Dear Darling Son and That Person You Married,
I hope you are well. Please don’t worry about me. I’m just fine considering I can’t breathe or eat. The important thing is that you have a nice holiday, thousands of miles away from your ailing mother. I’ve sent along my last ten dollars in this card, which I hope you’ll spend on my beautiful grandchildren, who I never see. God knows their mother never buys them anything nice. They look anemic in their pictures, poor, thin babies.
Thank you so much for the birthday flowers, dear boy. I put them in the freezer so they’ll stay fresh for my grave. I know I’ll need them any day. Which reminds me — we buried Aunt Lucy last week. I know she died years ago, but I got to yearning for a good funeral, so Aunt Minnie and I dug her up and had the services all over again. I would have invited you, but I know that woman you live with would have never let you come. I bet she’s never even watched that videotape of my hemorrhoid surgery, has she? I am still suffering.
Well son, it’s time for me to drag myself to bed now. I lost my cane beating off muggers last week, but don’t you worry about me. I’m also getting used to the cold since they turned my heat off and am grateful because the frost on my bed numbs the constant pain. Now don’t you even think about sending any more money, because I know you need it for those expensive family holidays you take every year, though you never come see me. Give my love to my darling grand-babies and my regards to whatever-her-name-is — the one with the black roots who stole you screaming from my bosom.
Love Always, Your poor, old mother
When you are dealing with family, it clarifies things to have a scale. You don’t have to waste time analyzing people when you have a ready reference. This one works pretty well for us.
Instead of saying, “Uncle Henry’s a pretty good guy, but sometimes he goes off the deep end, you could say, ‘He’s a usually about a 6 but he was a little 4-ish after Aunt Lou took his new truck and ran off with his brother’.” Or…
“Why in the world did Betty marry him? He was a jerk to her when she was married to his daddy.”
“Well, you know she’s a 5.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.” Or…
“You set the house on fire trying to dry your underwear in the oven?? What in the hell were you thinking?? And you call yourself a 6?”
“Look, you know darn well I’m a 6. It just seemed like a good idea. Appliances should be multifunctional. I’ve seen you pull a 2 lot of times and never threw it up to you. It could happen to anyone.” Or…
“You forgot and put the turnip greens through the spin cycle and now the washing machine drain is stopped up! I’m not even going to ask you what turnip greens were doing in the washing machine! You’re a 2 if I ever saw one. Your mama and sisters are 2’s, too!! Did you put the beans in the dishwasher, too, while you were at it?”
“No, I’m not an idiot. You cook beans on the stove. I put my rolls in the dishwasher to rise.”
Family reunions are an eclectic mix of mostly 5’s who vacation in 4 and 6 on occasion, some fairly regular folks, seasoned with a picante’ dash of street-corner preachers, nude airport racers, and folks who are just interesting in general. We have a couple of 7’s thrown in, reminders of what we could do if we tried. A person’s situation on the social ladder is likely to be greatly influenced by his company or partner. For instance, if a submissive #5 marries a dominant #7, it is likely he or she will benefit. If the lower number is more influential, not so much.
I was comfortable growing up in this milieu of the 1950’s. While I gave lip service to my parents’ goal of strict respectability, I enjoyed a ringside seat to periodic lunacy. It also justified my lapses. It ran it the family! And no matter how disappointed my parents might be when I messed up, at least I hadn’t been caught naked in traffic yet.
When considering their upcoming parenthood, most people entertain hormone-tinged delusions, imagining their children as cute, well-behaved, athletic, and smart. We gaze fondly at our partners imagining a baby with his blue eyes, her sweet smile…we should have looked a little closer at Grandpa’s buck teeth or Grandma’s frizzy hair. Even better, this baby is just as likely to inherit genes from a great-great grandpa, the horse thief, as from Grandpa John, the Pulitzer Prize Winner. The baby may look a lot more like Aunt Fanny, the lady wrestler, than its pretty mama. A better plan would probably be to put all babies in a lottery at birth, so parents could credit their lumps to bad luck and the joys to good parenting for the next twenty-one years. The kids would definitely appreciate it.
My family is as much a mixed bag of nuts as any. As a kid, I was most fascinated by the ones on the fringes. My favorite was Uncle Chester, not because he was friendly, funny, or even seemed to notice me, but because he was the first solid #3 of my acquaintance. (Family likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in past or future.) As a young man in the depression, he started out as a moonshiner and petty criminal, lounging a bit in local jails. He never really hit the big time and made the Federal Penitentiary till he got caught counterfeiting quarters. His technique was sloppy and his product unpolished. He was fortunate in getting caught red-handed passing his ugly quarters. In 1941 he was sent up to Fort Leavenworth for some higher education. and made good use of his time apprenticing himself to a cellmate who was doing time for making twenty-dollar bills.
