophe, people could argue I had a rare happy childhood within that squealing crush where I bathed in affection and played joyously with a phalanx of cousins. It started back when all of us lived together as one big trippy household. In all of this, I experienced something few of my classmates could imagine.

Happy childhood? Now I see. It's a trap. An illusion. Beware of ever feeling good. They'll gitcha. Nothing bright lasts forever, right?

In a fam like ours, everyone works in the restaurant. Forever, believe me. At age eight, we're put on the payroll, supposedly, though most of our earnings go directly into savings for college or whatever. We accept this as a big honor, a huge step in growing up. So what if we're not actually paid, apart from a weekly allowance?

Wouldn't everyone love our fam? The shocking fact is, no, not everyone. Like once I was asked if I'm going to a birthday party — I'm not invited — and break out in tears. Manoula later tells me she's never been friends with the girl's mother, either — it has something to do with being called dirty Greeks. And then, when I have my own party, half of those invited don't accept, much less attend.

As for their parents or grandparents or older siblings? Maybe we had outbid them for a property or fired a relative for due cause. In a small community, these things add up. You're not McDonald's, one classmate taunts me, adding that her parents would never order from our menu. Others assume we're into black magic or paganism. We're not exactly Catholic, and we observe other rituals, too — some of them are teachings you, Baba, advanced. On the playground I'm asked about some episode on television, and I answer, We don't have a set — well, we do have one up over the bar. I have no idea what they're talking about, much less their lingering whispering about Theos Dimitri and Theos Graham. Amid the cattiness and gossip, I'm picked on and bullied, but I'm not alone. At least we stick together. I have sympathy for their other victims.

But what if we aren't superior? In this world of ours, I'm feeling bruised, defenseless, abandoned, shell-shocked. Nothing's like it was when you were still with us.

= + =

There's denial, of course. Without a corpse, we keep hoping you'll simply walk through our doorway. You know, shouting, Surprise! They're wrong! I'm back!

But those days pass into weeks. My grades slump. I fall into clinical depression. Seriously. There's nothing predictable when my grieving erupts into screaming. Am I being moody? What do you think? OK, I'm not the only one suffering — my mother and brothers clash without warning. My life would have been erratic enough in normal adolescence. Pining for you scorches everything.

If I'm pulling away from everyone, they react likewise.

I don't understand you anymore, my cousin Sandra finally explodes. Not that my best friend, ever, ever drops me, but she does have good reason to be out-and-out perplexed after trying everything but some exotic potion to cure me. Well, to be fair, I'm not complaining about her bags of Sour Patch candy. If only they didn't melt away so fast. They help, maybe. Better than medicine.

But Manoula, bless her, is inconsolable for an eternity. No way can she calm me. We just aren't able to comfort each other. Sometimes, out of the blue, she grabs me and won't let go, but other times she pushes me away. Baba, you would have said or done the right thing, I know it. Right for both of us. Bridged everything. Instead, she mostly preoccupies herself in her work — meeting deadlines, shuffling this or that, making sure we don't lose everything, poring over manuscripts or galley proofs or, in her free hours, off for rehearsals. Staying immersed in tasks of one sort or another is her way of coping, but I feel rejected all the same. As if I'm not shouldering away from others, too? Worse, as I see it, she never puts on the garb of mourning — she's too modern for that. Not like me.

My brothers become more sarcastic — and how! That's how they keep this reality at bay. Outwardly, they both take a just-suck-it-up attitude.

Gyatso's about to embark on college, and Billy's a high school freshman, inhabiting a world of varsity baseball and trumpet in the marching band. Who knows what's boiling up within them? In contrast, I'm supposed to be the admiring little sister, a role they could handle. Except I've turned surly, choked in my own brooding.

The boys take more after Manoula, so I've heard. Or maybe Grandpa Mac. I dunno.

Everyone tells me I'm the one who takes after you. Even if I can't stand opera, their insight helps. And as for that spirituality thing?

Take after you, Baba? I get what they mean, I think. You're oh-so-serious, like him, they say. OK, but some of them also say I have your sense of humor, only sharper, more outrageous. Are those opposite sides of the same coin?

