all of the selves we Have ever been
"You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved,” Meg said in a startled way, “I guess I never thought of that. I guess I just took it for granted.” – A Wrinkle in Time
We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time we would all be together in this common joy, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, great-nieces, and great-nephews. It was a reunion engineered by Cousin Marcia. “Just cuz," she said.
We came from far and near toting car seats into the home where once we had been carried as babies ourselves. Familiar voices slipped out of the house and onto the front porch as soon as the door swung open. Inside, the table overflowed with favorite foods that smelled of home, prepared from cherished family recipes passed down for generations. With every seat in the room already taken, our bottoms rested on the upholstered arms of chairs even as our own arms clung to the shoulders of people we had loved for a lifetime. Out on the basketball court, just beyond the kitchen door, Cousin Tom lifted petite second-cousin Elizabeth onto his shoulders so she could dunk a basketball.
In this home, we first cousins were simultaneously young and old—children and grown-ups. If the walls could talk, they would remember each of us. Somewhere in this precious place, our childhood shadows were stuffed into drawers awaiting our returns.
Here, now, our children sat on the same porch steps, ran down the same long driveway, slammed the same doors, marveled at the same tiny bathroom under the stairs. As my own children were being stirred into this love cocktail, my eyes surveyed the property that had once been a fantasy island: the built in-swimming pool, a pasture where a horse had grazed, a play house, a basketball hoop, a tennis court. The ghost of a sleepy Lassie dog rested on the warm asphalt taking it all in too. Inside the house, books lined the living room shelves and a piano occupied the space in front of the window. This place had been our personal Magic Kingdom where every childhood interest had been encouraged.
“…the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach
she could touch it with her bare hands.” – A Wrinkle in Time
Through the archway I saw into the family room where my mother sat illuminated by sunlight and memory. The brilliant and beloved youngest of my grandmother’s many children, mom had a rare moment to be the center of attention. A new generation became her enraptured audience hanging on to her every word.
This home belonged to our adored Uncle John and his wife, Aunt Janet. Kind and unshakeable, generous, and a lover of gadgets and emerging technology, if he bought one new item, Uncle John bought nine—one for himself and one for each of his sisters and his brother. Aunt Janet never complained. The latest miracle invention revealed on this Cousin Reunion Day was the hot air popcorn popper. Even as the sun began to set, fluffy, fresh popped kernels rose from the machine’s spout, but even magical popcorn could not make the day last forever. We loaded our cars in preparation for our departures, each of us believing that there would be more popcorn on a future day, that this was the first of many cousin reunions to come. We strapped ourselves and our children inside the vehicles that would rocket us to our homes in distant galaxies and far from this star where all of our lives began.
As we pulled away, Cousin Tom stood in the driveway holding a sign: “Does anyone have to tinkle?” We left laughing at this reminder of Aunt Gen’s frequent and famous last words, a necessary question in an extended family where as many as 21 nieces and nephews might be traveling in a single pack.
Of course, we had all tinkled! It was a life lesson not eliminated but retained, a lesson written in a family language for words too impolite to shout in public, a tutorial on self-care, being prepared, and showing consideration for others.
As the procession of cars inched down the driveway, we looked back at this place that had been our sun. We each had journeyed through space and time on many a quest. Sometimes we returned to celebrate, other times, we returned to console. And then the demands of life grew along with our families. We never reconvened for another cousin reunion. Now, I ask myself, “Where did the years go?”
It was all just a tinkle in time.
It is National Wear Red Day,
a holiday to remind us to take care of our hearts. With Valentine’s Day approaching, we might want to clean up and lose a few pounds—the traditional, pre-holiday ritual.
I am a big fan of red. With that in mind, I search my wardrobe for something festive to wear. I come out of the closet with a hat, a shawl, and a purse--too bad I’ve got nowhere to go.
Undeterred by my dull wardrobe, I will not be limited by my outer wear; I decide to rely upon my rich interior life and think red thoughts. Since I am undertaking this exercise for my health, I exclude reflections on Communism and politics from my mental celebration of National Wear Red Day.
