I came at the tail end of a long line of cousins. I am lucky to have had so much family surrounding me as a child. Being one of 45 first cousins has also been a boon to my story telling career. Two stories in particular have been on my mind lately.
My older sister Karen always invited family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving the Sunday before so the actual day was free for loved ones to celebrate in any way they wished. I fondly remember cramming into her tiny home in Antioch. She lined up card tables from her dining room into the living room. People against the wall sat on picnic benches. The person on the end sat in Karen’s easy chair. The windows were always steamed up from pots of food cooking on the stove and a tea kettle that was always on for tea. Conversations were lively, full of shaggy dog stories, lots of jokes, and family lore. Going to Karen’s for any celebration made the occasion all the jollier.
But one year, I could tell from the minute I walked in her front door, that something was different. Karen wasn’t dressed as festively as usual. She seemed harried and nervous. She kept glancing up at the ceiling when she thought no one was looking. Her daughter Robin and son-in-law Doug were doing more of the cooking than I’d seen before. In the kitchen for a moment alone, I asked Robin if her mother was doing all right. “She’s okay, but a little upset. I’ll tell you later,” she said quietly. The party went on as usual with most guests not noticing the change in Karen. “Later” didn’t come that night. I went to see Karen the next day.
“Sorry I was out of sorts,” she said nervously. Then, with her eyes opened wide, she blurted out “Tommy’s in the attic!”
Whoa. What? Tommy?
“Do you remember cousin Tommy?” Karen asked. Of course, I remembered Tommy. I was a toddler and he was the teenager who wouldn’t play with me. He was raised in Shore Acres, went to UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in math. Never married, that anyone knew. Disappeared for years on end. His parents mentioned that he’d resurface from time to time. After Uncle Howard, my mother’s brother, and Aunt Frida passed away, we sort of forgot about Tommy. Until Karen got the call.
A camper truck had been parked in Concord near the airport for quite a few days. A local citizen reported that the truck was smelling pretty bad. The Sherriff’s department went out to investigate and, well, they found cousin Tommy. Dead as a door nail. Seems his heart stopped one day, never to beat again. There were no clues as to where he had been or where he was going.
The Sheriff’s department contacted his brother Johnny, who lives in Nevada. They made arrangements to cremate Tommy’s remains, selling his truck to pay for the process. The only possessions of Tommy’s that Johnny wanted were the guns found in the camper.
Johnny couldn’t get down to California right away due to health problems, so he called Karen. Like a good cousin raised with the belief that family takes care of family, Karen went to the Sheriff’s department. She picked up the guns and the box of Tommy’s ashes – the day before her party.
Driving home, Karen got to thinking about what she had in her trunk. Tommy had always been a little different. Was it really a heart attack that killed him? No one knew where Tommy had been all those years. Family rumor had it that he was running drugs and guns in South America. Some relatives thought he had been in prison. Karen had always been a little superstitious. Was Tommy’s ghost in the trunk, too? And she was afraid of guns. Her mind started playing tricks on her. She prayed all the way home.
With company coming, the party must go on. She told Robin and Doug the Tommy story. Doug stashed Tommy and the guns in the attic. Then they pitched in and got the party going. “All through the get-together, I kept thinking that Tommy’s ghost was in the attic!” Karen laughed nervously years later.
Not long after Tommy passed away, a cousin on my father’s side went to the great beyond as well. The family was invited to a small celebration of life. “Dicky Jim” to all of us that knew him when he was young, and “Richard” to the rest of the world, passed away in his 70s. I had a special connection to him when I was a teenager. He was a math wizard and a musician. On the rare occasion when I needed homework help, he was always willing. He had a way of explaining things that made the problems clear. He also happened to be dating the mother of my best friend.
One day my friend Linda announced that we were going to be cousins! Her mom was marrying my cousin. How cool was that! A beautiful baby girl was born, giving me yet another cousin. But life goes on, and then there was a divorce. We all grew up and apart. I was surprised and saddened to hear of Richard’s passing. The celebration was at the home of my youngest cousin, his daughter. She and her uncles were touched to see how many family members attended.
After an informal circle session of remembering the good times, Richard’s brother Bob announced that they were going to take Richard’s ashes and spread them into a stream in the Sierra foothills. As children, they had spent every summer in a nearby family cabin. “Richard said that those were the happiest times of his life. It’s only fitting that he returns there in death,” Bob said. He then invited us to come along if we were interested in driving that far. Oh, and also, they didn’t own the land anymore, so we’d be doing a little trespassing. This turn of events was unexpected, but, what the hey! Family takes care of family, even in death. Imagine eight cars in a caravan driving up to Tuolumne County.
We drove to a turn out on a back-country road, all cars jockeying for position on the edge of the old highway. We met on the other side of a cement barrier, then walked down an old path to a barbed wire fence with a no trespassing sign on it. Bob held the wire up as a dozen or more of us slinked under. We followed a path down to a small stream in the shadows of a cloud of scrub oaks. Cousin Bob told a story of how he and Richard had climbed these trees as boys. He opened the box. He took a handful of ashes and sprinkled them into the bubbling brook. The box was passed around the illicit gathering. I couldn’t bring myself to take a handful of Richard, but my husband had no problem taking a handful for both of us. With reverence, we watched Richard float downstream.
My oldest cousins are in their 80s now. You’d think after writing this weekly column for nearly nine years I’d run out of stories, but even though many of my cousins have passed on to the great beyond, they are still giving me fable fodder. With the holidays arriving soon, I’m sure to hear more tales. But it will be hard to beat “Tommy’s in the Attic!” and “Richard’s in the River!”