FAMILY REUNION

Pierre Fontenot Wednesday, November 20, 2013 0
FAMILY REUNION

We lived on the old home place, our little red house built new in the year of my first year in school, set up under a trio of gorgeous oak trees, a plot of land two acres big and full of memories for my father and grandfather’s generation.

And it came to pass that we made a bigger fuss over cutting the grass and fixing the fence, because company was coming. Coming, coming, all these descendants of my paternal grandparents, who had a house on this land, The House, the every Sunday after church house, where my father would snack on a sweet potato to curb his hunger, or play Tin Can Shinny with his cousins, or maybe Grandpa would slip the boys a nickel, make them rich for licorice.

Old people everywhere. Kids everywhere. Magnalite and Tupperware everywhere. Ice chests and fold-up lawn chairs. Tables, tables, borrowed from the church, some made from a sheet of plywood over a pair of sawhorses, even a table made from a big telephone cable spool.

I was there. Pictures were taken. Hugs were exchanged. Smiling was done. Nostalgia was thick and sweet and tender. There was a Big Book for us to sign in, and list our ages…

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I’ve missed a bunch over the years. This last one, the other day, I thought it could be a dud. Sat down next to my father and said, “Pop, looks like you’re the old man here.” All the originals of my grandparents generation are Long Gone. The Cousins, my father’s generation, they’re down to a handful.

So it goes. This conveyor belt of life…

I went to the Big Book, studied it like I never had. There it was, that first one, my grandfather in his seventies, my father in his forties, me in my teens. Some years big attendance, some years so small you thought it would die right there, except it hasn’t.

Flipping pages, flipping years, and there’s Uncle Ninnie, signing in at 93. I was there. We were under Aunt Annie’s cedar tree, the one she planted as a child…

There’s my grandmother’s handwriting. Goodness. I’d forgotten what it looked like. I looked at the date. Uh-oh… Flipped to the next year, and sure ‘nough, no her.

One of my precious memories from childhood was seeing her and my father sing a duet of an old hymn in French. Probably started singing together when he was just a kid. She had a better voice than him (I’ll pause to silently laugh to myself at the understatement of that statement) but talent was in such short supply at these little country churches that anybody washed in the blood with a clean conscience was welcome to perform. At one of the reunions they sang one last time, she the old woman with sun wrinkles and thinning hair, and he the adoring son, who could only see the long chain of love and good works in her past, his admiration for her character just beamed at her at every glance.

She sang with her eyes closed, head tilted just a little up, such a gentle little woman, never in the spotlight, except these count-on-my-fingers-and-toes occasions where she sang this one song with her second son.

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My uncle is there. Every year. You’re not sure how to spell dependable? Just write down J.D. Fontenot. That man was never late a single moment in his life.

I remember his last reunion. He was so little. My little shrinking uncle, I kept thinking that as I glanced at him. One of his grandsons told me they’d arrived early – no surprise – but that he’d cried when people started arriving, such a non-him thing to do, and I took this information with alarm, that he (and he’d be the kind that would know), that he knew this was his last reunion.

It was.

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I learned some new stuff this reunion.

Our little community was always so safe, to the point of boring, but I found out there had been a murder there. A guy killed a man that had been messing with his wife. Everybody seemed to know and that’s as far as it got. He’s dead now too. Guess God will handle the lawbreaking that didn’t get handled down here.

I found myself with a bunch of Uncle Ninnie’s descendants and I said, “I hate to say this, but it always seemed like Ninnie was a pitiful nickname for a man of that generation.”  To which I found out that his real name was even worse: Camille.

Even funnier: he had a sister named Camille. Reminds me of that old Bob Newhart show, with Larry, who’d always introduce Bob to his two brothers, “my brother Deryl and my other brother Deryl.”

Heard a new one on my uncle. His parents wanted to just name him J.D. but the local priest wasn’t having none of that, so he grabbed two Biblical names, Joseph Daniel to make it American official… Probably not be true, but a fun story.

