relatives

hi friends. welcome to Griefbacon’s very first guest post! the writer today is - perhaps unsurprisingly - my husband, Thomas, whom you’ve read about in a whole bunch of these letters if you’ve been reading these letters. Does this really count as a guest post since Thomas is a character in most of these posts already? Unclear! Is this what emotional labour means? Maybe! (I’m joking, it’s not) Does this mean there’ll be more guest posts in the future? Maybe! Who knows! I had meant to write something about spending the weekend with Thomas’ family and when I mentioned it to Thomas he said he’d written something on the plane home, and I asked if I could read it, and here it is. Which is to say, this wasn’t exactly planned, but I love this piece a whole lot. Anyway, I’ll be back with a new letter like usual probably this weekend and definitely by Monday. For now, here’s Thomas.

We leave New York on a cold Friday night, scheduled to touch down in Chattanooga at five minutes to midnight early Saturday morning. It seems impossible that Lovell Field, Chattanooga’s only actual airport, would still be open past 9pm, much less 12am the next day. When we board, the captain says the flight will take two hours because of some headwinds. I do math in my head: If we’re off the ground by 9:35pm or so, we can make it to the Hertz counter to get our car before it closes at midnight. We sit on the runway at LaGuardia. The longer we wait in line in the rain for takeoff, the harder the math becomes. We lift off the runway at 9:55pm.

Twice the week before, I had called the Hertz counter. When I called on Wednesday, I did my best local. “Y’all gonna be there when we land? I know it might be late.” The man on the other end assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. When I called again just hours before the flight, the same voice said “Another guy from your flight called us a couple days ago with the same question!” Our rental fate was in the hands of a man who believed I was my own fellow passenger.

The CRJ-900 is a tiny plane. It is too small for what it promises. Like a little dog who thinks he’s a big dog, it only convinces itself, and even then, maybe not. It manages to have three entire classes of seats, but once you step on board, it’s obvious from front deck to steerage that we’re all in this together and let’s just get this over with, shall we? The seats accommodate no one. The cushions are a mere suggestion. The flight attendant manages a drink cart down the aisle and I have no idea how she does it. People stand up mid-flight to take off their coats and I want to shout them back in their seats like we are sharing a particularly long row boat and they might tip it over.

When I lived in Atlanta, commuting in from the suburbs to work, there was a billboard right as you rolled past the North Avenue exit. “Fly Delta Jets.” The connector veered to the left and the exit for the World Congress Center veered right, and there between them was a giant sign telling everyone the thing they’d learned for as long as they were a Southerner who knew what planes were. Even now, after four years away from the South, I get a full-body shudder when I have to fly any other airline.

I am uncomfortable and I cannot wait for the flight to be over and done, but thank God it is a Delta Jet. When you grow up with that kind of predisposition, you put up with a lot. The flight’s delayed, the cabin’s too cold, I can’t feel my extremities, but the flight attendant just gave me those little Biscoff cookies and offered me Coca-Cola products. Fly Delta Jets.

Our Delta Jet is a small Delta Jet. It picks up turbulence and hangs on like a ten-year-old at their piano recital with the sustain pedal. I know it’s safe. I know it’s a sign that physics is working. A marvel of engineering is negotiating successfully with gravity to keep me hurtling through space toward Chattanooga. But I don’t care. It unnerves me. It scares my wife. As we begin our descent, she reaches a hand over the back of her seat to me and I take it, kissing her fingers and saying I love you. Her hand is warm in mine. My ears pop and pop again. We cut through low fog and mist for long enough that touchdown was a jolting surprise. As we break through the clouds, I see a yellow box below us that could only be a Waffle House.

At the Hertz desk, we’re far from the only ones in the after-midnight line. The Hertz guy says he’s giving us the nicest car in the lot, and he’s probably right, but it takes me actual minutes to figure out how to adjust the seat (turns out there’s a whole seat-shaped control panel on the door). Nicest might also be trying too hard. But it gets us to the hotel where we pass out in a bed the size of a city block. As we fall asleep, the rain keeps a consistent rhythm on the window of our room, sounding like very bored but dedicated little drummer boy.

The next morning it’s still raining and I text my Mom. She’d like us to be at the church at 11am. Two nephews and their wives are helping already. 1pm will be fine. The party isn’t until 3. And after all, it’s raining.

Helena finds a place for us to eat breakfast and shows me on a map. Seems fake, as this place is on a street in Chattanooga where I’ve never been. Chattanooga is small and there’s little of the city I’ve not seen. I knew this area behind the Choo-Choo as a place I’d been warned not to go. But that was years ago and things change. There’s a coffee shop and we grab our cups to go so we can walk in the steady rain a few blocks to breakfast. There’s a wait, but the people are friendly. I strike up a conversation with an older guy, much older, my Dad’s age. He’s wearing shorts in spite of the 40 degree weather and the wind and the rain. “I never wear pants,” he says, and then he recommends the French Toast because it’s special. “You love an old dude,” says Helena. I do. Carrying on and talking nonsense with older Southern men is something I learned early and it stuck.

