Early last November before the election, before gatherings with extended family reinforced suspicions of complicity rather than bonds of kinship, I spent an evening with my estranged cousin. Not estranged estranged. Nor even very distant in terms of relation or travel. But whose connection to my life had ruptured over the course of a decade of funerals for those who had maintained our association. I’ve always admired my cousin in a childlike way that makes me self-conscious. Her dark beauty. Her manic energy. Her irreverent humor. She reminds me of my late mother, in the way she could absolutely rob a truck stop out of necessity, in heels and a tasteful shade of lipstick, and laugh about it all the way home. In my cousin’s presence, I felt returned to the strange goo of the petri dish in which we were both cultured. All families have their idiosyncrasies. Ours are turned up to eleven. In familial jargon, “The Ladds” refers not simply to my maternal grandfather’s descendants, but to that branch of the family distinctly unlike the others, a branch wound with wild, handsome, impertinent, troublesome vines. Exotic. Invasive. We can’t be tamed, yet we are prone to strangling ourselves and thus tend to be left alone. We are not ostracized, just reminded of our prodigal status with tedious notes of envy and apprehension. We’re a family of Nastasia Filippovnas and Raskolnikovs, except we aren’t Russian. I don’t think. We may be. We may even be fictional. The truth is no one knows, or believes, the origin of our lineage. This adds to the cache and distrust roused by our inexplicable looks and even less explicable life choices. Despite having spent most of my adult life orphaned and on the run from my family’s past, I find it is wise to have dinner with someone who looks and thinks like you just often enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own neuroses.
We sat up late at the hotel that November evening debating the whereabouts of my mother’s and our grandmother’s possessions. My stepfather had my mother’s things. My aunt had my grandmother’s. Upon reflection, neither of us could recall actually having seen any of our family heirlooms in these people’s homes. The upsetting revelation came only after a few drinks and mutual assumptions, even accusations, that the other were in possession of it all. I felt low about being materialistic, but as the conversation progressed, I could smell the varnished interior of the hand-carved hutch in my childhood dining room and the half-empty whiskey bottles on my grandmother’s sideboard that had stood on that sideboard half-empty since my grandfather’s death in 1963. I could hear the clinking of tea sets and porcelain dolls as my brother and I ran rampage through my grandmother’s house. My mother had kept a black bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy in the back of her lingerie drawer, in velvet-lined box. And my grandmother, above a mid-century record console, had hung a photo of a mist-shrouded, tree-lined empty country road, perhaps in France, the trees and road disappearing into the horizon line. We conspired to rent moving trucks, kidnap our thieving elders and make them give us our stuff. It was our stuff. And it was good stuff. I’m not that into stuff. When I consider my inheritance, I think of genes, mannerisms and axioms. I was suddenly struck with the conviction that if we cannot know where a soul goes when it dies, we should at least keep tabs on its stuff after the unfortunate event. Yet it had all been the same in my experience. People are taken from us. People’s things are taken from us. The world takes indiscriminately.
Upon my departure that evening, my cousin gifted me with a set of three identically crocheted handmade scarves: one in beige, one in white and one in black. The Ladds go in for the classics. “This will never go out of style,” my mother would declare, shoving London Fog trench coats and fitted blazers into my Goth girl arms on department store outings. I only wore the black crochet scarf my cousin made for me, but I wore it often.
In the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago, there is an Irish pub I routinely visit. We could be Irish, after all. That’s the official if dubious claim. Arriving on one such visit in February, I placed my coat and scarf across the back of an empty chair. As the evening wore on, a fellow sat in the chair as people do in a crowded bar: making a gesture to brush a bit of the coat off the seat, but not daring remove it altogether. When my ride announced our imminent departure, amid a flurry of goodbyes I grabbed my coat and scurried into the night. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant zipping up, let alone fishing out my winter accessories. The next day, I took down my coat from the rack in the kitchen and reached for my scarf. The scarf wasn’t there. I remembered having thrown my hat and gloves into my bag at the pub. A black bag full of black gloves and black hats but no black scarves. I took down all the coats from the crowded rack, turned them inside out, upended my bag, searched the floors of dark closets and inspected lopsided hangers. I looked under the bed. Why my scarf would be there, who knew? But that’s where runaway things hide and whisper to you as you tear apart the room, “Do you love me enough to brave a haunted clown for me? Do you?” I did. It was ridiculous. It was just a plain scarf. But with the discussion about the Ladd family stuff, the scarf acquired inflated emotional value. When a survey of the haunted clown lair turned up nothing but some old canvass slippers, my stomach sank. Ok. I texted the friend who had driven me home, in the most nonchalant way possible, like I’d lost a scarf and not a person, like my mind knew the difference, requesting they perhaps have a poke about in the car for it. No, no scarf. Now I was going to have to call the pub. They knew me. I would tell them my name, my waitress’s name and where I’d been sitting. “Hello. I was there last night and may have left a black scarf…” “Hold on. … No ma’am. No one’s reported a black scarf.” “Oh ok, well thanks so much for checking then, I mean I didn’t think I left it there anyway,” I blurted out, angry that they probably didn’t really look, embarrassed by my own object attachment. I was devastated.
