A couple weeks ago, I read my grandmother’s Last Will & Testament to the small group of attendees at the Bramer-Ray Family Reunion in Centralia, Washington. It was sure to be a train wreck. My dad’s sister, Marcella, has been the driving force behind the Fort Borst Park event since its inception. I’ve never attended before, because my kids were always in school by the time the big day rolled around, but Marcella asked me, personally, at our Michigan Hill BBQ in July if I’d do the honor of reading her mother’s Will at this year’s gathering. Since my kids are grown, now, and the festivities were serendipitously scheduled for the day after my 30-year high school reunion, which meant I’d be in town, and because the twinkle in her eye suggested she had mischief up her sleeve, I couldn’t resist.
My dad hates his sister. He hated his mom, too. There’s a long, head-scratcher of a story to support his unshakable stance on the matter, and it was no secret the feeling was mutual all the way around. Still, I never saw Dad be anything but civil to them. When we were kids, we had dinner at Grandma’s every Christmas Eve. At Mom’s memorial in 2007, when Marcella and her (creepy, nauseating) husband, Dan, showed up to shovel in free food, Dad held his composure. (My brother, Jack, was on the edge, but he calmed down.) After a few of us insisted he’d carried his grudge too long, Dad even agreed to allow us to invite Marcella and her family to our annual BBQs on the hill. She seemed grateful. I thought we did a nice thing.
Within minutes after arriving at Kitchen #2, I met my older brother, Leroy, for the first time. My first words? “Hi, it’s SO nice to finally meet you! I hear you have a cooler.” I didn’t know I had an older brother, ten years my senior, until Mom died and I learned Dad had a first wife. (My guess is that Mom had forbidden Dad’s family from telling us, so they waited ‘til she died. Whatever…) As a guest of Marcella’s, Mary Lou (Dad’s first wife) attended our BBQ this past July, which is how it happened that Dad was able to introduce us. I liked her immediately. Dad swears Leroy’s not blood, and he only married Mary Lou to give her baby a name, but I’m looking forward to getting to know my “new” sibling and quasi-step-mother, regardless. Family is what you make it.
Once my four-pack of PBR was safely stashed in Leroy’s cooler, and after everyone had gone through the buffet line a couple times, Marcella produced the “Family Bible” and Grandma’s unsealed Will. There were maybe 40 people seated at the scattered tables, some still picked at their plates. Across the room, Dad sat near the back with Mary Lou and ALL the rest of his children: “The Twins” (aka Jack and “George”), our youngest brother, Jamie, and our “new” older brother, Leroy. I refilled my beer, grabbed the microphone, made sure the small PA system was on, and told everyone who I was and why I was there. (“Hi,” I began, “I’m Orville’s oldest daughter.” You know, I thought to myself, the one who’s not mentioned in the “Family Bible.”) With Marcella standing nearby, eagerly looking on, I unsealed the official envelope, and started to read.
Now, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you might have noticed I’m not exactly uncomfortable in the spotlight. Armed with the suspicion that Marcella was setting us up for something, I’d arrived at the mid-August family reunion emotionally prepared and totally dressed for the part in cowboy boots, blue jeans, purple Brooklyn Tavern spaghetti tank, western “Dawnie B” belt with the John Deere buckle, cobalt blue, ankle-length, flared-collar sweater, and – of course – The Hat. I’m not sure what any of those people were thinking about me at the time, but I’ve heard some of the colorful stories that side of the family has passed around about me (“Is it true she got pregnant in high school, and Leo’s wife, Sharon, offered to adopt the baby, no matter what color it was?!”), so I’m confident many of them were poised for a show.
The first couple of pages were dull and uneventful. Then I got to the part where it said, “I hereby give my estate to my three children…” (she had four) “…and to my son, Orville, I leave nothing…” And blah, blah, yatta, yatta. I could almost hear jaws hit the floor. I finished the paragraph, muttered a low “hmm” to myself, glanced up at my dad and my siblings, and read on. All the way to the end. I pronounced everything correctly, didn’t stutter, didn’t laugh, cry, or display any emotion at all. I just read.
When I handed the Will back to Marcella, she giddily passed me another sealed envelope. Here comes the kicker, I thought, and announced to the crowd something like, “Look, there’s more!” Inside the envelope were two $1 bills with names paper-clipped to them and a hand-written note, supposedly signed by my grandmother. The note detailed Grandma’s wishes that Marcella get everything, from house to bed slippers, and that my dad and his brother, Leo, were each to receive $1. I scanned it quickly, briefly entertained reading it aloud, then gave it back to her, along with the dollar bills and the now-unsealed, postmarked envelope. I said, “You can read this one,” into the microphone, then gave that to her, as well. With a nod to Dad and the family at the back of the room, I picked up my beer, walked out the door, crossed the parking lot to my brother’s truck, and took a generous pull off his bottle of Canadian whiskey. Once that trickled down, I took another.
Mom dropped out of college to marry a logger. (That’s the Reader’s Digest version.) Consequently, my siblings and I were doomed out of the gate to walk a hybrid tightrope of an existence, between educated people who grew up to be executives and run companies and uneducated, blue collar people who met their spouses at family reunions. Both, in my opinion, have their pluses and minuses. Had the exposure been distributed equally, I might have been a CEO by now, and my husband would be fishing instead of working to support my lazy ass. But, although childhood was sprinkled with visits to the “big city” and summer vacations in Tahoe, most days and nights were spent on a small, family farm with Mom, Dad, Jack, “George,” and Jamie, and what seemed like an endless parade of characters – family, friends, neighbors, the occasional Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom contributed to the slightly off-balance individual I am today.