I don’t have the French Toast, but I do have the Glorious Grits and a side of biscuits and gravy. Brunch anywhere else holds no candles at all to breakfast in the South. We make friends over breakfast, a newlywed couple up from Covington on their mini-moon. They share their table with us and we swap Instagrams and wedding photos. We’re paying the bill when my Mom texts again. “We’re heading to the church, we’ll see you soon?”

The whole reason for this visit was Saturday afternoon. For as many years as I’ve been alive, my parents have hosted an annual Christmas dinner for our whole family. These days, they host it at the church where I spent most of my developmental Sundays, but as long as I lived under their roof, it happened at our house. We’d set up metal folding chairs in the downstairs den, in the office that used to be my bedroom, in the living room and in the kitchen, all to make space for uncles and aunts and nephews and nephews and cousins. Patterns emerged over time. My grandfather smoked in the house, the only person who did, so the big orange ashtray would come out of storage after dinner. My Uncle Pat would make some comment about my glasses that he thought was a compliment. And every year, without fail, my Aunt Dimple would forget how to unlock the upstairs bathroom door and someone would have to come rescue her.

As time rolled on and our immediate to semi-immediate family grew smaller through loss or moving away, my parents kept our holiday gathering numbers around the same level by extending the holiday invitation to friends and certain folks from the church. I had new “uncles,” additional “aunts” with each passing year. A couple years back, they decided it was better to throw the party at the church instead of the house.

We didn’t attend last year, and I’m not sure who is and isn’t coming. Shortly after my grandfather died, the patriarch of our family, more cousins emerged. They’d always been there, sons and daughters of uncles I knew, but they’d not been so obvious before. They were family who didn’t attend our church, so I never knew them. My grandfather founded the church back in the 1930s; maybe it was a matter of pride. This church is yours, don’t you want to attend it and be a part of this family that built it? But Papaw’s passing in the mid-90s was a wake up call. So many additional cousins came to his funeral and attended the memorial after, a memorial that took place at that church. Since then, there’ve been annual reunions in addition to the Christmas parties, though I’ve not been to many of them in the last few years.

On the way there, I turn off the interstate and rely on directional memory to get me to the church. Bypasses have been built on top of one another in the years since I moved away, making a once-straight route into a maze to solve. But I know where the church ought to be and exit left then right. There it is. Another left and we’re pulling into the broken asphalt parking lot. It’s still raining. My parents have parked their massive SUV — “It’s so much safer” — under the little canopy next to the sanctuary door.

I’ve not been in the sanctuary in years. It’s cold enough to see our breath. There’s a Christmas tree. There’s quilts hanging from the wall. One of them has my name stitched into a square next to my brother’s nickname. The sanctuary seems so small. “Welcome to the cinderblock sanctuary,” I say to Helena. Even so cold as this, I love this place like another home.

We make our way out the sanctuary through the narthex, and into the hall of Sunday School classrooms. Faint memories flicker to the left and right. The last room on the right before we enter The New Building — an addition built back in the 80s — was a nursery when the church hosted many young couples with new additions of their own. Now it seems to be a storage room for boxes.

The New Building is a two-story building. The second story was roughed out when I was in high school, but was never finished. There’s a stairwell leading up that nobody uses. We had such plans for youth ministry and outreach, but the youth grew up and moved away. I grew up and moved away.

My brother won’t be at the party this year. He’s undergoing tests for something’s been bothering him for a few weeks now. His at-home doctors are at a loss, so he and his wife have traveled to a special clinic in the middle of the country. I’m not used to him being sick. This is the older brother who lived all over the world, bought a stack of cars and retired with a few years to spare. In my mind, he’s still just graduating from college, still just getting married, still just moved to Cincinnati where I took a Greyhound bus to meet him, the first trip I took on my own, when I left my duffle bag at a Burger King somewhere in Kentucky. That brother isn’t allowed to be sick. He’s just getting started.

We pass the stairwell and turn left to find my family in the kitchen adjacent the fellowship hall. There’s my mom, my dad, my brother’s two sons and their wives, both barely out of college, both just married this year. Most of the setting-up-for-the-party work is done, but that was never the point. My dad hugs me harder than usual.

One by one, more family arrive. Aunts and uncles, so many cousins, walk in carrying covered dishes and appetizers and desserts. The serving tables are continents, nations of crockpot beans, casseroles, trays of ham, mac & cheese, sweet potatoes more like dessert than dinner, deviled eggs, slaw, and a sourdough bread my Mom’s been making since before I was in junior high.

