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I haven’t seen Uncle in seven years. When I imagine him now, all I see are bad bits: the hot red veins bulging out of his crew cut, a six-foot-something monster. I see him crouched in front of the TV with a beer in hand. He watched two things: football and news. He overcooked everything he laid hands on and always made a big stink about getting the right kind of sausage.
Uncle was a Texas import from New York, a Catholic boy, an ex-ballplayer as the legend goes. His inside voice was the same as his ball game voice. His greatest talent was ignoring money troubles. Uncle borrowed ten grand from my parents so he wouldn’t lose his too-big suburban mansion, and my parents never got a dime back. Uncle acted like he never took it. Those are the things I remember; the rest has blurred.
Thanksgiving dinner for an eleven year old is all about pie and rolls. It was our first Thanksgiving with my Aunt and Uncle. We were still eager to be a close-knit family. My cousins, one a toddler and the other six years old, were loud and annoying (the way cousins ought to be). As an eleven-year old, I was often guilty of saying odd things. When I did, I received concerned looks from around the table: a warning look from Mom and Dad, a look away from my Aunt, and a look of shock from Uncle. I liked igniting reactions.
It’s hard not to eat the rolls, the stuffing, the yams, and cranberry sauce once it’s on your plate. I wasn’t raised to say grace before dinner or to do anything on Easter except eat chocolate bunnies and boil eggs. Mom was an uncertain agnostic, and Dad was an atheist with tendencies towards mystical words like "coincidence" and "conspiracy." With the Thanksgiving bounty laid before me, I crept my hand onto the table for a roll.
“Grace first!” Uncle interrupted me before I could tear off a piece. I put my hands down, and a childish rage stirred up. Some God I didn’t even believe in stopped me from eating that roll. I had been deprived a proper lunch; I didn’t care about Jesus.
I may have reacted as I did because of my placement in a very exclusive gifted program at school. I thought I was special and was determined to be different from everyone. My reply to Uncle was also influenced by my apathetically atheist parents. Mostly, it was because my roll was hot and had butter on the inside.
“I don’t say grace.”
Then, there was a lot of:
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“She’s too young to know what she’s saying.”
“I don’t want our daughters hearing this.”
“She has to say grace in my house!”
My parents took their turns in the firing squad, thinking I had better sense than to take such a stance. The cheeky little shit I was, I didn’t back down and insisted I wasn’t a Christian. But being eleven, I had to do as I was told.
Everyone lowered their heads and shut their eyes. My parents followed suit in fear of their bumbling in-law. I raised my head as soon as it felt safe, quietly reached across my plate, and tore off a piece of roll.
Fourth of Julys and Thanksgivings were our unspoken obligations. My Aunt and Uncle lived ten minutes away, but we only had two holidays worth of patience. When my Mom felt bad about how distant she was from her sister, we planned a Saturday get-together. Sometimes, we exchanged gifts on Christmas or pretended to care on birthdays.
The fact remained: I was the kid who had refused to say grace, the kid who didn’t play organized sports. I read in the corner and didn’t play with my cousins. Outside of my Aunt and Uncle’s house, I was a normal kid with nothing wrong with me outside of my involvement in the gifted program.
I had good grades. I never said anything outrageous or offensive to my cousins, but antagonized them in the subtle way pre-teens do. God was an off-limit topic at Aunt and Uncle’s, my parents made that clear after the Thanksgiving incident. While they were at it, they explained the topic was off-limits anywhere in the county.
The real problem had to do with coincidences.
As most Dad stories go, the details are fuzzy. Someone, either my Dad or his father, went on a trip three or four states over. Before exiting the city limits, they got into a fender bender. They exchanged info with the other driver and went on their way. They stopped overnight somewhere, then moved right along to their destination.
They landed at a hospital, an office building, a place with lots of floors and rooms. When they got to their meeting, they saw the man they had crashed into three states back.
My Dad would experience more coincidences, most not as unlikely (meaningless all the same) — all based on details, TV news stories, involving acquaintances. He obsessed over the idiosyncrasies of life. I experience fantastic ones myself, but often don’t tell him. It’s a matter of whether I have time for a three hour long conversation or not.
Ten thousand dollars loaned later, long after I refused to say grace, I was a teenager. I had a freshly lost virginity, crazy dreams about the future, had discovered coffee, and still felt gifted and talented after years of program brainwashing. My grades remained high, but it didn't seem to matter. I played drums, had short hair and stretched ears. That made me a suspect lesbian.
On Independence Day, we sojourned to my Aunt and Uncle’s. My cousins, the oldest a softball superstar and the youngest ushered into whatever sport Uncle thought she ought to try, had a habit of running outside to greet us. Barefoot and decked out in red, white, and blue, they lead us from the car into the house.
“I made softball all-stars again. Do you know what that is?”
“It means I’m one of the best. I’m playing with girls your age.”
“Are you playing any sports?”
Uncle twirled grilling utensils through an open window in the kitchen. It smelled like burned meat. I gave my poor Aunt a hug and found a place to nuzzle up on the couch.
The difference between being a teenager and a knows-nothing eleven year old, is you can’t get away with disappearing as easily. You’re expected to participate like an adult, to sit around and listen to conversations you have no interest in. You are asked for your opinions about the sports on TV, when all you see are meaningless pixels. Interrogations begin about appearance, musical hobbies, whether or not you’re growing your hair out.
