By Helen Hasbun
Family reunions are misleadingly depicted as happy occasions. In reality, the teenage victim of this relative-filled hell steps onto the patio, as Aunt Beatrice rushes forward, fingers poised for pinching cheeks. My family reunion experience was no exception to this kind of familial torment. The atmosphere was filled with that awkward how-do-you-do, I-don’t-know-where-to-sit feeling. We had never gathered together in a “reunion” setting before. It was hard not to laugh watching the adults try to act like they knew what was going on and what they were doing. My uncle and aunt on my mother’s side were hosting. They were hectically cooking; the guests were standing around, talking. My sister and I stood by the wall just watching. Nervous laughter flooded every conversation. Why was everyone acting so happy? This reunion was not a happy occasion. It was painfully obvious how masked everyone was. It was painfully obvious how strained everyone’s emotions were. My sister and I stayed by the wall.
Family reunions always have a reason for occurring. Typically, those reasons include holidays, celebrations, and occurrences of that sort. Ours fell under the “celebrations” category. It was a bittersweet thing, really. We had come together that day to celebrate Death. My granddad’s death. I, for one, was not in the mood to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his death—at least not the way my family was doing it. Who celebrates Death and laughs the whole time? I felt uncomfortable, I felt confused, and most of all, I felt like my feelings of anguish were absolutely uncalled for in this sea of commemoration. I didn’t know what to think. I’d never been to a family reunion before.
So, there we were, my sister and I: standing against the wall. All I wanted was to be left alone. But at a family reunion, that’s just wishful thinking. The whole room reeked of boredom. Rapidly, people began to search for escapes from these awkward this-is-great, how’s-the-family, oh-wait-we’re-all-here conversations. I will never understand why it is that youth are always the portal to entertainment at reunions. Our mother pleaded with us to sing for the family; she wanted to show us off, glorify her parental successes. As a result, our uncle begged us to perform for them, my sister on guitar, myself as vocals. Our aunt beseeched us to belt out karaoke. Our older sister, age twenty-two at the time, asked us to play Frisbee out in the yard. Our grandmother implored us to discuss various subjects of our lives with herself and the small crowd that had formed. Thus, we were bombarded by the adults; the cowering antelope had been spotted by the famished lions; the mouse was closed up in the snake’s jaws.
Fending off these mobs of faces with hasty excuses like, “I left my coat in the car,” and, “What’s that, Mom, way over there, on the other side of the house?” we managed to make it to dinner. I sustained a few wounds to my cheeks and various areas of my face where I had been smothered in kisses, but food awaited, and so all was well. Sitting down, I didn’t expect anything really emotional to happen. Nonetheless, as soon as the food disappeared from our plates, my uncle spoke. We were each supposed to share one memory, our favorite or most profound, of Granddad, with the everyone gathered. My uncle was going to start, and then we would go around the table.
At first, panic seized my very heart. I could feel the muscle being compressed within the massive palm of an invisible attacker. I had to pick a memory. I had to pull one random thought out of a hat. I knew they would accept anything. I could tell them about him savoring his one tiny bite of chocolate ice cream once a day after he was moved from the hospital back home until the day that he died. I could tell them anything. But I chose my one memory; the only memory I knew would really hurt me to share. It was my most vivid memory of him, even though I was not actually present at the creation of this memory.
And so, I waited with baited breath. No one had started crying yet, but people were wiping their eyes. I had never cried over him since he died. I wasn’t allowed to see him before he died, because I was ill, and I would make him die faster. So, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. When my dad told me he died, when I joined my family downstairs over his deathbed, when my mother embraced me in her shaking arms sobbing, even when they told me his last words, I never cried.
I cried that day. It was my turn. With a slow breath, I explained how I wrote him a letter in painstakingly perfect calligraphic writing, which I had been encouraged by him to learn. I had used his pen set, his ink, his paper. He had given them to me. I wrote that letter, and I sealed it with hot wax, burning myself over and over to get it right, because I was pouring it straight onto the envelope instead of stamping it. What it said wasn’t anything complicated or long or particularly sentimental. It was what any granddaughter might write to her dying grandfather: I know you will get better! Your doggies miss you, they follow Mom everywhere. I miss you more. I can’t wait to see you. You’re going to get better. I know it. I love you.
I wasn’t there when that letter was delivered. My mother was the one who originally told me what he did when he received it. But I could picture it so perfectly in my mind’s eye that I was there. I shared this piece of my memory so utterly deep within my soul that a fragment of my heart shattered as I let the words slip from my lips. He slowly opened the letter. He unfolded the paper with the utmost care. He read the letter. He folded it up. He unfolded it with the same care. He read it again. He folded it up. He unfolded it and read it again. Then, he placed it on his windowsill, where he could always see it and read it over and over. This, my mother told me. This, I recalled for them. It was this that ultimately released my unyielding wall against tears. I left the table after I told them that. I left it not because I cried, but because they started laughing at me for it.
I will never understand adults. They cry when something distressful happens, but they cannot bring themselves to cry in a gathering for the purpose of crying. I know that the laughter was meant to prevent them from breaking out in sobs themselves. There was no other explanation for this bizarre reaction. There was dead silence when I finished my story. My attempt to control my emotions was what actually initiated the first of the laughs. But honestly, I would have preferred to have them all crying with me so that I didn’t feel so inconceivably alone and stupid. They laughed at me when I went back, too, after regaining my composure. Even my sister laughed. I loathed them. No one else cried; they all were weeping inside, but they didn’t let it out.
As we did for the Poetry Contest, we thought it would be useful to provide a few reasons why we selected our Essay contest winners. With Helen’s essay, we were intrigued by the introduction, which set up her family reunion as a “torment,” and used that wonderfully cartoonish image of an Aunt Beatrice with which we can all identify. She continues with a suspenseful narrative about the reunion celebration of her grandfather’s death which culminates in the private story she confides to her family, only to be cruelly betrayed by their reaction. We were surprised by her family’s reaction, and this feeling allowed us to live this moment along with the narrator. Helen concludes the essay with a provocative insight about the kinds of emotions that are spoken and “unspoken” at family reunions.
About Helen Hasbun: Raised in California, I have been a writer all my life. My family has always been extremely supportive, through my move from California to Washington and through all the hardships I have faced. I am a senior in high school, and while my passion for writing is evident, I am pursuing orthodontics. My grandfather passed away in 2007, the day of his sister’s birthday. While we miss him every day, we know that he left happily. His last words were, “Hugs all around, love to all; I have to fly away now.”
CONGRATS to Helen, and thank you to all the teens who bravely threw their own family gatherings into the ring.
For her $25 prize, Helen chose the Lion Heart Book Store in Seattle, WA.