My grandfather was a devout Catholic and a loyal reader of The National Enquirer. He believed in Confession and UFOs. When I once questioned his secular reading habits he grew a bit defensive. “They have the best information on the paranormal in here,” he said, jabbing a finger at the cover, where a photo revealed the face of Christ on the surface of a Florida navel orange. The tabloid arrived every Thursday. It was the only day of the week that he beat my grandmother to the mailbox at the far end of the Alameda Acres Mobile Home Park in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

My grandparents lived on the eastern edge of the park, where a five-foot-high red cinderblock wall separated them from several acres of dry, desert grasses and bits of trash blown in from the edges of I-25. My grandfather had chosen the corner lot for the extra space that afforded him a small vegetable garden, a few grapevines, and an unobstructed view of the Organ Mountains. Great vertical cathedrals of stone, they were named for their resemblance to a giant pipe organ. Gazing at them was my grandmother’s one compensation for being stuck in all that desert heat.

From college through graduate school I visited my grandparents every summer and every New Year’s Eve. I began making the twelve-hour drive from Denver first in a metallic green Dodge Dart (my brother once had a Murray Astro Flite one-speed of the same shade), then in a very small, very vulnerable Honda Prelude with a moonroof. My last visits were in a Harvard Blue four-door Honda Civic, the first car I ever bought new and a veritable luxury liner compared to the others.

Depending on how organized (and caffeinated) I was, I left either in early morning or late evening. By day I was treated to rolling vistas of mountains and desert, cerulean skies studded with cumulus clouds. By night, on the great expanses between cities, it looked as if some great sky god had kicked over a jar of gold glitter. But my favorite trips were in winter because, regardless of when I left, I was sure to witness the swirling shades of turquoise and purple of a New Mexico sunrise or sunset. In my first year of grad school I bought a hand-thrown coffee mug glazed with all the colors of the New Mexico sky, as if the potter had crept into my dreams and stolen them herself.

On one summer visit I had just moved back to Colorado after a year in Germany, where the sky seemed to hover just inches above my head. After an entire year trapped in what felt like a colossal body bag, I needed a big dose of open spaces, so I timed my trip to drive through the summer night under a full moon. I put Santa Fe behind me by 3 a.m., the moon riding shotgun above the mountains as I dropped down below the Zia Reservation. I flew through Albuquerque fueled by iced tea and Chocodiles, then made it all the way from Belen to Socorro straddling both southbound lanes of I-25, simply because I could, mine the only car for miles. The whole experience made me incredibly jealous of astronauts, who fly unencumbered by yellow lines, who never need to use a turn signal. 

Then, about ten miles south of Socorro, I turned my headlights off and drove by moonlight for three straight miles, until I recalled that coyotes often dart across the highway in their search for dinner. I couldn’t help feeling cheated by my own sense of caution and a serious dependence on halogens. A common strain of worry whose absence distinguished astronauts from ordinary, land-tethered people like myself.

I arrived at my grandparents’ place at seven in the morning. After the usual greetings, unloading, and a hot shower, my grandmother met me at the kitchen table with a handful of pale orange tablets. She had just read Linus Pauling’s How to Feel Better and Live Longer and proudly showed me an alarmingly large bottle of vitamin C tablets she had tucked in her cupboard beside the 1960s neon green, pink, and turquoise aluminum drinking glasses. She made me and Nonno swallow three tablets with a big glass of orange juice before she would start the eggs. All week long Nonna pushed the vitamin C and Nonno pushed the red wine, which he insisted prevented more ills, including cavities. “There’s fluoride in this stuff! Can your orange juice say that?”

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Mornings at my grandparents’ place always included a pre-breakfast moment savoring the Organs’ silhouette through the window above the kitchen sink. Being from Denver, I found it vaguely unsettling to see the sun rising over the mountains. But at sunset, they became a shimmering tapestry of purples and silvers in the winter and a jagged pink-purple-orange opal in the summer. Something you could admire, and probably best appreciate, from afar.

After my grandfather retired in 1972, he and my grandmother made several pilgrimages to the Vatican from Los Angeles, where they had lived for 30 years, and then Las Cruces. They always returned stateside with boxes of Bacci chocolates and a handful of plastic rosaries or 18 karat gold Sacred Heart of Jesus medals for the grandkids. The various objects of veneration were bought near the Spanish Steps from vendors with open suitcases strapped around their necks, and distributed with the warning that they weren’t blessed yet. As if rosaries had some sort of spiritual inner clockwork that could only be set in motion by a priest mumbling mysterious incantations.

Although I rather enjoyed our Sunday morning ritual of church before donuts (pretty much how my brothers and I understood the relative importance of religion), I was puzzled by the insistence on regular attendance of such a dull affair. Church was where they went on and on about the joy of everlasting life, but you couldn’t wiggle, clap, laugh, play, or otherwise express it. You couldn’t even sing. Singing, to me, was an outrageously satisfying act of nature, a celebration of the wonderful lungs, vocal chords, and energy God had blessed us with. Birds did it, monkeys did it, but no one in our congregation did it. Oh sure, there was a choir and music, but no one really sang. They mumbled or breathed painfully into their Missilettes, apparently embarrassed, as if they were stifling belches. I couldn’t understand why grownups were so animated when reciting forbidden behaviors, yet so paralyzed when it came time to indulge in perfectly holy ones.

Of course, my tastes were distinctly bizarre among that crowd. I wanted loud, boisterous singing like the Baptists on TV. Every Sunday on the public station, the Baptist service was broadcast right before the Mass for Shut-Ins that my father watched near the end of his life. On those Sundays I always volunteered to tune to the station for him, so I could see those beautiful black-skinned people sing their recessional. With the sound turned low, I watched in envy. I wanted handclapping and halleluiahs! Big blue robes and radiant smiles and swaying, swaying! But instead we had a skinny white choir director with a massive, teased hairdo who, despite her own enthusiasm, only managed to drag warbling words out of a congregation too mortified to raise their voices beyond a tight-lipped rendition of Kumbaya, an outrage introduced at the “youth Mass” by some “hippy” with a guitar.

My grandfather, on the other hand, had always held a firm belief in the rituals, the accoutrements, and the sacraments of the Catholic faith, no matter how boring or staid their execution. When it came to incense and recitations, the heavier the better.

He was especially sold on extreme unction. I wondered how, if you led a decent life and tried to be a good person, you could end up trapped in Purgatory or worse, just because a priest wasn’t around when you died. What about lightning? I wondered. Or elevators plunging to the ground? What if you hit a gravel patch and your car skidded off a cliff? Nonno dismissed my interest in “situational faith” as irrelevant. As if Catholics never died suddenly or alone. But he also believed that every human’s soul inherited its own planet upon leaving this world. He shared that vision with me on my first visit after starting graduate school.

We were in his garden one late summer afternoon under a particularly insistent New Mexico sun. The cicadas in the locust tree above us were so loud that I had to hunker down next to the marigolds to hear him. He was tending to a chile plant that had suffered the affections of the neighbors’ incontinent cat. “There,” he said, splitting open a chile pod still attached to the plant, “I hope next time he sticks his damn nose right in the seeds.” Capsicum versus feline. I speculated that could make a fine headline for the Enquirer, complete with a picture of a cat sprouting wings─highly likely, given the pepper’s Scoville rating.

“Nonno,” I said gently, “I wonder what the pope would say about your a-planet-for-every-soul concept. It’s not exactly a page out of the Catechism. Would a priest go ahead and anoint you if he thought you believed you were headed for Planet X instead of Heaven?”

“Oh, honey,” he said, moving on to the tomatoes, “the pope doesn’t bother himself with those kinds of details.” I personally thought the pope involved himself entirely too much in details, but I bit my tongue. “He’s a big picture kinda guy,” Nonno went on. “And who said I’d tell a priest anything about my travel plans? It’s not like it’s a sin to space travel. The important thing is the salvation. If you believe in Christ, you have everlasting life.”

