Family Reunion Follies

Dad parked in a shady lot at the bottom of a small hill. My brother, sister, mother and I joined him in hauling a picnic basket, cooler and baseball gear up to the park’s pavilion. We always arrived late and had to thread past crowded tables laden with food to find an open spot. Potato salad and baked bean dishes huddled side by side. Paprika-dusted deviled eggs sweated inside Tupperware containers. Occasional bowls of three bean salad added color accents to the spread. Hot dogs and hamburger patties hissed on a nearby grill, and the smoke rising from the briquettes smelled of fat and charred meat.

Aunts Katy, Deannie, and Rose had staked out their spot on the sunny side. They lay tanning on their chaise lounges, squinted shrewdly at less favored aunts and uncles and made tight lipped observations. Uncle Carl had grown a stringy beard that made him look like a billy goat. Aunt Carol had put on weight, and the lime green horizontal stripes on her knit wear top didn’t do much to hide it. One cousin had stretched out weedy and lean and sported a laughable upper lip fuzz that one day might become a mustache. Another cuz had poured herself into ultra tight jeans and was asking for trouble.

The uncles sat at a table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and cigars, playing poker. They slapped cards down when they made a play, carefully scooped dimes and quarters into their piles when they won, and taunted the biggest losers. They mostly ignored the kids, but Uncle Paul gave me an unkind glare as I passed by. He disliked my mother, and his animosity extended to her brood.

The aunts gathered wandering children and herded them to their seats. An uncle served up platters of hamburgers and dogs. The men got another beer or two to wash down their meals. Folks wandered up and down sampling food from the communal spread. I stayed away from Aunt Jody’s potato salad. She put in too much mustard. A lake of bacon grease floated on top of Aunt Katy’s bake beans. A green salad had unidentifiable, smelly white chunks crumbled over the top. I stuck to food Mom had made.

Mom let us drink soda pop at summer reunions, and I sat down with a can of grape. The sweet acidity clashed with greasy chips, beans and burger making my stomach churn half way through the meal. I felt like I’d eaten a watermelon all by myself.

The men grabbed more beers, baseball bats and balls after the feast ended. They headed downhill from the pavilion to a softball diamond. The women stayed back to clean up and complain about their husbands. The kids followed after their dads and stood near the backstop to await team assignments. The uncles divvied up the kids bam-bam-bam then told us the most important rule of all: if a batted ball knocked over a beer bottle, the hitter was out.

Uncle Carl like to chatter at the kids when they came up to bat. He yelled, “You swing like an old washerwoman” after I took a cut and fouled off a pitch. I managed to punch a dribbler up the middle, but Uncle Jerry scooped it up and threw me out. Uncle Carl razzed me as I trotted back to the sideline. “You got lead in your pants!”

Older Cousin Mike slashed a burner to shortstop. Carl made an awkward stab at the ball and looked more interested in shielding himself than catching the grounder. Uncle glared at me when I yelled “No glove!” “Error!” I jeered as he returned to his position. Dad gave me a sharp look. I shut up.

Uncle Carl came up to bat the next inning. Dad’s pitch arced high and came straight down over the plate. Carl flailed at it. He lunged at the second, struck out on the third. Only little kids struck out hitting slow pitch. Dad turned and gave me a warning look while Carl retreated. I didn’t say anything as Uncle had already demonstrated he was the one who swung like a washerwoman.

My team lost. A beer-bottle-out was made. I caught a fly ball in left field but never got on base. We trudged hot and tired back up the hill. The kids hit the coolers for sodas and raided the snack table for chips and pretzels. Hunks of sliced watermelon waited on soggy paper plates.

The aunts and uncles ate, drank, talked and smoked as the sun dipped lower in the west. Mosquitos and fireflies appeared, and little kids chased flying, glowing specks in and out of the lengthening tree shadows.

