The Collector of Obscure Things – Erin Jamieson
I suppose that might come across as cold to say, but it’s the truth. From the moment he
was born three weeks early, faintly blue and impossibly small, my grandparents knew he
wouldn’t ever be ordinary.
My mother, who was five, almost six at the time, only remembers that day in snippets,
like grainy film clippings that didn’t make the final director’s cut and have since been forgotten.
The smell of Mott’s apple juice–she would never drink it again–from the little carton her
grandparents gave her. How her heels were rubbing from the hot pink jelly shoes she refused to
take off. An episode of I Love Lucy. Not the iconic one everyone knows, where Lucy’s running
a candy assembly line and keeps gobbling it up as it gets faster. Some obscure only true Lucy
What she does not remember is the moment the nurse entered the delivery room, or the
tense hours after. How my uncle was under code blue for the three hours. How no one expected
him to survive; how my great grandmother walked my mother into the gift shop and perused the
cards and bought Rootbeer candy sticks, not because she didn’t care but because she didn’t know
what else to do.
He survived, of course.
But we like to believe that his first moments in life didn’t shape him to be afraid of dying,
or weak, but afraid of not living his life the way he wanted.
At his funeral, we make sure to not make too big of a deal of it, as he used to say. He was
cremated, so there’s no coffin. We call it a celebration of life–I don’t think he’d even approve of
the term memorial service. Instead of a funeral home, we have people over at his house, laying
out a fold up table with a checkered red and white tablecloth and filled with things you might
find at one of our picnic: chips with queso and salsa; mini cold cut Cuban sandwiches; grilled
chorizo; a platter of Manchego cheese nestled nestled against olives and pickles.
I don’t feel like eating.
Abuelo is still angry. I see it in the way his shoulders are tight, how he tugs at his black
button up dress shirt (we bought it for him just days ago–I think it’s the only thing he owns that
is black). He’s neatly shaven and his eyes are bright as ever, a pale slate blue that is startling
against his skin, tanned permanently from years of fishing.
But he isn’t speaking to anyone, and it isn’t out of grief. It’s because, despite his efforts
to have a full Catholic burial and mass, Aunt Tia insisted that this was what her brother would
have wanted, and my mom, being my mom, just stayed out of it entirely.
So here we are now, with Abuelo convinced it’s sacrilege and Aunt Tia running around
trying to fix things in that frenetic way of hers, moving trays of food that don’t need to be
moved, wiping down counters inside that don’t need to be wiped. We all deal with things in
different ways, I suppose.
Take my Uncle Lucus and Aunt Camila, who, with five kids and one of the way, are so
busy keeping my cousins (the oldest, Nico is my age and an utter bro in every sense; the
everywhere she goes) that they really don’t have the choice to deal with much else.
Then there’s cousins and aunts and uncles I barely know–our family tree is insane. Even
if I didn’t have second cousins here, there’s still the fact that my Abuelo and Abuela had seven,
and all but two of them had several kids each.
The exception: my uncle, who never married, and, of course, my mom.
As an only child, with no father, I’ve always felt a little isolated in such a large family,
and it’s no different now. Sure I am closer with some cousins, but today I’m aware of how lonely
it is to have no siblings. No one to talk with on the same level. My mom is unreachable, more so
today. She’s dressed, at least, to reflect that: her darky, curly hair has been smoothed down (as
much as it ever can be) into a low, tight bun you imagine the sterotypical librairian wearing,
dressed in a black shift dress that turns her curvy figure into a shapeless box. She is wearing a
foundation that’s two shades too light, because the drug store didn’t have anything else or
because she didn’t care. Her lips and eyes are bare and her deep hazel eyes, the same color as
mine, seemed to have darkened a shade.
The most we’ve spoken to each other since our fight was my mom telling me when we
were leaving for the five minute drive to Uncle Carlos’ house, the same house I used to walk to.
That I will never again walk to.
I’m uncomfortable–not just because it’s an especially humid day in Miami, with no
breeze, but because I never wear dresses, and lace collar makes me feel like I belong in a
different era, like the late 20’s. Which is horribly inaccurate because we bought this dress from a
sale rack at Target. More like my mom did while I stayed at home.
probably why it was on the sales rack in the first place. I’m wearing heels too, low heels that my
best friend, Lena probably would say don’t even ‘count’ as heels, but I never wear heels.
We’re supposed to have music playing but it seems everyone I forgot. I’m supposed to be
greeting guests as they enter through the house, but when no one’s watching I sneak out the
sliding glass door out the kitchen.
It’s quiet. Though most of the food is out here, almost everyone is inside. The grass still
smells like rain. Somewhere, several doors down someone is mowing their lawn.
