My dad is the youngest of nine. His father, my grandfather, lived to be 100 years old. He was a farmer. I think that is the only reason his body finally gave in: the dirt from the earth called out to the dirt in his veins until the two were one again. I thought he would live forever.
As long as I can remember we have gathered together in the summertime—these nine siblings, their children, children’s children, and so on. I have memories of creek-wading expeditions with cousins who lived faraway, catching crayfish in a can, and wobbly wheelbarrow races.
Things changed after grandpa died. Fewer came. We moved the location to an air-conditioned community center. There is no creek wading.
But still, we gather. And so we did on Sunday.
Over the years the mood has changed. It is less intimate conversations and more polite small-talk. There are some who come that I do not know.
Now…who is the guy over there? The one with the ballcap?
I always ask my sister. Somehow she knows.
This year, the boys and I prayed about it. We prayed that we would have a special connection with at least one person from our extended family. We prayed that our lives would intersect and we would bless each other. We prayed for real relationship.
I went looking.
I said hello to all my aunts and uncles. Lingered at the tables where my cousins’ families sat clustered together. Poked about the kitchen with the seasoned cooks.
But the echoing walls of the community center made it difficult to talk at length and there were too many things to command everyone’s attention and soon…soon I found myself standing still in the center of that place with commotion whirring on around me.
I needed a sanctuary.
I spied it in the corner of the room: a round table littered with coloring books and crayons. All the kids seemed to have disappeared, so, with a sigh, I sat down to observe the chaos.
But he saw me.
He brought his dessert over and sat beside, chattering away. I looked at the book that was open in front of me. Some female superhero with the beginnings of a blue skirt that someone had abandoned. I picked up a blue crayon and started coloring.
Oh! He came over to study my work. You can finish that if you want. I was just starting it. I was coloring it for Dominic because he liked it.
He likes her?
Yeah. He said it was his future wife. (snicker) And then he picked it up and kissed it!
What’s your name?
He told me.
How old are you?
Who’s your mom? I looked around to see if anyone was taking interest in our conversation.
I’m not allowed to see my real mom. Just my dad and my stepmom.
I studied his freckled nose and blues eyes. Both of his ears were pierced and he had two big diamondy stones in them. He was wearing a black Harley Davidson shirt.
Oh. I see. Who’s your dad?
He told me and I recognized one of my cousin’s sons. That would make this little boy my cousin twice removed? Or third cousin? I never understood how that works.
Wow! You’re good!
He peered at my coloring page.
Thanks. What color do you think I should make her hair?
We worked on our coloring together until Dominic came up and they got in a wrestling match. He kept throwing me glances as he employed choke-hold moves on his cousin. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a cute boy show off for me, the looming hardness of the floor made me anxious.
Let’s go outside.
He sat with me on the bleachers a minute.
You know when I told you I’m not allowed to see my real mom?
Well, I see her at Christmas and stuff. She buys me presents. She bought me this shirt. That’s why I wanted to wear it.
Then he was off. On the baseball field with the cousins. This boy doesn’t stay still long.
Take my picture, he called to me.
And I watched him play ball, cheering and clapping when appropriate.
When it was time to go, I told him goodbye.
I’ll see you next year, ok? Don’t forget me.
His grin will break hearts one day.
On the way home, my husband and I talked about the strangeness of it all.
When your dad’s generation is gone, you all probably won’t continue with this, will you? Doesn’t seem a point.
He was right, of course. If we keep doing it the same way. If we keep staying in our familiar clusters and never go beyond polite small talk. But then I thought of the boy and my heart wrenched a little. I wished for him memories of creek-wading and crawfish catching. All he will have is this fading image of a middle-aged cousin who colored superheroes with him.
This year at the reunion, I saw someone drinking who shouldn’t have been. I watched my dad smoke one cigarette after another even though his lungs are compromised. I learned that my nephew, whom I dearly love, has multiple tattoos and body piercings (not that there is anything wrong with that but it was his baby flesh that led me to realize I could love a child–that I wanted to be a mother one day after all… and it broke my heart a little to see it altered that way).
But I also met Zach. God answered my prayer in a seven year-old-boy. And I hope I see him again.