We packed up and said our goodbyes. The air felt cool blowing into the back seat of our Dodge sedan as we drove home, and I wanted to doze. But every bump jolted the sodden lump in my belly.

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Play a Different Game

My mother and sister, Carla, fought frequently just before Carla moved away from home. Sister argued point by point at the beginning of hostilities but gave up frontal attack and defense maneuvers when Mom’s anger remained unyielding. Carla decided to play another game: she agreed with every insult my mother hurled at her.

“You’re so ungrateful!” said Mom.

“You’re absolutely right. I may be the most ungrateful daughter who’s ever lived,” replied Carla.

“You’ll come back the minute you run out of cash,” said Mom.

My apartment’s rent will be less than what I’m paying here, but you’re right. I’ll probably blow my paychecks and go broke. I’ll leave a packed bag by my front door just in case things go bad really fast,” said Carla.

“All you’re going to do is shack up with your boyfriend!” said Mom.

“I’m a whore,” replied Carla.

Mom eventually gave up and helped Carla move into her new apartment.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I get annoyed when I have a class that, in general, doesn’t want to learn how to draw. Some of these students resent learning skills even when they master them. Success brings them no pleasure. They say, “I can’t believe you made me draw one thing for the whole class,” after completing beautifully rendered drawings. Or they give me a dead-eyed stare after I help them improve a proportion or correct a mistake in perspective. I feel like a rowing master on a galley: the slaves don’t appreciate learning how to row faster.

I’ve decided to no longer take the ingratitude as an insult. I want to play a different game. I’ll keep a tally of the times Lorenzo sneaks out of class to take a call, of the scowls Maria gives me when I remind her to use the right materials for the assignment, of the bald-faced lies that Thai snarls at me in an outraged tone, of Brolin’s requests to “borrow” materials, of the times when a student ignores instructions and then requests a full review of the lesson, etc.

When I reach a total of ten or twenty misdemeanors, I’ll kick back for five or ten minutes. Or I’ll work on one of my drawings. For a short while, I’ll let them figure things out for themselves.

And if a student argues unrelentingly about perspective, measuring proportions, rendering tones, adding texture, handling paint or applying compressed charcoal, I’ll go FULL-CARLA and say, “You’re right. Your way of doing things is perfect, and you know much more about drawing than I do.”

Hold Your Tongue

I know folks who say horrible things that catch victims at their most raw and tender moments. The assailants blurt and hurt but remain unapologetic. They feel they have the right to say their truth no matter the situation.

Sometimes I say too much, too little, not enough. Sometimes I say what’s lurking in the back of my mind before the front becomes aware and issues a warning. Sometimes I surprise myself and say the right thing at the right time. Things tend to go more smoothly when I say very little.

My grandfather said very little on most occasions. When faced with conflicts in the family, he didn’t engage. I used to think he should have stepped in when strife became flagrant and acute, but now I see Grandpa knew that interfering and smoothing things over would not improve the situation for the long run. Patterns repeat themselves, habits of thought spin on their well worn gears, and the engine of contention roars down the track. An attempt to redirect an argument onto a side spur might have derailed our dysfunctional family train.

He couldn’t drain fifty years of ill will between two members of his family. Attempts to soothe, calm, defend reason, and nurture love had failed long ago. Arguments and complaints from one to another had hardened into a family tradition.

Grandpa endured the pain of continuing strife and let the two act out their chosen roles in a pointless drama. In the end, he may have discovered that their years of contention had very little to do with him. He loved both and wished they would drop their animosity, but had no hope they ever would.

One of the contestants still lives on, and the argument continues in her mind. She shows no signs of letting the ill tempered, unforgiving side of our family history fade away, and her emotional distress cuts as sharply today as it did decades ago.

I no longer encourage her to let things go. I tried that on a few occasions, and she turned her focus to our points of contention…The practice of feuding develops a talent for finding targets of opportunity.

Now I bow to the inevitable and hold my tongue.


The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”