Red is a hot, dominant, and potent hue. It is the color of fire and of blood. Viewing the color red can increase a person’s blood pressure. Red can shore up confidence, enthusiasm, and courage. Red is the color of love, passion, energy, and action--the color of Valentine’s Day.
Red can also be a symbol of danger. The Devil wears red. “Seeing red” leads to anger and violence. Red is a universal warning sign to STOP!
While my mind registers the meaningful contradictions expressed by the color red, red has always been a symbol of hospitality for me. The red carpet is rolled out to honor powerful and important people. And it is rolled out when we welcome guests and loved ones into our home.
Throughout my childhood, my Uncle John and Aunt Janet rolled out the red carpet for us at their home in Cadiz, Ohio. In a world of subdued tones and avocado green carpeting, John and Janet’s house had a red living room—red carpet, red furnishings, red glassware. It was magic. The room was alive, greeting people as they entered the front door. A kid could tickle the keys on the piano that sat in front of a big window. Sunlight illuminated the many books and magazines that lined the shelves. Photos of loved ones occupied the table tops.
This family gathering place encompassed an old farm house on a dead-end street. The sprawling acreage contained shady trees, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a basketball hoop, and a horse grazing in the front yard. The dining room with its extended table was the largest room in the house. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and pets kept things lively. The Kennedy’s compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts had nothing on us!
There is a saying, “Hospitality is a form of worship.” Uncle John and Aunt Janet showed us that. They opened their home to us at any time. They were perpetually focused on our needs. Their home was a place to be free and to be connected. They had good hearts, and they knew what was good for ours.
On this National Wear Red Day I remember why I love the color red and the importance of having a good heart. The proper thing to wear today is my heart upon my sleeve.
“A thundering velvet hand...”
“A gentle means of sculpting souls”
Those are the words that Dan Fogelberg used to describe his father, a school band director. After the song,
Leader of the Band, became a hit, Fogelberg said in an interview that if he had written only one song, Leader of the Band would be it. His father was surely someone remarkable and loved.
Another singer-songwriter, Bill Withers, wrote and sang about the hands of his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, with whom Withers attended church on Sunday mornings. Lula used those gnarled hands to clap and sing in church and to protect and nurture her grandson. Withers wrote “Grandma's hands picked me up each time I fell…If I get to heaven I’ll look for Grandma’s hands.”
We are each born with our lives in someone else’s hands. Throughout life, we rely on safe hands. Kind hands. Gentle hands. We remember the helping hands.
In our family, we are all thumbs.
When my son Sam was a toddler, we had a bedtime routine. I would lie down beside him for a few minutes as he settled into sleep. Sam would wrap his chubby little hand around my thumb, and I would sing as he fell asleep. At bedtime one busy evening, I was unable to stop what I was doing in order to get Sam to bed. My daughter Emily, Sam’s sweet and earnest big sister by three years, said, “I’ll lay down with you, Sam. You can hold my thumb.”
Sam shook his head. “No, Em-a-wee. I need a BIG fum.”
I understand. I had a big “fum” when I was a child. That big thumb was attached to the right hand of my Uncle John. He was not a band leader, but Uncle John did have one of those thundering velvet hands. He was a gentle soul and a giant in my life story. He deserves his own song. Uncle John made it his mission to shape the souls of a huge tribe of nieces and nephews in addition to those of his own five children.
I don’t know how it began or why, but whenever Uncle John came into our presence, he extended his hand, “Touch thumbs,” he would say, and our little fums shot up, and we made contact. It was a safe and convenient display of affection, especially when Uncle John was in the driver’s seat transporting a station wagon full of squirming children to the swimming pool or the custard stand. Before he started the engine, Uncle John would turn to face us, extend his right hand, thumb up, and each of us would jockey to reach him and touch our thumb to his. The journey did not begin until each of us had made contact. Towel? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Seen and loved? Check. Check.
Sometimes on a Sunday morning, Uncle John would slide into the church pew next to me. He might reach out his thumb or wrap his hand around mine. Once in a while his hand would slip a silver or gold bracelet into my pocket. Often when we parted, Uncle John would slip a twenty dollar bill into the palm of each of the gathered nieces and nephews. He continued the tradition long after we all became working adults.
