My dad had two sisters, my aunts. They were both older than he was. He was, by their account, the baby. All three are gone now, but as the summer winds down, I got to thinking about the reunions we had at our mountain cabin over the years. I am certain that my perspective is skewed, but I was always a little surprised at how relaxed and normal my father was able to raise his own family in spite of the strained relations he maintained with his sisters. My aunt Peggy lived in town, and we were regularly treated to whatever new confection or concoction came into the grocery store where she worked. It was Peggy's daughters that became my parents' first line of defense when it came time to round up a sitter for the evening. All these associations were essentially benign, and they only caused the usual kind of trouble. Peggy's husband, Duane, was another matter. "Uncle Waywee," as we were encouraged to call him, was a Navy man who never seemed to have both oars in the water. In my memory, he consisted on a diet of pipe smoke and longhorn cheese. And bitterness.
Sunday afternoons on the front porch of our cabin with my dad's family stood in stark contrast to the enormous gatherings that descended upon our little spot in the meadow when my mom's family showed up for their annual get-together. Nobody seemed to look forward to these, including my father. He seemed hard pressed to show his relations the same kind of good time that he always had with his in-laws. When his other sister, Leora, made a trip out west from her adopted home of Boston, that strain only increased.
There was drinking involved. Not the happy, tipsy version that my mom's family generally provided, but the surly, slurred kind that turned bitter as the day progressed. The benefit of fifty years or so has given me some insight into what that may have been like for all involved. My dad was the success in the family. He had his house in the suburbs, a company car, and three boys who helped him build their mountain hideaway. His sisters didn't have that. Auntie Leora was divorced and was doing her best to hold on to her kids as they drifted away. Aunt Peggy was the bread-winner in her home and was just as happy to leave her husband in front of the TV on any given evening.
But this was a family reunion. A family that was watched over by Grandma Esther, "The Great Stoneface of Kansas." Esther had moved her family out of Kansas, leaving behind a Peter Pan of a husband and set up a boarding house in Boulder, Colorado where she raised her brood while looking after a host of tenants, mostly college boys. I have no memory of my Grandmother smiling, and I am sure that bringing her children back together didn't offer her the occasion.
My father tried to smile. He was a good host. Right up to the point where Uncle Waywee started into a beer-infused rant about equitable distribution of wealth. Which is giving him a lot of vocabulary credit, since most of it consisted of a refrain of "high and mighty" and related sneers at my dad's lofty position as printing salesman at a local publishing company. The job for which he had been aiming since he had a paper route as a teenager. My father let it go, but I know it wore on him. Which is why we sometimes missed those connections with his clan. And always looked forward to when we could all get together with my mom's family for a volleyball game or some horseshoes in the shadow of those big Blue Spruce trees.
And we would wait, just a little pained, for the next obligation.