Let’s just say I’m often underestimated. ;)
Mary Lou was one of the first people to join me outside on the tailgate of my youngest brother’s truck. After lighting a cigarette, she said exactly what I was thinking: “That was so cruel.” I puffed on my own cigarette, smiled, and said, “That’s Marcella.” Dad and the rest of the crew made their way outside. I gave Leroy a big hug and said, “Welcome to the family!” We asked Dad if he’d heard anything, to which he responded with a non-surprising, “Nope.” (Even WITH his hearing aids, Dad can’t hear a thing.) I hollered, “You’re out!” He lit a cigarette and replied, “I was never in.”
Once my heart rate returned to normal, after I’d finished my beer and smoke, I walked back into Kitchen #2, refilled my glass, sauntered to the back of the room and tapped Marcella on the shoulder. My sister and youngest brother were seated with Leroy at the adjacent table at the time. Only a few other people were within earshot when I opened with, “I have to tell you that was the cruelest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’d like you to go fuck yourself.” The short, white-haired, 80-some-odd-year-old woman in front of me looked perplexed. Having never said that to anyone before in my life, I was a bit stunned, myself. “Don’t ever contact us or set foot on Michigan Hill again,” I continued, slowly and calmly. “You and your family are no longer welcome.”
Touching her fingertips to her chest like a southern belle with a touch of the vapors, she timidly asked, “Whatever did I do?” As if she hadn’t sabotaged her brother’s return from the Air Force sixty years ago. As if she hadn’t spent decades taking everything her mother ever built, until it was all gone. As if she hadn’t attempted to cover her tracks with a worthless, hand-written piece of paper and two dollar bills AND divert attention and blame by humiliating her brother – my dad – in front of his family.
I put my hand on her shoulder, gestured to the small, rapidly-aging crowd of Bramers and Rays, said, “Why don’t you ask one of these nice people to explain it to you,” and walked away.
Back outside, Dad “held court” for another 30 minutes or so, supported by his kids and his ex-wife. At one point, the little old lady who’d been manning the guest book table popped outside and invited us to come back in. “We’re raffling off all the craft table items,” she exclaimed. I thanked her, and told her – nicely and with a smile – that I didn’t give a shit. She ruffled and said, “Well, maybe you don’t, but what about these other people?” I thanked her again and assured her, “They don’t give a shit, either.”
We laughed, told stories, met some distant cousins, took pictures, and exchanged phone numbers. Because my trip was a short one, it was the only day I got to see Jack and “George.” And it was a good one, not at all like what Marcella had planned. There’d been over 100 in attendance the previous year, so she’d surely been hoping for a bigger crowd. Had anyone but me read the Will, there would probably have been a scene. And, as for her feigned innocence with regard to the contents of the “original, sealed Will,” all that backfired the instant I read the words, “I hereby appoint my daughter, Marcella, as my power of attorney and executor of this Will.” She’d already admitted she’d read a copy several years previously, and it wasn’t a coincidence that her (creepy, repulsive) husband, Dan, left the reunion before I started reading; everyone with half a brain knows what she did.
Dad got his dollar. I kept the paper clip and hung it on the wall above my writing desk. Before we packed up Dad’s chicken and noodles and left, I stopped at the guest book table and scribbled out my name and address with a wide, blue Sharpie (I later learned that several people ran up to the table, eager to discover what horrible thing I’d “written”). On the way up the hill, shortly after Dad and I chuckled over my statement, “the good news is, you’ll never have to see those people again,” the wall I’d erected to hide my emotions slowly crumbled, and the tears started to fall. I couldn’t believe what Marcella had done – had tried to do – to her own brother, and in front of all those innocent people! Better women than you have tried and failed, I thought, remembering the mountain of unexpected debt Mom left for Dad when she died. Back up at the house, Jack appeared with a bottle, Jamie hung around for a while, the neighbors stopped by, and my last evening in Washington turned out pretty well. But I still cried most of the night.
Like a dark comedy, life is both cruel and joyous, unfair and just. We’re told everything happens for a reason, for some grander purpose, yet so many things don’t make sense. Two weeks ago, in the days prior to the reading of the Will, I spent a fantastic time with former classmates, getting re-acquainted at our 30-year reunion. Two weeks later – just a few days ago – one of those classmates committed suicide. Earlier this year, Scott and I had a blast at back-to-back New Year’s Eve concerts, then did it all again on Kid Rock’s Chillin’ the Most Cruise. One of the friends we shared both experiences with was moved to Hospice yesterday, only a year or so after she’d endured the death of her only child. I’m grateful to have spent time with such amazing people, but why the hell were they given so much weight to carry? And why do good people have to go out like this?
Why is there so much pain in the world? Why are we preparing to go to war in Syria? Why can’t we solve the hunger problem in the United States? Why aren’t more high school seniors able to spell? Why don’t more people think for themselves? Why must cold-hearted, miserable, back-stabbing, blood-sucking weasels exist? If I thought about it all long enough, if I let the sadness and frustration really sink in and feed that sense of helplessness that seems to constantly hover about, I imagine I’d implode. I suppose many of us do.
So, I smile. And encourage people to laugh. As often as opportunity allows. I also drink. (Some people turn to religion, philanthropy, or football for solace, I put my faith in Jack Daniel’s.) There’s no guarantee the friends and family who join us on the real big deck today will be here tomorrow. Living in hurricane territory, we’re not even guaranteed a deck. This existence we call life isn’t easy. Good, strong friends and family help. It’s also handy to have learned how to navigate along a tightrope:
· keep your eyes forward, don’t look down;
· when the wind blows, hold steady;
· don’t rush to the finish line; and,
· once you’re safe on the other side, thank the people who got you there.
We could all do worse.
We can all do better.