PART ONE: DOGS
Saturday, the day before the wedding. My favorite uncle Darrell and his wife Joy (my mom's sister) came to our house that day. They drove from their home in Columbus, Georgia. My mom has nine sisters and one brother, but Joy and Darrell are the only two who stay here regularly, because I've made no secret of the fact that Darrell is my favorite relative in my mom's family, bar none. That man has done more to help me and my screwed-up cousins get over the lousy childhoods we had due to our lousy parents than all the rest of the adults combined.
Saturday afternoon, my mom was off doing wedding stuff. I have been avoiding getting involved myself because my sister Jean and I have been feuding. Jean didn't at all make me feel like helping. We only narrowly got things patched up well enough for me to agree to go to her wedding at all. My mom and I were seriously thinking about taking another trip to Florida this week so we wouldn't have to deal with the subject.
My cousin Cathy was having a birthday party for her two kids that day. Darrell, Joy and I drove there in Darrell's cruddy old car. The air conditioning doesn't work and it was kind of hot. We were early, the first ones to arrive in fact.
I feel bad about not having had any contact with my cousin Cathy for the entire time I've been here. I know she's kind of introverted like me and her husband Kevin is a really nice guy. I immediately felt comfortable around the two of them. That made me feel silly about not contacting them earlier. That situation nicely illustrates how I've been cutting off my own nose to spite my face.
I'd heard they had a sailboat, and sailing is on my agenda of things to learn. It took about two words of prompting to get Kevin to launch into talking about how he busted up his boat last year. He told a long and harrowing story about doing things he knew were a little bit beyond his reach and then having to pay for it. Cathy was seven months' pregnant at the time and he said he probably scared her so bad that she'll never want to get on that boat again. We went out into his back yard where the boat is sitting to have a look. He showed me the fracture in the hull that he had been talking about.
I'm going to be big-headed here. Generally speaking, dogs love me. It was a point of contention between my sister and I when we were growing up. When she reached the appropriate age, the task of feeding the family dog passed from me to her, but the dog still loved me the most. Given the chance he would have run right over her head to get to me.
The groom and his runway-model sisters.
My best friend when I was living in Wichita was named David. His family had a small gray scottish terrier named Mandy. I only saw Mandy every couple of months, but she loved me more than all the humans in her own family combined. A lot of it was I'd known her since she was a tiny puppy and I was much more playful with her than anybody else. Occasionally I'd let her sink her sharp little puppy-teeth into my hands.
Whenever I'd come to visit David's house, Mandy would very nearly have an apoplectic fit, such was her joy. She'd RUN up to the front door and I'd squat down so she could reach me and she'd jump on my knees and I'd scritch her ears. She made a noise in her throat like she was so contented at that moment that she was ready to die happy. But once wasn't enough. She'd run to some far corner of the house so she could once again RUN up to the front door, pleased at being able to "greet" me a second time. This would go on for as long as I'd stay by the front door. I think her record was five run-ups. Everybody in David's family would stand around sulking, angry that Mandy loved me so much more than them.
Now, here's a real mark of character, folks. Kevin has two labradors, one black, one brown. They've both been trained to fetch. I threw their tennis ball for them over and over again. Eventually they were both so exhausted that they were reduced to a strained trot, their tongues lolling about four feet out of their mouths, but neither one acted like they wanted to stop. They are troupers! Every time, whichever one ended up bringing the ball back, the dog would lay it at Kevin's feet, trying to get him to throw it next.
It takes a very compassionate person for me to not be able to steal their dogs' affection. Apparently, Kevin is exactly that sort of person.
And how about this: Kevin is also a rock climber! My cousin Laura and I were going to the climbing gym every week, then she started seriously flaking out on me for no good reason, so I told her to forget about it. I'm still pissed at her over that. I'm going to try to start going with Kevin every now and then, before I leave Nashville.
PART TWO: WAR
Saturday afternoon. Darrell, Joy and I are so far the only guests at my cousin Cathy's house for her kids' birthday party because we were very early. Darrell and I left my aunt Joy there and we took off in Darrell's ratty old non-air-conditioned car.
