Christmas, 1976, Part II

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:1-6

Being the valley of the world, eternal virtue will never desert you, and you become like a little child anew.

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 28

I walk in to Uncle Bob’s through the carport door and make my way to the formal living room, where I had heard Wendy, Debbie, Auntie Lo, Granny, and Uncle Bob’s sister from Prince Edward Island, Auntie Rose. They were so busy talking and laughing that they hadn’t heard me come in.

Auntie Rose is the closest, and she hops up from her chair and dances over to me and kneels down and gives me a big hug. She’s tiny and thin, like Granny, and old but not as old as Aunt Reece. She has grey hair and an accent I can barely understand, but I laugh when she laughs and we always have a good time together. She and Debbie and Uncle Bob can talk a lot to each other, though, and they chatter and chuckle in a little group of their own while I sit with Wendy and Auntie Lo makes noises from the kitchen, every now and then calling out how long before the turkey’s ready. Everyone’s laughing and passing cups of eggnog spiked with brandy. (Debbie barely sipped anything, and I’d recall that Wendy would rarely have more than two and a single glass of wine, but it seemed like everyone was drinking bottomless lotta bowls of booze, if only because Auntie Lo loudly celebrates every pour from the pitcher of eggnog and crystal vase of brandy. She celebrates pours abundantly, and her exuberance was so strong that its colors bleed into the fabric that day’s memory.)

The table is set with Auntie Rose’s hand crocheted tablecloth and Auntie Lo’s fancy China, and the silverware Uncle Bob had spent an entire weekend polishing. The house smells like cigarette smoke and roast turkey. The flocked white Christmas tree is decorated with red balls, and under its canopy are meticulously stacked boxes. Each box is wrapped with a unique wrapping; there’s some overlap with the paper, but bows and ribbons change and make each one seem unique. Mine and Wendy’s all have cards that say To: Jason, From: Santa Claus, except for one from Debbie and one from Wendy.

The turkey’s finally ready, and everyone pours either glasses of wine or Scotch on the rocks. Uncle Bob’s in a suit and tie, and presides over Aunti Lo’s roast turkey with a long silver carving knife in one hand and a sharpening steel in the other. A few slow and careful strokes later, he swaps the steel for a large two pronged silver fork, and drags it slowly across the dark brown turkey – unnecessarily slowly, if you ask me – and leaves the slice attached. He carves another slice beside it, the exact same thickness and also left attached. After an eternity, he’s sliced the breast and rotates his knife sideways to remove them from the carcass. He cuts off a drumstick on my plate along with a few slices of white meat and winks at me; he knows I like to eat with my fingers, and that’s always allowed with whomever holds a drumstick. We chat as we load up our. Wendy had made cranberry sauce. Debbie had brought fortune cookies for desert. I talk about frying catfish, and how much I like banana pudding. Our plates are full, and Auntie Rose asks if she can say grace. I cringe, wondering how long it will take. No one hold hands. In her petite French accent, Auntie Rose says she’s grateful for the food, and for Robert inviting her to Baton Rouge for Christmas, and that Wendy brought her friend and me with her. Everyone says Amen, including me now that I knew the lyrics at the end of grace. We dig in.

After dinner, Auntie Lo pours coffee from a gurgling electric percolator, and everyone spikes their cups with cream and brandy and tops off their wine or Scotch glasses with booze. I’m quiet, and Uncle Bob walks up beside me with holding his tallboy glass of Scotch on the rocks in one hand, and his all-white, filtered Kent in the other. He takes a drag and lowers his hand with the cigarette clipped by its filter. He smells like Kents and the bottle of aftershave in the master bathroom. I had never smelled it on anyone else. It wasn’t as strong as PawPaw’s and other men’s. In fact, it was barely noticeable compared to other men, which may be why it stood out so much in my mind. As for the Kents, they had a unique smell, and not just because of the filter. According to an advertisement lying around in Life magazine, more teachers and scientists chose Kents than any other cigarette, maybe because the smell wasn’t as strong, and maybe not having strong smelling cigarettes is Uncle Bob didn’t need to use as much after shave.