The size of my family can be a bit much. It’s a little overwhelming for me. It’s a lot overwhelming for anyone else. As people arrive, I play the game of when I saw them last and do we get along and can I remember their name or how we’re related. I win this game most of the time, and when I lose, I feel horrible. It makes me anxious.

My Dad asks my cousin Simon to say grace. The cousin stands and does so, throwing a mention of my brother alongside the usual “bless this food to the betterment of our bodies.” After the meal, during dessert, we make our way to some other cousins. They’re talking about travel. “When I fly, I always try to fly Delta,” says a cousin-in-law with no prompting. “Me, too,” says another cousin. “Even a bad Delta flight is better than American.” Fly Delta Jets. Later on, I’ll text my brother to tell him he was missed, that we all thought good things in his direction. His reply: “Good thoughts always appreciated. (three smiling emojis)”

It’s getting later and we have to be up too early, so Helena and I make our rounds to say goodbye. We get to my Mom and she asks if we were coming to the house after. We were planning to head to the hotel, but it’s my Mom, so we tell her we’ll come to the house. We’re tired and cranky in the car. We’ve all got our family face and our friend face and the faces we share with just the people who really know us. The family face has a time limit, needs a reset. It’s not that we don’t love our families. It’s because we love them that it’s exhausting to keep up the face for this so long.

It’s raining harder when we pull into the driveway. The door is usually unlocked, but not tonight, so we ring the doorbell like actual company arriving. My Mom answers the door and apologizes for the lock. One nephew and his wife are standing in the middle of the living room, another nephew and his wife are on the sofa, and my Dad is in his recliner. It feels like a Christmas intervention. The living room is lined all around with furniture. It’s gotten smaller, I think.

Standing nephew and wife hug us both, then say they’ve got to go. I know this move. They live just outside of Athens. If they leave now, they’ll be home by 10 or so. They were waiting on us to arrive, but now they can get on the road. I’ve been there myself. Atlanta was close enough to home once to make the drive reasonable, but not so close that you couldn’t use the distance as a reason to get going. “We’d better get on, you know how long that drive is.”

I’ve known these boys since the week they were born, when one wouldn’t stop crying and the other was on an IV and we didn’t know if either of them would be okay. But here we are in the present and they’re whole adults, with wives, standing up and thriving, making excuses about long drives and getting home.

I find a spot on the couch and Helena joins me. My parents bring us gifts to unwrap we weren’t expecting. A sweater for me, red and cozy and a little too big. An electric blanket for Helena, also red, also cozy. My parents are convinced we live in above the Arctic Circle. “You must be cold,” is part of every phone call we’ll have from now until March. They aren’t entirely wrong.

My Mom gives us updates on the various cousins we saw today. Who has a new job, who is expecting a baby, who isn’t doing so well these days, who wasn’t talking to someone else for a little while. She’s filling in the gaps. The more you know about someone, the more you might care about them. Mom is talking more to make up the shortfall. My brother isn’t there and he should be, so she’s taking up the slack, covering up the empty place. Sitting and listening, I think about the shape of my family, how it’s always been circles within circles. There’s the family at home, then the family by blood, then the family at church that encompasses most if not all the rest. Expanding and contracting, the definition of us remains the same while the component pieces change and grow, age and evolve. My parents are getting older, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. They still seem young to me, but they just turned 80 last month (their birthdays are within two days of each other). In this moment, I want to come back more. Being here for a day is fine, but I want to be safe in the knowledge that I can keep returning to this same place, to know they’ll still be here in this house where I grew up.

An hour later, we make our goodbyes. Hug my parents, hug my nephew and his wife. “Y’all come back whenever,” my Mom says, like she always says. “We will,” I say, like I always say, but this time, I’m already mapping it out. We need to come back, and not just whenever. We drive back to the hotel through the rain, and we don’t say much.

We take a route I know by heart. It’s more direct, if darker, and the rain makes it seem like a dangerous option. It’s the way I’d go to college in Chattanooga for the first year and a half when I still lived at home. There’s forks and turns, hills and curves, all through a residential sprawl called Missionary Ridge. After not enough street lights, so many houses and a couple of churches, the route ties into a local highway and threads into the ridge itself by way of a tunnel followed by a sharp turn to the right. After that, it’s just back to the Interstate to get downtown.

I take the route to save some time. And I take the route to make sure it’s still there.

Those old Time-Life commercials about space travel and technology, they described relativity as how an astronaut traveling at the speed of light wouldn’t age in their capsule, but the world they left behind would continue to grow old and change with time. When the astronaut returned, everything they knew as the present would be history. Somehow, I assumed the opposite would be true for me, that I would go away and I would change over time, but my home and my family would be like the astronaut safe in the capsule. But we’re all moving at the speed of light now. Cities change, families grow and collapse, the people we thought immortal and untouchable are neither, no matter how much we want to encase them in memory. There’s no stopping it. There’s only what we do with now.