One day in 1982 I got home from school to the phone ringing in the kitchen. It was my mother calling from work. ‘The neighbours called. Your grandfather’s in the tree tied to a rope.’ I ran to the back garden. He was six feet up the old oak, a fifty-footer, twice the height of our 1950s suburban ranch house. The tree was infested with oakworm, and my grandfather had been monitoring its lean towards the house. But every time he mentioned cutting it down himself, my mother would dissuade him. She didn’t point out that he was 76 years old with angina, high blood pressure and arthritis, but bemoaned the American legal system’s permit and insurance requirements.
I visited Romania for the first time with my mother in the summer of 1975. I was five years old. At Bucharest airport a passport official whisked us behind a limp curtain. My mother hadn’t been back since she and my father escaped ten years earlier. As the curtain closed, she squeezed my hand. She’d told me before we left New York not to look anyone in uniform in the eyes. This was tricky during the pat-down. The official was so close I could feel her breath on my face. Trying to avoid her nose, I met her eyes. I thought she might make me stay at the airport without my mother or return me to Jamaica, Queens. Instead, she smiled.