By Susan Young
Why couldn’t my relatives have a place at the beach? I’d be able to stroll off, thoughts whooshing around in my head like the crashing waves, and, most importantly, I’d have a high probability of scoping golden lifeguards with six-pack abs. Instead, our Chevy Astro heaved up a gravel driveway leading to an old house in Waynesville, North Carolina, a small mountain town. My attempt to read Seventeen along miles of winding roads had made me too nauseous to enjoy even the magazine’s folded perfume samples, usually my favorite freebie. The postcard view of the lush highlands was totally lost on me—their peaks verified that there was no escape from this family gathering.
We’d driven three hours to devote our Memorial Day weekend to the Phillips Family Reunion, never mind the fact that I’d never known we had any affiliation with this last name. When my dad set the parking brake, I had no choice but to drag my butt out of the car. Clutching their Beanie Babies, my two younger sisters bounded out the minivan, high on Skittles and Dr. Pepper. I slid out of the car and scanned the scene. About twenty of my relatives were scattered among several picnic tables on the craggy incline.
“I’m so glad you wore those ratty shorts for the occasion,” my Mom said.
I’d had these strategically deconstructed J.Crew cut-offs for a couple of years; Mom was just waiting for her chance to sneak them into the trash.
“What, like I was supposed get all fancy for this?” I said under my breath, loud enough for her to hear.
She sighed. I made a face and pulled at one of the threads along my thigh. Neither of us wanted to get into it in front of everyone.
“Are we having fun yet?” my Dad asked.
He adjusted his visor and squinted his eyes, which ping-ponged between Mom and me. Earlier, I’d mumbled “Yeah” and “I know” in response to his pep talk about how it was just one afternoon, and I should try to relax and get to know some of my relatives. Little did my parents know there were actually supposed to be parties back home that weekend. I hadn’t told them this because I sensed that they’d get a secret thrill out of ruining my social life.
My Great Aunt Kate, sort of the matriarch of The Phillips Family Reunion, lived in an old white house at the top of the hill. Everyone called her “Aunt Kate.” I’d only met her once before this particular family event. My Great Aunt Rooney and Uncle Robert, whom I’d also met once before, lived at the bottom of the hill in a ranch-style brick house that was right across the street from a Lowes.
I said hello to my relatives of the close-extended variety: the ones who sent me birthday cards with a crisp twenty sandwiched inside. I vaguely recognized some of the other faces from fuzzy old photographs. I prayed no one had gotten tee-shirts made for the occasion.
Although Aunt Kate was well into her eighties, she wore semi-cool tennis shoes and carried herself like a lanky gym teacher. In a hopeful voice, Dad told me that Aunt Kate had won several medals in the Senior Olympics for running. I’d been on my high school cross-country team for a year, but I’d won nothing besides a Varsity letter that was now tacked to my cork bulletin board—I had zero desire to sport the jacket. My passion for the activity was mainly due to its calorie-burning benefits and the fact that I hated it less than other sports. On a trail, you could just be in your head, sans blaring scoreboards and teammates screaming at you for dropping the ball. When Aunt Kate led a few of us through her old house and pointed to her display case of ribbons and medals, I mentioned that I ran too. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught my mom looking pleased. Ugh.
“Do you like it?” Aunt Kate asked.
“Um, well,” I took a deep breath. Her house had a woody, apple cider scent. “Probably not as much as you, y’know? I’m not very fast, but I do like to exercise.”
“Good for you,” she said.
I wished I had more to say.
“Cool. Where’s the bathroom?”
In the bathroom, my Aunt Kate’s “Evening in Paris” perfume and powder set caught my eye. The midnight blue bottles with elegant calligraphy looked like it had existed in the days of bootlegging and flappers, and the fancy set almost seemed out of place in the rustic house. Though I wasn’t sure what kind of prospects could be found in these hills, I tried to picture a young Aunt Kate primping for a hot date: her hair in a French twist, a spritz on every pulse point so that her “Evening in Waynesville” could be as magical as the designs on those starry bottles.
Back out in the yard, my family lounged in lawn chairs around the picnic tables. I was amazed at how many of the grown-ups wore the same gross, pleated khaki shorts. From the words “Whitewater” and “son of a…” I knew that they were discussing their favorite boring adult topic—politics. So much for jumping in on that conversation–not that any of them would listen to me anyhow.
I did have plenty of cousins, some of whom I was seeing for the first time that day. The family-tree-forces had conspired against me though, so most of them were still dependent on someone else to fasten the metal clasp of their Osh Kosh straps. While my little sisters were no ankle biters, they hadn’t yet hit the MTV phase of life. Besides, three hours in the car with them had sucked out every ounce of my “helpful, understanding big sister” persona. I grabbed my Discman out of the Astro, and plopped down on a metal folding chair. I hit play on the device and covered my ears.
My tunes, the green mountains, and the crisp air, almost swept me into a Zen-like mindset. Almost. Then I found myself as the unintentional Monkey-in-the-Middle in a game of catch between my sister Sarah and our cousin David. A dog-slobber-matted tennis ball whizzed my face. The last thing I needed was to get slammed in the face by this nasty ball—my zits were already enough trouble to spackle. I was forced to relocate. Radiohead’s lyrics fit my mood: “What the hell am I doin’ here? I don’t belong here.”