“And get a planet.”

“And get a planet. It’s like Mark Twain said: Who wants to float around and listen to harp music forever? Why can’t the next life be a big galaxy of planets? Planets are cool.” He paused to stare out across the sunflowers. “I hope mine is red. I always liked red.”

Late that night, while my grandparents watched Johnny Carson─another strictly observed devotional rite─I took a walk around the trailer park. It was always quiet there at night, except for the lap dog population, which got its dander up every time a roadrunner let loose with a bloodcurdling shriek. My sandals were no match for the day’s heat still radiating from the blacktop, so I climbed up onto the wall across from my grandparent’s living room window, where strains of audience laughter occasionally ascended the whine of the air conditioner. Straddling the warm cinderblocks, I lit a cigarette─an impulse purchase at a truck stop in Raton. I blew out the match and dropped it, its red head falling to the blacktop below like a shooting star. I thought about shooting stars and how every last one of them is just a sad story, a fiery ending to who knows what kind of life. People say they grant wishes, but I wonder why they would bother with our selfish thoughts when their whole existence is going up in flames.

I gazed up at the scattering of luckier stars. The brighter ones pulsated with heat. Even if each of those stars had only one planet in its fiery grip, there were certainly enough to go around to support Nonno’s afterlife theory. But I wasn’t sure I wanted my own planet. I mean, what would I do with it? I could barely keep track of my car keys. And I was certainly no match for the little patch of grass I had let go to weeds at my townhome back in Denver. Still, when I thought about it, I decided it would be kind of nice to have a planet. A tiny one, like the Little Prince had. With one little rose bush and a lovely sunset I could watch all day long simply by moving my chair.

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My grandfather was born just outside of Rome in 1909. In 1917, his father traveled to America to start a better life for his family, leaving them in a humble shack on a dirt road. Nonno lived there with his mother and three younger sisters, until influenza claimed the littlest one in 1918 at age six. She died there in the one bed the whole family shared, all of them sick and barely able to move. On the edge of delirium, my great-grandmother summoned all her strength to carry her precious bambina to a blanket in the corner of the room. Through the window she frantically waved at a neighbor boy, who wouldn’t go near the house because of the quarantine sign on the door. And so it was that my great-grandmother had to shout out her heart’s greatest sorrow as a desperate news bulletin broken by a violent cough.

Then began the sickening wait for the soldiers. Because the disease had already wiped out millions, the grim task of gathering the dead had fallen to the military. Two days passed before the soldiers showed up, with a coffin for an infant. When they saw Nonno’s sister, they simply folded her into the coffin. Until the day he died, Nonno could still hear the popping of her leg sockets as they forced the fit.

By age nine, my grandfather had begun teaching himself English so he could make his way in the world when his mother brought him and his sisters to America. In 1919 they finally made the journey to Erie, Pennsylvania, where my great-grandfather had opened a restaurant called La Pergola—the grapevine. While my great-grandfather was frantically cranking out pasta to keep up with the lunch crowd, his family landed on Ellis Island. With my nine-year-old grandfather serving as fearless translator, they made it through the maze of paperwork and managed to board a sleeper car to Erie, arriving on the morning of October 31. As they pulled into the station at the peak of the morning bustle, they saw thousands of Americans casually mixing with ghosts, goblins, and witches and thought they had arrived in Hell.

The demands of the restaurant business were steep. My grandfather quit school in the twelfth grade, just months shy of his diploma, because his father needed him to work full-time. I don’t know if he ever looked back. My grandmother─who’d spent part of her hapless childhood in an orphanage and had never had the chance to complete school─couldn’t rest until she earned her GED at age 63. My grandfather never indicated any jealousy or sense of missed opportunity as he photographed her beaming proudly in her navy blue graduation gown.