As he exhales smoke, he says, What’s up, Champ? You’re quiet. I tell him what my dad said. I don’t know why I tell Uncle Bob things; it just slips out. He takes another drag and looks down into my eyes while he slowly exhales.

He says, Your dad’s right. The bible says lying is a sin. He squats down and gets eye-level with me and says, I didn’t say the gifts were from Santa. The cards say that. You believe what you want to believe. A smart kid like you would look at the handwriting, and use your head and not your mouth. Auntie Lo is having fun. Everyone’s happy. Let them be happy. If you want to believe the bible, do it. If you don’t, don’t. Just be happy.

I say my dad said the bible’s bullshit.

It may be, Uncle Bob says. And your father’s right, in a way, he says. Uncle Bob asks if I know what a hypocrite is. I don’t. He says a hypocrite is just as bad as a lier. He says a hypocrite tells people they believe one thing, but then they do the opposite. It’s like lying. I’ll say this about your father, he says, he’s not a hypocrite.

I nod, though I don’t really understand what he means. I just trust Uncle Bob. Anyone who met him probably would. If Big Daddy’s presence took over a room, Uncle Bob’s took over when it was just the two of us talking. Saying my dad’s not a hypocrite didn’t sound like the best compliment, like being big or strong or brave, it’s simply to not be something. But, Uncle Bob said it in a way that made me believe that not being a hypocrite was a good thing and hard to do, harder than getting big and strong, and harder than beating Auntie Rose in Boggle. I say I’ll never bee a hip-crit.

All right, Champ, he says as he stands up and rests his Kent between his lips. It’s time to go unwrap presents. He walks to his spot next to Auntie Lo on the big fancy couch that I’m not allowed to put my feet on, and taps the long grey ash from his cigarette into the side-table ashtray. Light New Orleans jazz radiates from the all wood record player and speakers setup on the far side of the formal room. Everyone’s spread out the gifts, and I have a place on the floor. I don’t recall what “Santa Claus” brought me, because “Santa Claus” included receipts to Cortana Mall and Uncle Bob said that I could return anything I didn’t want and pick out what I saw and wanted; the point was to be happy with your gift, and no one knew that better than you. Either Wendy or Debbie gave me a magic kit with a thumb tip and red silk handkerchief, a plastic set of cups and balls, a magic wand, a Svengali deck, and a tiny little linking ring set that I never could get to work. Auntie Rose had knit me socks for sleeping; she told me in something like a Cajun accent that on Prince Edward Island, where she and Robert grew up, it was so cold and snowy that everyone wore wool socks around the house. She says Robert should bring me to visit her, and I say I’d like that. Granny gave me a stack of Hardy Boys books, and said Wendy had read Nancy Drew and so Granny hoped I’d like the Hardy Boys. They were blue and soft and for some reason simply holding them felt good. They didn’t have my name written across them like Mamma Jean’s brown bible, but the bible had seemed dull and stiff whereas the Hardy Boys books were fun to hold and the colors were cheerful and the drawing of the two boys shining a flashlight into a swamp looked like they were having fun. For whatever reason, I liked them; there’s a tactile feel to books that kids can’t explain, and the feel increases complexity with age, starting with simple paperbacks and cheap cardboard hardbacks but progressing to hardback books meant to be kept for a while. It’s possible I was just too young to appreciate Mamma Jean’s – I mean Santa Claus’s – leather bibles.

A gentle knock comes from the front door behind the tree, the door we never use that’s framed by Auntie Lo’s azelea hedges and faces the front sidewalk. She peers through the spy hole and says it’s Ed White. I beam! She opens the door, and there’s PawPaw, dressed in his clean stay-at-home clothes and carrying a wrapped gift almost as tall as he is. I rush towards him and he squats down and holds the tall wrapped gift with one hand. His other hand has another wrapped gift about the size of an 8X10 picture. Both are wrapped in plain brown paper and held more or less together with a couple of pieces of Scotch tape. He begins to say Hey d’er, but I’m in his arms before he finishes, and we just hug for a few moments.

