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Forever Patient

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I spent my Christmas's and Thanksgivings in the small house on the street of mansions in the part of Houston where the ladies sip ice tea through their pursed lips on the porches that oil and husbands bought for that purpose. The neighborhood was old, and the old guard was fading as some young guns bought up property and built houses for their dogs and porches for their wives, and then, as an afterthought, mansions whose design came from the other side of Saint Peters stoop. It was the house of my great grandparents, outfitted with all the knick knacks a ten-year-old was afraid to touch, and a forty-year-old knew too much about to dare risk it; with the carpentry tools that, we were told, would snip off a finger if you even looked at them funny; with the toys you knew and loved because they were better than that crap your parents had brought with you because it was in that sunlight dusty back room, with the smell of scotch and smiles permeating the open rooms; with masses of your relatives who were your blood and loved you for it. Most of all, as children we would look forward to it as the meeting of the Old Ones, the men who had lived life outside of the perimeter of their parents’ vision. Those visits were how we measured up to the world, and without them, we’d suspect we hadn't changed at all. My great grandparents were of the old school of Texas love. Pecan pie, iced tea, shotguns and a penchant for partying with whoever happened to be in the area. The gatherings on Christmas and Easter would end up being more along the lines of family reunions, with family pouring from Cajun country and from the small parts of Texas, and they would come with their food and liquor, bravado and children, and they would converge on that old home starting at eight the morning after the holiday, leaving space for church and travel. Except for the French, that side of the family never understood that in America we do things right and arrive when requested. But, they came bearing tidings of cognac and toys, so the main parties forgave and brought it up at the next party, and all was well under that old roof.

So we would walk in, and they, the Old Ones, would hug and kiss and laugh and sweep the slower kids up into hugs that would pop spines and kisses with so many cooties you couldn’t be seen for a week, while we the lucky kids would pinch each other or whatever we felt appropriate at the time. Then, at 12 o’clock sharp, lunch would be served. Always at 12 o’clock. Always two tables. Always set up in the same manner: the large table set up by the window, with as many chairs as they could string together on all the tables in the house and all the tables that company brought over for the purpose of fitting all that love in all its forms, mainly food love. But, then about ten feet out, there was a row of card tables and folding chairs lined up in a hodgepodge, with plastic cutlery and plastic cups where we, the age impaired, sat where we wouldn't pick up any of the bad habits they discussed or explained, and so wouldn't be a distraction as they talked and did Big Boy and Big Girl Things. But, to ensure our utmost cooperation, they sat my Great Grandmother, GiGi, with us. An imposing woman, standing all of five foot one and weighing 90 pounds, she would keep her piercing blue eyes on the children. This led to her doting on us, indulging us with stories for our own ears and gifts of chocolate before the monstrosity that the family called a ham was served (—a gift no one dared mention to the other adults of but was always remembered when we were called to give goodbye kisses). However, our eyes and ears soon wandered over to the table that must have descended from Valhalla in the other room, filled with the adults drinking and feasting and telling stories of the lives that they had so recently left behind when they packed up and came to the gathering of the clan. The stories made these men giants, bigger than Tarzan or Superman because these fine paradigms of humanity had lived and done and learned and lost, and had climbed onto a point where they could sit down and drink scotch and mock us who still are attempting, still aging, still growing, laughing as they reclined in big chairs around an even bigger table, the one reserved for those who have made it. The eating would continue for the better part of three hours. When the last of the smorgasbord had been tamped down our gullets like cement into a post hole by our loving aunts and mothers and grandmothers, we would begin the slow movement towards the china room. We could barely move on our own accord (the feast had paralyzed our legs), so the mothers would swoop and pick us up, plopping us in the front row, while the rest of the gathering would slowly roll, waddle or migrate into the center of the room where a large couch was set. Always in the center were the two patriarchs of the family: the two binding ties that held all of that mess of flesh and blood and gristle together. Always, the families would radiate out of the center, from the closest related to the new crying baby who was born into this mess of blood and love. Always, the old Nikon was set up on a tripod and the flash would go off with the children often looking out of the frame, unaware of what was happening, unaware of the past and the present and the future that had congregated in that one moment of time, and in that one special place. Always unaware of the power, the pull that these gatherings had on the family. Always unaware of how these moments would sear themselves into our minds: or that we were because we knew who they were.

Since children cannot be kept captive, and the Irish and working class Texan cannot be kept quiet and sober for long, the drinks would flow, the cigars would be lit, and the children would be sequestered off into the back of the house, into what was called the toy room: a room specially designed to hold children while engaging them in numerous activities that are safe and enjoyable for the young mind. So, we would smuggle things that would generally make it unsafe: slingshots, nerf guns, and the occasional red rider BB gun. I would find an old corn cob pipe (I never did learn if it was a toy or not) and lead the Campbells gloriously into battle against the LeGrand hordes, or the Newsome mercenaries (if my loving cousins had more bubble gum than I did). The battle would rage, until one of the leaders got tired or bored, or until one of the toddlers would complain that we shot him in the eye and that wasn’t fair. So, in order to avoid the ruining of the day because of some child’s cries of pain or what they mistook for pain but we, the older ones, could always correctly identify as weakness, we would settle into a smaller game, cards or something. But, once we quieted down, that’s when we would hear the stories, hear the laughter and the echoes of great men and hear them explain how they conquered the world or how the world conquered them. We would sit for hours like this, listening to the Old Ones conquer all of humanity over and over again, listening to the experiences that made them men, that made them Giants.

Every so often one of my comrades in youth would be summoned from our low place to the mountain, generally around the time we realized he was 5’10” and looked like his face was dirty along the upper lip and the jaw line and that he smelt like onions but worse. The cousin, or whoever it might be, would be called to the great table and he would be offered a drink, and he would be allowed to sit while the Giants orated around the circle, in what my grandmother called pissing contests. At that point, we wouldn’t see much of him anymore. He would be with the Men, for he too was a Man now, and he had ascended to a higher place while we Boys languished and waited for our day to come, that we too would be ready, finally able to join the great table and look down at others with a worldly knowledge and know where we had come from and where we have been and why we are. And wait we did.

The house is gone now. My great grandmother died and with her the ability to keep up with the house. It was sold to an oilman, and there is now a porch for the wife, a home for the dog, and a mansion with rooms for the all the inhabitants of the new money neighborhood and all their friends. It sits below capacity every night and every day of the year. With the departure of that beautiful soul, Dionysus left too, taking the glorious meetings of the family and all those they picked up along the way. That last Christmas was the last time I saw most of those people, outside of the photos I can now hold that have me staring off into the top right corner at some shiny object I couldn’t understand and wanted to throw, just to see how they would break. Except for the last ones. The last photos have me standing erect, smiling into the camera with a buzz cut on my head. Standing about 5’8”, and a little bit of fuzz on my upper lip. I remember being so sure that that would be the year, but no call came for me. I still sat with my youthful compatriots, wiped their noses, played their games, and listened to the roar coming from the other room. I waited, ever patiently, for what I knew would come next year.
But that year can never come now. I am stuck, standing at the foot of the table of men.





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