"Where the alcohol at?" axed Earlene as she strutted across the street, a can of Coors Lite in one hand and a pack of Winston Menthols in the other.
No, that is not the opening line of my thrilling first novel. It is what actually happened one afternoon last week as we — my extended family on my father's side — sat outside under a carport in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. And, no, that is not a typo: she did not ask, she axed. We are only lucky she did not ass. (Later, overhearing a suggestion that we should "ass Jesus" for something or other, my mother whispered to me in a tone of mock scandal, "How rude." And as irreligious as I am, I cannot but agree that the fundament of Our Lord should not be invoked lightly.)
Earlene is my cousin by marriage. She's my age, younger by a few months. She married when we were fifteen. And — and this is the kicker — she wasn't even pregnant at the time.
Now she has two teenagers. When I'd been asked for the sixth time when Paul and I were planning to have another child, it might have been easy to envy her that. But I've never been able to compartmentalize: I can't wish for part without seeing the whole, and the whole is quite frankly appalling.
We're 36, but she looks 50. Part of that is the climate; while I moved steadily northward, protecting my milk-white skin at all times with lace mitts and a sturdy parasol as all true ladies do — hey, it's my novel, I can go all Scarlett O'Hara any damn time I like — she stayed put under the harsh southern sun. And the beer and the smokes don't help. But most of the age on her face and the defeated slump of her body come from a life much harder than mine. Education, money, and exposure to the wider world were on my side. Hardship, bad luck, and a pervasive, stubborn provincialism were on hers.
We used to make fun of Earlene. She doesn't seem funny now. It's not that adversity has made her noble; it's that life has taught me...something. Compassion, I hope. Kindness, maybe, some. Awareness of my own good luck, for sure: There but for the grace of simply everything go I. Watching Earlene, it is easy to wonder what she assed Jesus for, and whether He delivered, and how I could have been so impossibly fortunate. As easy as wondering where the alcohol at.
I never knew about Robert. I was sitting with my aunt as she went through a box of old photographs. "And this," she said, stopping at a blurry black and white shot of a boy in a cassock and surplice, "is our brother Robert."
I stared at her. I never knew there was another brother. As far as I'd known, my father had two sisters, two brothers, period.
"Oh, yes, Julie. He died." And she told me the story.
My grandfather was swimming with Robert and one of his daughters while my grandmother played on the beach with the other children. One moment they were in waist-high water; the next they were fighting to stay afloat above a dangerous sudden drop-off. Both children disappeared under the waves.
My grandfather was able to find my aunt and take her safely to shore. After 45 minutes of searching, he couldn't find his son. Exhausted, he had to give up.
"I'm so sorry," I managed to tell my aunt, horrified, thinking of my grandmother watching this play out from the beach, thinking of how hard my grandfather must have fought to save both children.
"Wait, Julie," she said, putting her hand on my knee. "This part'll really get you. They looked everywhere for Robert's body, and they couldn't find it anywhere. And then a lady came up to Mama on the beach and said she'd seen the Blessed Mother drop a shower of rose petals on the water, that they should look for Robert over there. That's just where they found him, too. And Mama tried to find that lady to thank her, but she never saw her again."
Later my aunt showed me the newspaper clipping reporting Robert's death. He'd wanted to be a priest, said the story. I do not know whether that was true, or if it just made for a satisfying dramatic hook alongside the photo. I do know that I, as irreverent as they come, am grateful they had their religion. Glad they had that comfort, at least, when facing the unendurable. "I don't know how you get over that," I said to my aunt, shaking my head.
"You never do," she said.
As I wrote above, we were asked countless times when we planned to have another baby. This isn't a question I field very often; the family I'm close to know our situation and are tactful enough not to mention it. But this was a reunion of relatives I don't see very often, and they all did ask — not out of an unseemly curiosity, I think, but out of a genuine warmth and a lack of much else to say to us.
"We'll see," was my stock reply. What else was there to say? I thought about asking a cousin for advice, asking her how she handled it; she got pregnant via IVF when I did in February 2003, and was there with her daughter, a year older than Charlie. I learned of her pregnancy the day I learned mine was failing.
"You know," I'd planned to say, "Charlie's an IVF baby, too." And we would instantly bond, cousins by marriage but sisters through experience. We would marvel at the miracle of medical technology, and we would swap war stories, injection techniques, and wallet-sized photos of our embryos. Our affinity would be permanently cemented when we each confided our strong misgivings about Lunchables and our implacable scorn for the entire Baby Einstein empire. But it didn't turn out that way; we were so busy discussing nap habits, finger foods, and potty training of our actual, living children that somehow IVF never came up. Moreover, she loves Baby Einstein, so our souls must forever remain unpartnered. Alas, it was never meant to be.
And that is just as well. I'm not sorry. It wasn't the time or the place for me to be infertile, if you see what I mean, not necessary for me to seek any ground more common than shared blood and family feeling. It was enough to be my parents' daughter, my son's mother, a sister, a cousin, a niece. Connection enough for me.