I brought ya somethin,’ Lil’ Buddy, he says, and hands me the small rectangular package. It falls open easily, and inside is an 8X10 frame with a photograph of my tree! How? I ask. I took a photo, PawPaw said, and I brought it to K&B and they make it big for you. D’at way, you can hang it on d’ wall, and always know d’at tree is d’er, waitin’ for you whenever you ready.

I hug him again. I loved that tree. And I had Tiffany’s drawing of me flying a kite by it, and Janice had told me almost exactly the same thing PawPaw had. It must be true. Hanging a drawing or a photo on the wall and seeing it every day reminds you who you are and what you love. I hug PawPaw again.

And d’is, he said with his most micheveous smile ever and nodding towards the now taller-than-him gift. Is jus’ for fun.

He holds it while I whip off the paper, and I have no idea what it is. It’s made from bright red steel tubes welded together, and it has handles like my push-cart in the hospital had, but bigger, almost as big as Brian the one handed drug dealer’s motorcycle handles.

It’s a pogo stick, PawPaw says. He smiles and steps his right work boots upon one of the pogo pegs, and quick as a squirel scurrying up a tree he’s atop both pegs. He went so fast he lept into the air, and he came back down and the pogo stick made a squeaky sound, and then PawPaw’s hopping up and down like a bullfrog trying to get back into the pond. He’s laughing and I laugh with him, and I think Auntie Lo’s laughing with us but she’s actually crying out in anger. PawPaw stops, and I stop my giggles, and Auntie Lo slurs something about scuffed wood floors and that was enough and it was time for him to leave. She points towards the kitchen and carport door. PawPaw hangs his head. Wendy asks to talk with him and tells me to wait. They walk out, and I wait in the kitchen while Auntie Lo tries to find a mop to clean up the scuffs. Wendy comes back inside, and says PawPaw would like to say goodbye to me.

I walk out the double carport and behind Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo’s parked cars, where PawPaw was waiting. He kneels down and smiles at me, but something feels wrong. I’m upset and don’t know why. PawPaw tries to cheer me up by telling me a joke.

Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. I was thinkin’ about that joke you told me. Remember? When that window broke? I was gonna take my belt off an’ remind you not to throw things in da’ house, but you told me that joke. Remember?

I didn’t.

Ha! You was funny. You said, PawPaw, belts aren’t for hittin’ your Lil’ Buddy, d’ey’s for holdin’ your pants up. Ha! Remember?

I started to remember. I was a funny kid, after all, so I probably said that.

You said, belts aren’t for hittin’ your Lil’ Buddy, d’ey’s for holdin’ your pants up! Ha!

I remembered now.

A teardrop trail slid down from PawPaw’s good eye and pooled in the wrinkles above his cheek. He hugged me more tightly than he ever had before, probably because I was getting so big and strong, and I hugged him back as tightly as I could. If he had been filled with goo, I would have squished him until his chest were empty and his head swoll up. He stands up and slowly pulls his white handkerchief from a back pocket, wipes his eye and blows his nose, and turns and walks to the street where his old truck was parked. He drives away slowly without looking back.

Wendy is waiting for me in the carport door. She looked as sad as I felt and PawPaw had seemed. She leads me back inside, where everyone’s laughing and refilling glasses. Auntie Lo put my pogo stick outside and said I could use it there. I carried the framed photo of my tree back to my room and put it on the typewriter desk – I stayed on a bed in Uncle Bob’s office – next to my framed drawing of Jason Ian Partin flying a kite. Back in the living room, everyone’s munching on merangue’s and slurring their words. Aunt Edit brings out a Boggle game and we sit with Debbie and they teach me to play, and tell me a few French words to try spelling. Everyone else gets sloshed, and Auntie Lo is snoring in the back bedroom before sunset. Debbie spends the night and we all rearrange rooms and I stay with Auntie Rose in the second bed in Uncle Bob’s office.

