The family reunion started off as a giant 80th birthday party for my mother, but we weren't all able to convene until the long Labor Day weekend. The weather was perfect, cool and crisp and clear with just a hint of an early autumn ahead.
My cousin Linda and her husband drove through Cincinnati from Detroit and picked me up on Friday morning, and we set off with high energy. We were glad to see each other and instantly at ease, like slipping into warm bath water.
When we got to Alabama, Mother was in her kitchen just like I'd imagined her, smelling like Ivory soap and Jergens lotion. Her great-grandson was in the backyard looking for the rabbit who lives there.
Everyone else drifted in a few minutes later, and all of us -- sisters and cousins, nephews, nieces and grandchildren, hugging and kissing -- moved on up the hill to my sister's house for dinner. Everybody pitched in with the work; when we were done, we moved through the house like nomads, lighting in different places for a time, talking to first one, then another.
My nephew played tunes on the guitar, and we sang, it seemed to me, as sweetly as we did when we were children. My cousins remembered the names of old songs we used to know, and we sang them as if we were riding the proverbial bicycle. We remembered every lyric.
When we were children, the public schools still offered an excellent music program, and my cousin Sandra and I studied under a Russian violin teacher named Ara Zerounian. We had piano lessons, of course, and since everyone in my family sang, the girls and I started singing together.
It wasn't easy stuff either. We sang complexly written and arranged music by Broadway songwriters with four- or five-part harmonies.
In those days, music stores were everywhere, and they sold a lot of arrangements for small vocal groups, pieces from composers like Sigmund Romberg and Rodgers and Hart.
"Indian Love Call" was one of our favorites, but we liked other, more "modern" songs, too. They were complex, and we spent a lot of time practicing to get the parts exactly right.
Harmony isn't easy. It requires discipline and concentration. It has a lot of stops and starts, a lot of ups and downs, and it works best with the right combination of voices.
Looking back, we were as amazed that we'd mastered these intricate pieces as we were surprised to have survived as a family through geographical separations, marriages and the deaths of our elders. Mother was the last parent left.
The next morning she made her country breakfast, with sausage, country ham and bacon accompanied by eggs scrambled so lightly they had to be anchored to our plates with biscuits and two kinds of gravy. It took all of us back to the days when the old ones were still alive, when Aunt Dot fried quail on Thanksgiving morning in lard and made biscuits so "short" they were practically flat and when our grandmother, Kate, made caramel pies, browning the meringues until the sugar in them glistened.
Consuming that many calories required activity, so that morning we did what we always do -- we took a long walk, this time up on the "mountain" as we call the steep, rising slope of Monte Sano, which you can see from Mother's backyard. Monte Sano is part of the foothills of the Sand Mountains, and according to a local legend an Indian maiden jumped to her death from its peak, but I can't remember why. More than likely it had something to do with a man.
The day was so sunny, so clear that I can remember every vista, every glorious blue-sky moment. We gazed into a rich valley of trees from the rock wall of the overlook in the picnic grounds and walked across a dry creek bed, stubbing our toes on sharp-pointed Alabama shale. Everything was dusty.
It seemed like you could see North Alabama with a wide-angle lens from that spot. It had a kind of stillness to it. The light, that wonderful golden light, played across the forests and the rocks.
Later, in Mother's back yard, we took a family portrait. We sat with the huge crepe myrtle bushes high over our heads next to the shed with the hummingbird vine wrapped in thick brown cords.
We pulled chairs out for the oldest of us, the "next to die," we joked -- my cousin Ron, my Mother, me and my cousin Sandra, who had to be drug kicking and screaming into the front lines. It seemed like only yesterday we'd complained about having to sit at the kids table at Thanksgiving.
Life felt so various, sometimes as crowded as New York City and sometimes as slow as molasses. I thought of what I'd kept and what I'd thrown away and what had sustained me through it all.
Jerry Brown set up a camera on a tripod with a timer. Like an old-time photographer, he squeezed a bulb, there was a pause and he hurried to get into place himself before the camera clicked, and it was over.
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