I suppose in his own way, though, my grandfather was a man of letters. He answered every one I ever wrote him, from grade school through graduate school, meticulously printing in all capitals, as if every word were an answer in a crossword puzzle. I don’t know if he ever learned to write in cursive; when I asked him he merely answered, “Printing is neater.” When I was very little, sitting near the front pew of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, I imagined it was Nonno who had printed INRI on the cross above Jesus’s head.

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In summer, Nonna and I swam every morning in the pool by the clubhouse, where we usually ran into some friend who’d remark how lucky she was to have grandchildren who visited. Most afternoons were spent playing cards in the kitchen or reading on the floral Hide-a-Bed in the living room. Winter afternoons always included a nap for me. My grandfather, who hated the cold, cranked the heat to 85 degrees at bedtime, which made for a long, dry night spent gasping like a landed carp on the sofa.

Nonno and Nonna’s trailer was adorned with plastic statuettes of Saint Francis, the Virgin Mother, and the Infant of Prague, all keeping watch from various window sills. Lithos of praying hands and a god’s eye one of us grandkids had made in grade school from two dowel rods and brown and orange yarn hung on the paneled walls of the living room. Behind my mother’s faded high school graduation portrait (a sepia shot the photographer had airbrushed to tint her brown eyes blue) was a brittle, arched palm frond from some long-ago Lent.

The walls of my grandparents’ tiny living room were lined with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, National Geographic magazines, The Illustrated History of NASA, and anything by Carl Sagan. With a few oddball newsletters tossed into his reading diet, my grandfather understood black holes and super novas and Area 51. He had only been to Roswell via cheap 20-pound stock, but he knew the government lied, aliens were among us, and that one day soon we’d colonize Mars. Once, standing next to him at Mass on a hot July morning as a priest droned on in Spanish, I studied his shiny bald head. I could gaze down on it when I stood beside him in my strappy Candy’s sandals with the four-inch heels. I marveled at how he could fit under that small bronze dome so much legitimate science, so many conspiracy theories, and the awesome belief that Jesus Christ died to absolve all our sins, both original and otherwise.

When the soundtrack from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series was released, my grandfather was among the first to buy it. He made copies for each of us grandkids on cheap Walgreen’s cassettes. My kid brother and I played ours until they wore out. Paul listened at home in his room but by then I was away at college, enduring my freshman year at Colorado State University with the help of my new Sony Walkman. Then, during my sophomore year, I met Carl Sagan in person.

It all came about by accident, really. Restless and civically minded, I had decided to volunteer for Tim Wirth’s senate campaign. At the second volunteers’ meeting they told us Dr. Sagan was coming to campus to speak out against the Star Wars missile defense system and to make a strong endorsement for Wirth. The hardest working volunteers, they said, would get a chance to meet Dr. Sagan in person.

I was so there! I pushed fliers, slapped up posters, wrote letters to the editor. Even though I didn’t actually own a television set, I felt like I already knew Carl Sagan, as my grandfather had taken it upon himself to record each of the 13 episodes of Cosmos and play them for me over the course of a one-week summer vacation in New Mexico.

And now I would meet Carl Sagan in person. I would do it for my grandfather. I would warmly shake his hand, flash my most cordial smile, and pass on Nonno’s best wishes.

The day finally came and about twenty of us (mostly women, I noticed) waited just inside the back door of the Lory Student Center auditorium. Maybe we fed off each other’s star-struck giddiness, or maybe it was the collective power of all that estrogen, I don’t know. But I was floored by what happened next.

Carl walked up the back steps of the auditorium, chatting casually with the dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. As he entered the building, Carl smiled at us, making eye contact with each volunteer. Speaking at his trademark molasses pace, when he thanked us for our work, both on the campaign and on the publicity for his appearance, I was floored by his genuine warmth and almost unearthly charisma. I don’t know if it was the depth of his passion for the depths of space, but I found him surprisingly, almost oppressively sexy.