The next morning I wake up and look for the pogo stick. It’s sticking out of the metal trash can. I take it out and try to hop. I can’t, and I quickly get bored and leave it outside. The next day it’s gone again. I never see it after that, and I never learned what happened to it. I did, however, take to inspecting handwritten notes around the house, and noticed that Auntie Lo’s handwriting was remarkably similar to Santa Claus’s. I figured the pogo stick would be returned to Cortana Mall, so I became unconcerned about it and went about my days practicing magic by myself and playing Boggle with Auntie Rose. Just like Uncle Bob, she never let me win, but taught me everything she knew while we played. Debbie had gone back home, and Auntie Rose took Wendy’s room; Wendy and I shared Uncle Bob’s office and each slept in one of the twin beds. I hung my drawing and tree 8X10’s in our room by Uncle Bob’s electric typewriter and all the ribbons and awards Wendy had won in school for swimming and tennis, and I set my sites on winning a few myself. She wasn’t home much, because she was looking for a job every day until late in the evening, and she often slept in later than I did and came home after I had gone to bed.

Wendy comes home late one afternoon before New Years with a cardboard box full of meowing kittens, and unleashes them in the house. Auntie Lo squawks irritation and lumbers around, flailing her long arms in Scotch-impaired, feeble attempts to gather them. She cradles two or three in her hands and drops them in the box and turns to chase more, only to grow frustrated when she returns to an empty box. She raises her voice and tells Wendy to help, but Wendy is sobbing and saying it’s cold outside. Auntie Lo changes strategy and carries the box around, grabbing one kitten at a time and dropping it in the box. When she has them all, she folds the four flaps of a lid over and tucks the corners together, trapping the meowing herd inside. She grabs her keys, stumbles out the carport door, and starts her car and peels out backwards. A short while later she returns. The box is devoid of kittens, but packed with bottles of booze from the fancy liquor around the corner from Sherwood Forest County Club. Wendy goes to our room and cries on her bed. Auntie Lo pours a tallboy of Scotch to sip on while she makes a cocktail.

A few days later, I wake up to the sound of Auntie Lo slurring loudly. I hear Wendy’s voice. I slip out of bed, and peer around the door, down the hallway, past the dining table, and to the kitchen. I’m still in my underwear, and try to not be noticeable so that no one tells me to go back to bed. Auntie Lo’s leaning on the kitchen counter with one hand and waving a tallboy glass in the other as she talks. Wendy’s sulking with her head down. Auntie Lo towers over her, and her voice is much louder. She’s making that noise Wendy called “clucking,” like making a sound for snap crackle and pop! with your tounge snapping against the rough of your mouth to go pop! She only makes it after around 4pm. It was probably around 11:30pm. Wendy had come home before New Years parties were in full swing. Uncle Bob and I had watched the Big Apple drop in New York on television, and both had gone to bed immediately after. I could hear him snoring in his bedroom at the opposite end of the hall. I glance at his door and it’s closed. I hear a cluck! resonate down the hall, and I rotate my head back towards the kitchen.

We don’t let you live here – cluck! – Auntie Lo says while gesturing all around with her tallboy, So you can stay out all night! Cluck!

Wendy doesn’t look up, and mumbles that she’s looking for work.

Bullshit! Cluck! Auntie Lo slurs, You’re out smoking marijuana. She gestures outside with her glass. Cluck! That’s what got you in this mess in the first place. Cluck!

Wendy looks up and says something I don’t recall.

No! Auntie Lo shouts. She slips a bit on the counter, then points her glass at Wendy and says, You don’t! Cluck! You don’t do anything around here to help. I have to clean up after you and get rid of stray dogs and cats you keep bringing here and look after your kid. She waves the tallboy towards me. I duck my head inside. Wendy says something in a harsh tone. I hear the unmistakable sound of a face being slapped hard.

