when i think of family gatherings i think of how we all used to pile into my grandparents’ house: four daughters, their husbands/boyfriends, and at that time, my brother and i plus my two cousins. fourteen people in one four-bedroom house (with one bathroom!)
us kids slept on a foam mattress on the floor in my grandparents’ bedroom. my grandfather snored something fierce and my older cousin ground her teeth. i often listened to both as i watched the moon rise, finally dozing a bit until the grey dawn of the morning, when i awoke to the rustle of my grandmother’s nightgown. that first quiet hour was sacred, as we washed our faces and hands with a bar of ivory soap and then pressed them dry with the same worn face towel, and then i’d settle into her lap, sharing bites of buttered toast from one plate while she sipped black coffee and i drank grapefruit juice, waiting for the house to wake up.
i loved the quiet starts to my days but i also loved the bustle of all of it, exploring with my cousins, picking crabapples or green onion tops or the heads off of snapdragons, rummaging through drawers, poking around in the dark mysterious basement. huge meals with giant tables stretching through two rooms. aunts and uncles playing horseshoes or lawn darts, delicious fragrant things cooking in the kitchen and on the BBQ in the driveway, grownups distracted enough that the monitoring of cookie-eating or fridge-ransacking was nearly non-existent. us kids going on adventures with my grandfather. riding along with whoever went to pick up my elderly great grandparents from the old folks home.
i loved it. i’m sure we got bored but i don’t remember that, i just remember adventures and playing and freedom.
but i wasn’t safe, even there. in all those people i got lost in the shuffle, wayward hands wandered while posing as innocent cuddles. there was too much alcohol and too much drama and the family repression was thick. gazes were averted. trespasses were glossed over. it was easy to misplace a little girl and an uncle, easy to accept the quiet behind closed doors for the disciplining of a daughter by a father.
i still don’t know how to reconcile these newer memories with the old ones. it’s like they peeled off at the edges of my consciousness, the border pieces of the mosaic-y puzzle that represents ‘april 1980’ or ‘august 1979.’ i wonder how it’s possible at the same time that i know it was.
and am suddenly so, so exhausted, needing to sleep.