We stood, my Mawma and I, and waved goodbye.
Sandwiches packed, the cooler refilled, the car left holding my parents settled in their usual positions and the GC ensconced along with new comic books with the back seat all to himself. It was my time to fill with cousins, and my aunt and uncle who lived nearby. I would go for Friday night sleep overs and play tag and go fishing and swim in the bayou with a gaggle of kids our age in their neighborhood; my cousin G much like me, M who was more social, and MM the baby...all of us yelling and screaming and playing games. Dad's sister, my Aunt E, although not a warm woman, gave me a gift I will always be grateful for; she was the first person to take me to live theater, and she made sure I went to the library on a regular basis.
My MawMa and I wrapped summer around each other. She told me of her life as a young woman, we went downtown every week, had lunch at Luby's, rode the bus. I would walk to the store and buy things on her 'credit'. I would read and she would say her prayers and we would nap in the afternoon...we are Sicilian. Mass and a huge family meal every Sunday. She catered to my odd food fancies (hello, Asperger's!) even when I wanted spinach every meal for two weeks. We had a tea party on Tuesdays', when I'd dig into the 'dressup' box, and wear make-up, and knock on her door and we'd bend our pinkies. We watched Lawrence Welk and I'd sing to her through the fan and we'd dance. She'd comb my hair, I'd comb hers and she'd tell me of her father, who once floated on a spar for a week in the Gulf of Mexico following a ship wreak. She could never speak of his death of Spanish Flu in 1918 without crying. I knew she played piano for the silent films. My best friend lived next door....we made mud pies, read under the mimosa tree from a huge chest of comic books, and drove her brother mad playing 'Heart and Soul'. They were summers that bled into each other, of heat rising from the streets, the smell of fresh linen, the ice cold taste of lemonade in the shade of the carport in the early evenings, and sleeping to the sound of a fan as moved back and forth in the night.
Are you wondering, Quin, how is this about one day, about the time by which I measured all the other days of my childhood?
My Uncle was an architect, and their house was amazing, with things found back then that builders didn't start putting in until recently. Shaped like an inverted U, with the master suite forming one side of the 'U', my cousin's bedrooms the other side, and the main portion of the house the flat part facing the street. There was a huge yard, that contained trees ,a croquet area, a treehouse and a large rose hedge that lined part of the back alley. Towards the glass walled atrium from the house to a brick patio was a huge oak tree with a fire pit. It was perfection in any child's eyes.
My birthday dinner was held the night before our going back to New Orleans, everyone under a large fan in the dining room. These joined meals held great interest for we children. Our eyes followed the adult conversations, especially since my mother and my aunt disliked each other with an intensity that was barely masked. Each had their own way of doing battle, Mother's voice soft, Aunt E's acid tongue could etch her words in steel...both voices coated in Southern tones. Slowly the other conversations would dwindle as they took each other on--Aunt E sipped her scotch, Mother had her gin and tonics... the barbs grew in sharpness. Cigarette smoke curled up to the slow moving fan as we all leaned back, making way for battle done by two true Steel Magnolias, eying each other down the dinner table with the same firm gaze Lee and Grant gave during the War.
"Why, P... what a clever little frock. I didn't realize people actually wore that style. Do you usually wear it when you sit around and....shell peas?" Her smile never quite made it beyond her perfect teeth.
Ice crystals filled the air. We never need the air conditioning turned on when they were together.... my father and uncle would roll their eyes, we children would giggle and my grandmother would leave the table and go lie down with a cool cloth over her eyes. Oddly, they had a begrudging respect for each other that remains to this day.
Dad and Sonny left the women to amuse themselves by seeing who could inflict the larger wounds, and went outside to start a fire in the pit under the oak tree. My dad gave his "Come here or die" whistle, which forced my cousin, G and I to forgo our anticipated evening activity of avoiding people and reading in solitude. Adding insult to injury, we were made to watch our youngest siblings, D and MM and join the group around the fire. To make up for this affront, we were offered the gift of s'mores and ghost stories.
It was almost a fair trade.
Along with the herd of family came a few neighborhood children, the Barr twin, Hershey and Candice (yes, those were their names) and two others who go nameless into history. We all settled down with sticks, marshmallows, shadows and stories.
Years of being in the Boy Scouts had honed my father's story telling skills so he knew when to drop his voice, when to hit you with the punch line, causing you to jump, even when you knew every word by heart. Food was forgotten, marshmallows burned in the fire, chocolate melted on our fingers as we listened to the story of the hook man and the lovers lane couple...his versions of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft were retold for our pleasure... our eyes gleamed in the firelight. Sonny excused himself during all of this, and none of us paid any attention to his leaving.
A full moon rose over the roof of the master suite, illuminating everything with that deep silver glow you find in the South in the summer. By this time, Mother and Aunt E had put aside their differences, but not their drinks, coming out to sit on the patio, smoke and listen to my dad's bass tones. All you could hear was my father's voice as it rose and fell, the open mouth breathing by the younger children, and the occasional slap to kill a mosquito.
He was in the midst of a hellish story about zombies... we heard it....a moan. Not just..a moan. It was...Deep. Reverberating. Lifted from the depths of a harrowed soul. Gurgling. Rising to a grinding cry....and it came from... behind us. Dad stopped talking, his voice carried a note of fear...and there it was--again. Deeper. Louder. Closer? We turned as one, and saw...it. There, on the roof....over the master bedroom. Silhouetted against the moon, it stood, in a dark cloak held out, with a white face, and then.....it....laughed. The laugh of all the lost souls of time issued forth from it's mouth!
There was a collective gasp so solid, so severe, so sharp, the leaves on the oak we sat beneath moved downwards. Nothing else moved for a nanosecond...until on the exhale of that gasp came a scream from ten throats in a variety of tones as we surged upwards and scattered, adrenaline pumping, walking on coals, on my father, G and I walked over our charges, leaving them to fend for themselves. His brother, M, and the Barr kids went down the alley to the Barr home... later to be found hiding in the pantry with a knife and praying the rosary. The nameless kids ran though a rose hedge, causing huge gashes in their arms and legs, leaving scars and forever ruining the roses. The GC went directly up the tree, having to be helped back down later....the nearest branch was seven feet off the ground.
We never figured out how he managed to get up there.
As I lay under the farthest corner of the bunk beds, I could hear laughter... from my father who was slapping out the coals on his pants from his tumble into the pit, from Sonny who slipped and fell off the roof.... I believe the women peed, they laughed so hard. Now, I firmly believe everyone should laugh at least once in your life so hard that you pee, however, I'm not so sure it's when your children are fleeing in terror. It took an hour to find everyone and calm them down.
It was the day, the time by which I measured all the other the days of my childhood. It was a story that always made my dad laugh. A story that, no matter how things are in my family, can make us start to smile when one of us begins a line with, "Remember when Sonny got on the roof..."? To go to that time when two men plotted.....
A time when our hearts fluttered while we scattered with frightened delight into a firefly filled July night.