Nothing escaped Uncle John’s view, but he never used those hands to “stir the pot,” an amazing accomplishment in a large and highly emotional extended family with enough teenagers for plenty of trouble.
Touching thumbs was an act that never got old or lost its power.
When my daughter Emily was born, a C-section turned to near-disaster with a life-threatening hemorrhage. After a touch-and-go stay in the intensive care unit, I was sent to a regular room on the obstetrics unit. Just settled in my bed still surrounded by IV poles, so full of fluid I could not blink my eyes or bend my knees, I turned my head to the left, and there was my Uncle John and his wife Aunt Janet. Upon seeing them, I began to weep. All of the terror and exhaustion of the past few days came bursting out of me. They came to the bedside. Uncle John’s jaw was tense, his lips tight and twitching at the right corner as he blinked away his own tears. He reached for my left hand and touched my thumb with his. We were frozen in a moment of terrifying what-could-have-been and then relief. The healing power of big fums!
Many years later, I would stand in an intensive care unit alongside the bed of my cousin Marcia, Uncle John’s baby girl. A heart catheterization turned disaster. Marcia did not open her eyes. As the ICU nurse sorted the tubes and monitored the equipment, I wanted the nurse to know that this woman, our Marcia, was someone special. I told the nurse about Marcia’s life and accomplishments, and then I touched Marcia’s left thumb with mine. By morning, Marcia was gone.
When it is my turn, and I get to heaven, I’ll look for those hands.
I will know them by their thumbs.
In the years after my father separated from military service
and moved us to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I grew up and moved out on my own. I traveled to the city each day for work. While I was becoming a bonafide urban dweller, the world was changing. My small town roots were covered by the soil of a new reality.
As a young child in the small village that was home to my extended family, I had roamed the streets without any fears. It wasn’t until I was a young adult and back for a visit at my aunt’s home that I lay my head down on the pillow one night and thought about the front door. There were sounds of angry voices coming from a bar down the street. Unsure of the cause of the racket, my senses went on alert, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if the doors to my aunt’s house were locked.
Growing up, my regular territory was comprised mostly of the two main streets that made up the town. On each street there were open doors that I could walk into at any time. I didn’t have to knock or ring the bell. I did not need to phone ahead or wait for an invitation. My grandmother’s house was on Hanna Avenue, the center of our universe. Next door to her home was the family grocery store. My Aunt Addie lived on Main Street across from my Uncle Tony and Aunt Nancy. Many cousins filled the rooms of those houses. A short walk down Main Street and I was at the offices of the company my uncles owned and operated. The office was staffed by aunts and uncles and a few people who had worked for my uncles for so long, I thought they were my family.
No one had security systems. Heck, they didn’t even have keys. If a doorbell rang, it really got our attention. These places were always open to me. I could step inside and use the bathroom, open the refrigerator, find good food and plenty of fun company. We were all one large pride.
And then it happened. All the cubs grew up. The multitude of cousins slowly moved out and moved away. We joined the world of locks and keys, and later security systems. My cousins’ lives became busy and they had limited opportunities to return.
Most of the time I was busy with my adult life too, but I returned to Hanna Avenue and Main Street whenever I could. Slowly, the aunts and uncles departed this world. Eventually, their houses were handed off to strangers, and I never again entered those doors.
As a child, I thought that the whole world was made of houses like theirs, houses with open doors, homes jam-packed with aunts and uncles and cousins. I took it all for granted until it was no more. And then I began to feel like Puff the Magic Dragon after Jackie Paper grew up: “Puff no longer went to play along the Cherry Lane. Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave…”
It was easier for me to be brave on Hanna Avenue and Main Street. That is where the magic lived.
But that is not the end of the story. Magic may sleep, but it does not die.
Many years later, I moved to a new city. My daughter and I stepped into the check-out line in an unfamiliar grocery store. I took notice of the woman in front of me. “That looks like my cousin,” I said to my daughter. I tapped the woman on her shoulder, and she turned toward me. Presto-chango! It was my cousin. I no longer lived in a strange new city. I had kin!