Darrell told Kevin his car was low on freon and Kevin had mentioned a couple of places nearby where he could get it charged up. Darrell and I drove to both but he thought they wanted too much money. So we were stuck with the no-air-conditioning situation. It wasn't all that hot out anyway.
Then it was off to the Blue Moon Cafe, a restaurant that sits on a floating pier in a finger bay of the Cumberland River. Darrell and I went there the last time he and Joy came to visit. It was my discovery originally but now we both love it.
Darrell is a Vietnam vet. I've heard scattered bits and pieces of his story before, but always when I was too young to understand it. So I asked him about it while we were driving around.
The groom and the flower girl, the daughter of one of his runway-model sisters.
Darrell was already in the army when the war broke out. He did his first mandatory tour of duty (a year of service, he told me) in 'Nam at the ripe old age of 31. Then, incredibly, he decided to go back for a second tour. It was entirely voluntary, of course. He said "I thought if I could keep just one of our guys from getting killed, it would have been worth it."
Darrell was in a group of 120 guys. I'm sure there's some correct term for that, like "platoon" or "battallion" or "squad" or something, and I'm sure he told me what it was, but I'm not really up on the lingo. They found themselves completely surrounded by a much larger group of Viet Cong. He said it was likely about 500 bad guys.
The day before, one of his group's tanks had been destroyed by an RPG. He knew the regular VC grunts didn't have access to that kind of hardware. They must be up against a particularly well-armed bunch. Darrell had been "in country" longer than most, so they tended to listen to him, at least a little bit. He went to the guy in charge of the operation, one rank above his own commanding officer, and told him he thought they ought to get the hell out of there, right that second. The guy in charge listened politely, said he appreciated the input, but that he had made the decision to stay.
That very night they got ambushed. Darrell was the senior guy in his group so he manned a tripod-mounted machine gun while three other guys helped feed him ammunition. The gun jammed, they couldn't get it un-jammed, so they decided to fall back from their position. Darrell said he knew the VC would try to use the gun themselves, so he pulled the pin on a grenade and wedged it underneath the tripod, hoping to blow them up when they tried to take it. That's right kids, war is hell.
Darrell and his guys didn't get far. He took scrapnel through his neck, which damaged his hearing (he wears hearing aids these days). He said he didn't even feel it at the time, he just noticed a little later that he was having trouble working his jaw. He rode out the concussions from two separate grenades, which paralyzed him and killed everyone in his immediate vicinity.
Shortly thereafter, Darrell heard Vietnamese voices. They were poking through the wreckage, looking for survivors. Darrell said "I decided to play dead. Heck, I couldn't move, I couldn't hear anything but my own ears ringing, I really was about half dead, I didn't have to play very much."
An hour later someone reached underneath Darrell to lift him up. Darrell thought another VC had ahold of him and that his number was up. This time the intruder wasn't so casual and didn't leave in such a hurry as last time. Darrell decided to stop playing dead, so he could at least get a good look at the man who was about to kill him. It turned out to be a medic, picking him up to feel for a heartbeat. He'd been getting just such a grip on all the bodies in the area, looking for live ones. There were no other survivors within 50 meters. Out of 120 guys, only 15 were left.
They got Darrell onto a stretcher and hustled him towards a waiting helicopter. The guy in front tripped and they dropped him. He was still paralyzed so he couldn't stop himself from landing pretty hard. They picked him up, put him back on the stretcher, and got him into the helicopter without further incident. And thus ended my uncle's participation in the war, only a few months into his second tour.
Darrell spent a year in a Colorado hospital recuperating. Most of the story he told me was taken up with what the army did to help him adjust to life after the war. Unlike many veteran stories you hear, Darrell was very happy with the way he was treated. He got a purple heart. He mentioned several people who went out of their way to make life easier for him. They sent him to an Army school for a year to learn the infrastructure, then he spent another five months learning from other people who had desk jobs similar to the one he was being groomed for. After a year and a half of preparation, they finally let him loose in his postwar desk job. He was making pretty good money. They sent him to Germany on two separate occasions, three years one time, two years the second.
This is a drastically abridged version of Darrell's story. He and I sat on the dock, throwing bread to the ducks, for about four hours. If I wrote it all down I could easily make this account four or five times longer than it is. I feel strange telling someone else's story like this, though. I wouldn't be telling it at all if I wasn't so proud to be related to him that I am about to burst.