Aunt Jenny #5 (Can go either way. Gets by on a good day. Never been arrested. Can be lots of fun or a real mess. Relatives usually will invite in for coffee. Likely to have hormone-induced behavior.) was short-sighted about Uncle Chester’s situation and ditched him while he was imprisoned, but realized she still loved him when he came home with his enhanced earning capacity. They let bygones be bygones, got back together, and had three lovely children. Their eldest son Lynn and daughter Sue were solid #7s from the start. (Good fellows. Almost everybody likes him or her. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. Manages money well enough to retire early.) Uncle Chester was perfectly willing to give Lynn a good start in business, but Lynn was ungrateful, distanced himself from his father’s dealings, joined the military, and avoided the family business altogether, even seeming to resent his father. One Sunday dinner, when Uncle Chester was dropping names of the interesting people he had been in jail with at various times, Lynn rudely interrupted, “Daddy, you’ve been in jail with everybody at one time or another.” Uncle Chester did step up and keep Cousin Lynn from making a mistake. Lynn came home on leave from the military and met a girl he wanted to marry; love at first sight. She was a pretty as a spotted puppy and even she noticed how much she looked like Ross. Uncle Chester got her off to the side and asked a few questions about her mama and daddy and where she was raised. He was waiting up for Lynn to get home. “Son, I sure hope things ain’t gone too far. I hate it, but you can’t marry that li’l old gal. She looks just like her Mama did when we was running around together. There’s a real good reason she looks just like yore brother Ross – a real good reason.”
By the fifties, Uncle Chester had branched out a little. He did a little research and decided lawsuits paid well and weren’t too much work. He captured some bees, applied them to his leg. When his leg was good and swollen, he got his buddy to drop him off downtown at a trolley stop. As the trolley approached, Uncle Chester carefully stumbled into the path of the trolley, suffering a knee injury in front of numerous witnesses. He collapsed to the ground, moaning and groaning. Suffering terribly, he was transported and treated at the hospital. Now Uncle Chester was set with a fifty-thousand dollar settlement, a tidy sum for that time.
Their daughter Susie turned out real well, became a teacher, and married a Baptist Preacher, lending Uncle Chester a much appreciated touch of respectability. Uncle Chester and Aunt Jenny were very generous toward her church, and the legitimacy of their donations was never questioned. Sadly, many years later Susie’s daughter a bona fide #3, embarrassed them all by stealing from her employer.
Ross, Uncle Chester’s youngest son, a gifted #3 (Family likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in past or future) followed in Uncle Chester’s footsteps. He dabbled in moonshine, petty crime, and scams but just never rose to Uncle Chester’s level. He initiated a few crooked lawsuits but lacked the brain power and organization to pull bigger things off. All went well till he got too big for his britches and tried setting up business in Texas. When he got caught moon shining in someone else’s territory, he called the old man for help and Uncle Chester had to admit, “I’m sorry son, but I can’t do a thing for you. I don’t have any influence with the law out there.” Uncle Chester felt bad about one of his boys getting in trouble till the day he died,” but sometimes you just have to let kids make their own mistakes.”
Aunt Jenny was stingy. You would think she got her money in the usual way. Or maybe she just got tired of hearing Uncle Chester complain how hard it was to make money, but she would even make her own mother pay for a ride to the grocery store. When Maw Maw won some groceries in a weekly contest she had to share with Aunt Jenny since she rode with Aunt Jenny to the grocery store every week. Aunt Jenny sold eggs and tomatoes and charged Maw Maw the same as everyone else.
When Aunt Jenny got older, she got dentures. She liked them so well she saved them for special occasions. She wore them when she had ladies over for coffee, church, and Sunday dinner. Being toothless didn’t hold her back a bit. She could take a bite off an apple as well as anyone and could have won a fried chicken eating contest hands down.
We had plenty of other interesting relatives, too. Dogs were off limits inside our house. All we had were hunting dogs, dogs with a purpose. People with house dogs were considered silly and weak-minded. Cookie and Uncle Riley (#4 People say, “Oh, crap. Here comes Johnny.”)never came to visit without bringing a couple of fat, shiny, little house dogs. You can guess what category this put them in. Daddy grudgingly tolerated their dogs as long as the dogs didn’t bark or mess up the house. They chattered endlessly about their dogs. Uncle Riley frequently assured us his dog, Jackie, was, “just like a person.” Daddy agreed the dog was as smart as Uncle Riley.
Unfortunately, Jackie got some kind of skin infection. Cookie and Uncle Riley showed up for a visit with poor Jackie, bald as an egg, the skin on his entire body irritated and red. Uncle Riley had been too cheap to take him to a veterinarian and concocted his own home remedy. He would dip Jackie in a Lysol and pine-oil mixture, reasoning it would kill any bacteria. The best we could tell, Jackie was bacteria and hair-free, but itching miserably with blistered skin. Uncle Riley felt badly about his medicine gone bad, and lovingly coated Jackie with Calamine Lotion several times a day. While Uncle Riley told us of Jackie’s troubles, he was unaware of Jackie sitting at his feet, licking his wounds. Not surprisingly, the harsh home remedy inflicted the most damage on Jackie’s sensitive nether portions. As he licked his little doggy privates tenderly, Uncle Willie reminded us Jackie was “just like a person.” Three-year-old John was watching Jackie’s ablutions intently and remarked, “I never saw a person do that!”
