Friday, April 30, 2010

Family Reunion

Once upon a time there was a little girl in a blue dress with a white collar and three pearl buttons.  Her name was Emily.  She went as a wondering child to a family reunion full of strangers more marvelous and varied than any she had read in storybooks.  Familiar characters had no appeal for her in this vast room, dressed up by tablecloths and her imagination into a party room equaling the dance floor on which the Prince had first swept Cinderella off her feet.  This little heroine could have been anywhere in the world, but she was in a community building in a little town in Oklahoma.  The attendants could have been royalty or fairies, but they were peasants, who are far less ordinary and certainly not plain. 

A certain man with dark hair and tall boots walked across the room.  From her perch amid silk flowers and lace-packaged soap favors, Emily watched his legs bend madly at the knees, cutting his height by a third whenever he took a step.  If this distant relative had been all in black, he would look just like the man on the cover of her book.  She looked longingly across the rows of round tables to one long, cloth-covered rectangle piled high with wrapped books of all shapes and sizes, waiting for the book exchange amusement scheduled after lunch.  There was one large book in familiar paper which Emily’s sister Jana had discovered.  Mom had wrapped up their nursery rhyme collection to give away, the one with the endless pages of strange pictures and dim poems!

Emily took another bite of the last butterfly cracker on her plate, savoring the crisp buttery flavor.  She and Jana were determined to retrieve their beloved book, more desired now than ever before.  They longed to turn the pages again, to laugh at the funny man with the knobby knees who looked like a cousin of the man laughing across the room.  Except his cousin might actually be her.  What an odd world! 

For lunch Emily had punch, carefully sipped to avoid staining her new dress, and a pickle, and more crackers.  Mom was there for the important moments of filling her plate.  Whether at other times Mom was distracted with all the people or it was Emily who was paying no attention to her family is hard to say.  An aunt belonging to her father’s mother said something to Emily’s parents, then turned awkwardly to the little girls, to whom she felt obligated to condescend.  Somehow she knew they were from Texas, and grasping for anything to say, reported first that her son’s girlfriend was from Texas, and said, “Bah, bah.” “Do you say ‘bah bah’?” she asked the confused sisters.  Jana, the younger, played with her food and ignored the aunt.  Emily, unsure how to explain that she was not a sheep though from Texas, politely shook her head and let out only the inkling of a shy smile. 

Focus on her lunch resumed, Emily bit into the bright green pickle and puckered.  This was not what she expected!  What tortuous vegetable disguised as a pickle had found its way onto her plate?  The bite-sized wrinkled thing with a stem tasted nothing like the hamburger pickles she ate nearly every week and at Wendy’s on the way to Oklahoma.  Seeing her disgust, Grandma realized that Emily did not favor sweet pickles, and quietly reassured her she didn’t have to eat it.  The wide woman on the other side of Grandma offered to consume the rest of the unwanted food, and Emily watched her curiously, surprised that anyone could relish the experience. 

With more good conversation and less attention to the ages of her audience, the same woman continued to talk to the two little girls, admiring the lace trimming the skirts of their matching dresses and discussing pickles, carrots, and broccoli, proceeding to a discussion of other foods that didn’t agree with her and their results.  Disinterested, Emily focused instead on the rosebuds carved into the frame of the loud woman’s glasses. 

When she had finished her lunch, Emily got permission to color, just like she did while sitting quietly in church.  Up on her knees to lean over the table, Emily tilted her head to concentrate on drawing a self-portrait to which she added glasses.  The likeness was so strained that no one would guess the identity of the girl on the paper.  For one thing, her hair stretched to the sky: the only way Emily had conceived to portray her long brown locks.  A young cousin passed by and cruelly teased the art on this point before sharing a secret to three-dimensional-drawing.  “Draw the hair down like this,” she explained. 

