Seated on the white vinyl backseat of my grandparents yellow Skylark, I travel from St. Louis to Houston. A long August drive for a twelve year old girl to visit her five cousins, the children of my father’s only brother. I’m the sixth grandchild of seven; the one who lives with the woman that broke their second son’s heart.
Uncle Jack and Aunt Liz live on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs, where bikes lay strewn in driveways and lawn spinklers extend permanently from hoses. Water to entertain neighborhood kids, wash off the sweat on those thick days.
Jackie and I giggle wide-eyed with hands cupped over our mouths in the bathroom. Attempt to stifle the laughter as Mary reveals the hickey she brings home from her date. Watch her smear make-up over that huge bruise on her neck to hide it from the parents.
In the middle of the night we pile into a station wagon holding sleeves of powdered doughnuts and cartons of milk. Aunt Liz drives while the girls throw newspapers out the windows onto deserted lawns. It’s Ginny’s paper route but they all pitch in. I sit in the seat that pops up in the back, the one that faces backward. We laugh silly tired.
Three of us sleep on mattresses lying on the floor, drift asleep to Mac Davis twanging softly.
In the morning after breakfast I go to the bedroom to change clothes and the door jams. It sticks shut no matter how hard I push. Feels like something blocks the door so I push harder to see if I can move whatever it is out of the way. Just enough to get my head in to take a peek inside. And that something in the way turns out to be my naked Grandpa holding his underwear over his genitals.
My first time to see an almost naked man. We share red faces. He apologizes later.
John, oldest cousin of the five and the only boy, enlists in the Marines. He leaves the nest before I arrive. So we sit cross- legged on the floor around the television religiously in the late afternoon to watch Gomer Pyle, USMC. Somehow watching that show makes them feel closer to their brother, less scared about him being away in the danger they imagine.
My birthday falls during that August week in Houston. My grandma drives me to a mall that day. After we return, as I walk towards the house, grandma runs after me and yells, “wait a minute, wait for me.” I think her behavior is odd until I walk inside. Everyone screams, “SURPRISE.”
It’s my first and only surprise birthday party. I feel like a princess. Crepe paper flowers and steamers hide the carpet that day.
One afternoon, when the sun shines low, a gift falls from the heavens. Rain falls hard, like someone opening a dam in the sky. It comes so fast and strong that water fills drains within minutes, floods the neighborhood streets. We run outside to play in the natural waterpark. Stand in water just below the knees, splash soggy.
I relunctantly return home to the quiet empty of the one bedroom apartment I share with my mother. Miss the chaos in Houston.
Uncle Jack and Aunt Liz, they divorce a few years later. I hear about how Jackie tries to take her life because her boyfriend broke up with her. My perception of happy family shatters like brick thrown into mirror.
After twenty years of exchanging Christmas cards, I hug the necks of each cousin at the funeral home and meet their spouses. We share a first, all of us together. See our grandpa lay stiff in a casket, the man that brought us together for those days of bliss when life felt free and full of joy.
As I lay on the bed in the hotel room later, sob into the arm of my husband, those tears mourn the loss of a good man. And the realization that our perceptions of reality are like a lunar eclipse. They trick us into thinking that what we see on the outside is real, because we can’t see what lies behind the facade.
But God knows.
This story is inspired by Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing by L.L. Barkat. I read this book in one day, and as I was reading the memory of this long ago trip re-emerged. And as the author encourages, “writing starts with living” and “to use small beans and the ingredients at hand.” My finding voice in passions and the details of place; an exercise in grace. This book is must read for writers.
Linking with On, In, and Around Mondays