The Art of Family

Pass the Child, Please
by Natalie Edwards


My mother once explained why our heavy pearl-handled silver and embossed linens were marked with an elaborate S and it was not as I thought. The S did not stand for Sawyer, her mother's married name, but for Streetor, the married name of her great aunt Rhoda Sencabaugh, the relative who had mothered my grandmother Laura when her mother died young. Or perhaps it was for Sencabaugh?

The Sencabaughs were well off. The family story is that John D. Rockefeller, a pal, tried to get John D. Sencabaugh to join him in his endeavors to become fabulously wealthy, as he bankrupted competing garage stations all over Cleveland, but that my ancestor John D. found himself too moral to succumb to the goals of unfettered capitalism, and, with a background in theology, reverted to the church.

He didn't live with my devout grandmother, though, but I know little of all that. All we know is that another member of her extended family brought her up. And that is really what I am concerned with here.

There may be generations of Sawyers and Sencabaughs, all coming from England, who tended each other's children. Both sides of my family engaged in this practice. It was the solution for children "left over" because of the death or illness of a relative, and no doubt was found convenient when adolescents looked like they would benefit from a change of scene. It is a good scheme if you are concerned about the maintenance of the family DNA. It is also a good scheme if you like yourself well enough to tolerate your closest relatives, especially those rather like you.

I like most of mine, and I adore my cousins Pat and Nan. As far as I was concerned, my uncle Corydon, the artist, and my aunt Thelma, my dad's youngest sister, were the perfect parents. He designed and made a toy train big enough for seven-year-old children to sit in and propel themselves around the block. She kept a parrot, and laughed at its antics when it mimicked her. They seemed happy and sophisticated. There was a grand piano in the drawing room, they had a maid in the kitchen, and they grinned at each other's stories. I thought Patricia, Nan, and Whit were the luckiest of kids.

When I was nine, however, my cousin Pat came to live with us and attend the University of Saskatchewan. My aunt and uncle claimed they couldn't handle her any more. She was unmanageable, they said, and about to get into trouble, so they packed her north to the vast and empty land of Saskatchewan, where it was hardly conceivable she could find any trouble to get into.

I gladly shared my bedroom with her, watched with fascination as she applied makeup, did her hair, and solemnly addressed herself in the mirror. She was a beauty, six-foot-one, blond, statuesque, with a warm, musical voice and all the confidence in the world.

Unmanageable. What a thought. But my parents seemed to be able to manage her all right, and although she was not considered a good student by them, she was encouraged in her talents, acted in the university plays to great acclaim, and provided a role model for me as someone who loved life, laughed, told jokes, and wasn't afraid of my father. She also worked for the student paper, where she met an Irishman whom she took home and married.

You can get into trouble anywhere.

My time came when my parents went to Egypt for a year, and declining their invitation to join them, I was sent to my mother's sister Ruth. At nineteen, I was considered too young to be on my own. I expect they thought life with my devout aunt would be a safe haven for a girl throbbing with overactive hormones and radical ideas.

I argued politics with my Republican uncle and discussed family history with my aunt. I learned that my clever mother was resented by her sisters, the fraternal twins Ruth and Esther. (Fraternal seems odd for sisters but there is no equivalent word from a feminine root, and sororital sounds like a gum disease.) My mother had studied library science at the Pratt Institute in New York, and returned with an education, found a job, and considered herself above housework. Her sisters were stuck peeling potatoes, cleaning house, and washing the clothes.

My husband and I also disposed of a couple of our adolescents during the time when life with us seemed too painful for them. We left our son Rhys in Quebec city on his own at age twenty, and he managed to find work, become bilingual, and get mono, all in six months. A few years ago, Rhys reluctantly followed this pattern and let his fourteen-year-old daughter Caitlin go to live with his sister Liz in Quebec for a year.  

In nature, among the whales and elephants, and in the simian world, aunts and big sisters and grandmothers are very important. The females bond with each other. Among the apes, I believe, the young males have to leave as soon as (or perhaps just before) they become sexually active. If this is the simian way of avoiding incest, it seems to work. As for the young, all the females take an active interest in their upbringing, although the mother appears to act a little possessively if anyone starts carting off her latest baby. It seems a good method: built-in baby-sitters, lots of company, and a good group of hearty females around in case of trouble. Humans apparently lived like this too once, before males decided they wanted to particularize who got their weapons and beads. And keep track of their DNA.

