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The Family Tourist
There are two types of family trips. There is the trip where your entire immediate family piles into a car and drives for days at a time, sightseeing the major parks and historical landmarks along the highways. Then there are the trips solely for the purpose of visiting those far away relatives, to whom it barely seems like you are related, because they haven’t seen you since before you got your braces on, much less since you’ve gotten them off.
If you are fortunate enough to have family spread out all over the country, the trips to visit them land you in places you may never have visited in the first place. Since I have lived in South Carolina all my life, visiting family is my only way of knowing what it is like to live somewhere else. While we can be regular tourists in these places, our relatives are our tour guides and define the culture of the place.
Sometimes I wish my extended family lived closer, but having family in other places allows one to not simply be a tourist and it gives you an excuse to go back. Because you have family living there, there is an illusion that you live there too. A place looks very different from that point of view. Any place can almost feel like home.
The first time I went to Chicago, I was six months old. I have been back many times since, and it feels like a second home to me. The accent is contagious, and after a few days there, I talk twice as fast and begin to pronounce some words with the nasal sound of the South Side. Chicago has many world-class museums, especially the Field Museum. As you walk in, Sue, the largest and most complete T-Rex fossil, greets you at the door. The Field Museum has everything from natural history displays to artifacts from the ancient Orient and ancient Egyptians. For shopping, you can spend hours strolling along Michigan Avenue or in the Water Tower Place. As soon as the temperature rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, half the city flocks to Lake Michigan to sail, sunbathe, play beach volleyball, or swim. Native Chicagoans, like my mother, say that they can never get lost in Chicago because they can always “feel the lake” and know which direction it is.
Gradually, we have stopped going to the museums and other tourist attractions. Our trips now only last a few days, consisting of visiting family, going shopping, and seeing the latest art exhibit. We always visit my grandmother when we go to Chicago and have Friday night Shabbat dinner with the shvesters: my grandma and her sisters. Meet the shvesters—three old ladies who will leave this world kicking and screaming. My grandma is 92 years old and still works part time. One day on the bus she caught a pickpocket and zipped his hand up in her purse. When she saw the same man on the bus the next day, she glared at him until he got off. Her older sister, my great-aunt Miriam, is 94, hunched over at the waist, passes the driving test every year and is still deathly afraid that she is going to die of breast cancer even though she had a bilateral mastectomy in the 1970s. The family kept Aunt Miriam’s breast cancer a secret from the younger sister Rose for 30 years so that she wouldn’t worry about getting breast cancer herself. When she was diagnosed with it a few years ago at 85, they finally told her. Aunt Rose is also legally blind, but isn’t convinced because she can see shadows and shapes. She once looked at my mother, who has never weighed more than 112 pounds and asked if she had put on a little weight.
We usually eat at Aunt Rose’s assisted living home. When we enter the restaurant-style dining room, the walkers are lined up along the wall to wait for everyone to finish their meals, like horses at a hitching post. Aunt Rose, the hostess, always tries to make sure my brother has enough to eat by ordering him plate after plate of roast beef. Aunt Miriam holds discussions on anything, including raising chickens, and tries to sound educated on the subject because, of course, she is the expert; she is the shvester with the college degree. They ask questions that no one cares to know the answers, just to continue talking. As the food arrives and the conversation runs dry, every detail of the taste and texture of the food must be discussed to an extent that I almost don’t want to eat it. Aunt Miriam sends her plate back at least once because it isn’t prepared exactly the way she requested. My grandma, as the “middle child,” desperately tries to hold everything together, and works to ensure everyone is happy and included. I sit back in my chair and wonder how I am related to my great aunts.
Our last morning in Chicago, we always eat at the Original Pancake House with my grandma. No matter when we go, a line is forming out the door and the wait is at least 20 minutes. We wait anyway. The clientele are locals, families, businessmen, cops on their way to work…and us. I order my Hawaiian pancakes as if I come here every day.
I have also been to Texas many times to visit my paternal grandmother, who has now passed on, my aunt, and my cousins. There is one thing that always strikes me when I land at the airport in Lubbock, Texas: the land is so incredibly flat, no hills or forests, just a straight line dividing land and sky. You cannot go anywhere in Texas without hearing country music playing in the background. It plays in the mall, in the car, in the restaurants, and as background music for the barbeque party after my cousin’s graduation. Texans are proud of every song that has their namesake because for them life is like a country song.
My aunt lives in on 47th Street in an area that she calls “the hood” due to the vast number illegal immigrant neighbors. Her house consists of five rooms and a garage and is the domain of three dogs and four cats. All of them are strays that she has adopted and cannot bear to part with, even for a short trip to South Carolina to visit us. She cooks for them better than she cooks for her family. Her dogs eat bit size pieces of cooked chicken and vegetables that are served on china dishes. She panics if one of her dogs is accidentally let outside and runs after them shouting, “Doesn’t anyone listen to me? I told you not to let Mickey out! She’ll run across the highway!” We always manage to corner Mickey three houses down, yet it takes my aunt a while to recover. She speaks with a very slow and lazy Texas accent, so every conversation with her takes twice as long. Our visits with her are simply sitting around her house talking for hours at a time while absently playing fetch with the dogs.