Here's one more part of Darrell's story that bears repeating. Darrell felt like his life was often in the hands of people who were not qualified to be wielding that kind of power. He gave an example of a mission he was given to lead a bunch of guys about 1000 meters into the jungle on reconnaissance. He knew the destination was swarming with VC, it was suicide. There was no way he or his men were coming back from a mission like that. So he decided to go only 500 meters out, defying his orders. He told nobody. Well, almost nobody. He mentioned another guy he discussed it with. He said he'd have to call that guy for backup if the situation got hairy, and the guy would have to know exactly where Darrell was or he and the guys with him would be in great danger. So Darrell brought that guy into his confidence, who agreed that the original mission was suicidal, and kept his secret.
That whole night, as my uncle and his confidant communicated via radio, Darrell was lying about how far into the jungle they'd gotten. The next day he had to go before a colonel and report what he saw, once again lying through his teeth, hoping to keep his story straight.
My sister Jean, standing on the gravel aisle we would all soon be walking down.
You know how people often say things like "I'd take a bullet for him?" I've yet to hear anybody say that who wasn't completely full of crap. My uncle Darrell, however, not only would, but did. At the age of 32 he all but lost his hearing and had large sections of his body blown off, trying to keep other people from getting killed.
Yes, it was a bad war. Darrell certainly didn't support it. Nobody sane ever did. You could make a fair argument that it would be better if everybody refused to fight and went home. Alas, Darrell didn't have the power to stop the war. He did have the power to do what he could for the participants, however. He took his year of experience in country with him back to the jungle, trying to keep others from getting killed.
Even without wars, the fact of the matter is that life is full of danger and pain. Nature is violent. Even if every human on the planet was a pacifist there would still be hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, landslides, tidal waves, avalanches, and floods. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever convinced a tiger to turn vegetarian. If I ever found myself in a life-or-death situation, there is only one human being in the world I know personally who I feel would be qualified to help me through it.
I have been so nervous and edgy the last few weeks that I was about to jump out of my skin. I am really sick of being here against my will, doing what I can to make my family situation more bearable for me and my mom and my sister, feeling like I'm getting just about no help whatsoever. I was looking forward to seeing Darrell because he's known the people in my family for all our lives and I knew he'd listen to me. Oddly enough, I barely even mentioned my issues to him. Hearing about what happened to him in the war made my problems seem so puny and insignificant by comparison. Certainly rearranged my perspective for me, that's for sure.
PART THREE: WELCOME TO THE FAMILY
Now we're up to Sunday, the day of the wedding. It wasn't going to start until late in the afternoon. My mom's friend Anne had flown in that day and the two of them left the house first, since Mom had to be there earlier than the rest of us.
Darrell and Joy and I followed a bit later, in Darrell's old car. This time the lack of air conditioning was really taking its toll on us. I was wearing the most expensive suit I've ever owned and sweating all over myself. I was very nervous, mostly on my sister Jean's behalf, I guess. None of us had ever been to Belle Meade Mansion before so we were having a little trouble finding the place. Darrell and Joy are prone to arguing even in the best of situations. They were about an inch away from a fight.
Jean and me. I was muttering a question out of the side of my mouth. Can you tell?
We finally found it and I felt like I was late, even though the wedding wasn't due to start for another two hours. I'd had a hard time getting Darrell and Joy out the door. Mom had asked me to get there as early as possible so I could be in the professional photos.
When I finally found her, my mom was as freaked out as I've seen her in years. In her particular case that means that her inner control freak was having a field day. She was going around giving curt, snotty orders to people. I decided right then and there to stay as close to her as possible to keep her from getting herself into a bad situation she wouldn't be able to get out of.
My sister looked magnificent in her big white tent of a dress. As she and I were posing against a tree for a photo, I leaned in and asked her: "Was it worth it? All this pageantry and preparation and so on?" Right at that moment her answer was a big fat emphatic "NO." In a couple of weeks I bet she will have changed her mind. I know I have already.