I peer back around the doorway. Wendy’s sobbing and shaking and holding her cheek, but looking up into Auntie Lo’s eyes. Her eyebrows are narrowed and her jaw is clenched, and she’s breathing deeply. Auntie Lo is standing upright, not leaning on the counter, though given her unsteadiness that was probably not a good idea. She holds her glass upright, and her other hand hangs loosely by her side. As fast as lightening, Wendy’s right hand snakes out and strikes Auntie Lo’s left cheek. Her head turns, and her loose jowels ripple like waves on a pond after a rock hits. She gasps, but doesn’t drop her glass. She was an old pro at holding on to that glass.

In slow motion, her loose hand comes up like a wobbly snake from a gag-gift can and glances off Wendy’s face, but the momentum was such that Wendy’s little body flew back into the refrigerator with a loud clunk followed by clinging of glass jars that lined the inside of the refrigerator door.

Ahhhh! Wendy shouts, and she springs forward and starts swinging towards Auntie Lo’s face. Auntie Lo bats a few swings with what I imagine was luck, but Wendy lands a solid smack! and Auntie Lo collapses onto her butt and starts crying, still holding her unspilled glass at face level.

You hit me! Cluck! I’m going to tell Robert you hit me.

You hit me first, Wendy says. She’s shaking again. Her arms are crossed and her hands are tucked in her armpits.

I’ll tell him you hit me first! Auntie Lo slurs, waving her glass at whomever could be listening.

I rotate my head to Uncle Bob’s closed door. I don’t hear him snoring. I can’t imagine anyone sleeping through all of the shouting and slapping. I wonder what he would say about Auntie Lo planning to lie. I wonder when he’ll come out and tell everyone to be adults. I hear Wendy mumble something, and I rotate my head back. She’s staring down, and she mumbles something I don’t hear.

No! Cluck! Get out! Cluck! Get out, and take your kid with you!

I duck back in and here footsteps rapidly approaching. Wendy flips on the light and steps in and says between sobs that we’re going to Debbie’s. She opens one of Auntie Lo’s fine all-wood chest-of-drawers and quickly packs my backpack for me. Even in her haste, she keeps the clothes neatly folded; she had a knack for handling shirts, I guess. She hands me pants and a shirt and a jacket, and I get dressed while she packs her own bag. I strap on my backpack.

Auntie Lo lumbers into the doorway, then slides to the ground and sits on her butt. Her hands are empty. She mumbles something about staying. Wendy grasps my hand and steps over Auntie Lo’s legs. She yanks on my arm so I can clear Auntie Lo in one hop. Auntie Lo grabs my left leg loosely with both hands and says, No… but I slide out of her hands without even trying. I’m moving forward but looking backwards, being pulled along by Wendy, and I see Auntie Lo struggling to pull herself up by the edge of the doorway. She slips and falls on her butt and slides forward into the hallway. Uncle Bob’s door is still shut.

We arrive at Debbie’s after midnight. Cindi and her son and Debbie’s little brother are there, but Debbie is not. Her mom welcomes us. They are all loud and the floor is uncomfortable, but they have plenty of fortune cookies and Raisenettes for me to munch on. I’m wide awake, and can’t fall asleep, so I just eat all night. Wendy’s eyes are closed and she tosses and turns. She’s quiet, but sometimes she sniffles. The next day, she takes me to Brian the one armed drug dealer’s house, and we stay there a couple of days. Debbie’s there, and we practice magic. A few days later, I’m back at Auntie Lo’s and Uncle Bob’s, but Wendy stays at Brian’s.

I return to school after Christmas break, and stay quiet and don’t tell anyone about my Christmas vacation. All said and done, it was am unremarkable holiday, just like other holidays or any time my family got together. I did, however, take care in hanging my Christmas gifts on my bedroom wall, with Uncle Bob’s help. We hung them next to Wendy’s ribbons and medals from swimming and tennis. Uncle Bob says she used to enjoy those things in school. He asks what I enjoy in school. I tell him art.

A few days later, some of my Christmas gifts are returned, and beside Uncle Bob’s electric typewriter I have a stack of drawing easels, the really big box of 64 crayons with a sharpener built into the back of the box, a box of colored markers, a small plastic rectangular plastic water color paint set with about 8 colors in a single row and a slot to hold a couple of brushes, and a jar full of different pencils and erasers and a multi-hole pencil sharpener for different sized pencils that you stuck to the desk with a little lever that tightened a suction cup and held it in place, though sometimes you’d have to lick your finger and rub the spit around the suction cup for it to stick tightly.

