Life Lessons Learned from a Barbecue

By
In the summer of 2006, I was fourteen years old. That summer was a summer of change. Within the walls of those three short months I experienced new things, I was faced with new challenges, new decisions, and I was given a second chance to live like I hadn’t been able to in the year before. That summer for me, was a turning point. I was finally moving on from one of the worst experiences of my life, and one of the most strengthening. In the summer of 2006, I had faded purple hair, bad acne, and high hopes for the coming future. When I look back on that whole summer, and all of the events that led to it, one day in particular stands out in my mind. For most people, the events that occurred on that day are commonplace, and insignificant. But for me, they were special, new, and so very important to who I am today.

My birthday usually lands near the last day of school. In fact, the day I turned fourteen just happened to be the last day of eighth grade. I would be starting high school in the fall; I would be in advanced classes and hoped to be on the tennis team. I had a lot of plans for the new school year; there would be new people, new activities, and new challenges. But for the time being, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I was looking forward to hot summer nights, bike rides, trips to the pool, and time to relax, something I hadn’t had a chance to do for a long time.

Before I knew it, June of 2006 was gone. I hadn’t done hardly anything I had hoped. I had missed the registration deadline for camp so for the first time in six years, I would not be attending. That took a toll on my optimism, it was something I had always enjoyed and looked forward to. My mom made a compromise though, instead of going to summer camp for a week, I would spend a week at my cousin’s in Hinckley at the end of July. I reluctantly agreed, mainly because I had no other choice.

The first weeks of July flew by; I was in a summer band program for the last time before I was deemed too old. This seemed to take up a lot of my time and energy but I remember squeezing in a couple of trips to the public pool with the neighbor. By the time my band program was over, it was the weekend before I was to leave for my cousin’s house in the country. I wasn’t as excited about leaving as I had been before. I guess the realizations were starting to sink in; there were no pools, tennis courts, or libraries in Hinckley. Actually, there was a library, a small one, and it was open for a grand total of two hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I love my cousins, but I had never been with them for more than a few days. I didn’t know if I was ready for a whole week of being volunteered to baby-sit only because I was the oldest, and having to listen to my 12-year old cousin Hannah speculate as to why I didn’t have a boyfriend yet. But for the moment, none of that mattered. It was a Friday night, and I had just gotten word that my older brother would be coming over the next day.

Once again, this sort of event might not be considered significant by some, but I hadn’t seen my brother since Christmastime and I missed him, a lot. He had been a big part of the events that had occurred the following year and seeing him was as meaningful as it had ever been. I immediately began planning how we would spend the following Saturday, I hoped he would bring his rollerblades. My brother and I have this longstanding competition going, I vowed that someday I would beat him at roller hockey. Of course, with him being eleven years older than I am, and the better skater, I’m fighting a losing battle.

That Saturday was one of those days where any sane person with central air would’ve stayed indoors. But my father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. By ten-o’clock I had evacuated the house and was situated on the front steps trying to hide from the late-July sun. Finally, half an hour late, my brother Lucas arrived, armed with roller blades, his hockey stick, and a two-month belated birthday gift.

My father and I have never had a father-daughter relationship. Our family is dysfunctional, to say the least. We didn’t do things that “normal” families do, my father had never been to any of his niece’s or nephew’s birthday parties, we had never been to a baseball game as a family, and we had never barbecued. We owned a barbecue, we had for as long as I can remember, but the extent of my barbecuing experiences had been spent in the fenced-in yard of my neighbor’s house. So after a long day of chasing my brother around the neighborhood on rollerblades with a super-soaker, no one was as surprised as I was to come home and find my father in the backyard with a bag of charcoal and a bottle of lighter fluid.

The sun had started to go down and the heat was diminishing. Lucas and I had cut through the alley to get back to the house. We found my father and his ancient charcoal-fueled grill, and my mom with a book and a Pepsi. My father wasn’t yelling, my brother was home willingly, and my mom wasn’t holed up in the basement with a carton of cigarettes. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I could smell the scent of grilled pork chops and it was coming from my yard, not the neighbor’s. I wanted that evening to last forever. It was the first time we had come together as a family in as long as I can remember. My parents are not going to win any “parent of the year” awards; our little family doesn’t typically do anything together. My parents drive separate cars to my concerts and programs, they fight, and it’s not in their nature to make up. But that night was different. We talked, we ate, we watched the sun set over the trees, and then we lit the barbecue once more to roast marshmallows. I don’t even like marshmallows, but if it meant another hour of bliss, I would pretend to like them. That night was peaceful, happy, and short. But it was special, so very special. Because we were acting like a family, something I never thought would be possible after only a year before, our lives were turned upside down and backwards with an unexpected loss that tore through whatever semblance of a family we had had. I didn’t think anything would ever be the same again, much less be better than it was before, but I was wrong.

That night, two years ago, was the first and probably last time that my dad did something like that. Unfortunately, that night was not a turning point for our relationship as a family. My parents still scream at each other, my mom still smokes, Lucas still forgets to call, and my dad is still an alcoholic. But that’s not the point, we came together that night, we didn’t fight or argue, we talked, we laughed, and we lived. That summer was when I finally began to move on, I stopped dying my hair funny colors, I started calling my brother more often, I tried to be more tolerant of my father, I made an effort. We all did. When I left for my cousin’s the following Sunday, I had new stories to tell, new memories to store away forever. I learned from the people around me that summer, especially that night. I learned a lot about myself too. I learned that life is tough, life is challenging, difficult, and life isn’t fair. I’ve learned the same thing over and over again, but I’ve also learned that life is good. The first time I heard that was from my other older brother, John. We were playing monopoly and he had just made a lot of money from one of his hotels, he said, “life is good,” and smiled that crooked smile he always had. I didn’t think much of it, I was little, but I remembered what he said. I think that night, sitting around the grill and watching the last flickering embers die out, I think I finally understood what John meant, life is good. Even though life can be tough, there will always be those moments, those moments when you realize that things are going to be okay, that challenges can be overcome. That night, sitting there with my family, being a family, that was one of those moments.





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