Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Southern Dyscomfort

I am an only child, but I have sixty-one first cousins.

I’ve made that statement so many times in my life that I recently started wondering, “Gee, is that really true or have I said it so often I now think it’s true?”

Ordinarily I wouldn’t be pressed to double-check the numbers, but after closing on the condo in Pensacola Beach a couple of years ago, I had a flurry of calls from relatives I haven’t seen or heard from in years. It must be due to the ancient, but highly efficient Trilogy Communication System: telephone, telegraph, tell-a-cuz. Word can spread like wildfire through the bunch of ‘em. But when second and third cousins twice removed started calling, I figured it was time to make a list of the family tree.

There were 15 children on my mother’s side of the family; seven on daddy’s. It took half an hour to get all their names (with spouses) on paper and spaced out adequately to start listing cousins. Considering some of my parents' siblings married more than once and started second families, I was thankful to have a long hallway and a full roll of parchment paper to complete my task.

At the end of the day, daunted by a scribbled mess down the hallway before me, I threw in the towel and called my mother for assistance. Though I had to wade through way too much info, I listened to mother’s recitation of family trees and a few family shrubs, jotted down names and made significant progress. Suddenly, however, everything disintegrated into a family version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” And it was all because of Uncle Gordon.

Uncle Gordon, mother’s brother, was also called Al by the family. I always called him “Uncle Gordon” as a child, but he went north for a few years and came back as Al. I’m not sure if this was a matter of putting his past behind him and trying for a fresh start or simply a southern thing he had going on. Anything is possible, and in families like ours it is sometimes best not to ask too many questions. I know that Grandma got tired of naming babies at some point and, after a string of boys, started doling out initials for a while. The story I heard was that she figured they could come up with something on their own when they got old enough. Hence, there was Uncle J.D., who chose James David, and Uncle G.T., who chose George Thomas. Stands to reason that Uncle Gordon/Al could have begun as G.A.

Uncle Gordon/Al was quite a ladies’ man and a real piece of work. Every time his name was mentioned, I heard the term “wild oats” or “black sheep” close behind. He was a handsome man with an easy laugh and a wink that made you a conspirator in no time flat. No one stayed mad at him for long.

One day Uncle Gordon/Al came home and surprised everyone with a bride named Thelma. Soon they started a family, beginning with a healthy son they named Larry. Next came a daughter they named Judy. Unfortunately, however, this union didn’t last past Cousin Judy and Uncle Gordon/Al moved on to greener pastures.

It was no surprise that this ladies’ man quickly found another woman to be his wife, but how on earth he found another Thelma is beyond me. The day we realized things might be a little odd was the day Thelma II gave birth to their first son and they named him {{{drum roll}}}… Larry!

Uncle Gordon/Al had a bit of a drinking problem, so I secretly had a hunch his duplication of names helped keep him out of trouble somehow. I kept quiet and acted like everything was normal, just like everyone one else did. But things got downright bizarre when Thelma II had a baby girl and they named her … {{{drum roll}}}…Thelma Lee! [Gotcha! You thought I was going to say Judy, didn’t you?]

Uncle Gordon/Al continued to keep things strange, but simple, as he went through life. Although he couldn't keep his marriage with Thelma II together either, he was able to find a wife #3 named {{{drum roll}}} ... JUDY!

Are you are now confused as I was growing up? Family reunions were, in the words of Yogi Berra, "déjà vu, all over again."

Unfortunately, I was sick and unable to attend Uncle Gordon/Al's funeral a few years ago, but I heard the family receiving line at his gravesite was memorable. Thelma... Thelma... Thelma Lee... Larry... Larry... Judy... Judy. Mel Tillis would have been there all night.

A few years ago I had an epiphany when I realized we are normal if we have a dysfunctional family. At various times, my friends and I have gone through depression or heartache due to family squabbles, financial, legal, and medical problems, and even a few minor scandals thrown in for good measure. Sometimes it was a problem with children, sometimes a parent, occasionally a brother or sister, and, of course, the ever-popular in-laws. Each of us took a turn at the pity pool and each of us felt our embarrassing situation du jour was unique, certain we were viewed by the world as failures in our melodramatic moments.

The day it all became clear was when one friend, sobbing about her particular family crisis, was interrupted by another friend declaring, “Oh, honey, that’s nothing! Listen to THIS!” and started her own tale of woe. Suddenly the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders as I realized little but the names changed in each situation throughout the years. And there we sat, crying, comforting, commiserating, and laughing as we tried to top each other with our family eccentricities. Their families were just as dysfunctional as mine! We weren’t abnormal…we were the norm.

But back to family, my mother is very excited because four of her sisters are coming down to spend a few days at the beach with her next month. They've never spent a week in such close quarters since their childhood when five or more would sleep horizontally in each bed. I've expressed my concern whether they will all come home with a full head of hair. Being an only child, I’m frequently bewildered at the way they interact. Some fight, some are peacemakers, some get their feelings hurt and sulk, some are loud and opinionated, others become quiet martyrs, some fuss about the way others are reacting and end up starting collateral arguments.... WHEW! There are definite benefits to being an only child.

By the way, it’s official; I really do have sixty-one first cousins. One thing for certain, if they ever find out I’ve written about them, I will be dead meat. My name will definitely be mud…or maybe Thelma!

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