In the years since our meet-up in the grocery store, my cousin and I have weathered some significant family losses, moves and transitions. While we no longer live in a time when the doors are left unlocked all day and all night, I have my own keys and codes to her house. I have a new house with an open door. There is always good food and great company. From time to time, the dining room table is jam-packed full of cousins, and the aunts, uncles, and grandparents come back to us through the stories and the familiar voices and gestures that bubble up from our shared DNA.
Life experience informs. The things we take for granted can be extraordinary. Magic can live in the ordinary. And each of us needs a house with an open door.
They called each other “Brother.”
I loved that about them. Brother was not a mere casual greeting;
clearly, it meant something.
I called each of them “Uncle.”
They were different from one another in so many ways. Uncle T was taller than Uncle John. Each had a different build and a different carriage. Their voices were distinct and unmistakable, and each had a unique temperament. One had seen the horrors of war, the other the ravages of polio.
But both married their young sweethearts, and they stayed married until death did them part. Both had large families to whom they were devoted. They started a business together and worked side-by-side for a lifetime.
Uncle John was the back door uncle. Every evening at 5:00 PM, the door slammed shut at the family grocery store next door. Soon the jingle of his impressively full key chain could be heard as Uncle John walked the short path between the store and my grandmother’s house. Next, the top of his hat would appear just above the kitchen windowsill, and then there he stood inside the kitchen door. Uncle John would scan the counter top for samples of the delicious food that could often be found there. He would sample just a pinch—what he could scoop up between his thumb and index finger. Uncle John would chat for a few moments then slap his thigh with the rolled-up newspaper he carried with him from the store. This motion signaled his impending departure. He was heading out the door to his own home.
Uncle T was the front door uncle. Every night about 11:00 PM, the door to the long front porch would squeak. Uncle T’s footsteps fell heavy against the old wooden floorboards as he made his way to the front door. Uncle T would check in and say goodnight and then return to his own home a block away.
Every evening and every night, as long as our grandmother’s house stood occupied, there they were. We lived surrounded by and secure in their love for us. It was like the sun coming up and going down. We counted on it, and took it for granted.
During the week, they were never too busy to take a restless brood of children swimming on a hot summer day or for an evening ride to the custard stand. As we got older, they slipped twenty dollar bills into our palms whenever we reached out to hug them farewell. Sitting in church they might slide into the pew next to one of us and slip a silver bracelet into our pocket. They appeared at all of the important events in our lives and carried the weight of every disaster. They took separate flights when traveling long distances-just in case--one of them would be there to take care of things, of us. They made the tough decisions when the time came to close the family grocery store, to tear it down, to sell our grandmother’s house…They were the bookends that supported the stories that became our lives.
Through the years the brothers spoke on the phone each night. Uncle T would call Uncle John, to say, “Goodnight, Brother.” My cousin, Marcia, had moved back to her family home to care for her parents. She became familiar with this nighttime ritual and had fallen into step. She told me of that first night when the phone did not ring. It was like a silent air raid siren screaming over the house. There was the waiting. The checking of the clock. The feelings of unreality. The call never came. The unspoken words, “Goodnight, brother,” swirled around in the dark night air like a lost, confused bird with no place to land. Alzheimer’s disease had blocked the call. If only they had known that the night before would be the last “Goodnight, brother”…
It had all been so certain when we were young. We never imagined the time would come when their steps would no longer cross the porch, when the phone would cease to ring. The magnitude of small acts is not always apparent, especially to children.
They made it seem so easy, the way they loved us and each other. It was not a mushy kind of love. It was solid, stable, and real. That’s the way it was for men of that generation-the Greatest Generation. Love was an action word, and trust was the fuel.
I don’t think that I ever thanked them enough. And to my aunts and cousins, thank you for sharing. I now understand that everything the uncles gave to us was a gift from their wives and children, too.
Perhaps uncles should always come in pairs, one for the front door and one for the back.