The last time I saw my grandmother — my mother’s mother, Clara (Gaga in my books, which is what I apparently called her as an infant) — we went for a walk from her apartment in Forest Hills up to Queens Boulevard, eight-lane roadway of doom, and she was huffing and puffing so hard that I knew she had congestive heart failure: it had about as much as it could take in the course of 81 years what with the 1918 flu epidemic in which she lost her baby brother, World War I, the Depression, World War II, Hitler, Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, another Kennedy, King, Watergate, That Bastard Nixon (she called him), Reagan, an adult daughter with narcissistic personality disorder, and a 60-year secret relationship with a woman named Nora who lived down on Leroy Street, and who no one but I knew about.
I mean, a human heart can take just so much.
I was a freshman in college, and when my phone rang one morning in April, I knew: she was gone.
None of this explains why, after Susanna Hoffs’ first book (I am certain there will be a second; forget for a minute about the prowess with the Rickenbackers and the fabulous voice, this woman is a stellar writer) came out in April, everyone of a certain age was suddenly walking around singing old Bangles songs to themselves, and after a heavy Nepalese meal I woke up in the middle of the night having dreamt that my grandmother, the woman in the old photo above, was singing to me, Walk like a magician… Walk like a magician… and I kept saying No, Grandma, walk like an Egyptian, but she kept right on: Walk like a magician. And now, of course, I can’t hear anything but that in my head, even when I hear the actual song (which is a lot, because I’ve gone down a Bangles rabbit hole). I found myself walking the dog the other morning singing it to myself, and I came in and fed him and the cats and Susan was already at her desk, working, and I asked her Honey, how would a magician walk? and she stared at me blankly, like I was that woman* in the Gray’s Papaya scene in Crossing Delancey who comes in and sings Some Enchanted Evening while everyone is standing around eating their hot dogs.
I’ve been looking everywhere lately for messages, and I’m certain that this is one of them: how does a magician walk. Why would my grandmother — the woman who essentially raised me; the reason I’m still here — gone now for forty-two years, come to me in a dream and tell me to walk like a magician. How, exactly, do magicians walk. So I did what any writer and researcher would do: I turned to Google for the answer, and the results were:
- Magicians walk on water
- Magicians walk through glass
- Magicians walk on air
- Magicians walk on tightropes, often while juggling flaming stakes
So when my grandmother, a very practical woman with no particular time for nonsense, came to me in my dream and said Walk like a magician, she meant it. Her message was clear; do the thing that seems most impossible. Do it with confidence even if you have none. But do it anyway. Believe it. Trust that you can do it and that you will succeed.
There is magic, I suppose, everywhere; writers know this when we’ve been stuck and then suddenly unstuck because we went ahead and wrote the thing that terrorized us, and we managed not to vaporize at our desks. Artists of every stripe know this when they perform, or when they show their work. All humans know it only we don’t actually realize it while it’s happening. Magic is bravery; it’s that moment when you’re completely unsure of yourself and you go ahead and do the life-changing thing — the coming out; the quitting the job; the breaking up with the handsome asshole boyfriend with the anger management problem who everyone thinks is perfect; the quitting drinking — you’re doing it: you’re walking like a magician — on air, on water, through glass, on a tightrope a thousand feet above the ground, juggling flaming stakes without breaking a sweat.
So my pragmatic and stoic grandmother came to me in a dream the other night, singing Walk like a magician, and all I can say as I write my essays and finish my book and put down my glass and stare down 60 — I’m still 59 until the end of this month — is I’m trying Gramma, I’m trying so damned hard.
* That woman was the actor Paula Lawrence, who was also my 9th grade private school Drama and English teacher.
This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy.
Header photo courtesy of the author.