Uncle Charlie , another #3, was a compulsive liar. It didn’t concern him that no one believed him. He just lied because he was so darn good at it. Uncle Charlie would climb up on the roof to tell a lie instead of stand on the ground and tell the truth. If Uncle Charlie told you it was raining, don’t bother with your umbrella. He worked at the paper mill with Daddy, and had such a reputation for lying, that anyone repeating one of Charlie’s stories had to buy coffee for the group. One afternoon on coffee break, Charlie came rushing by the fellows in a big hurry. “Charlie, stop and tell us a lie!” one of them called after him.
Charlie never looked back, “I can’t!” he called over his shoulder as he rushed on. “Ray Pierson fell in Smokestack #2 and I’m going to call an ambulance!” They all rushed to see about their buddy and found Ray Pierson in perfect health at his usual work station, Smokestack #2.
Cousin Vonia #5 and her husband Joe #4 (Oh, Crap! Here comes Johnny) came to visit a lot, bringing their three little kids. Joe was “disabled” and didn’t have to get up early, so he just wouldn’t go home. Mother sent us on to bed, but Joe wanted to sit till midnight, even on a school night. Their little kids would have been drooped over asleep for hours. Finally Daddy started telling Mother, “We’d better to go to bed so these good folks can go home.”
Joe would look disappointed, then get up and shuffle toward the door, saying, “Well, I guess I better get my sorry self on home.” Vonia would trail behind him, carrying two sleeping kids and guiding the other staggering kid to the car. Joe couldn’t carry kids. He had a “bad back.”
Joe had a few other quirks. He had been fortunate enough to hurt his back at work and land a nice settlement and a monthly disability check so invested in a few cows and took care of them from then on. For those who know nothing of cattle farming, it is extremely hard work. Joe and his disabled back spent many hours building fences, making hay, stacking hay in the barn, unstacking that same hay later and loading it on a trailer, then taking it off and feeding it to the cattle, herding cows, wrestling soon-to-be steers to the ground and helping them become steers. He spent hours on end driving a tractor. Hard, hard, hard work.
Joe had a strange quality for a farmer, eschewing all healthy foods and existing on a diet of peanut patties, banana pudding, and milk. He also smoked like a smokestack. This careful attention to diet paid off for him. He didn’t have a tooth in his head by the time he was thirty five. He refused to get dentures. He just dropped peanut patties from his diet. He said he didn’t need dentures for just milk and banana pudding. The smoking finally killed him when he was seventy-eight. He dropped a cigarette down the bib of his overalls and pulled out in front of a train.
Even though Great Uncle Albert was only a 4.5 – 5, he had given Daddy a place to stay and let him work for his keep during the terrible times of the 1930’s when Maw Maw was struggling to feed seven children alone. Daddy appreciated this and was loyal to Uncle Albert all his life. Old, grumpy, and hormone-depleted by the time I knew him in the mid 1950’s, it was hard for me to imagine him in his younger, randy days. He was dull, and full of good advice, a habit he’d developed since he’d gotten too old to set a bad example. Aunt Jewel wasn’t his first wife, and frankly, was on pretty shaky ground as a #2, but as far back as they lived in the sticks, there weren’t any airports, so she was hanging on. I heard whispers she had broken up his first marriage to Mary. Even more shocking, Uncle Albert was entertaining her when Mary tried to force her way in to the marital bedroom. Uncle Albert slammed the door, breaking his poor wife’s arm. Mary got the hint, took the baby, and left. Smart girl.
I had trouble envisioning this. I had never met Mary, but she had to look better than the Aunt Jewell I knew. I had heard Aunt Jewell used be really pretty, but she had gotten over it. By the time I knew her, she had smoked over forty years, had nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, wrinkles around her mouth from drawing on a cigarette, and her mouth pulled a little to one side. She had a thick middle, thin hair in a frizzy old-lady perm, and bird legs. She wore stockings rolled to her knees and cotton house dresses. She wheezed constantly and never spoke except to whine, “Albert, I’m ready to go now.” Or “Albert, give me a puff off your cigarette.” Oh yes. One time they came to visit after she’d fallen and broken a rib and she started crying and said, “Albert, I want a puff off your cigarette, but I’m too sore to cough. “ That was kind of interesting, but I couldn’t imagine a man choosing her over anyone else.
It was interesting to see my father treated as a kid. Uncle Albert felt free to give his opinion about whatever Daddy was up to. He arrived for a visit one day before Daddy got home from work and was inspecting the place. Daddy aspired to 8 or 9 (8. High achiever. Business in order.
Uncle Albert kept all his stuff organized and in perfect repair. Daddy’s barn was a disorganized mess. He tossed things wherever he got through with them. Uncle Albert walked around, examining items and commenting. “This is a good old singletree. It just needs a new chain.” “This is a good rasp. It just needs to be cleaned up.” “This is a good axe-head. It just needs to be sharpened and have a new handle put in.” Before too long, Daddy came striding up, delighted to see his uncle. He was smiling broadly and thrust out his hand.
Uncle Albert looked at straight at him and pronounced, “Bill, you need to get the junk man out here and get all this #^%$ hauled off.”
I’m pretty sure I can pass for a 5 most days.
The blog of author Cynthia Reyes
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