I wasn’t politically savvy like most of my fellow campaigners, some of whom were terrifyingly good at maneuvering a contact. And that old shyness I thought I had kicked in high school suddenly swallowed me whole. So I didn’t shake Carl Sagan’s hand. But as we all hushed backstage to listen to some professor introduce Dr. Carl Sagan, he came to stand by me. And as he listened intently for his cue to cross the stage, I ever so slyly reached up to touch the elbow of his jacket. It was warm and tweedy and deliciously rough.

When I called my grandfather that night to report on how I had met Carl Sagan in person (omitting, of course, any acutely hormonal observations), I think I went up a notch in his already generous esteem.

Nonno’s intense interest in the Star Wars initiative was actually quite personal—he lived just 25 miles east of the White Sands Missile Range, where his son worked and where the system was being researched and developed in fits and starts. Despite the overwhelming local support for the project (or, perhaps more accurately, for the hefty bundle of military cash being infused into the local economy), Nonno could hold his own with my uncle’s astrophysicist friends who bullishly touted the program’s value. Not bad for a high school dropout.

Years later, long after Star Wars was formally abandoned by the Clinton administration, I drove my grandparents up to White Sands National Monument, located deep inside the missile range, to picnic in the shade of “The World’s Largest Above-Ground Gypsum Deposit!” as the Visitor’s Center liked to put it. Between Las Cruces and the turn-off to the main road to the missile range headquarters, Highway 70 was still lined with billboards cheering for the program. There was even a Star Wars Café, still open and serving God knows what. It was hard to tell if the owners had chosen the name as a show of patriotic pride or with a savage sense of irony.

After lunch, my adventurous grandmother and I ran down the massive dunes in wild, whooping abandon. I loved loping down the pure white slopes─leaping, landing, sinking, leaping, landing, sinking─over and over. It was like being almost weightless on an almost moonscape, my grandfather smiling down at me from the top of the dune and capturing the whole feeling on film.

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Two years later, as he was dying, my grandfather confided in me that his fondest memories were not of his many return trips to Italy, with the stunning beauty of St. Peter’s, the romantic Isle of Capri, or the rough and ravishing profile of the Cinque Terre. No, his most cherished adventures were the times my father, the copper exploration geologist, took him out in the field with him. Exploring the desert outside Moab or descending the treacherous path to the floor of Cane Creek Canyon, he had felt most alive. And he had no trouble swallowing the big concepts my father threw at him as they hiked past evidence of millions of years of geological evolution.

In a big way, then, I suppose my grandfather was more my father’s son than I was my father’s daughter. Sure, I loved it when my dad talked science to me. I remember an illustrated timeline of the universe that he had once shown me when I was seven. At the center of a large black spiral was a burst of white light, with tiny grey protozoa, plants, dinosaurs, and cavemen spinning out from there. I felt very special as my father, who spent virtually every week out in some desert or mountain range, spent a rare moment with only me, explaining all the captions along the timeline. But even as a child I got hung up on the numbers thing, and I struggled to keep up with his narration, distracted by the millions of centuries whizzing past.

The same confusion haunted me whenever I came up against the invisibly tiny or the unfathomably huge. At CSU I had to take two science courses to complete my French degree. I muddled through Intro to Chemistry in a molecular fog, but when I got to Astronomy 101, I hit the wall. I just couldn’t take that leap of faith and believe in the concept of a billion. Not even my swooning admiration for Carl Sagan could help me. It was one thing to let the phrase “billions and billions” wash over your ears; it was another thing to be expected to refine it into a specific history of the universe. I struggled with a certain consumer’s indignation, I suppose. It seemed odd to me that scientists, who are supposed to be so precise, would use such an unwieldy number as “a billion.” You can wrap science in all kinds of wit and charm, but to me, saying something happened billions of years ago is as vague as that whole “forty days and forty nights” thing in the Bible. Just a simple person’s way of saying a lot. A whole lot. So much that I lost track.