Before the recovering and grateful Emily could practice, the game began.  Each child in the family had a ticket, and in order they each chose a book and tore off the paper to exclaim over the secret contents.  Emily sat on the edge of her seat.  She eyed a prettily wrapped book on the edge of the pile.  Should she give up their book, and get something new?  Jana’s gaze was fastened on the book of rhymes, lest she forget which one was their coveted prize.  No; if Emily was called first, she would choose that one, and ensure that it returned safely to their home.  Each time another little boy or girl chose, the sisters leaned forward and held their breath.  “Don’t choose that one,” they thought, and trembled with relief as the others picked the smaller books.  Emily breathed deeply when she was summoned to pick a book.  Confidently choosing the largest one there, she brought it back to her lap. 

Though selected next, Jana could not be coerced into choosing a book.  She was angry with Emily for picking her book, and didn’t understand that it was theirs to share.  Emily had secured the book for their family.  Jana could share.  But Jana, who was too young to be consoled with logic and assurance, remained ungrateful.  Emily tried to ignore her.  When she turned away, Grandma and Mom were both asking why she had chosen the book they brought from home.  Didn’t they understand?  They thought she was silly, that maybe she hadn’t realized she could choose any book.  She had the prize she wanted, and hugged it tightly against her dress. 

While grown-ups retrieved purses and hats and finished making plans for the afternoon, Emily and Jana, who had given up naps the past spring, sat quietly enjoying the pages of their beloved book.  Jana, won by the patience of her sister in offering to share the book, was considerably appeased.  They laughed at the cow shown mid-jump above the moon, and asked each other questions about the three round-faced men sailing in a wooden shoe among the stars. 

After an hour at a park in the sunshine in which wiggles were released and solitude embraced, Mom and Dad and Emily and Jana visited the reunion reprise, in a dark noisy parlor belonging to a busy but happy woman and her equally funny husband.  He told jokes that must have been funny, since all the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles laughed.  There were less children at this party, and Emily was tired of company.  She felt very unimportant, and sat accordingly in a corner, where she met the lady. 

The lady had white hair, by which Emily knew she was very old, because even Grandma only had a little bit of white in her hair.  She was slender because she had never been married and never had babies.  But she was kind to children, and laughed like one not yet worn out by the rambunctious children in the world.  Her lips curved in a pleasant smile, and her long hands held a plate full of olives.  What childhood obsession had made the little black fruits a favorite, she couldn’t recall. 

At first the woman just smiled her pity at the lonely child.  Then she got an idea.  The lady taught Emily a game.  Glancing to ensure she had the girl’s attention, she stuck one olive onto her little finger, looked back at Emily, and then took a satisfied bite.  Using the remaining olives as bait, she coaxed Emily to stand by her knees.  Offered an olive herself, the little girl wrinkled up her nose.  Two lonely girls, one old and one young, took turns in a corner: the child putting olives on fingers and the woman plucking them off with juice-darkened lips. 

When the fruit was gone, Emily moved to the floor, where she saw a collection of bells on a shelf.  She wanted to touch the fragile crystal and ceramic.  But bells make noise, and she didn’t want to get in trouble.  Jana, joining her, was easily persuaded to be the one to test the bells.  For their first choice they found a cow bell.  The deep brass instrument was heavy, and made noise like dropping a plate on the floor.  All the grown-ups noticed.  Then the sisters got to sit in their grandparents’ laps. 

Jana played with Grandma’s bead necklace and listened to her talking about cakes and pies and ovens that made the house too hot in the summer.  Emily cuddled against Grandpa’s strong chest.  Her mind was not much improved by discussions of market reports on grain.  Gradually she began to wonder instead how he had lost his hair. 

Mom and Dad’s voices combined with the aunts’ and uncles’ to form a quiet hum.  A blend of sunset light and the rumble of the air conditioner made the room seem fuzzy.  Emily’s head bounced once, and her eyelids lifted, fell, and rose again.  Across the room Grandma shifted Jana so she was lying across her lap.  The clock above the mantel ticked like footsteps on a sidewalk, like car doors opening and closing, like breathing when fast asleep. 

To God be all glory. 

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