Time started blurring on me after that. There were lots of last-minute preparations. Discussions about where I was supposed to stand, the order of events, who I was supposed to help. A woman I'd never seen before came up to me and pinned a pretty white boutonniere on my lapel.
My sister had only two bridesmaids. I've known one of them since she was in high school, the other I met for the first time that day. I had a little chit-chat with the new one about this and that. She said she met my sister when they both worked at the White House. (Yes, my sister worked at the White House for a couple of years. That's another story in and of itself.) The bridesmaid wants to move to Alaska. "Your sister has said so many nice things about you!" she said.
Mom, me, and Jean. Everyone in my immediate family. Mom usually looks happier than this, but she was freaking out.
My sister Jean is marrying a guy named Andy. He has a big family, himself and his mom and stepdad and five sisters and their kids and spouses and a couple of other step-parents.
Andy's family members haven't been very nice to me and my sister's side of the family. Apparently it's not just us. Andy once told my mom that his mom and stepdad couldn't be bothered to attend his college graduation. They "couldn't get off work." When he decided to get married, he was a little afraid they wouldn't show up for that either. But they did, the whole clan turned out, both his parents and every single sister and the sisters' husbands and kids.
It was just a few minutes away from the beginning of the ceremony. Jean and Mom and me and Jean's two bridesmaids and several other people were crammed into a tiny changing room. It was hot outside and air-conditioned inside, so none of us wanted to leave a second before we had to.
I saw a little girl of four, supervised by Andy's mother, Holly. The flower girl. She's just as noncommunicative as the rest of Andy's family. That's extremely unusual for someone so young. It's a very rare four-year-old that I can't charm into talking to me in two seconds, but this little girl deflected my questions so expertly that I started to wonder if I still existed. Yes, she's that good. I guess they start training them young in that family.
The kid was tired and cranky and hot. Her scratchy clothes were irritating her mosquito bites. Somebody suggested the little girl should sit right next to the air conditioner to cool down as much as possible. She tried to worm her way through the throngs without much success. So I picked her up and sat her on a stool right in front of the air vent.
The kid was unhappy about having to be the flower girl. They'd given her a small basket full of multi-colored rose petals. She scratched herself and the basket tipped up at an odd angle, spilling rose petals everywhere. She tried to make it look like an accident but I know perfectly well it wasn't. That little girl was signaling that she really didn't want to be doing this.
Jean and her two bridesmaids. The one on the left I've known since she and Jean were in high school. The one on the right Jean met only a few years ago, when they both worked in the White House.
Holly and I both instinctively dropped to our knees, picking up rose petals. I can't say for certain, since I've met so many new people in the last few days, but I'm pretty sure I haven't been formally introduced to her. Holly has likely never spoken one word to me. But there was something a little bit comforting about the two of us united in the task of picking up after her granddaughter. We're adults, it's our job to clean up kids' messes. The tiny changing room we were in didn't allow much space to manuever and I could only see Holly's hands, carefully and meticulously picking up every last rose petal on her side of the basket, trying not to bruise them. That will very likely go down as the most intimate moment I'll ever share with that woman.
About two minutes before we had to start, Jean finally got up the nerve to ask me to do something for her. She said that during the wedding ceremony all of Andy's sisters were going to walk into the scene and each one would present Jean with a rose, as a way of welcoming her into their family. Likewise, Jean wanted me to present Andy with one, welcoming him into our family. I was feeling so gushy and positive at that point that I would have agreed to anything. One of Jean's bridesmaids produced a rose and we got underway without me really understanding what I was supposed to do. Mom straightened it out for me later.
And then it was on with the show! We all filed into our positions, somber and serious. The ceremony was held outdoors in a field under a canopy of trees. I held my mom's arm as we walked down the aisle. She was reaching new heights of freaked-out-itude. She was as tense and stiff as a diving board. We had the best seats in the house, the front row on the bride's side of the aisle.
Crying at a wedding is so cliched, you know? I never thought I'd fall for that. But man, I'll tell you right now, I was an inch away from bursting into a full-blown hysterical crying fit for every second of the ceremony. I didn't want to make a scene so I held it back, but just barely. It all started seeming so serious. Mom and I had our reservations about Jean marrying this guy but that's all in the past. This is now very, very real.
