He is big, and cheerfully greets me with a “Hi, Aunt Anne.” Big as his brother was big. His brother’s a cop for a borough that wears black uniforms and the last time I saw him was at his grandmother’s bedside in the hospital, wearing the black uniform with all the stuff hung on it, looking massive. But this is John, not David, and he was just a kid the last time I saw him. He was twenty-two when his father died. I didn’t go to the funeral, and I think this is the first I’ve seen him since then.
I am mad at him, mad that he’s an hour late without calling. He tells me that he sent me an email. I tell him you should always call anyone over sixty—we don’t think email. I tell him it’s been a screwed up morning and I’m mad about a lot of things. And he says—honest to God—he says, “So what can I do to make it better?”
And I wonder where in hell I got a blood relative who (a) isn’t fazed by my anger and (b) is so wise. Just as simple as that: how can I make this train wreck better? Amazing. In the first place, we come from a family that so totally can’t cope with anger. And in the second place—put yourself out there for someone else? Without telling you what you’re expected to do, how you have to behave, what the rules are for acceptance?
You’re joshing me. I think I like this kid, who is a middle-aged man. I tell him, “Get me out of here!” He does.
We go out to the parking lot and meet Maureen and Penny the Puppy, who is 1/3 beagle, 1/3 pit bull, 1/3 mutt, and chocolate brown. Every time John asks anything, I just say, “Get me out of here,” and in a matter of minutes Maureen has navigated us on our way to Oneida Shores, a park on Lake Oneida, gosh, gee, go figure, and we are talking nonstop because—twenty years—we have a lot to get caught up on.
We are the misfits, the cast-offs, the ones whose email addresses and phone numbers get lost until two weeks after the family event. We were born for the wrong reasons and had to learn to survive outside the family circle. About a year ago John found me on Facebook and, among other things, actually asked me some straightforward questions, to which he got equally straightforward answers, which we both reveled in, straight-talking being a totally unheard of thing in our families, both generations.
We get to Oneida Shores and find it closed because the lifeguards all have gone back to school so then we drive around lost and indecisive. We go to one of the Erie Canal Locks but find it utterly inactive. We try to work our way back to a restaurant we saw on Lake Oneida, but get repeatedly lost, likewise in finding anything else. We are cheerfully lost, nobody getting tense or frustrated. I like these people, both of them, and they are my family.
It was John who dared to ask me about the story going around that my father had sexually molested me. WOW! There’s a story! Shocked, I sent an absolute denial to all the relatives for whom I had email addresses, only to learn that the story was true, just not about me.
We ended up getting take-out at a restaurant that wouldn’t take-in Penny the Puppy, so we go to a park on the lake. It is a lovely, lovely day, warm with sun, cool with breeze, a great view of boats on the lake, wide open sky, and the puppy—who kind of gets carsick—laying on the green green grass with her chin on her paws, approving of everything. Mother Maureen is bringing us blow by blow accounts of what’s happening back home. One of her big dogs has gotten stuck under the outdoor deck and her neighbor is trying to dig her out.
Then they ask me, both of them, if the farm was a land-grant from William Penn, how could the family possibly have let it go? Well, that’s a long, long story, and where to start?
The Lower Farm actually holds the land grant. Around 1900, some of the land was sold out of the family. When it came back into the family, it had a farmhouse and barn built on it and this became the Upper Farm. C.B. and his wife Clarence, for reasons unknown, moved to the Upper Farm.
We never did get to the part about how my grandmother and grandfather came to own the Upper Farm, but they had four children—my mother and her brothers George, Dick and Jim. George was the businessman who became executive vice president of the steel mill; Dick was the farmer who stayed on the land; Jim was the black sheep who left his wife and children and went to Las Vegas.
In the end, Grandma sold the farm to Dick because he was running for Justice of the Peace and Grandma thought an elected official should be a landowner. A piece of the land went to my mother, which I did not know until after she had sold it. (I would have given anything and everything to own a piece of this land that has been in the family for over three hundred years.) Jim got nothing, having squandered his inheritance on bad deals. George got the fields, and planted that most lucrative of all crops—townhouses.
Throughout this storytelling, John has been nodding—“Okay, that makes sense; good move—I would have done that; that’s pretty reasonable,” and then he looks at me and asks, “So how did this family get so screwed up?”
Ah, another story for another day.