Uncle Bob returns to work in New Orleans during weekdays, and Auntie Lo walks me to school. Every evening, she gets sloshed and I watch after-school television and draw, or watch television and practice my Svengali deck. Wendy picks me up on weekends, and sometimes we sit with Uncle Bob outside while he cracks pecans from the back yard trees to ship to his family on Prince Edward Island. Usually though, we drive around Baton Rouge and meet with Debbie and sometimes Brian, and almost always stopping in a park to play. I never fly a kite, but Debbie brings a Frisbee and we play with that. I get one small spider bite from climbing a jungle gym on Westminister’s outdoor playground and my hand swells up, but there’s no trip to the ER and I don’t turn into SpiderMan, the guy on The Electric Company who shoots webs after being bit by a spider; he even traps the Abomidable Snowman in a web after leading the snowman into a trap by placing a trail of single scoop ice cream cones; a waste of ice cream, if you ask me. Besides my disappointment at not becoming Spider Man, I’m happy to be free from major injuries. Nothing breaks, and I don’t bleed. I get the mumps and stay home and watch soap operas with Auntie Lo for two weeks. I don’t learn anything from them, but I learn a lot from The Electric Company, less from Seaseme Street: they have a few Spanish lessons about how to ask for aqua and un banyo. The Lone Ranger still plays, and I still have my cowboy hat and pistol to play along, though I had long since run out of caps and Auntie Lo wouldn’t allow more in the house. The Lone Ranger is followed by the Cisco Kid, who speaks a bit of Spanish. Batman comes on now and then, with Adam West seeming more and more campy to me. Otherwise than Batman not being impressive, nothing much seemed to change, which was surprisingly relaxing.


That summer, Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob fly Wendy and me to Prince Edward Island. I had never been in an airplane, nor did I know where Prince Edward Island was. Of course I had asked about the name – I knew a lot of Eds and Edwards by then – and Uncle Bob tells me it’s an island with farms, sort of like where PawPaw lives but with more land. He talks about Nova Scotia and how the French walked from there to Louisiana, which is why he and Auntie Rose sound like Debbie. The Cajuns must have taken a long time to walk from Prince Edward Island, because the flight took at least eight cigarettes; this was 1977, at the tail end of functional ashtrays in airline arm rests. He said that Auntie Rose and him grew up there, and I’d get to see her and meet some of his family.

Though I don’t recall the details, we stopped in Toronto on the way to Prince Edward Island and met Aunt Mary and Uncle John and my cousin Dawn, who was Wendy’s age and like Tiffany was to me. They played and laughed while Auntie Lo and Aunt Mary “caught up,” which was adult talk for sit and drink and be boring. Uncle Bob and Uncle John talked about hockey and curling. Aunt Edith shows up briefly – she’s older than Aunt Reece, but fit and spry and bored by the adults, and her driver is waiting for her downstairs. She gives everyone an envelope with cash and me a small leather coin purse with a metal snap and full of loons, the coins of Canada with Louisiana geese on them that everyone there calls Canadian geese. Apparently, according to Uncle Bob, the Cajuns stopped walking when they recognized the geese in Louisiana, which is named for France’s King Louis and Queen Anna – “and” is “y” in French, but the geese are Canadian and called loons there. I don’t recall the details, but Uncle Bob said something about it sounding looney to him, and he laughed and I laughed with him.

For the most part, I was bored at Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Johns, especially when Aunt Edith showed up and dominated the conversation by talking about her trips to golf in Scotland and a cruise she was taking soon, which is probably why I don’t recall much. One memory sticks out, and it’s when Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo borrowed Uncle John’s car and took me on a two-cigarette drive. Wendy stayed at Aunt Mary’s, and we drove early in the day when Auntie Lo was sober.

