My uncle turns 80

Yesterday we drove into the heart of the middle of nowhere. I always think the place where my brother lives (where my father grew up) is isolated, but my uncle’s place is a good few ticks more remote than that. It was settled by Europeans in the 1830s originally, but the second wave of immigrants came from Norway. (Interestingly, one of its most famous Norwegian residents is a benchmark for the morphology of Norwegian American dialect.) The church is synodically unaffiliated (a rarity among Lutherans) and all the tombstones have Norwegian names on them. There’s a beautiful lake with northern pike and bluegills, and there’s even a Norwegian ghost-town, but we weren’t dressed for wandering through the brush. It was a gorgeous day for a picnic and I reveled in the scenery.

So there was that. There was also the food.

My uncle doesn’t like a small party and though he only has two children and two grandchildren, his second wife (his first wife, whom I think of as my aunt, died several decades ago) has twelve children — her first great-great-grand-daughter was born two months ago. So it was Wisconsin picnic buffet: for 140. Bratwurst, grilled and then put to swim in a tray of onions and beer until needed. Grilled chickens, skin done to a crisp. Pork sandwiches made with the meat from a pork shoulder. Huge bowls of potato salad (mustard and mayonnaise) and what we call “German” potato salad (warm, with vinegar, oil, and ham). Lavish platters of venison sausage and cheese and bread. Relish trays of green olives and every kind of sweet and sour pickle, with baby radishes and crinkle cut carrots and celery. Seven dozen deviled eggs. Every family brought a dish to pass (I made Herba’s Caprese noodle salad.) Cole slaw and seven-layer salads and noodle salads and jello salads of every color. Birthday cake to finish, of course, but since it is almost June, rhubarb every way possible: pies and cobbles and tortes and bars and a dish of sauce to pour over shortcake.

This is a meal more distinguished by its generosity and the creativity of its donors than by its subtlety. It’s easy to make. I will love it until I die.

Family: I hadn’t seen my eldest cousin since last summer, because she boycotted the wedding. There’s always a charming moment where she signs my ASL nickname — it’s the letter “S” which is a closed fist with the thumb crossing in front of the fingers, placed under her chin while she fake-frowns. She made it up when she was a teenager and she is the only person who calls me this way. I’ve forgotten most of the ASL I knew, although i can still fingerspell in a pinch — but we usually just write each other notes. Her son was there, a beautiful shade of brown, a charming, handsome young man. Her brother, too, although they do not speak and had no problem avoiding each other at such a large party.

We are a strange family, with troubling stories between us, but still I want to see them. Maybe because of that.

Dad ran into a bunch of people he and mom went to high school with and we spent much of the party talking to them. I never know how to deal with this. They all knew my mother and remember her as a teenager and honestly mourn her and share their comfort. But this is Trump country and they whisper about my cousin’s son’s skin color and g**** and lazy welfare recipients even as they claim they are not racist. They drive on roads the state builds for them as they rant about their taxes and they decry the laziness of young people as they complain that they are not needy enough to qualify for certain VA benefits. I never know what to do when I am lectured about not being married.

I try to hang onto the good parts of them as they remind me of all the reasons I wanted to leave when I was a teenager. I try to tell myself that all of this fits into my fiction writing, somehow.

~ by Servetus on May 29, 2017.

10 Responses to “My uncle turns 80”

  1. Thanks for the link love! :*

  2. “Family I love you as much as I hate you!”

  3. The size of your uncle’s family!
    I find as I grow older, I feel much closer to friends than to family. Perhaps we choose our own family?

    • Yes, and I have no shortage of friends, including very good friends. Nonetheless, I find what Robert Frost said about this particularly pertinent: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Family are the people who, when they have a party, they have to invite you, and you have to go. Things bind me to these people.

  4. “Familles, je vous hais ! foyers clos ; portes refermées ; possessions jalouses du bonheur. ” wrote André Gide. Love/hate …..
    🙂

  5. Family and tolerance are difficult things… Happy belated bday to your uncle!

    • I think it’s a balance at the best of times but I realized this week that the current atmosphere has become really penetrating. People free to say things they might not have said in mixed company six months ago.

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