But what I notice most is the person who is being missed. The recently passed matriarch has left an empty space that no one seems able to fill. Mom was the reason they all got together. This is her party. Her ghost lays heavy. But people eat their potato salad and their too many slices of cake. They talk of heart troubles and kid troubles, play badminton and occasionally feel the wind blow through the party. Mom’s still here. A pair of wedding rings hang from Dad’s neck on a long, thin, silver chain. He touches them periodically, “she’s here”, he says. And she is, but even as an outsider at this party I feel her missing much more than I feel her here. Her smile is missing, her hand to squeeze, the dish she made. There’s a hole she’s left behind.
Ive been in South New Jersey this weekend for a friend’s family reunion. Being an outsider at someone else’s family reunion is beautiful gift. I got to be the ultimate outsider, the fly on the wall. Everyone lacks historical context, so much of my energy was spent trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
I blend in a bit. I suppose some people imagine I’m a second cousin who doesn’t make it around too much. I wonder who the girl is in the corner and what causes her to look so sad, so distant.There’s a tall beautiful woman in a long teal dress with her dog. The dog lays quietly underneath the table, patient for a gift from above. Pre-teens giggle together and twist their hair nervously as they are introduced to great aunts and uncles. Kids splash in the blow-up pool. There’s leafy green salad, and roasted corn on the grill. Chicken, ribs, hot dogs and hamburgers hide beneath the smoke.
We will drive home today and I’ll head to Edisto Beach, South Carolina where my father’s family has been holding family reunions for decades. Edisto is a quiet island just beyond Charleston, south carolina. If you visit Edisto, bring what you need with you, and realize you need very little. There is one small grocery store on the island, a gas station, an ice cream parlor and you cannot miss breakfast at the Sea Cow. The shore is lined with beach houses that have survived the many hurricanes over the years. You will see protected sea turtle nests on the beach. If you’re very lucky, and don’t mind staying up late at night, you might even see baby sea turtles dig their way out of the ground and scurry toward the ocean.
Not much has changed on the island in the nearly forty years Ive been to Edisto. I have gone from being the kid at the beach, to having the kids at the beach. Each year I am amazed that even though we see each other once a year at best, I’m forever bonded to my cousins, my aunts, my uncles, my second cousins. We share this common history. We make too much food and laugh, play games, stay in the sun too long, take lots of pictures. And there is a missing presence. My grandmother should be here.
I remember one of the last summers she was able to make the trip down here. My dad and his brothers got a beautifully framed pictures of south Carolina’s indigenous birds for her. She wept when they gave it to her. She was a woman who expected very little and she appreciated this thought beyond belief. She’s in the rustle of the palmetto trees for us and in our hearts.
Reunions are nice reminders that family is a circle and most of the time we lie in the middle, between being born and being missed. The time we spend with each other in between is precious and limited.
I’m looking forward to aunt J’s velveeta cheese dip, and uncle F’s plethora of goodies that he brings in a U-haul trailer, Mom’s laugh, Dad’s guitar, my cousins and their many kids, mixed drinks, card games and sea food dinner on the last night. What a gift to be together.