When I was little, we would visit my grandma in her little apartment off the highway, where I would draw pictures and play piano for her. On our last trip to Lubbock, my dad and I drove by that apartment complex on the way back to the airport. He told me that once my brother and I had marked up the glass door with our fingerprints. D. K. (her second husband who took such good care of her when she was sick) never cleaned it off to remind them of us. Since my grandma died, we continue to visit D. K. He lives about 30 miles outside of Lubbock. He doesn’t have the bright red sports car anymore, which he loved to show off with the “you are what you drive” mentality. He still has his collection of hats that my mom adds to every year at Christmas. I have never seen him without a cowboy hat or at least a baseball cap. He takes us out to lunch to his favorite restaurant, a small just-off-the-road diner about half way back to Lubbock, where the waitress knows his name, his order, and his history. It is the kind of place that has red gingham tablecloths and you can order breakfast all day. He is almost deaf, so the conversation does not get too involved, but we talk about family and sports. Then we drive back “home” to Lubbock through the southern plains of Texas.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, we went to Lubbock for a family reunion celebrating my second cousin Nikki’s high school graduation. After the graduation, we had a cookout at my cousin’s house to which the whole family was invited. The whole family included: my immediate family, my aunt, her husband, her ex-husband, and his second wife, my cousin (my aunt’s son) and his family, my other cousin, and his second wife, his ex-wife, and their daughter Nikki—the guest of honor, and her boyfriend. “Bring all your husbands; bring all your wives.” Considering all the ex-spouses present, this should have been an awkward gathering, but everyone put aside their differences in the agreement that this was Nikki’s party. They sat around drinking Dos Equis (XX) beer and talked about work. The “XX” logo on the beer bottle caused Nikki to break out singing George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.” She and I went riding around the neighborhood in the golf cart as though we hung out every afternoon. My little second cousins followed me around at my heels, though there was no way they could have remembered me. I felt like these people truly were my family, even though I had only seen them a handful of times throughout my life.
We always make plans to see my aunt again before we leave, but we never follow through with them. She and my dad say “good bye” over the phone the night before our flight home. She never likes to say “good bye” in person.
My dad grew up in the small town of Emerson, Nebraska. At the edge of town, the grandfather I have never met is buried on a hillside surrounded by cornfields. Seven summers ago, we took my grandma back to be buried along side him. We drove to Emerson from the Omaha airport. A white water tower announced “Emerson” in bright red. As soon as we drove into town, everyone recognized our strange car—that’s how small the town was. The Sebades, one of Emerson’s prominent families, greeted us right away and invited us back to their house where we discussed the people they once knew and their farms. You see, in Nebraska, all people talk about is rain (or the lack there of), the crop, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Everyone is incredibly friendly in Nebraska. They say “hi” and wave, whether you know them or not. People think the South is friendly and hospitable, but I have lived in the South my entire life and nothing compares to Nebraska. We were driving down a side street in Omaha and a gangster-looking kid, complete with low riding pants, a wife-beater, and gold chains around his neck, lifted his hand to wave at us as we drove by. I wasn’t expecting any kind of courtesy from someone dressed like that.
My dad gave us a complete tour of the town. He showed us the house where he grew up, two stories of simple white siding shaded by leafy branches. There was the small neighborhood swimming pool that was packed even on the cool (by South Carolina standards) 80° day in July, where he had spent his summers life guarding. We walked the linoleum halls of the small elementary school that taught two grades in each classroom before the high school was built. We went to services in the Lutheran Church on Saturday night because the minister led Sunday services at the neighboring town. We snuck in and sat in the back row. I still felt conspicuous as though everyone knew we were strangers in town. I felt that way everywhere we went: the high school hallways, the farmland that we had inherited from my grandma, and in the little restaurant we ate lunch in that afternoon. The best hamburger I’ve ever eaten was in that restaurant on Main Street in Emerson.
In Emerson, I found myself at the heart of small town Middle America. I had heard my dad talk so much about growing up here and now I could see the deep innate connection he had with this place. I could see my grandma and great aunt’s senior pictures in the collection at the high school. I could see my grandparents’ names, my last name, on the grave markers in that cemetery on the edge of town. Yet, I could never get the feeling that this was one of my homes, like Chicago and Texas. I have returned to Chicago and Texas so often that I know my way around. I stay in the same hotel. I know what restaurants to eat at. I have family to welcome me. However, I could only feel that Emerson was somewhere that I distantly came from and was only familiar through the pictures I had drawn in my imagination. Maybe just I need to go back.