My mother is back home again and I’m a little saner as a result. That’s probably a little unfair as I didn’t actually spend too much time with her while she was in the state, but she did break our once every five year visitation rule, so my schedule is off and I’m a bit out of sorts. She wasn’t here for pleasure, not that I’m sure you could quite call any of our visits pleasurable exactly. She came to help look after my grandmother who is taking the death of my second cousin (her nephew) really hard. Since I’m the only family member in the state who lives within two hours of the airport, I had to pick her up. This meant a long day ahead of me, and the drive was only part of it.
I was actually surprised that the car ride up north passed so quickly. Our conversation was not strained and there were only a few lapses into silence. I’m not sure what sort of statement that actually makes about our relationship as I felt pressed to keep talking in order to avoid any silences. They wouldn’t have been the comfortable type. Luckily I had to drag my son along with me so she got to play grandma and give him a bottle, tickle his toes and exclaim every few minutes about how much he’s grown in the last month. We stopped for dinner at a Cracker Barrel just off the highway. For all their hype and claims of down home cooking, I have to say my chicken and dumplings were really bland. So were my mashed potatoes and green beans. In fact, the only decent thing about the meal was the roll. I’m not sure whose cooking they model their recipes on but it’s not what I think of as good country cooking. It’s more along the lines of Sunday dinner at my grandma’s house, which is of no comfort (or flavor) to anyone. We sat in the place a little longer than normal due to a rather nasty storm that pounded the windows but miraculously cleared moments after we’d paid our bill. My mother relished the extra moments to slurp down some more Coke since it’d be her last for the next four days. My grandmother does not approve of soda, or chocolate or anything that actually tastes good for that matter.
I only spent a few minutes at my grandma’s house before getting back on the road and heading to my aunt’s*. Since my grandmother only has a two bedroom house, and I conveniently forgot my pack n’ play, I had an excuse not to spend the night there. I haven’t actually slept at my grandma’s house since I was 14 years old. Even then something about it bothered me. Maybe it is the room full of antique dolls that stare at me through those hollow glass eyes. Maybe it is the sheets which always felt starched and itchy. Maybe it is the giant picture of my mother (as a blonde) and my own seven year old face starring down at me all through the night. Personally, I think it has something to do with the wind up monkey that plays the symbols which sits on the dresser. It is just like the one from Stephen King’s Monkey Shines and I am still terrified it will suddenly start clanging it’s metal hands together when I walk by it.
My son was thrown off his routine since we didn’t even get to my aunt’s house until close to 10pm and his usual bedtime is 8. He finally got to sleep around 10:30, which meant he didn’t actually wake up until 12 hours later. As soon as he did we bid a quick goodbye to my aunt and headed back to my grandma’s house. Almost as soon as we sat down my grandmother called over to my great aunt’s house to see if it was a good time to visit. I knew this was coming and I really wanted to go see my great aunt and uncle, but I was hoping to build myself up to it. They are both very sweet people who I used to visit every summer, but since I went off to college more than a few years ago, my visits have been few and far between. The last time I saw them was at my wedding two and a half years ago and the time before that may have been at my first wedding over a decade ago. They only live five minutes from my grandmother, but somehow I just never seemed to make it that extra few miles.
My great uncle met us out at the car. I could see his eyes were rimmed with tears. Though he is the youngest, he is still in his early 80’s. Most of memories of him though are of a smiling farmer who always had an ear of corn to give me or a cow to show me. At that moment though, he looked too frail to open the door, much less plow anythign. I’m sure some of that is time, but the sorrow on his face seemed to be weighing him down even more. My mother enveloped him in a hug. His tears were met by hers. She had comforting words for him. Sadly she understands his pain first hand. I hugged him next, but our hug was brief because he wanted to help my grandmother into the house.
His wife, my great aunt, met us at the door. My mother had a hug for her as well, but it didn’t last long. My hug with her was shorter and much more awkward as I was holding my son. She smiled to see him. In typical fashion, despite her tragedy she was composed. Ever the Amazon, she towered over us, fixed places for all of us to sit and spent half of our visit reassuring my grandmother that the cat she is so terrified of would not bother us. Her eyes only welled up briefly when she showed us a picture a friend had taken a few weeks back of her son. It was candid and struck me as the epitome of who he really was. I had not seen him in at least 15 years. He was graying and his face was weathered from many seasons harvesting hay, wheat and corn. It was easy to recognize the face of the smiling boy on his graduation day which adorns the bedside table in my grandmother’s guest room. When she passed the picture around, my grandmother started crying again.
My other second cousin, his sister, joined us a few minutes later. She’d been getting ready, although I could hardly tell as she had on what appeared to be a jogging outfit. She had not been exercising though. Her eyes, like my uncle’s were tear stained. My mother, who has always seen her as a rival for everyone in the family’s affections (including her own mother’s) hugged her warmly. I gave her a small hug as well, but it was an automatic motion. Not that I don’t like my cousin, but I hardly know her. She is only a few years younger than my mother and was out of the house long before I have any memories of visiting my aunt and uncle. My only real record of her is a picture, from some beauty pageant, which also sits on the table in the guest room of my grandmother’s house.
I’ve found myself in many uncomfortable situations before, but when my cousin’s son walked in, I think it actually became the worst one ever. My mother hugged him, but I’d never met him before, so I had no idea what to do. Luckily he didn’t cross to my side of the room, but the little wave I gave him seemed far too cheery for the mood in the room. Everyone around me was grabbing for tissues and softly sobbing and here I was waving like a moron to a boy who had no idea who I even was. I felt so out of place. I was sad for their loss, but I couldn’t bring myself to cry. I felt that if I cried, it would be false and cheapen their pain. I’d done my crying for their loss only a few days before and sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room, all I could do was sit quietly with my son, trying to keep him from getting too agitated while everyone around him cried. I felt horrible that I couldn’t do more for them, but I realized I hardly know any of them and while I know the sorrow of the death of a loved one, I felt as if I was intruding on their sorrow. I was an interloper and while no one was pushing me away, everyone knew I didn’t quite belong either.
I left my grandmother’s house shortly after we got back from lunch. I had to return to work the following day and had a long drive ahead of me. I couldn’t go to the funeral or the wake because of the drive and work the next day. I was relieved. While I hate that any of them are hurting, especially my grandmother, I knew I would be intruding again. Instead I helped by picking my mother up again today and taking her back to the airport. We talked about politics, my sister’s cruddy marriage, and of course, the funeral and wake. Like me, my mother found herself an outsider. She knew almost no one at either ceremony, but was forced to sit up front with my grandmother who also did not know most of my cousin’s friends. Being family she was supposed to help out, but her absence from the family for the last nearly 30 years of her life has left her completely out of place. Ever since she left them behind at 18 she has been railing against them. She has never been happy in their company and brought me up to feel the same. My exposure over the years has brought me closer to my grandmother, but most of my mother’s family are family to me in name only. It makes me sad during times like these because I have no idea how to comfort them. Despite growing up with them, my mother really doesn’t know how to relate to them either. Sometimes it scares me how much we have in common.
*My dad’s sister.