As long as the females concerned themselves with all of their relatives, that tribal DNA had a pretty good chance of surviving. And that's all we're trying to do now--keep the gene pool going. My granddaughter Caitlin even moved in with me for a while. My son was most unhappy about this, but he was not acknowledging reality. Off go the children, as soon as they are able, and it's a lucky parent or perhaps one with astonishing skills of communication or noteworthy wealth, who can even get an occasional letter out of them at first.

Caitlin just did it earlier than Pat or me or my grandmother Laura. We weren't given a choice. She did it when her father remarried and she discovered that the world as she had known it was not the only world there was. There was also her aunt's world. And her grandmother's. And yet to be conquered, the big one. Just a matter of time.

But she wanted a world of her own and thought marriage and motherhood at seventeen would provide it. Her father and stepmother do what they can, but she turns for advice and assistance to her female relations. And so she should. We'll keep that DNA protected. After all, it carries our ancestors and ourselves into the future.


Family Happiness
by Susan Lacy

So there's my baby all the way down there in Fort Lauderdale with a pain in her side. Should I try to get a flight? Mom's on the boat in Palm Beach, Cindy's at home in Fort Lauderdale grinding up fruits and vegetables for Mike. I try to call Em but get her voice mail. Try to get mom on the boat, but there's no answer. Cindy agrees to take a break from the juicing to go take a look at my kid, her niece.

My kid with the glass stomach. I don't understand, but I should. Under normal circumstances I could eat my computer and not suffer a single moment's discomfort. But now I remember a time not so long ago when nothing appealed. Okay, I popped a few Zantacs, too. I got over it. Lace imagines stomach cancer and to her it's real, the pain and the fear.

There was a time long ago when a tire swing dangled from the branch of a huge tree. Richard and I were with Lace; I hoisted her into the tire, and Richard gave a mighty heave-ho push, and the rope holding the tire frayed and snapped at the highest point of the arc and she dropped to the ground. Oh, God! Richard picked her up and she was limp and her eyes rolled back and I said as calmly as possible, "Emergency room."

She sat on my lap the whole time asking me if she was brain dead or if she would need a brain transplant. By then she looked normal and her pupils were not dilated and her speech was fine. She worried about maybe having an electroencephalogram at the hospital. I remember holding her, striving for the perfect blend of motherly calm and reassurance. All the while trying not to laugh out loud. Where in hell does a six-year-old come up with words like electroencephalogram?

Another time, when she was twelve, I ended up being the one with her at the doctor's office for some reason. Usually it was Richard who took on that unpleasant task. They had to draw blood, purely routine. She was pretty stoic that time, leading up to it, but the second she saw her own blood leap into the tiny vial, she started to fade. I saw the beads of sweat on her forehead, the color leaving her face, and in the blink of an eye she was headed for the floor. I caught her before she hit it. That always delights her, that story of me catching her when she fainted.  

The next time I took her to the doctor, she was thirteen and needed another needle for the Florida school system. The nurse came at her, not a nice, friendly, understanding nurse, a bitch on wheels who made Nurse Ratched look like Mother Teresa. I saw the panic rising in my sweet babe's eyes, and my adorable, well-mannered kid started yelling at the nurse and then tried to punch her out. I took her home and told Richard I was never taking her to the doctor again.

Down there in Fort Lauderdale all manner of phone calls are made and the result is: Take her to emergency. They've finally reached mom, who is on her way to her only grandchild's aching side. Okay, two adults with the baby. My mother and my sister taking care of my daughter.

They call me throughout the ordeal. "She likes the doctor." "She's calm." "They found the tender area." "Some kind of chalky medication."

Lace calls when she's home to tell me she doesn't have stomach cancer.

I go back to work on the book while my mother dashes around Fort Lauderdale filling prescriptions, going to Publix for the bland food and Gatorade the doctor recommended. Preparing the rice in chicken broth.

Printing out page after page, seeing this book of mine come to life before my very eyes...and I confess that for one wicked moment (what a horrible mother I am!) I think maybe it's not so bad being up here in far away...this weekend.

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