And now we drive south in cold, crisp Sunday morning sunshine. Charlie fusses in the back seat and the children snap, tired from a hectic week. Chapter One, Book Two of the Merlin series fills the car in surround sound but it is a distant drone to me. Instead, snatches of conversation roll through my head. Bits and pieces that people shared of themselves, strands of kindness and talents and strengths all woven together to make a blanket of memories that I wrap myself in here in the passenger seat.
Clink. Clink. “I have a toast to make.” She stood up at the table and we all burst into laughter at the sight of her with a beer bottle in each hand. She’s not much of a drinker. “I just want to thank you Mr and Mrs. M. for bringing me here to spend this week with you. You have no idea how special you all are to me and how much I needed you.” She said this through laughter and tears. Both emotions spill from her simultaneously, always.
“It’s no harder raising nine children than it is to raise three,” Dad proclaimed from the head of the dinner table.
A brother leaned in until he and Dad were almost nose to nose. “That,” the brother declared in the voice he saves for delivering strong opinions, “is bullshit.” His choice of words was so unexpected at this dinner of good food and good manners that the occupants in the nearby seats exploded into loud, gasping laughter…Dad perhaps the loudest of all.
“We’re having a hard time with him,” they shared with me, as we were lost among a herd of relatives hiking down a gravel path on a warm-enough-to-shed-jackets afternoon. I listened to their story and was impressed by their courage and their willingness to set aside pride in exchange for humility…to do whatever it takes to create peace within their little one.
As we hurried back to the cars on the same walk, the sun’s warmth disappeared never to return for the rest of our visit. I walked with another sister while some of my children pushed the stroller carrying her baby into a ditch and another one of my children rescued her. “I have enormous respect for your parents. They did a wonderful job raising nine productive human beings.” I thought on those words for the remainder of the week. It's good to see family through objective eyes.
“Come on, Jen. Let’s run suicides!” Two sisters went out into the freezing dark with a dozen children behind them to run and tag and play. They came back in and put coats on the little ones before they caught pneumonia and went out again and came back red cheeked and laughing a long time later.
We sat side by side at the counter in the kitchen and the conversation turned to life. “It’s been a hard year,” he said and for a moment the easygoing persona that he customarily wears was pushed aside. Tears welled in his eyes and I was overcome by their sudden appearance.
“I’m sorry.” I reached out to him and found that I had tears too. It hurts to see the suffering of one that you love.
He ran into the fridge with a bang and discovered that there was a handle. What’s this? A handle? The fridge at home doesn’t have a handle. I wonder what’s in here. He tugged with all his might and the door popped open. His eyes scanned for treasure. Butter. That’s what I want! “Butter!” he cried and pulled out a stick and plunked it into my hands.
“That’s right. It’s butter. Do you want it back?”
He held out his hands and grinned up at me. I gave the butter back and he returned it to it’s home on the fridge door. He shut the door and opened it again. The butter was still there. “Yeah! Butter!” The game was repeated again and again. “Yeah! Butter!”
“Sometimes I think he compares himself to some of your brothers and sees how successful they are and somehow feels that he doesn’t quite measure up,” she told me as we set up an impromptu sandwich shop on a woodpile. We were smearing peanut butter and jelly on bread and doling out cheese sticks to a hungry mob in the middle of the woods.
“Yeah. I understand. I feel like that too. After all, I don’t do anything all that great. I’m just a mom.”
“You do?! That surprises me. I guess we all struggle with comparisons, don’t we? But then he looks at the life that he has with us. He’s a great dad and family comes first and that is what really matters. He’s a great success in the things that count.”
She’s right. He is a great husband and dad. He’s wonderful at the things that matter. And I was glad myself for her reminder.
“We asked the bus driver to back up so we could capture this shot.” A beautiful African bird filled the screen. We were looking at pictures of Tanzania where a brother has spent the last two years. Zebras, elephants, computers, children, schools and birds marched in succession across the screen. Lots and lots of birds.
“He told me that one of his sisters loves birds so we made sure we took lots of bird pictures,” his girlfriend said. I was astounded by their thoughtfulness, not only with the photos but also with how they went out of their way to be kind to John, the oldest grandchild. The one who didn’t quite fit with the massive pack of four to seven year olds. “Do you mind if we take John with us to the store? He was just wandering around outside by himself. Do you think he might like to spend a little time with us?” This youngest brother of mine is my parents’ magnum opus. There is not a kinder, more generous spirit in the bunch.
The baby grinned at John and Charlie while rocking, rocking on his papa’s lap. He leaned over to make closer eye contact. The smallest cousin. “When I have a kid, it’s going to be the best baby,” his papa said, when this baby was nothing but a thought. It appears he was right. The baby was passed around to eager, waiting arms. He was snuggled and kissed and in return he smiled and cooed and he did not cry. Ever.
Food arrived by the carload at the house, all of it neatly labeled, Merchant. We laughed out loud at this butchering of our last name. It has been so since the beginning of time. It was good food though, all thoughtfully provided by my parents. They thought of it all. Everything we needed was provided before we needed to run to the store or search through the cupboards. Such generosity.
And now we drive south. Thanks to all of you for the memories. May it not be so long until the next time.