I showed my concern by bravely speaking up in a crowd of adults. Instead of compassion, I demonstrated my lack of crucial information and ruined everyone’s holiday appetite.
My Bochi, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving at Aunt Nellie and Uncle Mike T’s. Uncle Mike L. documented Thanksgiving–as well as our pre-Christmas, Christmas Day, Fourth of July, and Easter gatherings–with his professional movie camera. A long row of a hundred light bulbs lit up his subjects.
We cousins hammed it up for our close-ups, some (Corky and me) more than others. It was annoying when Uncle Mike L. focused on his own children more than me. Every two years, when the pre-Christmas party was held at his house, our documentaries were shown on a big white screen. We never tired of watching ourselves and our families.
When I was seven, Annie, Barbara Kay, and Mary Ellen (another Deedee) sat at the adult table for the first time. Not seeing an empty chair, I stood behind my cousins.
“Excuse me (I probably didn’t really say ‘excuse me’), where am I supposed to sit?”
Older cousin Nancy looked around. “There’s no more room, Mary Barbara. Go sit by Barbara Ann.”
The children’s table, perfectly acceptable ten minutes ago now represented babyhood. So what if David and Corky obliviously ate there, they were boys and didn’t count.
“That’s not fair. Annie, Barbara Kay, and I are the same age, but Deedee is two years younger. She should move to the kid’s table,” I politely pointed out.
No one paid attention.
A little louder, “Deedee should let me sit in her spot since I’m older.”
Half the aunts and uncles gave me impatient glances while the others pretended not to hear. Very strange. Mom came over and quietly told me to stop making a scene and just do as I was told. Preoccupied with seating arrangements, I didn’t catch on to the subdued undercurrent.
I joined a table of younger cousins, each paying close attention to my situation. I blushed with humiliation. And I wasn’t even accidentally naked. I held my head down so my long hair fell forward, creating a veil to hide my drizzling tears. My throat constricted and the Thanksgiving food wouldn’t go down.
In an attempt to smooth over the situation, an aunt asked Barbara Kay and Annie to squeeze over and make room for me on the piano bench. I moved my plate, glass, and silverware to the newly made spot. If I’d known what a leper was I would have felt like one.
Uncle Joe sat at the head of the table, a spot usually reserved for Uncle Mike T. since it was his home. I noticed a huge bump on Uncle Joe’s neck. I looked around the table. No one else seemed concerned.
During a lull in the conversation, I asked, “Uncle Joe, hey, Uncle Joe. What happened to your neck?”
Conversation stopped. I assumed the others finally noticed the bump and were waiting to hear his response.
“You’ve got a really big bump. Did you get hurt?”
Aunt Mary (his wife, not my great aunt) held her napkin to her eyes and left the dining room. Uncle Joe followed. Mom and her sisters got teary eyed, and Mom apologized for me.
Confused, I explained, “I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings about his bump, but it looked like he hurt himself.”
Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe soon returned to the table. Someone offered up a toast, and forced holiday cheer continued.
Annie whispered, “Don’t you know he’s going to die?”
Why would a bump on his neck make him die? Horrified, I kept quiet and didn’t ask. On the way home, Mom said, “I should have told David and you about Uncle Joe, so you’d be prepared. I thought you were too young for such sad information. You didn’t do anything wrong, your actions were my fault.”
It didn’t feel like Mom’s fault to me, it felt like mine.
Uncle Joe had Hodgkin’s. Deedee, the younger cousin I tried evicting, was his daughter.
Uncle Joe died the following July at age forty-one, on his youngest son Corky’s birthday, a week before I turned eight. Corky’s and my joint birthday party was cancelled. I felt sad Uncle Joe died, but equally sad about the loss of my party and presents.
I thought about my cousins without their father and imagined how awful I’d feel without Dad. I tried to feel a lot sadder about my uncle than the loss of my party. But I didn’t. They were still equal. I was a horrible sinner with black spots covering my heart.
It was clear I didn’t deserve a party.
Lesson learned: Kids don’t need tons of details, but they do need the main facts. They’re more compassionate and empathetic than you might think.
Now it’s your turn: What memory did this story stir up for you?
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