I keep returning to the bathroom mirror, hoping to detect some detail of you looking back at me. But the staring reflection is a sphere, unlike the back covers on your books. In what's before me, the central attraction is my mouth — full, with expressive lips and, as I'm reminded, perfect teeth when I smile. Only my eyes, so I'm told, are yours. Oh, and your teeth were crooked.

It's apparent I'll be shorter than you or even Manoula. And, yes, rounder. In fact, I wonder if I resemble either of you at all. Thea Nita, at least, insists I've inherited my most distinctive features from my grandparents and great-grandparents. She's come up with a list. What I inherit from you and Manoula, she says, is my brain and my inner heart. Feel free to call it my soul.

The one with a big crater. Just like the moon.

Even before everything gets weird. Truly weird. Thea Pia, bless her, says it has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with astrology. I'll buy that.

Without a father, I slowly realize how much a fam is more than a mother. In my case, Manoula keeps shrinking. Yes, she tries to step in to fill the hollow in my life, but the breach between us keeps expanding. Maybe what scares me most is my kinship with you — or what I imagine you to be. It's true, I identify far more with you, my father, than with her, my mother.

After your death, some of my classmates look at me like it's my fault. Like I'm some kind of germy freak. I can feel it. And then, as one cruelly threatens, Your father wasn't saved, he's going to Hell — which stirs up more rage. At least Thea Nita puts that in perspective. No, she insists, don't you see your Baba was a saint? And in their lifetime, holy men have always had a hard time when it comes to the public?

Look, I don't care. I don't want an angel or a saint. I want a daddy. My very own daddy. My Baba. I always want you back, the way we used to be. Damn them all! This isn't like a divorce where you get visiting rights. You're just gone. Missing. Blotto. The hole in a coffee-table puzzle. How many years will I continue to catch myself talking to you when I want to show you something I've done, something to make you laugh or be proud of me? There are questions I'll keep asking despite knowing only silence will remain on your part.

= + =

Once the tragic finality settles in, we all turn to my Theos Tito as head of our wider pack. Even as the youngest of three brothers, he winds up as the patriarch although he's already a very busy big wheel in his prime. As his daughter, my bff Sandra, insists, when it comes to him, you just about have to make an appointment — through his secretary. Fam or business. Well, in our case, the two are pretty much the same, and his secretary's not even related to us. But he does escort us in our public functions, so I'm not left bereft there. When required, he's the strong positive male presence in a three-piece suit and shiny dark wingtip shoes.

Still, the tension within me becomes unbearable. One dramatic outburst goes way over the top. In the midst of it, I bellow, Why can't we be NORMAL! Live out by the golf course or maybe Hollywood! Drive a new car every year! Why?

Meaning, Why this?     

Thea Nita hears me from the next room and starts laughing. Yes, my most supportive aunt in the whole world is laughing at me! Not with me, but at me! In the sanctity of my own home. And that really sets me off.

Well, she explains later, isn't it good to know you weren't sprawled on your bed comatose and staring at the ceiling? As if she's aware that's exactly what I was doing.

Normal, eh? The very charge gives her an idea. She goes to the other adults and comes back with a proposal. Baba, nobody's been in your studio since you vanished, Well, apart from Manoula a few times.

It's a one-bedroom apartment behind Thea Nita's, which is across the hall from the large one where I live with my mother and brothers. Where you used to live, too.

Now Nita has the key and we venture in, just the two of us. Even in the middle of the day, it's dusky.

Koukla? Can you open the drapes?

And I do.

We're both startled it's in such disarray. And so dusty, too.


Well what?

You ready to get started?

Thea Nita, what do you mean? I'm supposed to be at the restaurant in an hour. Shouldn't I be getting ready. Maybe even feeling guilty?

She laughs again. What if I told you this is where you're scheduled to be? Wouldn't you rather be here?

Than washing pots and pans? Is she kidding?

You ready to make a deal?

She's deadly serious. If I'm willing, I can spend one shift a week helping her bring some order to the mess you left. We agree on Saturday mornings. For all of its familiarity, I'd never really looked closely at the fact you'd turned an apartment into your studio. Now comes the real tour.

The foyer, where we entered, was essentially your study. A big round coffee table, a stuffed chair, and a daybed fill it. It gave you a place to read or maybe look at photos or meet clients or maybe just retreat from everything and everyone, including us.