In an authentic fifties convertible, a “local” relative, Tim, arrived with metallic tubs full of fried chicken with a myriad of country “fixin’s,” from some restaurant. Everyone formed a line for the food then dug in. I fought the urge to ask how many fat grams were in a drumstick.
Later that afternoon, I took a walk down to my Aunt Rooney and Uncle Robert’s house. I’d said hello to them when we’d first arrived at the picnic, and I wasn’t sure if they were in Aunt Kate’s house now or what. Taking a walk would get me away from everyone for a minute and counteract the greasy fried chicken and blackberry pie I’d inhaled that afternoon. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going because the house was just down the stupid hill. Like there was any trouble to get into. I dropped my Discman off in the car, and carefully walked down the slope. Too bad we hadn’t come in the winter–sledding might actually have made things more fun. On my way down, Aunt Kate was walking up, a smile on her face. She waved at me without missing a beat, almost charging up the incline. I felt lazy.
Once I reached the house, I saw that the screen door was open, so I poked my head in.
Aunt Rooney came to the door.
“Um, hi,” I said. “Can I use the bathroom?”
I was such a dazzling conversationalist.
“Of course,” she said.
I kind of hoped there’d be another “Evening in Paris” discovery in their bathroom, but it was just a standard old people bathroom: a hand-knit cover shielded the extra toilet paper roll from looking like toilet paper.
When I came out Rooney was in the kitchen, filling a tall glass with ice.
“You want a soda, honey?” she asked.
She eagerly held open the refrigerator. If I was a decent human being, I had no choice but to sit down and have a soda.
She handed me the Coke she’d poured, and I followed her through a hallway into the living room. We walked by a framed 1950s school photograph of a smiling, brunette teenage girl. I wondered which of the middle-aged people at the picnic that cute girl had turned into.
We reached the living room, where my uncle sat in a leather recliner. The dark wood panels and musty couches made me feel like I’d stepped into some early 1970s sitcom. The scene on the television really clinched the time warp— an announcer in a polyester leisure suit introduced a group of women who looked like Dairy Maids, who burst into a corny tune.
I’d never seen such cheese that didn’t seem to realize it was cheese.
“What show is this?” I asked.
“The Lawrence Welk Show,” my uncle replied.
While he hummed along with the swinging, singing women, Rooney asked me questions about school and my family. I must’ve even mustered up some questions for her because she told me, “I don’t know why people call me Rooney. My name is Mary Katherine.”
I was getting a kick out of Lawrence Welk in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. I also liked being around fewer people. It was easy to be polite to these sweet old relatives whom I didn’t really know. They’d never seen me slam doors and sulk.
I’d almost finished my Coke when someone tapped at the screen door. Rooney got up, while I watched the beginning of another equally wretched song-and-dance.
I heard my Dad asking about me, so I got up.
“Just seeing if you were down here,” he said. “You didn’t tell anyone where you were going.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
I would’ve said, “Whatever, like anything was going to happen to me in this Podunk town,” but I didn’t want to subject my elderly relatives to my snottiness. After Dad and Rooney chatted for a minute, he and I said our goodbyes and hoofed it back up the hill. The sun had almost set and the temperature had dropped. I wished I’d brought pants.
“How long did you talk to them for?” Dad asked.
“I dunno, a little while I guess.”
“Did they tell you anything about their daughter?”
“Um, Rooney might’ve mentioned something. Hey, did you know her name’s not really Rooney?”
“Their daughter died of Scarlett Fever when she was seventeen.”
The wholesome face from the hallway picture flashed in my mind.
Chilly bumps covered my legs, and I pulled at my shorts.
“They’ve always been fond of teenage girls,” Dad said.
I was so, so grateful that I’d acted nice in front of them.
We said our good-byes to the rest of the family. My dad steered the Astro back down the mountain while I thought about how I’d survived the Memorial Day family reunion—it wasn’t so bad after all. I realized that maybe my relatives hadn’t always been the kind of people who donned Christmas sweaters without a smidge of irony: they’d been young once. Not that I believed they’d all been born over-the-hill, but I’d just never considered how much life they’d lived—all the loves and deaths they’d already experienced before I made the scene. I felt lucky to be related to an eighty-year-old who could trek up mountains with a smile on her face. She probably still carried her memories of magical “Evening in Paris” scented nights with her.
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 Susan’s essay, we could feel her anxiety and desire to escape, most of which was “shown, not told” through spot-on details like the Radiohead song, the narrator’s “‘carefully deconstructed’ ripped jean shorts,” her reading Seventeen, and of course “Evening in Paris.” The dialogue is pitch-perfect and often hilarious. Susan’s writing carefully places the reader right in the middle of the narrator’s awkward family reunion. The essay isn’t about a major event–it’s about truths that are revealed in quiet moments.
About Susan: Though I have lived in Atlanta, GA since 2006, I spent my college years and early twenties in Asheville, NC, which is about thirty minutes from the town where this memoir takes place. I have just completed my MFA in Children’s and YA Lit. through Hollins University, and I currently work at a private high school, teaching Writing and Yearbook, as well as tutoring students. When taking breaks from writing, I can be found adding new music to my Itunes, searching for online sales, and going to concerts.
Congratulations to Susan!
For her $25 prize, Susan chose the children and YA bookstore Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA