Published on August 10th, 2016 | by Cheryl Klein1
Apples, Guns and What We Share: CHERYL KLEIN on Family and Politics
We are gathered around the table at my aunt’s house: my mother’s younger sister, Lina, her daughter, Carmen, their husbands.* Also a parrot named Baby, who perches on the back of a chair, and Dash, who is an actual baby. Mine.
This morning Aunt Lina made breakfast. Buttermilk pancakes and applesauce courtesy of the tree between her house and Carmen’s.
“Carmen won’t eat fruit after it falls on the ground, but I don’t mind,” Aunt Lina says.
“Mom tosses leftovers right on her front porch for the raccoons,” Carmen says. “But Joe and I walk to the end of the driveway.”
Last year a rabid raccoon bit Aunt Lina on the hand and she had to get shots. Yesterday she got shots in her back, because a bone is grating against a nerve, and she has trouble walking.
She said, “Can you believe that in another year, I will have outlived everyone in my immediate family?” Her father died in his sixties, from alcoholism. Her mother died from a stroke at 71. My mom died at 61, from ovarian cancer caused by a gene that we have since learned we all share.
Yesterday she didn’t feel well enough to cook, and she lay in bed texting us about how sorry she was to miss out on so much. She has the worst case of FOMO I’ve ever seen.
Beyond the birdcage, Donald Trump is talking on the TV. Aunt Lina, her 88-year-old husband, Bertram, and Carmen are voting for him.
“Hillary just makes my skin crawl,” Aunt Lina says.
She was the most popular girl in her high-school class. She was a stupid, boy-crazy teenager, she says. She won’t let me tag her in Facebook pictures because she wants her classmates to think she looks like her profile picture, which was taken on a cruise ten years ago. When she posts photos of where she lives, she points the camera away from the house.
“But Hillary’s been around so long,” Joe argues. “She knows what goes on in all the back rooms.”
He is a Black man from the Bronx. He came to L.A. to drive buses but found a drug problem and Carmen. He ran the streets while she crushed out on a gay professor at L.A. City College. He had surgery for a detached retina, but the recovery required him to stay very still for weeks, and he didn’t, so now he’s blind in one eye. He got sober at a place called The Royal Palms. Now he spends his days jogging the perimeter of Lina and Bertram’s land so he can eat all he wants at the Chinese buffet in Arcata, the nearest town with a five-digit population.
Yesterday, Carmen drove us around another nearby town, the one she moved to when my aunt married her second husband. On a back road, a man with a baseball hat and thick glasses stepped out of the green canopy and pointed a shovel at us like a gun. Carmen and Joe laughed and chatted him up. In the back seat, I thought about small-town sheriffs and the things that a quick database search would turn up on Joe.
Dash is antsy in his highchair. Carmen and Aunt Lina found it at a thrift store called Lots for Tots, and it is covered with Dora and butterfly stickers. They were so excited for my visit. Aunt Lina texted me for months: What are Dash’s favorite foods?
He’s decimated a pancake and snubbed the applesauce. I lift him out and watch him grab apples from a dish on a table by the door.
“Ball!” he shouts and throws one with a thud.
“Guess he don’t mind that it don’t bounce,” Joe says.
“Mom, is the griddle still on?” Carmen asks. She looks over to the counter, which is crowded with dishes, spices and expired food from the dollar store. “Mom, your medicine!”
The amber pill bottle full of prescription-strength ibuprofen has melted into the griddle, making a small plastic pancake.
“Oh no!” says Aunt Lina, but she’s able to rescue most of the pills.
Dash wants to go to the back deck, to see the duck Aunt Lina recently rescued. It has a red face like a turkey and it hisses instead of quacks. Lina is keeping it just for Dash’s visit, because she thought he would like a duck. Afterward she’s planning to give it to a neighbor she describes as “an alcoholic Annie Oakley, but so good with ducks.”
“Not now, Dash. It’s not safe out there, and we’re not finished with breakfast,” I tell him.
Bertram promised to build a railing around the deck once upon a time, but my aunt moved in with him, her fourth and final husband, 25 years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. Bertram built the whole house with his hands, no blueprints.
Dash is a year and a half old. Curious, fast as his name, an extrovert like his other mom. He wanders into the bedroom where a cat named Grasshopper is curled on the bed.
Aunt Lina jumps up from the table. “Oh, let me put my gun away,” she says.
In one swift motion, I walk into the bedroom and scoop up Dash. My aunt mentioned her gun the other day, “a little .410.” She got it because there have been a lot of home invasions along this road since the Blue Lake Casino opened. Bertram lost a good amount of money there, but he doesn’t get out as much these days.
Joe has a BB gun, but he thought to lock it up upstairs in the house he and Carmen share. Lina and Bertram complain about Joe and his lack of a job, but his gun is secure, not made to kill, he’s the only decent driver despite his lack of depth perception and back in New York in the early nineties he was a single father to four kids. They got kicked out of Chuck E. Cheese sometimes for being too rowdy, but they’re all doing fine now.
“Toddlers are the number one killers in America,” I say, citing something I read online. I might have the specifics wrong. “More than any other demographic.”
“Bertie, do you have any guns in the office?” Aunt Lina asks.
