Two birthday girls. One turning four (on this day) and one turning sixteen (in nine days). Because of proximity, they get to share. The older birthday doesn’t seem to mind. The younger is overwhelmed by the spectacle of presents and cake. I don’t think she knows what’s going on entirely. Brightly colored bags appear before her and she throws the tissue paper in the air. Even when the present isn’t hers!
But Karisa is good natured. She moves the pink stripey bag to her side of the table. Alaina moves on to the next pink flowery bag in her vicinity. It doesn’t help that the adrenaline and sugar charged brothers are helping. And cousins, who are five and almost-three. And another who is just-two. Present opening is crazy with noise and squeals and parental papparazzi. I stand back, observe the scene. My present for Alaina is up next…
“But I wanted the dinosaur one,” she moans as she takes the Eco-Kinds lunch box and accessories out of the bag. (Books are there as well, of course, but the take second fiddle.)
My heart sinks. I had heard that she coveted the cute fabric lunchbox I had given Ryan for his second birthday. His was red and green and had dinosaurs on it and the drink bottle and the ice pack and the snack containers. So I got the same exact brand—with red and bright green—only this time there was a ladybug on it and all the other stuff. Call me sexist—or call me practical—I didn’t think the kids having the same exact character on their lunchboxes/etc. made sense. I refrained from the uber-blond winged fairy and crowned princess motif (given my niece’s auburn locks) and had to decide between butterfly and ladybug. Ladybug won since the butterfly’s accessories were sold out. So there.
Oh, well. You can’t please everyone all the time. Even a four-year old. If it’s not 57 Clif bars given as a joke (too much! I know), it’s a lunchbox that doesn’t have a dinosaur on it. I watched my nephew, Andrew, Alaina’s cousin, pick up the lunchbox and inspect it. Hmm. His birthday is coming up. Do I do this again? Do I get the one with the robot or the car on it, only to have him announce he wanted the one with the ladybug? Maybe they can all get together and swap them out.
I decided against the lunch box for Andrew, actually. I think his mom’s home daycare has the lunch transport business covered. I’m safer with books anyway. Always, always safer.
But it’s nice, after, to see the cousins playing together with the My Little Pony remote control car, with the mess of candy of candy and toys and glitter that resulted after the pinata was opened (indoors, unfortunately, due to rain. It’s nice to see this passel of cousins, so close in age, playing as if they see each other every day. They don’t see each other often, really, but this season of once-a-month birthday celebrations gives them a new fall opportunity to get reacquainted. Kids are easy with friendships anyway.
And nice, that the six of us siblings get together this way, too. All of us, yup. Nearly every time. It’s rare that one of us isn’t there—like me, missing the baby shower last week. But that was just the girls anyway, so brothers weren’t there. And one of my sisters-in-law couldn’t make it, too. But when it’s one of us, one of our kids, we’re there.
And this time, two of my cousins and their spouses (plus one straggling, cooperative teenager) were there. We reminisce about our childhood antics. It’s a whole other perspective: the outside, but related, looking in. We share a grandmother, but some different stories. And their dad, my Uncle Paul, is the last of his siblings since my mother died. He’s 81 now (I believe). Hanging in there.
We here the stories—some old, some new—of the travesties of my uncle marriage to his second wife—my cousins’ stepmother—after their mother died, too young, of cancer 22 years ago. My uncle remarried shortly after. This occasion did not sit well. Some tried, some didn’t, to reach out and be civil. Some have resented this woman from the beginning. Some have found their resentments flare. Who knows what’s really going on—and of course she spends more time with her own children and grandchildren and now greats—but to the expense of my uncle’s family?
The news (we knew it was coming): the cottage in Rye, New Hampshire has been sold. Site of many summer visits and vacation, the most famous the big family reunion, half of a crowd we didn’t know. Their mother’s side of the family. So many people. All of us and them. I was sunburned, mosquito bitten and somehow contracted—just me and two seven year old boys—one horrible case of full-body poisoned ivy. Yup, I remember that reunion. I remember my father had recently died and I cried at the slide show they showed in the big tent outside. Lobsters on folding tables surrounded by folding chairs that sunk into the soft summer summer dirt. My cousin patted my back.
We sit around a different table now. We laugh at the ridiculousness. We nod at the pain. My cousin and I are close in age. She was the nearest to a big sister (one year older) I’ve ever had. Our lives are different now—she’s happily married, has three kids, drives a school bus—can’t imagine going back to school. I can’t imagine hauling three kids off to various practices and activities. Struggling to put her oldest in college. Working three jobs and keeping up with a house and a garden.
She remembers a particularly painful time when the stepmother was treating her oddly. We communicated a great deal then, mostly my email (we both have a penchant for being verbose—family trait, perhaps!) Memory jogged, I do recall this, though not to the level of detail of Michelle. I remember thinking I’m so sorry for her—for this feeling of disconnect and familial injustice. And I remember thinking I’m grateful to not have to feel this pain.
“I was on fire!” she recounted one particular phone call with the step mother. Bad timing. Horrible turn of events. And now I’m grateful again.
But quickly Michelle quelled. She talked about our emails, our flurry of exchange. “That helped me—you don’t know,” she said in my direction. I could see it did. We all have a need to vent.
It took a long time to say goodbye. When we get together, we enjoy the company, the history, the dramatic tales. But just like the kids, who get sad when they have to leave their cousins, we had our lines:
“See you at the wedding!” And happily, we’ll rehash all these happy/sad stories again.
The Idea of Ancestry
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand- fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee. I have at one time or another been in love with my mother, 1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum), and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece (she sends me letters in large block print, and her picture is the only one that smiles at me). I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He's discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father's mother, who is 93 and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody's birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown."
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks. I walked barefooted in my grandmother's backyard/I smelled the old land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/ I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost contented/I had almost caught up with me. (The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker's crib for a fix.) This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them, they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children to float in the space between.