The center room remains a labyrinth of bookcases, filing cabinets, boxes, piles everywhere. My heart sinks. This will be impossible.

The single bedroom doubled as a photo studio — you'd installed banks of lighting and the big rolls of backdrop paper — as well as your yoga space. Your cushion sits before a small altar in one corner, next to your exercise mat.

As for the bathroom? Yuck! I'd rather be back with the pots and pans.

The kitchen, of course, had been converted into a darkroom. We'll tackle it last.

Where do we even start?

She suggests a thorough cleaning of everything but the darkroom, which can come later. Asks if I need help.

No, I'm capable of dusting and vacuuming, thank you. I want this to be my responsibility. I really do.

What about the windows?

Oh, I guess it's OK for Gyatso and Billy to pitch in, but they'll need to know I'm boss.

So, I begin under Thea Nita's sharp eye. Her willingness to dedicate time to this project emphasizes its importance, and I'm honored to be asked to assist her. She can tell me how so many of the pictures we’ll turn up were assignments she'd shared with you, so she's personally interested in revisiting them as we organize what's before us.

Because Thea Nita writes for the newspaper — or, as I should emphasize, does something other than work for the family — she's busy, she's always been when it comes to her career — but looking back, I guess she's already had her fill of babies and toddlers in the form of nieces and nephews from squealing little brats on up. Yet as I move into adolescence, she treats me as an equal, a relationship I don't have with other grownups. She isn't someone you'd lean on for gobs of emotional support, but she has always been a presence who seems to understand everything. What she does best is ask questions. Even when we were little, she knew how to ask about things in a way that opened our eyes to our world. So, she rarely gives advice directly, but she does listen. Boy, does she! She simply sits there and suggests ways events might play out over time. Why don't you just wait, as she'd say. Why don't you ask Joe? Or Jean or Judy, she knows all the right people.

What we now face is a mountain of our own, much of it miles and miles of brittle negatives, which she shows me how to handle very, very carefully. No oily fingers, especially. To my relief, most of the plastic sleeves holding the negatives are marked by date. To my dismay, they're stashed willy-nilly. One of my future tasks will be to file them chronologically. Oh, joy. That will require vacating a few cabinet drawers just to have someplace to a bit of space to start establishing some order. Why does one mess always create another? And then? This can't end well, can it?

It will also require me to learn to decipher the reversed light and dark shapes on the tiny strips — everything's backward and upside down. She promises me I'll become proficient, just like she has. We'll have to organize many contact sheets of images the same size as the ones on the negatives, made to aid in selection. If I want, she'll find somebody to teach me how to make my own — a vital skill, as we'll find. After that there are your prints — the developed photos, many of them with crop marks for publication or exhibit. And that's before we get to the seemingly random notes, notebooks, cards and letters, souvenirs, lights and tripods, camera gear, artbooks, maps, or — gasp! — the closets.

I'm nearly grateful when she says we'll begin with pictures you didn't take. Ones you collected, especially the ones of our own fam.

Well, it's a first step. Or second, after the big house cleaning. Maybe what we turn up will give me a clearer idea of what attracted you here in the first place. And maybe even how you fit in. Anyway, Nita wants the family pix organized. I'll do this for her, right?

Any giddiness is soon smothered in panic. What we face is overwhelming. We don't even know where to start digging, and she's entrusting this to a twelve-year-old? What's running around in her head? I haven't grown that much!

I can't do it, I'm quitting, I tell her. The job's just too much.

She laughs. Once again. How do you think your Baba felt when he set out to climb a mountain? How many miles was it before he could even see the peak? Following that model, together we break down our project into a series of stages — and from there, step-by-step goals.

Each week I'll have to fill out a time card, explain what I've done. Tito's rules. Will anybody actually look at these?

Ask me, it's kind of morbid. Our first task is to determine just where the family pictures are lurking in this jungle. They’re scattered all over the place. It's like fallen fruit buried in layers of rotting leaves. Baba, if there's a method in your madness here, I’m totally lost. Were you really this disorganized? I don’t have enough time or patience to go panning for gold, one fleck at a time, in this debris. Give me the mother lode. Eureka! Score! Help!

She's no dummy. I really do think she wants me to see what lured you here — even apart from Manoula. So, it's my story, too,

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