On the Sunday Arielle and I got back from Texas we stayed over at her sister and brother-in-law’s house in Charlotte, grilled out, had beers and played with their pair of boys, who are four and two. They’ve got a great guest set-up, do my Charlotte in-laws, with a big private room downstairs. When we sleep over, we invariably awaken to the commotion upstairs: a Battle of Britain-level bombardment enacted by stampeding toddler feet.
In the morning they were sprinting circles around the babysitter when we said goodbye. We got in the car and didn’t say too much for the next two plus hours of driving. The thing in Texas was a biannual family reunion kicked off this year by a memorial service for my grandmother, Mema (actually Evelyn), who died on Sunday, May 18th, while my mom sang to her. She’d had Alzheimers for a long time, breast cancer before that, had outlived her husband of 67 years, had hung around long enough in the realm of the actively engaged to develop relationships with great grand kids, of whom at last count there were 13.
Nearly all of them were present at the reunion, plus the eight grand kids, their folks, spouses galore–all told a family gathering of nearly 40 that’d proceeded from a conspicuously absent pair of Presbyterian Texans. In reunion prequels, Papa would install himself in a plastic folding chair in a location guaranteeing a broad vantage on all his get, pop open a High Life and keep mostly quiet. In the 2012 version, convened for the first time on his granddaughter’s 156-acres of Central Texas ranch, we dipped our hands into a big Ziplock bag and let the wind sift him over a cliff.
He hadn’t always been quiet. If long-married couples acted like those paired electrons you hear about–in which, no matter what distance separates them, one begins spinning one way precisely when its opposite begins spinning the other–my grandmother would’ve become garrulous and talkative in her dotage…but nope. She stayed pretty much mum, even as Alzheimers snacked on her mind, even as the stations of her decline flew dizzyingly past and her children, AARPers all and grandparents themselves, surrounded her hands with their own and sang songs to her, entreating her into rest.
The Sorrell family reunion used to be overrun with toddlers. No more! My sister’s kids, Sander and Lyla, are among the newest participants. They’re five and two, have this warm, toasted skin tone of otherworldly beauty, and very much love their aunt and uncle. Sander plays Star Wars. (There is much, much more to Sander than this, but in a compressed time situation like our visit, it is the operative detail.) Lyla, who came late to it, now speaks in complete, even sentences. He is old enough to get a little sullen while walking along a drought-parched riverbed, ignoring his uncle’s pleas that he come back and join us while Lyla, holding her uncle’s head, her feet bobbing against his arms, has perfect little conversations with him.
(“What are you drinking? Is that juice?”
“I can have a beer when I’m a woman. Can I smell?”
“Go right ahead. Sander! Will you come guide me and Lyla out of the river?”
Mema painted, is what she did. At her memorial service she was celebrated for her skills at entertaining and for her cooking and steadfast christianity and old-fashioned wifeness, but people came most alive in recollection of her art. She did still lives, worked from photos, copied the Dutch masters, traveled the country in a big van with her retired hubby, set up easels and painted what she saw. I am about twice her size on my wedding day, bending down to give her a hug while next to her Papa beams and next to me Arielle holds the oil painting Mema made outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It hangs on our library wall now. There’s a Rembrandt forgery in our bedroom and an Indian in the laundry room, too. In my old room in my parents’ house (which is now Sander’s room in his home away from home), there’s a painting she did from a photo of me, about five, sitting on a big rock beside a creek, in swimming trunks, my toasty tan back to the camera. Possibly I was being sullen. There are no ends to thought, thinking this way, only courses that return you forever to where you were.
Everybody acquires the same superpower as they get older: the ability to know the future. I remember well when my first cousin once removed couldn’t shut up about Jurassic Park for five minutes one Thanksgiving–now he’s a Junior at Northwestern. Six reunions hence he will be my age now, the guy playing Wave Prince vs. The Dead of the Rocks in the river with his nephew, braving the sticker-burrs in flip-flops so his wife can take pictures of the longhorns, cracking his first Shiner about an hour shy of lunchtime, letting the bold Texas sun lick the alcohol off his skin.
First this one then that one will replace first this one then that one as the family’s elder statesman. When my cousin gives newbies jeep tours of the rugged land, he’ll stop several times, instead of just once, to say, “We scattered ashes here.” Minor imbroglios over jointly arranged meals will get hand-me-downed to the next in line. Some time soon, in their teens, the trio of girl cousin besties will stop performing original song-and-dance numbers for the rest of us. Sons will assume from their fathers the responsibility of manning the smoker. Smoldering political differences will flare up and die down. A younger bull will oust Deacon as longhorn alpha and sow his progeny through the little herd. One of them will oust him. The cow they named Hamburger will be the first to disappear. A new formation of cousins will come out of the tree house different people than the ones that went in, will jump into the cloudy water that flows to the Blanco River and sing all the way to the dam. Newly introduced spouses will steal ten minutes’ relief in the shade on a hammock. Hands will cover hands and eyes will stare fixedly at a point in the ceiling before closing.
And maybe, eventually, someone else in the family will take up a paintbrush. With watercolors, this time.