It was an unseasonably warm winter, not scarf weather anyway. I wrote off the affair as penance for allowing myself to be drawn into pettiness about material possessions, or as another test of my ability to endure loss. I tried not to think about it, this small grievance in such grave times. I accepted responsibility for my inebriated carelessness. Still, I was unable to shake the injustice. Who would steal a scarf? Everyone in Chicago already has a scarf. At least everyone who can afford imported ales. It was probably one of those rejected suitors. I recoiled with nausea, imagining some creep’s perverse molestation of my scarf. What the hell was wrong with people? Unless it was the Macedonian server. Or was he Montenegrin? He could do whatever he wanted to with it. Hot. I fantasized about my abandoned scarf’s new life as mine continued as normal.
A few days ago I was invited to return to the Avondale pub. Not for St. Patrick’s debauchery, but to meet a political operative popular with supporters of Bernie Sanders. I didn’t want to go. The wounds on both sides are still fresh and are being doused with more blame than aftercare. But earlier in the week my ailing cat had almost been taken from me too, and after days of precipitous grief and soiled laundry, I needed a break. Perhaps, I fancied, I would walk in, and on the back of the very same chair would hang my precious scarf, and as I panned the room inquiringly, the Macedonian or Montenegrin server would smile, nod to the scarf and wink. That would be nice. It probably wouldn’t happen. It certainly wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go. So I did. I approached the very same chair, strangely empty despite a crowd, and sat down. Of course the scarf isn’t here. It’s been well over a month, and this is a popular bar, and an Irish bar in March. I smiled anyway, the kind of smile Oscar nominees smile when they don’t win. I looked a bit too eagerly into my waitress’s eyes, the very same waitress, as she approached. I struggled to concentrate on the operative’s pep talk. I overcompensated with feigned interest in my surroundings as I scanned the room for my scarf. I dared not mention the matter to anyone out of shame at both my materialism and incompetence. I imagined meeting potential mates or employers: “What brings me here? One of my few living relations made me something nice and I left it at a bar, you see. So that’s me. And you?” I wasn’t unhappy to see old friends, and the Balkan beauty did wave and smile from across the room. I couldn’t regret having come. I stood with my back to the table, chatting with aspiring candidates and staffers, lingering in wait for my bill. When it arrived, I fetched my bag from under the table, and as I emerged upright, my eyes landed on the chair, in which lay a black crochet scarf folded tidily into perfect squares.
I concealed my ecstasy as I coolly as I had my earlier disappointment and asked those around if it belonged to them. No. Did they know whose it was? No. Did they see who had placed it there? No. Certainly the Bernie bro next to me hadn’t been nesting atop it the whole night. I picked it up, unfolded it and held it out like a holy shroud. It smelled of a fresh dry cleaning and not cigarette smoke or musky perfume. Or Bernie bro. In vain, I asked my waitress if she had placed it there or knew who had. No. I explained nervously, “It’s just that, well so this is weird, but I thought perhaps I left a scarf here, this scarf, over a month ago, and I mean I called, but. Look, I would like to take it, but if anyone reports having left it here tonight, let me know, and I will return it. I promise. Ok?” “If you think it’s yours, you don’t need my permission to take it,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Right. Good point.” I hadn’t thought of it like that.
Despite repeated inquiries, the scarf taker-cleaner-returner remains unknown, I suspect intentionally. There is an alluring glamour to anonymity. Is it a decision born of boredom, mischief, scandal or self-preservation? These are questions I’ve often posed about my grandfather, whose identity also remains unknown. It’s not impossible for a Ladd to be Irish; the name, if rare, appears in ship manifests leaving that country. But it is improbable. It’s just as improbable that this was his real family name. We look more … Spanish. Dark-featured Irish have had their DNA traced back to the Iberian Peninsula. And though not appearing the bloated, ruddy Irish-American stereotype, my grandfather played the part exquisitely: a prohibition bootlegger who rose through the ranks of City Hall, invited neighbors over each week to watch boxing matches and worked to help John F. Kennedy to become President. They died the same year, my grandfather leaving behind little more than fragile books of poetry, half-empty whiskey bottles and a beautiful, badly-behaved brood. Each time I resolve to investigate his past, I decide that other people’s secrets, like their stuff, are not mine to take.
It’s strange. I knew the scarf would be there. I needed it to be there. I needed the world to stop taking the Ladds and all of their stuff. My mother’s Joy. My grandmother’s finery. My grandfather’s ancestry. I’ve long doubted my entitlement to any of these things, never mind my ability to recover them. I’ve accepted the romance of mystery and nostalgia as compensation for suffering and loss. I’ve conflated my minimalist existence and the assertion that all property is theft with moral superiority. Keep your righteousness, Bernie bros; I’m living the leftist dream. But questions have been raised. What is a family without a history, but a sludge of genetic material? What is a culture without its artifacts, but an obsolete experiment? What is an object without a story, but stuff? I won’t be advocating for Focus on the Family, cultural purity or recreational shopping anytime soon or ever. And family trees are potential firewood for those of us born with axes to grind. But perhaps I’ve been too dismissive of material possessions. Even wild, handsome, impertinent and troublesome vines need something to hang onto. A crochet scarf. A fragile book of poems. A delicate teacup. A vial of perfume. Perhaps it is wise to maintain a few objects with which you share provenance, just enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own cultivation.