A busy Cracker Barrel. My family sits at a large table. My mother on my left. My wife on my right. My sister across from me. Her two children. My brother-in-law, and my mother’s boyfriend.
That’s a lot of people. Don’t make me count them all.
Long ago, there were only three of us. My mother, my baby sister, and twelve-year-old me. Back then I didn’t know what we were. Whatever it was, it didn’t feel complete.
I’ll never forget when the church had “Family Fun Fair” on the Fourth of July. I begged my mother not to attend because, I kept telling her, we weren’t a “true family.” Not since my father had died.
I could tell this hurt her. But I meant it. When people looked at us, I could practically feel pity leaking from their eyes. And pity sucks.
Family Fun Fair was reserved for real families. The kind who had a living father, a mother, two-point-five kids, a dog, a riding lawnmower in the garage, and a Kitchenaid mixer.
We did not have these things. We had a push mower that leaked oil. And my mother’s cheap handheld mixer was basically a gasoline engine with beaters.
Fourth of July was the holiday that hurt most.
That was the holiday when American families would swarm together like honeybees. They would park their cars on the curbs, throw loud barbecues, laugh too much, and holler.
My friend Jackson, for instance, had nearly forty people at his family reunion. They participated in something they called “Boat Day.”
Who ever heard of Boat Day? How ridiculous, I thought. Everyone in his family would crawl into their respective boats and cruise in circles, water-skiing, shouting, and carrying on like they were the happiest clowns you ever saw.
Gag me with an outboard prop.
Even so, my mother did not leave it up for debate. We were going to Family Fun Fair, by God, and that was that.
When we showed up, I had a bad attitude. The last thing I wanted was to sit on a blanket and watch other kids play catch with their fathers. Furthermore, I didn’t want sympathy from onlookers.
I don’t know why I am telling you this.
My mother made me eat fried chicken, and drink lemonade, and wear a plastic smile. And to make matters worse, she brought two baseball gloves.
My mother is left-handed, but somehow, through means that still remain unclear to me, she had located a left-hander’s glove that actually fit her.
She placed it on her hand.
“Where’d you get that?” I said.
“None of your business,” she said, punching her mitt.
“You can’t be serious.”
“As a heart attack.”
“Mothers don’t play baseball.”
“Mothers whose sons are sourpusses don’t.”
“Put that glove away, someone might see you.”
“Know what? If you won’t play catch, I think I’ll wear this glove for a hat.”
“Isn’t this a nice hat? Does it make me look sophisticated?”
“Okay, I’ll play.”
There on the church lawn, before God and country, my mother wore a left-hander’s glove and shouted, “Throw the heat!” And against my will, we played catch.
Family Fun Fair turned out to be nice. There were games, gunny sack races, music, food, and impromptu tackle football. I’m not sorry we went.
Afterward, my mother said nothing on the ride home until we pulled into the driveway. She shut off the car, then stared at me for a long time.
“Don’t you ever say we’re not a family again,” she said. “Do you hear me?”
I heard her.
Here at the restaurant, with her beside me, and the rest of us in one place, I understand things I wish I would’ve known back then.
Today, there are eight people at our table. Eight. That’s only one person shy of a baseball team. How did this happen? Once we were small; now we are medium small.
My mother looks at me and says, “What’re you thinking?”
To tell the truth, I don’t know what I am thinking. I guess I’m taking it all in. I’m thinking about lots of things. About the few gray whiskers I found in my beard this morning. I’m thinking about how beautiful my kid sister has become, and how her two children make life feel new again.
And I’m thinking about how I was wrong about us, long ago. We are a family. The truest kind there is.
A broken one.
But held together by the strong arm of a left-handed baseball player.