Monday, May 21, 2007

snapshots from a graduation celebration

Saturday, May 19

Foodladies — Grandmothers and mothers and sisters and aunts and nieces and daughters. They inhabit a one-hundredth meridian kitchen and cluster as they build food. Barbecued pork. Pigs in a blanket. Fruit (strawberries and watermelon and cantaloupe and grapes) skewered and then pic’d into the remaining watermelon half, as the picadors turn to fresh salads and marinated salads and homemade picante and creamy potato salad and more salads than I can name. As they work they talk about people, places and things I’ve never heard of. And I’m a world traveler. The kitchen, the animation of the Foodladies, the conversation, the purpose of the exercise — all are filled with laughter and fun and jokes and the occasional sting of biting sarcasm. I've seen it all before, in different kitchens and through different eyes. The core of the experience, the gravity that holds everything in place, is love. A long, bittersweet, loving moment. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m lucky to witness it. “Men now a-bed in England shall think themselves accursed...”

Cousins — twenty and more of them gathered in a single place. Little ones and medium ones and a few so very nearly grown ones. The Princess of the day is radiantly happy and glows with beauty enough to stop a beating heart. Yet there’s a bit of sadness there, too. The hourglass, which once seemed impossible to empty, is trickling out those few last grains, closing out the first chapter of a grand adventure tale. I see the tiny sadness there, lurking behind the gleeful zest of the day, because I know to look for it. But all is well, all is as it should be. As it has to be. Last year’s Princesses, ladies now but no less beautiful, smile and enjoy and wonder at the year that has flown by since they wore the crown themselves. They’ve learned a few of the secrets of life; know they have many more to learn. Not far below the regal calm of royalty booms the mad scamper of the little ones and medium ones, dashing here and dashing there, a whirlwind of excited motion. They seem to know the best secret — that playing all the play from the day counts for more than anything else.

Uncles — they sip beer and talk man talk and relax in the warm, muggy sun. They group aloof and independent, successful and self assured, with one ear always cocked toward the warble they’ve been trained to listen for (except for one, who seems to be slightly broken or something). Then they’re gone for a minute or an hour, carrying out an assigned duty, tweaking a nose here or there, making some adjustment. They return as if they’d never left, taking up beer and conversation where they set it down when the irresistible call came. They talk of life and kids and garage projects and old times, and they tease each other remorselessly (except for the slightly broken one, because they're not quite be sure how broken he is).

Football — It starts as an idea and moves forward ponderously as the sun plunges in the west. There was a game last year. There must be a game this year. A ball appears. Beers are slowly drained, and aging uncles slowly rise and stretch. The ball goes back and forth, is caught and dropped, soars through the twilight as it has since time began. Muscles warm and loosen and sweat rolls as momentum builds. Suddenly, the game has moved from yard to empty lot, and teams and rules snap into place without decision. There are near-even numbers of uncles and high school professionals and munchkins. Two-hand touch, six or eight downs to score. The purpose is lighthearted fun, but for all the players save one or two joyful munchkins, there’s a steely edge of competition simmering just beneath the surface. The game, the effort, the very real competition; they all matter. It’s a Nebraska thing. A crowd gathers along the field; grandparents and moms and dads and aunts and uncles and cousins. A big crowd cheering loudly at the fun and the audacity of the thing. The game is an entire family at play, generations deep, watching from the sideline or dashing about the field. The munchkins play for fun and their fun is tempered with the disappointment of being too little to be in charge. The high school pros practice skills they will use on the gridiron this fall. They seem surprised at the ability shown by the uncles, old men who should be past it. They know but don’t really understand that the uncles used to do this for a living; have often played the sun out of the sky; still retain the muscle memory to whip a pass and catch a ball. Plays are played until the last glimmer of sun is gone from the sky. There’s a winning team and a losing team, though no one’s quite sure of the score. The players good game each other and uncles tousle the heads of munchkins, praising their efforts and prowess. In shining smiles the uncles see that the seed has been planted, the real Nebraska game will carry on. Darwin might have commented on natural selection. More likely, he would have wondered at the ability of the unfit to survive.

Gifts — In the specially modified garage the family gathers beneath cool florescent light in muggy air filled with gnats and mosquitoes. The Princess and her attendants produce a monumental gift train. The opening reveals a treasure chest of vital college supplies; books and pictures and dorm-wall frames, linens and gift cards and cash, memories and keepsakes and tokens of hopes and dreams and futures. After a long, long day there is tired, contended love in the air. There’s an important page being turned and no one can stop the process, though there is both the urge to stop it and the will to let it play out. The grandparents and moms and dads and uncles (even the slightly broken one) and aunts smile with happiness for the Princess while the same kaleidoscope images play out behind each set of eyes, remembering when the Princess was only a princess and this day was far, far in the future.

Life — It marches on, and the future holds much in store. There will be triumphs and tragedies; hopes fulfilled and dreams smashed. The sun will smile and glower on each new day and all those gathered in the garage will move forward a step at a time until they move forward no more. The memory, and the importance of the memory, will live on though. Outside, in the close muggy darkness of the backyard, twenty little cousins bounce madly and laugh and wring the last of the play from an extraordinary day.

Update — The Princess Bride, circa 2013

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