When people think of Miami, they think Miami Beach. They think of big cities, beautiful
oceans, and beautiful people. But Miami is much more than that. Much of our family lives in
Homestead, a suburb fifty miles away from downtown. The homes are cheaper and it’s not
exactly the most thrilling place in the world. It’s easier to tell people we live in Miami, just not
It’s more like this: modest homes, decently mown lawns, with used cars in the driveway.
Like Uncle Carlos’ house, with pleasant if slightly overgrown garden beds in back and a roof
that needs replacing, a kitchen with counters that are outdated but well kept.
I always thought it was strange that my uncle would settle here, of all places. He acted
like he didn’t mind it. He acted like he’d rather be near family, but now I think of all the time
he’d joke about jetting off across the world and it’s hard to think about the fact that he never did,
that he lived and died here. A small life for a man like him.
I don’t realize I’m shaking until someone comes up behind me. It’s not one of my family
members, but someone, I assume, who once worked with my uncle. Before he had his mid life
crisis and quit.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the woman says. She looks familiar: icy blue eyes and dark
chestnut hair, a petite nose and mouth, the polar opposite of my wider nostrils and my slightly
crooked mouth. I feel like I’ve seen her before but I couldn’t tell you her name.
“He was quite a guy.”
For some reason, this is far more comforting than anything else today has been. I’m tired
of people describing my uncle as good or kind. Maybe he was both of those, but those aren’t the
traits I think of when I think of him. I don’t think of someone who is kind and well mannered. I
think of him as the uncle who jet skied a day after major surgery, against doctor’s orders. Who
snuck me into the back of an amusement park once to peruse the graveyard of retired rides.
And a million other things.
Alive, I think. He was alive.
Which is why I’m glad when the woman touches my shoulder and moves on, almost as if
she senses I can’t stand another cookie cutter condolence. She doesn’t look back either. She
looks very alone and out of place, and it isn’t just because she is much paler than most of the
people here, with hair so blonde it’s almost white. There’s something about the way she carries
herself that makes me think she feels even more alone than I do right now.
I turn around, even though I don’t want to. My mom is carrying out a tray of crackers.
“There you are. Do you mind placing these out on the table over there?”
“I don’t think we need anything.”
“Just put them out. We will.”
But I don’t know how to say or ask what I want to. A part of me wants to shake her and
ask if any one makes anything better. If she and my Aunt Tia really think that if we have enough
crackers or good enough cheese that it will make up for Uncle Carlos dying young.
“Nothing,” I say. But then I turn around, look at her. “After this, I think I’m going
“Upstairs? For what?”
Peace. Quiet. A way to escape everyone and everything. “I just need a break.”
“You think I don’t need a break? Or your Aunt Tia or your Abuelo or-”
“Abuelo doesn’t want to be here at all.” The truth feels ugly, toxic, but it slips off my
tongue before I can stop it. It’s as if, the past day alone, I’ve lost my ability to think before I
She turns to me, sharply. Look at me the way she did the day I admitted I broke one of
her good plates.
“You’re not going to stir anything up.”
A statement, not a question.
“Do I ever?”
Her lips thin into a tight line. And then she turns back for the house.
And I am alone, just as I wanted to be in the first place. But a part of me wishes she
would come back, hug me, do things I’ve seen other mothers do.
risks coming off distant. Even at a time like this. She’s always been that way; she’s had to be. If
she hadn’t been, I’m guessing what came before might have broken her.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
The sun is unbearable, even for Florida.
I tan, but not nearly as well as the rest of my family. For whatever reason I’ve always had
some indistinct look to me, to the degree that people like to guess my ethnicity. I’ve been
mistaken for being Italian, Jewish, you name it. My skin is really only a shade , if that, lighter
than my mom’s, but I have this inexplicable scattering of freckles across the bridge of my nose
and I can burn, while almost the rest of my family tan.
I’ve always felt like an outcast in my own family, lathering sunscreen and putting a t-
shirt on before I go out to the beach. When I was six or seven, one of my cousins called me
‘marshmallow girl’. It upset me so much I retreated back to the house, until Uncle Carlos told us
he’d taken care of things.
But there is no Uncle Carlos anymore.
I am called back into the house–we have to get ready for the service, which will be held
not in a Catholic church, as Abuelo hoped, but in our yard. A local pastor who didn’t even know
Uncle Carlos (he came to church twice a year: for Christmas and Easter) agreed, for whatever
reason, to come here. The service will be just our family, but our family, as it is, could fill half a
I brush past my mother, past Aunt Tia and Uncle Luca and Nico, who’s texting one of his
girlfriends or whatever they are.
And just as I’m about to enter the kitchen, I glance down the hall. My chest tightens.
Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her published work includes two poetry chapbooks, over 80 pieces of short fiction and poetry, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She teaches English at the Ohio State University. Her research has been published in The Journal of African American Studies.