Of course, my astronomy professor judged my inability to get past the zeros as a character flaw. Clearly no one had ever challenged him on such notions; it just wasn’t done. But despite a frightful haircut and a thinly veiled resentment of troublesome liberal-arts types like me, he seemed okay. Okay enough for me to let him preach to me about the power of ten. Plus, I was pulling a D in his five-credit class. I needed to get religion.

“Look at this Vitamin C tablet,” he said, pulling a bottle out of his desk drawer. “It’s a thousand milligrams.” I nodded. “Now, first off, can you imagine a milligram?”

Sure, I shrugged. “An itty bit of that pill right there.” So chemistry was good for something!

“Okay, good. And there are 100 tablets in here, see?” I nodded again. “That’s 100,000 milligrams, right?” Of course. “Now,” he said, leaning closer, gaining enthusiasm. “Can you imagine one thousand bottles just like this?”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ve been to GNC.”

“Okay, that’s one hundred million milligrams. And yet, you can still fit them all in one room, so you can definitely imagine that, right? Now…how about ten thousand bottles just like this.”

I smiled in spite of myself. In that brief instant, I got it─I was a believer! Saved from my own stunted imagination by one more patient than most. I could finally imagine a billion.

To be honest, it wasn’t a long-lived enthusiasm. Smaller numbers like the ones in my bank statements were of much more immediate interest. But I did feel, truly, a new kind of connectedness to the mysterious universe, and it was a nice feeling. If only my father had lived to hear about it.

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The last time I saw him, my grandfather told me he was really looking forward to fishing with my father in the great beyond. I had never before heard Nonno even speak of fishing. It had never occurred to me that he might actually know how to bait a hook. And I wondered how they would get together, what with them living on different planets and all. But I didn’t question him. As he stood in the doorway of the Great Transition, it seemed more a time to listen than inquire.

As he described a stream outside Gunnison, Colorado, where he and my dad had once stopped to “drop a line in” on their way to a drill site, I began to hear the familiar babble of the cold, clear water. Across the stream I could see tall, regal spruce and the quaking aspens that dappled the sunlight on the water as it hurried over smooth river rocks and swirled around the jagged, newer granite that jutted out of the riverbed. I could feel the long grasses on the bank brushing my knees, smell the damp silt on the edge of the water. Nonno had to pause every few words or so, but between his rasping breaths I remembered that I had been there, too, hundreds of times since my father’s death, and that each visit, regardless of the stream’s name or location, was a visit to his grave. And slowly, slowly I began to believe that I, too, would be casting a line with them both someday, and that it was not at all what I had ever imagined until then, and certainly nothing I would want to miss.

Today my grandfather’s ashes sit in a wooden box in my mother’s house, in what used to be my bedroom. My grandmother’s ashes joined him there, unexpectedly, five years later. They sit there in different boxes, my grandmother in brass, my grandfather in mahogany, on opposite ends of a dresser. I suppose their souls are on their respective planets, but I can’t help but feel that maybe they’re stuck. Maybe they’d each like some earthly finale more befitting their common love of learning. My grandmother, I think, would be happiest cast upon the Italian Riviera, where she could enjoy the wayward breezes before drifting inland to study the art of her forebears in Florence. But my grandfather. How do I get him back to the mother ship? Do I strap him to one of those rockets-for-hire and blast him into space? Sprinkle him down a canyon? While it’s really not my place to decide what becomes of his remains, I can’t help feeling that I should do something. Yet I do nothing. A crisis of religion? A stumbling pause, waiting for science to catch up with our ambitions? Maybe a little of each.

This story appeared in Mad Blood, Issue 2

3 Responses to Believers

  1. Karla Briggs says:

    Dear Sandy, I just spent part of my morning roaming around in your head! It was a lovely, lonely, thought provoking place to be. Be Well Buddy, Karla

  2. Linda Dombeck says:

    Sandra, What a great story and website. Thanks for sharing it with me. Loved the poetry too. I look forward to more postings! Fondly, Linda

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