Nothing I wasn’t used to: my family was the only non-Christian one on our block. The community raised questions, my Mom had misunderstandings with the PTA. My Dad distanced himself from neighborhood affairs, leaving my Mom and I as his sole confidants for his mystical tellings of space-time.
The TV blasted on, even with Uncle at the grill. The usual suspects were there: the ‘right’ sausage, New York local news, uncomfortable vibes. I listened to my cousin list her achievements, ask me about my stretched ears. I played along and enjoyed the cheese and crackers.
“Don’t spoil your appetite.”
I tried to make a break for the quiet upstairs den, but was told we needed to have “family time.”
Dinner would be before fireworks, so, much like the tired Thanksgiving routine, we were deprived lunch to build up a healthy appetite. It wasn’t long before hunger set in, and we lounged, agitated, around the living room. The news played on.
Uncle came inside, setting the massive bounty of barbecue on the counter — far too much for the seven of us. My Aunt made potato salad, chopping away at the celery, taking long intervals to set down the knife and talk to my Mom. I watched her chop between pages of my book — waiting.
My Dad appeared from God knows where, as he is fond of doing, and sat on the couch next to me and across from Uncle. Hunger. Impatience. The smell of barbecue sauce.
At the peak of agitation, a news story about some kind of miracle came on. Doesn’t matter what type of miracle, only that it had to do with the Lord.
“You know, I experienced a miracle once,” Uncle added.
We had heard this story before, three times actually. And I’m no expert of miracles, but it was kind of bogus. We usually nodded along. It must have been the hunger, or years of holding his tongue and eating chewy barbecue, but my Dad nodded more vigorously than usual. He also probably wanted his ten grand back.
When Uncle finished retelling his story, my Dad opened his mouth, and the chopping in the kitchen stopped.
“Have you ever considered it may have been a coincidence?”
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my Dad is not to talk about religion. But, if you lose your mind and you do talk about religion, make sure you never ever tell someone their miracle is a coincidence.
I said nothing as the two of them got at it. My Dad told his story to Uncle about seeing the man they rear-ended a few states over, how it was more intricate than Uncle’s miracle. Uncle was not impressed, and the veins crept out of his crew cut. Before long, the two of them stood, yelling back and forth about miracles and coincidences. The TV continued, nobody bothering to turn it down. My Aunt resumed mixing the potato salad. She and my Mom looked away from the scene. I clutched my book, the closest witness to Science vs. Religion. It thrilled me.
When Uncle ran out of responses to my Dad, he used a device which is generally frowned upon, Uncle honed in on an easier target — the nearest child.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked me, hostile.
“No,” I answered honestly. I should have said: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Yes, but I don’t practice religion.’ I should have lied. My Dad broke all the rules of religious conversations, arguing about his beliefs with spit flying from his mouth, eyes wide and arms flailing. I couldn’t let him down.
That began the Independence Day Reckoning. The argument turned towards me. I was called the antichrist, a bad influence, a horrible child, wasn’t raised right, yadda yadda yadda. I hadn’t even come out as bisexual at that point. I hadn’t even tattooed my arms! I wasn’t even a fully realized disappointment to Uncle, and already faced insults by uttering a two-letter word.
My Mom’s beliefs were questioned. But she remained mild-mannered and looked at her sister quietly squirting mustard into the potato salad. My Mom used the more polite response: "I believe in a higher being."
This went on, in the way these things do, for hours. A lot of bad things were said, and Uncle’s beer seemed to refill itself. My Aunt abandoned the potato salad to stop my Uncle from doing something physical. The New York local news reel restarted itself. I started blubbering at some point; my Mom came to my rescue. My cousins witnessed it all, including the name-calling towards me. They sat at the kitchen table, wondering whether or not dinner would be served, and what their cousin had done to be called such evil things.
We were banished.
To add to the greatest drama of my life, we left without any potato salad or blackened barbecue, and only moments before fireworks blasted over the neighborhood pond. Happy Independence Day.
Since, I have seen my Uncle once. My cousin from out of town played a baseball tournament in town three years ago. My Uncle lurked at the same fields watching his daughters, and we ran into them. He didn’t look us in the eye or say a single word — three years after the incident. The saddest part was seeing my cousins decked out in softball gear, knowing that I would never know more about them beyond what sport they played.
No apologies, no money repaid, and large family get-togethers were coordinated so we wouldn’t cross him. I see my Aunt and my cousins once a year at Christmas. She comes over for an hour like she’s smuggling the children across borders. We exchange gifts, have strained conversation. Bless her heart, my Aunt has made an effort to see my band play. She came to my first movie premiere. She never called me the antichrist, and has asked for forgiveness.
I reflect on this from a Catholic household in France. I take care of a French family’s children, and am included in more activities than I ever was with my Aunt and Uncle. Christmas is strictly religious, the kids go to Catholic school, and they are as nice as peaches. They know I’m a non-believer, and they’ve seen my oh-so ‘edgy’ appearance.
Here I am, years later, willing to forgive the Uncle I’ve known since I was born. I’m a bit confused as to why a family that goes to church far more than Uncle did has accepted me like one of their own. Seven years may be too long for me to hold out for an apology, and maybe too long for him to change his mind about a teenaged girl. Family is strange that way: holding out for unlikely apologizes, remembering the bad bits and blocking out the good.