Most of the wedding party. The guy on the right is my dead stepfather's brother, who served as his stand-in, as if I needed any reminding. The guy at the bottom is Andy's best man.
After all the guests were seated, the flower girl was the first down the aisle. She had a pinched expression on her face. She really didn't want to be there but she was holding it together. She threw rose petals like they were cockroaches. But you couldn't help but think she was cute. She sure was trying hard.
Then there was some music, and the Unitarian minister did some talking, and blah blah blah. I can't remember it very well. I was overcome.
My sister came down the aisle on the arm of her father's brother Larry. My sister's father, my evil stepdad, is dead. Thank god. He croaked not long before I came to Nashville. Unfortunately, his brother the stand-in looks exactly like him. I instinctively want to dislike Larry because of that. I have to remind myself that Jean's dad wasn't Larry's fault.
Pretty soon all four of Andy's sisters came strolling into the scene, carrying their roses. They aren't very friendly but they're all gorgeous. It looked like a procession of runway models, each of them with a big face-full of not altogether convincing smiles. They strolled in stage right, they each handed their roses to Jean in turn with the utmost poise, then strolled out stage left.
"Now!" my mom hissed between clenched teeth. "This is when you go."
I have to admit that Andy and I haven't gotten along all that well. It's not his fault, I think he's basically an okay guy, it's just the long-standing problems between me and my sister that have gotten in the way. He and I have a lot in common and if we'd met under different circumstances we'd likely be friends. This seemed like as good a time as any to start building a better future with my soon-to-be brother-in-law.
The ceremony. Now it's really happening.
I stood up carefully, making sure I was calm. I adjusted my suit jacket. I strode up to Andy, handed him his rose, and gave him a big hug. A long one. I had avoided getting involved in Jean's wedding. But now that it was happening I felt completely different. I was very happy to have a small last-minute role. Just before I let go of Andy I stage-whispered into his ear: "Good luck!" Then I walked back to my seat, barely 20 feet away.
Then the vows. Andy went first. He was really, really nervous. I could see his hands shaking. He had trouble getting the ring onto my sister's finger. He did very well at reading his lines, though. He has a loud and clear voice.
Then it was my sister's turn. She was so nervous she was wobbly, she could barely stand. She could only get through a few words at a time before succumbing to a fit of anxious laughter. She started over from the beginning three different times.
She decided to go off-script for a second, trying to get herself back on track. "I don't think I can wait for this part," she said, and kissed Andy prematurely. That seemed to help calm her down. She got all the way to the end of her vows that time. She slipped a ring on Andy's finger and kissed him again, and that was pretty much it.
There was some music in there somewhere. A female vocalist with a pretty voice sang "Here Comes the Sun," a song Jean picked. Have I mentioned that Jean got into the Beatles when she was a wee lass by listening to my records? And there was some more preaching and talking. And some other stuff. It's all running together in my head.
Whew! Finally, we were all allowed to walk back down the aisle. I was glad it was over. Earlier I had overheard one of Jean's bridesmaids talking about her own wedding, which had occurred a few years before. She said her ceremony lasted twenty minutes but it seemed like five. That's exactly how I felt.
The receiving line. I am behind those two hot young girls. The blonde one is my cousin Steve's daughter and the other is her near-identical friend.
All the major people involved in the wedding, including yours truly, formed a receiving line in front of the banquet hall where we were having the reception. Once again I stood right next to Mom. I was monitoring her for freak-outs and inappropriate behavior. More than once I felt like I was having to cajole her into being more friendly.
I am a natural introvert, but I've never been more social and pleasant and cordial than I was in that receiving line. I smiled more than a game show host. I tried hard to think up personal questions to ask of every single person who introduced themselves to me. A few people came past who I hadn't seen for twenty years or longer. I'm sure at least eighty people went past us. It seemed to go on forever.
The reception got underway in earnest. The band started playing and almost everybody lined up for the food. This is where my cousin Helen and her sister Mary enter the picture. I spent more time talking to those two than anybody else.
Their home life was even worse than mine and Jean's. Both of their parents are alcoholics. They got just about no parental supervision at all. They fought between themselves a lot. I remember witnessing quite a number of those fights firsthand. They were doing a very good job of emulating their parents.
