John’s Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

In the summer of 2005, my brother John, moved back to Grayson County in Texas where we had grown up. He was wrinkled and worn, and for the first time, I noticed that he seemed tired. I tried not to think about all the situations that had driven us apart for so long. The list was endless, and I didn’t have a lot of fight left in me.

The truth too was, no matter what had happened, I had missed him. I often wondered how it could be possible to detest and love someone at the same time. But I did. And I sensed that he wanted to try to be a family again, so I gave it my best shot.

He had been gone for ten years, living in Las Vegas. I wondered how he could live in the entertainment capital of the world one day, and then the next day live in Pottsboro, Texas, the epitome of a tiny Texas town with only one red light.

He had only been back for a week when my husband Gary and I met up with him and his new wife, Jan, at a Mexican restuarant for supper. I hoped and prayed that things would go well, that maybe we could salvage some kind of relationship from the ruins.

He looked old and so small compared to the larger than life man I had known just ten years before. There were no black hairs left on his head, just gray and white. Inside, though, he was still John. He regaled us with some of his favorite stories during supper. They were stories I had heard before, but I wanted to hear them again. I hung onto his words as he wove his stories and I watched the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth.

“I was working at an air conditioning and heating place in Fredericksburg,” he said. “We went out early in the mornings to install new units. That day, we had just climbed up into the attic of a house  when I heard a man’s voice down below asking us how things were going.”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? That it was as cool as an April morning? Hell no. I looked down toward the voice and simply told him the truth–it was hotter ‘n hell up there.”

“You actually said that?” I asked, laughing. I knew this story. I knew he had actually said it, but it had been so long since we had had times like these that I relished hearing it again.

John nodded. “Sure did. And wouldn’t you know, when I looked down through the ceiling air vent, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson opening his morning mail.”

I laughed again. “Did he say anything back? Get onto you or something?”

“Naw. He just stared down at his mail and smiled.”

Sometimes, I wondered how true any of these stories were, but I didn’t really care. It really made them more exciting and interesting.

John had always been more at home in the world than most people I knew. Even as his old age crept up behind him, he still had the confidence and demeanor of the handsome young man he had once been. He even flirted with the waitresses at the restaurant and it didn’t seem to surprise him a bit when the young girls flirted back.

From about the time his feet touched the green grass of Texas, John started talking about having a family reunion. I wasn’t against it exactly, but wasn’t exactly up to it either. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And if I couldn’t explain it to myself, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my brother.

So, soon he was calling me several times a week to go over his list of invitees.

He kept saying “Have I forgotten somebody?”

With every name he added to the list, I felt a deeper sense of dread. So the plans marched on and one day he told me he wanted to have the reunion in July, the hottest month in Texas.

July. Sometimes the entire month went by without a cloud in the sky. The month always made me think of Momma and the song we had sung at her graveside service, “Uncloudy Day.”

Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, the land of cloudless day
Oh, the land of an unclouded day
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone
Oh, they tell me of that land far away
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

Months went by and John kept making plans. I tried to distance myself from all of it for a while. Something told me that he wanted me to cook all the food, just like our mother would have done when she was alive. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility, so I kept the reunion conversations at arm’s length. Still, I didn’t want to walk into some kind of John-created chaos on the day of the reunion, so I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“Oh, I’m going to rent a boat and ferry people across the lake to the islands,” he said.

He sounded like a little kid, to be honest, and like most kids, he never really thought all his plans fully through. I felt panic rising in my chest. I still couldn’t explain why, but it was there.

“Then what?” I asked, hoping that might prompt more in-depth thought to his plans.

But he heard my worry and got irritated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll have fun no matter what we do.”

I sat there on the other end of the line wishing I could understand why I was so reluctant about all of this so I could explain it to him without him getting angry.

Maybe it was my age, I thought. Maybe I’m just getting too old for things like this. So I told him that.

He snorted. “You’re still just a kid,” he said. “You always will be.”

He had always felt like I had been shielded from life’s harsh realities.

I pictured Aunt Jane riding in a boat going across a large expanse of lake in 110 degree heat. Old people would be dropping like flies on that boat and John hadn’t thought about any way to keep them from overheating, keeping everybody hydrated. Did he expect me to come along and pick up the slack?

“You can’t worry about all that right now,” I heard him say into the phone. He had gone from irritated older brother to snaky salesman. “Just think of sitting under the shade of those big trees on the islands. How long’s it been since you played a good game of dominoes? Wouldn’t that be fun to sit outside with our family and play dominoes?”

The week before the family reunion, I felt as if something catastrophic was bearing down on me, and there was no getting out of the way. How could I have stopped it? I had rarely seen John this excited.

I comforted myself by thinking that maybe the world would end before it happened. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the earth and I wouldn’t have to worry about the family reunion. I tried to appear excited when John was around.

He had contacted every member of each side of our family that he could hunt down. He had asked me a thousand questions about people we hadn’t seen in decades.

“You think Clyde is still alive?” he’d ask.

I hadn’t thought about Clyde in a month of Sundays, so I just shrugged and said I didn’t know.

Each day leading up to the reunion was hotter and drier than the one before. No cloud graced the North Texas sky. I wouldn’t watch the weather forecast because it was always the same–sunny and hot! It was the same every summer–a high pressure ridge sat over us and any possible precipitation went around us.

A few days before the reunion, the phone rang. John’s voice was muted on the other end. He sounded tired and sad.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we are going to have that family reunion.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad I had been sitting down when he called because otherwise, you could have knocked me over with a feather. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Tammy,” he said, talking about his oldest daughter. “She’s been taken to drug rehab in California.”

And that’s when I realized it. He had planned the whole thing for Tammy. She was the real reason he wanted to get the family together.

Never would I have wanted his daughter to have the problems she had and I certainly would never have wished for her problems to be the reason we couldn’t have a family reunion. But there was a part of me that was relieved.

Still, I couldn’t show my brother that. So, I commiserated with him and did my best to sound disappointed.

And then I said, “You know, John, we can have it another time.”

__________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

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