Uncle Bobby, Uncle Johnny, and my father are sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching NASCAR. I don’t understand the appeal of boringly designed cars — however colorful, however fast — looping around a track for hours on end. I am six years old, however, and the macabre piques my boyish interests. I watch for the accidents.
My grandmother is in her kitchen, where she stands over her stove with one hand on her hip and the other on the handle of a skillet. Fried chicken sizzles inside. She studies it and the contents of neighboring pots: salt-covered green beans and black-eyed peas (fresh shucked, by yours truly), collard greens mixed with pieces of bacon, and homemade gravy and mashed potatoes soaked in butter. She cracks open the oven occasionally to check on the cornbread.
The kitchen is dangerous territory this time on Sundays. You’re welcome to the Frigidaire for sweet tea, but you’ll do well to stay out of Mama’s way. My mother knows this, but she knows no bounds. She hovers over my grandmother, asking pointless questions and sharing flimsy gossip.
“Get the hell out of my kitchen, Susie,” my grandmother demands as she shoos my mother away with a dish rag. My mother laughs and shuffles into the living room.
On the front porch two of my aunts, Uncle Bobby’s girlfriend-of-ten-years, and my grandfather sit on rocking chairs. My grandfather reads the Sunday funnies with a pipe hanging out of his mouth and fresh tobacco at his side. He drops the front of the paper to tell me a rhyme every time I stop by. I wonder how he knows so many.
My aunts watch my cousins and neighbor kids playing in the front yard with plastic swords and capes fashioned from pillowcases. I’m busy chasing my teenage brother’s girlfriend around his Mustang, my brother’s first-ever car and the pride of his life. He watches nervously from the top of the driveway with my older cousins, who talk about things I’m told I’m too young to hear. They move away when Aunt Barbara’s green Mercedes pulls in. She and Uncle Dennis (the most glamorous members of the family) are visiting from Fort Lauderdale. I dart toward the car.
“Justarino!” Dennis calls as he exits the car. He’s called me this since I can remember; the nickname sounds right coming only from him.
“Hey my little darlin’,” my aunt says as I throw my arms around her sundress. She smells like I imagine movie stars smell: flowery and rich.
“Did you bring me a souvenir?” I call all gifts received from Aunt Barbara “souvenirs” regardless of their origin.
“Maybe,” she says. “Let me on to say hello to everyone.” I watch her walk toward the house, her dress dancing in the wind, and feel Dennis’ hand rub my head as he passes me by.
Today is no special occasion. My aunt visiting is incidental. The goings on — especially the coming clamor over lemon meringue pie and chocolate yellow cake — are Sunday routine at my grandparents’ house. These are traditions in motion, simplicities that make us whole, southern charms and delicious stereotypes. We remind ourselves on Sundays that we don’t have much, but we’ve got enough; we’ve got each other.
Advance our portrait of Sundays at my grandparents’ house ten years and NASCAR fades to black, the fried chicken stops sizzling, my mother stops her mischief, the rocking chairs stop rocking, my grandfather’s rhymes grow silent, and we begin to disappear. From the porch swing and the rocking chairs, from the living room and the kitchen, from the driveway and the yard, members of my family vanish one after another. We are lost to death — so much death — to confinement, to rebellion, to abandonment. Hearses arrive and depart, people age and disappear, we become strangers and enemies, the yard grows unkempt and a For Sale sign sprouts at its edge. An endless night kidnaps my family.
I grew up watching the love around me collapse. I experienced enough warmth and comfort as a child to know how wonderful life could be, and enough tragedy to underline the highs. For this I can only be thankful, because I know what the world can be, and I strive every day to rebuild and make it so.