The oldest of my father’s generation, L.C. (the family is big on initials), died this last year, just a little time after his wife of nearly 70 years. One of the family matriarchs shook her head as we were talking about their end, said, “That was two people who were in love,” said it with awe, her having been married up close to fifty herself, and knowing a little about the subject. L.C.’s kids, up in their sixties and would be happy to be accused of being kids, told about how their parents met, just before WW2. On a double date with different dates. On a whim they switched dance partners and never went back to who brung ‘em… Just like that. Caught. Smitten. Forever.

I lived with them for a few months just out of college. Such gentility. Such ease.  So smooth, after all those years. Their big binge of the week, Friday afternoons, the work week done, they’d pop each a beer and share a bag of Pig Skins.

Such tenderness, such consideration, so little friction. One of the best marriages I ever saw. If ever they had a spat, no child of theirs knew of it, or heard of it.

He was far into Alzheimer’s when she died. He knew about serving in the Navy at Normandy but would have to ask if he was eating breakfast or lunch. When they returned from the cemetery he told his daughter that he was ready to go home. To which she said, “Daddy, we are home.”  To which he said, “No. I want to go Home.”

“I think he willed himself to die after she died. I think they were both holding on for each other.”

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So, it’s Dad and I in his little car that he calls The Rat. On our way back to home is the cemetery in Kinder where so many family VIPs dwell.

The car almost parks itself, just a hop to Mom’s grave. I can read the headstone from inside the car. “Your name is still there, Dad,” I say.

It used to be odd to see his name on there, him still living, but it’s gotten to be a joke between us. He did as he always does, goes straight to Mom’s grave, bends down and puts his hand on the foot of the grave and this time he says to her, “Thanks for not giving my spot away.”

He straightens up and nods, to whom? To God? To her?

Just to the right of her grave is a small infant grave, my little brother, dead for decades. I was born between two babies that never came home from their birth alive. It haunted my mother. This time, for the first time, my father, getting tender in his eighties in a way I could never have imagined him to be when I was a kid, reaches for my forearm and says, “I’m so glad we didn’t lose you to those little country hospitals.” He squeezes me.

I used to have such a strong why-me or why-not-me about my survival. Who am I, one of three, and the only one to get a chance?

From my little brother we move to the next set of graves, my father’s parents.  He, the child, is older than they, the parents. Here, he has nothing to say. I see his head moving side to side, I can almost smell the love in the air. Are you homesick, Dad? What would you say, if you could say?

They are clean to him. He’s more educated than they ever were, he’s more progressive, but they still rank in high esteem for character. They owe him no apology. It’s he, that wishes he could say thanks to them. In their time, people didn’t talk about things that needed to be talked about. Death shut the option down.

We move back to Mom. He reaches down and touches the toe of her grave and tells her he loves her and appreciates all the good memories.

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We’re in The Rat, driving away from the cemetery on that bumpy country road and he starts singing, Precious Memories, in that terrible voice of his.

Precious memories, unseen angels

From somewhere to my soul

How they linger ever near me

And the sacred scenes unfold

And about here, with pine trees on the left and pine trees on the right I started singing with him.

Precious memories, how they linger

How they ever flood my soul

In the stillness of the midnight

Precious sacred scenes unfold

It is a unique moment. I haven’t heard him sing in so long. To be there, with no radio on, to catch him fill the silence with this perfect song, written just a few years before he was born, and to have the good sense to join him, when on so many occasions I have missed my chance to do the right thing at the right time…

There are more verses, but neither of us could remember them, so I followed his lead and we sang the first verse again. When we reached the end, he said, “Well, that’s all I know.” I said, “Me too.” It was a nice moment, so I kept whistling the tune.

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This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one, which hopes you take a chance on saying true things, while there is time to say true things. Uncle P can be reached at 81creativity@gmail.com.