My uncle was preaching at a tiny church in the town of Eros, La. He’s my mother’s little brother, and he looks more and more like my grandfather every year.
The church meets in a remodeled house trailer on a lot about a block off the Highway 34, behind the abandoned school. It’s an old trailer, and in the bedrooms, Sunday school went on with three children and taped religious music played quietly. After Sunday school, we filled the twelve chairs set out, and the minister’s wife, Neva, led the singing.
My mother’s cousin Margie was there. We used to visit her and her husband Morton in Baton Rouge, where my parents played Rook with them (“Green, green, a sight to be seen,” Moe used to say). One year, they gave me a Christmas present. I slowly tore off the wrapping to find an onion and an old fishing line spool. I guess I must have shown disappointment, because they quickly took it away and gave me something else. What I remember is that just as I had resolved to figure out how to play with the fishing spool and the onion, I lost them, and got something that was no fun to play with at all. I don’t remember what it was.
Morton died years ago, and Margie, I hear, travels around the country in an old van, from which she has removed the back seats and has installed a bed. She sleeps in Walmart parking lots. I told her that I had heard about her travels, but she just looked sad and said it was a shame to grow old. It was as odd as the Christmas present, because traveling around the country in the back of a van is one of the youngest things I’ve heard of in a woman in her late 70s or early 80s.
My cousin Sandra was there, whom I haven’t seen since my wedding on Aug. 18, 1973 (all-expense paid trip for two to Eros, La., for the first person who identifies that date from recent news stories). Sandra is a few years younger than I am, the daughter of Uncle Lawrence’s twin sister, and with her brother Joe lived with my grandparents when I was a kid. Once I was visiting, and Sandra wanted to show me that she was learning to play the piano. I had actually been taking lessons for several years, but didn’t have a real gift for it and was still a plunker. Sandra had started only recently, but was well on her way to being better at it than I was. She got only halfway through the song when my grandmother, whom everybody called Sissy, came in and told her to get up from there, because she couldn’t play as well as I could.
That old piano, tinny and missing some keys and out of tune, was the same piano that my mother and sister had learned to play on, both well enough to play hymns for church services. I had a nice new, dry and well-tuned piano at home and never learned to make it sing, the way I took years of French and never had a conversation.
My grandparents lived a half mile up the road from Eros on 90 acres, with a white clapboard house with a front porch running across the width of the house. There was a porch swing, and on summer evenings the family would sit out on the porch, shelling peas or shucking corn and talking.
J.E. Phillips, my grandpa, was over 90 when he died and had served as a justice of the peace in that rural Louisiana parish (county) for more than 60 years. He loved Louis Lamour and TV westerns like Gunsmoke. When I was little and had first moved to Louisiana from Oregon, he used to pull me onto his lap and ask, “Do you like Grandpa?” A Southern grandpa is different from a Northern grandpa, and a grandpa who’s a farmer in northern Louisiana is different from a grandpa who is a factory worker with a big garden in Oregon. He talked different, and I remember even at age 5 not knowing yet whether I liked grandpa or not. Finally, several or many visits later, I said, “You’ll do in a pinch,” and he laughed and laughed. After that, he asked, “Do you like Grandpa?” waiting for the delight of that answer, and I always answered, “You’ll do in a pinch,” meaning, “Yes, I really do like Grandpa.”
The kitchen of that house took up about a quarter of the floor space, and after dinner on Sunday afternoons, people sat around the table telling stories, arguing, pointing at each other. I remember as a kid how the babble of voices would overwhelm me, and yet that’s where the family secrets were hinted at and, rarely, told.
I didn’t live there, only came back periodically for visits, and living in our small town (as opposed to country) isolation, I learned about family life from Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, which we watched in our living room, just the three of us, without the play by play.
In Eros, we were the family that moved away and got rich, though it didn’t seem so back home.
We regathered for Sunday dinner in my uncle’s “fine brick home,” as my grandpa always characterized new housing construction throughout the parish. Sandra was there, and her two daughters and her husband from California. Sandra has published a book and is working on promotion. And we sat around the table for hours, telling stories and talking about dead relatives. Sandra has done some genealogy, and know about the Cherokee who married Samuel Phillips in the 1800s and became the grandmother of J.E. Phillips.
And just as my mother is out of contact with her sister, Lawrence’s twin, Sandra is out of contact with Joe. I don’t say they’re wrong, but I can’t imagine Beaver and Wally ever losing touch with each other.
Sandra turned to me during dinner and asked how we two turned out to be writers in a family where no one else was the least interested in writing. I said we come from a family of story-tellers, and I could have added deep and passionate conflicts.