Helen was a few years older than Mary and so was forced into premature maturity, being the pretend parent. She didn't know what to do with Mary, so Darrell and Joy took her in for a few years, starting when she was 15. These days Mary can't say enough good things about Darrell. There's another reason for me to think my uncle is the greatest.
I'm writing about this as if I'm some big authority. The truth is I didn't know most of this stuff before I heard Helen and Mary tell me about it during the reception. I'd gotten almost completely out of contact with all my cousins over the years and never knew their stories. I hated my mom so much for so long that I didn't want to have anything to do with her or her family. I considered them all part of the problem, not part of the solution. Why didn't it occur to me that my cousins were going through the same things I was?
Most of the cousins I grew up with. Back row, girls: Laura, Helen, Millie, Jean, Cathy, Mary Elizabeth, Jeannie. Front row, boys: Steve, Charles, me. GAYDAR ALERT: Two of these people are gay. Can you find them?
It turns out that Helen and Mary are really interesting people. They are both high achievers, have advanced degrees, have had fairly important jobs (which they both gave up to be full-time moms), and have traveled a lot. They let me tell my stories about what I've been up to over the last few years.
Those two are so precious and I've shut them out of my life for so long, for no good reason. I feel like such a fool. Helen told me that she'd once gone for almost two years without talking to Mary, and when I was talking to Mary later on, she confirmed it. I once went about that long without talking to my sister. Little did I know that I had someone within easy reach with whom I could have commiserated, if I'd bothered to reach out.
I guess there was only one conversation of the evening that I didn't feel completely comfortable about, that seemed more of an obligation than a pleasure. Billy Atkinson is married to my evil stepfather's sister. He approached me near the end of the evening. You have definitely seen his type, probably working as a truck driver or a plumber or something. He has a slightly better job than that but still has a working-class demeanor. His features are etched into a permanent scowl.
Despite not finding myself overly happy about the guy, if for no other reason than he's part of my evil stepfather's clan, I did my best not to show it. I didn't make an excuse and walk away. I talked to him for a long time. We talked about his job and my jobs and the economic downturn and how we've been affected by it.
The guy hadn't seen me since I was about ten, thirty years ago. After that I refused to have anything to do with my stepfather's family and was never around them again. But I have to let it go. I owe it to my sister to make an effort. I can't reject her father's family out of hand.
I was trying to imagine what that was like, seeing a kid of ten one day, not seeing him again until he's forty. I've grown about three feet since then. I've got a whole bunch of gray hair. I'm surprised Billy even recognized me.
Mom and her siblings: Dot, June, Jane, Jean, Claudette, Lynne, Alma, Joy. There are two more, Jim and Beth, but they never show up to family gatherings anymore.
I tried to conjure up something about him from the past, but I was drawing a blank. I remember seeing him when I was young, but that's it. There are no events I can associate with him, good or bad. I tried to establish the sort of mental communication with him that I can get going with almost anybody, if they are receptive. It wasn't working. I don't understand the contours of the minds of people like that. We'd been talking for twenty minutes, we'd gotten interrupted several times, and that seemed like enough. I excused myself. I'd say it's likely I'll never see him again.
And that's pretty much all I can tell you, folks. There are another hundred events from that day I could write about, but this will do. I thought I'd be holding my nose all day waiting for the dreaded event to be over. Instead, it was easily the best time I've ever had in the whole year and a half I've been in Nashville.
Every time my favorite uncle would stroll by it would make me feel all warm and fuzzy. "There's my uncle Darrell!" I'd think, like a big stupid dope. I'm going to find some way to do something especially nice for that man. He's earned it.
Outside the banquet hall where we had the reception, there's a cement statue of a jockey. It's exactly the same size as the flower girl. For some reason she went over to the statue and hugged it, then gave it a big kiss. I got a picture. It'll probably turn out to be the best one I took all day.
On Monday Andy and Jean left for their honeymoon. They're going to Australia for nine days. Mom took them to the airport. She said the two of them specifically requested that I go with her to pick them up when they return. I am happy to oblige.
There's a few more chapters of this story that have yet to be written, of course.