We park by a short building that I assumed was a two story apartment complex, but in my mind’s eye I still see it and it was a relatively nice condo complex in the suburbs of Toronto. We walk upstairs and knock. A man about Uncle Bob’s size and age answers the door, and he and Uncle Bob greet as if they knew each other formally and had planned to meet. The man seems more familiar with Auntie Lo, as if they had known each other a long time. I don’t recall the name they use with him. Uncle Bob introduces me, and the man smiles and says hello and I say hello back. We all go inside.

The man’s wife and daughters are there. They’re all older than I am. I’m reticent round them, and I cling closely to Uncle Bob in the average sized living room lighted by double French doors opening onto a balcony. The man has a Scotch on the rocks on his coffee table and offers Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo one, and they say yes and a big fuss is made about cracking ice and the quality of the Scotch. I get an orange juice and some type of plastic wrapped candy I had never seen. It was fine. I don’t recall what the girls got. The man asks what I like doing. I tell him art. He beams, and tells me he’s a cartoonist for Disney. I open my eyes wide: I knew what Disney was. Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo had driven me to Disney World – or Disney Land, I always confused the two – earlier that summer. Whichever it was, World or Land, it was about eight cigarettes from Baton Rouge, practically the same as the flight to Toronto. And though I didn’t recall anything about inside the theme park (I still don’t) I remember watching color cartoons in the hotel all weekend and having the best time watching cartoons that I attributed to all being Disney. Now, I was meeting an artist for Disney, and I saw why Uncle Bob had taken me all that way.

The man sees my enthusiasm. He reaches for a book-sized drawing pad and a pen. Not a pencil, but a pen: he must know what he’s doing if he doesn’t need an eraser. In a few deft strokes, like Mamma Jean with her hair scissors or Big Daddy with his elk skinning knife, the man draws a cowboy in a business suit and tie, with his elbows bent and hands above a pistol on each side of his belt. The belt is huge, and the pistols are obviously revolvers. The drawing’s grinning, and his eyes are squinting with a somewhat confused look. I’m impressed, but not nearly as much as Auntie Lo. She says it looks just like him! Everyone except Uncle Bob chuckles, and they pass around the drawing. I hear a name for the first time: Ronald Reagan. The artist sips his Scotch and takes the drawing and makes two circles about Ronald Reagan’s head with little starbursts here and there, like a cartoon character who was knocked on the head and was now dizzy. He dips his finger in his Scotch and makes the rings slightly brown and fuzzy, and says now it even smells right. Everyone except Uncle Bob chuckled.

A few refills later, the young ladies have left and only the man and his wife are there. Uncle Bob asks Auntie Lo to show me the tennis courts. She takes a drink to go and leads me outside without holding my hand, because she was stabilizing herself on the handrail. So that she wouldn’t spill her drink on the long walk down one flight of stairs, she says. The tennis courts were boring. We return and for the first time ever I hear Uncle Bob using a loud, serious, practically angry voice.

He’s your grandson, goddamnit! He says. I don’t hear anything for a moment, then I hear, Goddamnit! and Uncle Bob talking, though I can’t make out the words. Auntie Lo seems oblivious, and pounds on the door and opens it and slurs that we’re back. Uncle Bob’s smoking and looks angry. He says we have to go, and the man tells me not to forget my drawing. I take it, and just like that I take my drawing by the famous Disney artist and we leave. I never see him again.

A few days later, on Prince Edward Island, I meet some of Uncle Bob’s aunts and uncles, but I don’t recall anything about them. I remember playing Boogle with Auntie Rose and run around outside in wide-open fields. On what would be our last day, just before sunset, I’m running through a wildflower speckled green field when I slip and soak my new shoes in a mudhole. I’m about to start crying, because I know shoes are expensive and Wendy says I go through a lot of them, but Uncle Bob says it’s the perfect light for a photograph. He rests on a knee and aims his Minolta 35mm at me. He’s talented with the light meter, and must have either already known the settings or planned on using a wide apateur to allow more light at the magic hour, or to focus on me and blur the farm. Either way, he snapped the photo quickly, before I could process what was happening. He stood up. Nothing happened. I asked what he did. He said he captured the moment. I asked to see it. He said we’d carry it back and bring it to K&B and they’d print it, like Mr. White had done with my tree.

