Friday, December 09, 2005

We Were The Williams

We Were The Williamses, whatever that meant back then to neighbors in the immediate vicinity of Granny’s house, at our Southern Methodist church, and school personnel. We were one of the largest families in the neighborhood. Holidays and birthday parties required planning, mending fences, and swallowing pride. Gatherings were successful when no one stormed out, leaving a trail of hurt feelings and profanity punctuated by a slammed door. During mellow times, the adults gossiped about the exploits of other large families as if there were an official guidebook for families with twenty or more members. Various family members joked about writing a book to profit from our sordid affairs and history. I don’t think anyone would commit to writing a book. The damage would be irreversible and unforgivable. I respect the invisible familial boundaries in writing essays, fiction, or screenplays. The physical and emotional distance between New York and Houston allows me to sort through truth and innuendo.

My mother called to inform that my aunt had three weeks to five months to live. Her voice was unsteady, searching for words to express her uncertainty of death. She apologized for everything and anything that she said, did, or thought of me. She was unnerved watching her older sister deteriorate. She wanted no part of unresolved feelings and things left unsaid if she were in my aunt’s place. My aunt’s last few weeks alive were a family affair. Relatives held bedside vigils; my cousin flew in from the Iraq/Kuwait border to see her one last time.

Each time the phone rang, it echoed throughout my apartment. I didn’t want to answer the phone, not yet. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. We couldn’t deny that death was waiting to take my aunt with the guttural, naughty laugh, and brilliant white smile. On February 22, 4:30 p.m., my aunt died of cancer. My younger brother called to tell me – one more child for Granny to bury, one less relative to appear in pictures and help in the kitchen for Sunday dinners. I wasn’t able to see my aunt before her death, but experienced her final days through the eyes and ears of family. Near the end of her time on earth, deceased relatives came to escort her to the other side and she refused to go. “Don’t you see those people looking in the window at me? Don’t you hear that music?” I believe she saw her father, one of four siblings, or two nephews waiting outside.

I remember my Granny’s reaction to my other aunt’s death. It was the first time I saw her cry and knees buckle underneath, supported on either side by two relatives as they walked down the aisle in church. “A mother shouldn’t live to see her children die. A mother shouldn’t bury her child.” My grandmother is strength multiplied. My grandmother reminds me of the matriarch in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Some family members believe Granny will outlive us all as a testament to her will to survive despite everything that has happened in her eighty-seven years. Granny perseveres because she knows nothing else to do. There was a time I thought the family would continue to multiply, never die. I was probably ten years old, and enjoying the reputation of a large family. We were a formidable family. Our numbers inspired awe or envy. Elementary and junior high schoolteachers knew my grandmother by first name, and would visit prior to or soon after disciplining one of the grandchildren. Granny would nod in agreement while a teacher or principal recounted surprise of one of our having misbehaved or sassed.

At some point, we stop being a united family; many things said and done that caused a riff among the ranks. We lost the magic or illusions we once shared. Gone are the silly poses and smiling faces in pictures. We have become strangers over the years, notwithstanding my living on the East Coast, and one cousin in the Army stationed in Germany. I know how time and distance plays with my heart and mind on Sunday afternoons when I call Houston. It’s been six years since I visited and now I’m 31,000 feet, on Flight 111, en route to my aunt’s funeral. I’ll think twice before booking a 5:30 a.m. flight out of Newark. The airport buses don’t start until 6:00 a.m., and I arrived at Port Authority just before 3 a.m., when night creatures prowl, and do their best to beguile a naïve-looking lad. This flight almost didn’t happen. Ten minutes of fiddling with the NJ Transit ticket dispenser while drunkards and con artists hovered and helped from all angles, I contemplated returning home and sleeping. Times Square before sunrise isn’t a place I wanted to be, but I bought a non-refundable ticket, and my cousin is set to pick me up from the airport.

I was frazzled, sleepy, and just wanted the situation to go away. I thought of not seeing my grandmother again, if I opted to return to the upper Westside. I must have announced my predicament like one of those annoying neon signs in Times Square with my facial expressions, body language, and a snaggletooth conman that summoned honking and waving yellow cab drivers along Eighth Avenue. I couldn’t believe the quoted price of fifty-two dollars, plus tolls, fifty-eight, to travel to Newark-Liberty Airport. It felt like a nightmare or a bad musical theatre rehearsal. I had to make a decision. My head was spinning and I wished for silence and a warm bed to think. Life looks better after a catnap. I became a hot property. Several cabbies vied for my attention, some offering a deal within earshot of a nonchalant beat cop who reminded the Caribbean immigrant it was illegal to do so. I walked away as the cabbie handed the officer his identification and license.

I opted for a cabbie who approached, not that he had sympathetic eyes or offered a discount, but because I was within sight of the Uptown C train. Would my family understand that my finances are tight, and that sixty dollars for a cab ride was outrageous? Would my family be upset, my mother embarrassed because February 28th is her birthday, and the day of my aunt’s burial? God smiled on me in the back seat of the cab. The previous fare lost ten dollars in the groove of the seat. Fifty dollars is still outrageous compared to the twenty-dollar roundtrip bus fare.

Looking out the window from seat 27A, my mind alternates between memories, anxieties, and expectations once I’m on solid ground. A lot has changed in six years: births, separations, divorces, and two cousins’ release from jail. Perhaps the great-grandchildren will restore the family to its previous place so that we’ll once again be The Williamses.

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