“Apples?” asks Bertram. He’s hard of hearing and has had several minor strokes. He can still build a barn, but he doesn’t remember that the car was leaking antifreeze yesterday.
“I’m going to take Dash outside for a little while and let him explore there,” I say.
Outside is a barn with an old tractor in it. Cardboard appliance boxes, paint cans, a hay loft, a rusty pulley where the rafters meet.
Carmen has been researching our maternal family line. She’s prone to saying things like, “And I found a pair of glasses that belonged to Margaret Chetfield Drake!” as if we all know exactly who Margaret Chetfield Drake is. She’s excavated boxes of photos: women working in the family cannery; boys riding in buggies, followed by their stern-faced adult photos; women in bathing caps and swimsuits cut below the thigh; families clustered in front of shiny black cars or palm-treed bungalows.
She’s created a whole Flickr album devoted to our grandmother, arguably the love of her life. Here is Lily Kern Thomas—“Mommer” to her grandchildren—as a girl in the twenties, a huge bow in her hair. Here she is drawing Woody Woodpecker and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit at her job at Walter Lance Studios. Here she is pregnant with my mom, a small bump below her winter coat, the year she traveled to Rochester for my grandfather’s teaching gig. Here she is in polyester with a stack of moving boxes, when eminent domain claimed her little house in Santa Ana, and she had to move north with my aunt.
Aunt Lina doesn’t have patience for Carmen’s long slideshows. She says it’s because her family is here, now. (She has been near tears, every day, anticipating our departure.) Carmen says it’s because Lina is full of shame that boxes of family heirlooms have lived for so long in the horse barn.
Dash does a little barn dance, clomping and spinning on the wood floor. I pull out my phone and tell my Parenting for Social Justice Facebook group what happened with the gun. Fucking fuck guns, I conclude. They agree. Fucking fuck guns. After all this time with family, I desperately need these people I’ve never met.
I text my sister and decide against texting my partner. Before we left, I yelled at her for being lax about letting our cats out of the house. We’d just moved, and I worried they’d get lost on her watch. Now Dash had almost gotten shot on mine. “Almost” is a strong word. The gun wasn’t loaded, and he didn’t actually find it. And yet.
A woman in my Parenting for Social Justice group comments that a toddler staying at a hotel in her neighborhood found his mom’s boyfriend’s gun and died. How many freak accidents start as downplayed dangers?
Dash wanders across the driveway and past the apple tree, past more rusty farm equipment, to Carmen and Joe’s garden hose. He waves it around, proclaiming “Agua!”
That’s where Carmen finds me. She asks if I’m okay and I tell her the gun thing shook me up. She understands. She says she’ll do me a favor and not say anything to Aunt Lina.
“You know how she is. She’s so sensitive that if she knows you’re upset, she’ll get doubly upset, and none of us will hear the end of it.”
Oh, I know how she is, because it was how my mom was, and how I was before a shitload of therapy. There is a family tendency to dramatize and hand over our shame to the people we’ve wronged. It almost ruined my marriage. It is at the heart of headlines about white fragility.
Where do you finish a story in which the gun doesn’t go off? We go thrifting in the next town over. We visit a cheese factory. We take turns modeling a dress that Carmen said came across the prairie in a covered wagon with one of our ancestors and take pictures of each other in the cemetery down the road. I do not let Dash out of my sight. What kind of family did I bring him into? I wonder.
Aunt Lina and Carmen’s similarities to my mom make me miss the ways she was different from them. It’s a gut-punch I haven’t felt in a long time. My mom was the responsible one, the quiet one, the nerd. She didn’t get even a third of the marriage proposals Aunt Lina got, but she would have cleaned the fuck out of that barn, and she never owned a gun.
We look at more family pictures. Aunt Lina and Carmen agree that Mommer had an effortless glamour. She looked beautiful in her cloche hats and, decades later, her polyester muumuus.
“Even when she was at her heaviest, she was still glamorous, and that inspires me,” says Carmen, who also narrates a slide show of pictures of herself: This is me when I was skinny. This is me when I was kind of fat. Here I thought I was fat, but I really wasn’t that fat. Here I was gaining weight, but I didn’t really know yet.
Maybe Mommer was who they say, an artist and a starlet who never quite made it, but I also remember things my mom said, about how she slouched every time she tried a dress on and then wondered why it didn’t look good. How she refused to go back to church after she divorced my grandfather, because she’d broken her vows to God.
Mommer had a tendency to see people as angels or devils, my mom said. All glamour or all shame. She dated a nice man after her divorce, but he didn’t run up the steps when he visited, and that was that. I want to rise above the black-and-white of the past. I love Aunt Lina and Carmen for their generosity—sweet as an overripe apple—even as I seethe at their carelessness and self-centeredness. Even as I perform my own brand of self-centeredness by writing about them.
In a few days they’ll take me to the tiny Arcata airport. Carmen will spend the car ride reading aloud from an old family obituary. They will insist on waiting with me and Dash until we go through security because our visit has been so short and they’ve barely had time to talk to me. They will spend this time talking to another three-generation family while I bounce Dash in his carrier by the vending machines. The other family will strike me as so normal that I want to fling myself into their arms, but I shake the feeling off.
What kind of family. The usual kind.
*Names have been changed because, like I said, my family members don’t even want to be on Facebook looking anything but their best.