Back home, after another flight that lasted at least eight cigarettes, we drove past the bright orange K&B drug store and dropped off the roll of slide film at a photography store in the same strip mall that smelled – well, it smelled like a photo developing store, a unique smell that will one day only be known in a few people’s memories; I’d grow to know the smell well because of Uncle Bob. A week later, we had slides: tiny little images I could barely make out, but that Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo could see and talk about and remind me about. Uncle Bob projected them for a neighborhood party in the living room, and everyone adored the one of me. Two weeks later, it was framed on the wall of the living room in a frame almost as big as I was. He used K&B for the enlargement: something about slides needing more expertise than enlargements.

I stared at it, unsure what to make of it. I remembered the moment, of course, and Uncle Bob telling me he had captured it. I could see that. My smile is genuine, though I have moisture in the corners of my eyes from having almost cried. One pants leg is wrinkled and darker from slipping in the mud. I’m standing in bright green grass that mostly hides my muddy shoe. I was confused by the blurred barn. Had it been that way? And the flowers were indescript, colorful blurs in a sea of green. My hair was long and wavy. It looked more red than I recalled. I ran my fingers through my hair and thought I needed a haircut.

The only mirrors in Uncle Bob’s house were the bathroom mirrors and one by the dresser in what used to be Wendy’s room. I walk into the master bedroom and into the bathroom and look at my hair. I’m the same kid in the photo. Nothing’s blurred behind me. I rotate my head to see the back, but can’t. Auntie Lo doesn’t have a handheld mirror. Bored, I splash on probably ten dollars worth of Uncle Bob’s barely noticeable after-shave, pick up Auntie Lo’s lipstick and quickly step into the bedroom and draw a smiley face on her piggy bank. At some point, I had heard Auntie Lo say something about someone’s dress as being like putting lipstick on a pig, and I had thought that was funny because she kept several piggy banks and ceramic animal figurines around the house. I put the lipstick back and walked into the living room again.

I stared at myself in the picture frame hung like a mirror on the wall but far above my head. The me in the photo was smaller than I was, the same way my reflection was smaller the farther I stood from it. I moved back and forth, and it didn’t change size like in a mirror. (I didn’t notice any change, probably because a mirror would change twice as quickly as a photo, because both you and the reflection are moving away from each other, and the photo was stationary.) I had never seen a photo of myself. I moved back and forward, then stood still about an alligator length away and looked up at the photo of me, smiling and happy despite a soggy foot that could have ruined my new shoes. For some reason, I recalled Mamma Jean showing off her photos of her children and Tiffany, saying she traveled with the photos of family to make her smile. I smiled. It was the first time I had a memory permanently displayed. And in the formal living room, too. With a big fancy wooden frame around it for the world to see.

I realized Uncle Bob was my family, more than Billy or Ann or Wendy or my dad. Neurons linked dendrites like people holding hands to say grace, and my first family bonds were formed deep in my scar studded noggin. I felt good. I felt loved. Not that I hadn’t before, but now there was a talisman on the wall that reminded me whenever I walked by. Of course I had my tree and boy flying a kit hanging in my room, but those were my secrets. This photo was on display for everyone to see, and that’s what felt so good. I taped the drawing of Ronald Reagan on the wall in my room by my tree and kid flying a kite, to remind me of how my family took me to Disney World or Land and all the way to Toronto to meet a famous Disney artist.1

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  1. Uncle Bob once told me the man’s name, but I don’t recall his first name and only recall that his last name was Rothdram, the same as Wendy’s middle name and Granny’s last name. One drunken evening, Auntie Lo mumbled to me that _____, the man’s name, was a bullshit artist, and that he wanted to work for Disney but never had. I’ve never found evidence of a Rothdram drawing for Disney in the 1960’s or 70’s; if you do, there’s a strong chance he was my grandfather on my mother’s side.