July 4, 2018


"Hey, are you related to -- ?"

"Nope, absolutely no relation."


There's a famous person in this vicinity of North Carolina who shares my last name, but he's from another branch, the ones who didn't come from a dirt-poor county down East.  But everyone always asks.  Some day, I'm going to say he's my uncle, just to see what happens.

I'm the last grandchild, the end, the terminus of my daddy's line.

Grandma and Granddaddy had four children:  Rowena, my arsenic-wielding aunt; Gerry; Tommy, my daddy; and James, called Jay.

Granddaddy ran off when they were young and remarried, ostensibly to the woman he'd been seeing, but they had no biological children.  I'm guessing things were strained for a while between him and my daddy, but I remember going to visit him in Raleigh once a year and staying for a couple of days, so at some point they must have come to an understanding.  He always had shrimp in the chest freezer, just for me.

Once, we all took a fishing trip out to the coast, where Granddaddy was from, the marshy tidal flats surrounding Lake Mattamuskeet.  I was four years old and my daddy let me use the cane pole that he had used as a boy and kept all those years.  I wasn't afraid to squish my own worm onto the hook.  However, the first thing I caught was a heavy, rather large eel, which I thought was a huge snake, and I screamed and threw the eel - and the fishing pole - into the water and turned and ran and locked myself in the truck.  That cane pole rests at the bottom of the lake now.  Presumably, so does what remains of the eel.  Daddy just shook his head, but he didn't get angry about the pole.  I wonder if he fished with it in that exact spot as a little boy, and if he decided in that moment that it belonged there anyway.

Because I couldn't fish after that, I spent the remainder of the hot afternoon rolling up my pants and wading around in the edge of the lake water, because it never occurred to me that there might be more than one eel in a lake that takes up almost the whole damned county.  I did point out a paper cup floating in the water that turned out to be a crab.

Granddaddy had a brother and a sister.  The brother died young and the sister committed suicide in her early twenties.  Neither had children.

Granddaddy died from lung cancer when I was eight.  Like the rest of that side of the family, except for Grandma, he smoked copiously.  I cried a little for him, but I didn't know him well and only lost a man who made me shrimp and wore one of those really tall farmers' caps and took me places where I was surprise-attacked by vicious snakes taller than I was.  A man whose name is my own middle name.

Rowena had two sons, my cousins.  One died of leukemia in his early twenties.  His younger brother died a few years thereafter after a cocaine overdose.  They found him on Rowena's living room floor.  She was already crazy before that, what with the whole arsenic thing and speeding tickets and Elvis hang-up, but with both of her boys gone and medications only doing what little they can do, we give her a lot of leeway and permission to be as insane as she needs to be.  It's only fair.

Gerry never had children.  He lived inside his head and smoked a lot of weed, lifted weights, and eventually made his way out to Las Vegas.  The last I heard, he was living in a tent because he'd been kicked out of yet another rented room, and walked to work.  He's one of those guys who can shuffle cards like a magic trick and deals blackjack at casinos.

Jay was gay.  He and his "friend" ran a dance studio in Atlanta.  They said it was lung cancer again when he died in the early 1990s, but that doesn't explain why his name is on the AIDS quilt.

That leaves my daddy, and I'm his only child.  I still carry the family name, but because the kid has his father's surname, when I die, the line of that name four generations back dies with me.  Call me skeptical, but I have to allow that maybe that's a good thing, because as a family we appear to be cursed with tragedies.  In the darker times, I think about Rowena losing both sons and how slim those odds are, but it gives me chills anyway because if anything ever happens to my son ... well.  Yeah.

Family trees should be pyramid-shaped, branching out to show proliferation.  Mine is the right shape, but the pyramid is upside-down and balancing on its point.  Balancing on me.

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