Ketchup and Bananas
Generally, when something absurdly tragic happens to you, the world just keeps on going. Your world may halt, but nobody else’s does, and you learn just how insignificant you really are. Unless your freak tragedy coincides with the death of a ketchup mogul and United States senator. In that case, shit shuts down. The flags fly at half-mast. Important people make speeches. You get your picture in the paper. On April 4, 1991, ketchup mogul and United States senator John Heinz was killed when his airplane collided in midair with a Sunoco helicopter. After Heinz’s little passenger plane smashed into the helicopter, the fiery wreckage fell onto the playground at Merion Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia and killed two children. One of them was my sister Rachel. I don’t know who the other one was.
My father has a box of magazine and newspaper clippings in the basement, and every April—going on twenty years now—he sits me down and goes over them with me, like I’m studying for some kind of exam: “What was the destination of the plane?” “How many former presidents attended Heinz’s funeral?” “How much did Sunoco settle their lawsuit for?” “What was the name of the student teacher the school sent out to identify the bodies?” “What did we eat for dinner that first night?” My dad wants me to mourn Rachel as he does. But she was six. I was two and a half. I do not remember her.
Most people do not have the benefit of newspaper archives documenting the loss of their loved ones, and I do enjoy—or not enjoy, but appreciate—looking over the black-and-white photographs. There’s one photo in particular, a picture of mourners at my sister’s funeral, walking from a car to the grave. The photograph shows my family: my parents, my aunt and uncle, my grandparents. I wasn’t at the funeral—a funeral is not a great place for two-and-a-half-year-olds. In the photo, my family’s wearing black. Their heads are hunched, and they look miserable. But when I look at the picture, I can’t concentrate on them, on their faces, on their grief. I look instead at a plastic grocery bag my father carries in his left hand. It’s in the foreground of the image, and the local photographer has mistakenly focused on the bag.