I met new cousins today. Well, they are new to me. These are cousins I never knew I had. Lots of them. They all looked so much like my father that I smiled until I cracked a tooth.
We spent the afternoon on the porch. Everyone who sat around the patio table was fair-skinned, with buckshot freckles, and reddish hair.
“You look just like we do,” said Andy, my new cousin, who I’ve never met before today.
“I just KNEW you were a Dietrich,” added my new cousin, Pat, who is around my father’s age. “I just knew you were John’s son.”
We talked. And talked. And talked.
You might think it’s hard to converse with people you’ve never met before, but it’s not. Not when they are people with happy personalities. And not when one of you is a writer who is chatty enough to make lifelong friends with a parking meter.
When we met, I couldn’t believe all the freckles.
I never knew any family who looked like me. I take after my father’s side, I have red hair, freckled skin, and unnaturally skinny legs that make me appear to be riding a chicken. People used to say I looked like just like Howdy Doody, minus the charisma.
As a young man I was a charity-case kid without much family. I often got invited to someone else’s Fourth-of-July family celebration out of pity. And I hated this holiday because I always felt like I was crashing someone else’s party.
But, over time you develop thick skin. I learned how to be my own man, I learned how to take care of myself, and I pretended not to care whether I had family or not.
I learned how to make conversation with inanimate objects like fire hydrants, house plants, and most models of U.S. manufactured toilets. But it was an act. I was jealous of big families.
One of my friends, for instance, had a big family from Andalusia. Every Fourth of July, his kin would come out of the woodwork to be together. One of his uncles would fly all the way down from Pennsylvania.
They were the happiest group of beer-drinking Methodists you ever saw. They hugged a lot, and laughed all the time.
One of my friend’s uncles even played guitar and would get everyone singing. It was enough to make you gag.
Even so, I would join them on the Fourth, and I would pretend they were my family. I wished they were my family. Sometimes I prayed that I would wake up without red hair and freckles, and by some miracle, look like them.
But you don’t always get what you want in life. Sometimes you get what you need instead.
I needed to grow up the way I did. I needed to be lonely because my life has made me who I am. And to quote my friend Bart: “If I weren’t me, who knows who I’d be?”
You’d like Bart. He was raised in the Texas Panhandle by good parents—a schoolteacher and a lumber salesman. When Bart turned eleven, his mother told him he was adopted.
Later, when Bart hit his mid-thirties, he went looking for his biological parents. His biological father was in Dallas, and didn’t want anything to do with him. But his biological mother, in Minnesota, heard Bart’s voice on the phone and lost it.
They cried, wailed, and sniffed. They talked for three hours that night.
“I’ve prayed for this day to come,” his mother said. “I’ve always prayed my son would want to find me. Please forgive me.”
You want to talk about gut wrenching? You ought to hear Bart tell this story.
Anyway, before their conversation ended, Bart said to his mother: “I wanna come visit you, would that be okay?”
“Sure,” she said. “Any time, when do you want to visit?”
“I can’t get off work for a few weeks, how about a couple weeks from now?”
“How about tomorrow?” she said.
The very next morning, Bart’s biological mother touched down in Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Bart was waiting for her at her gate. They held each other in the airport for a long time.
“I just couldn’t get over how much she looked like me,” said Bart. “I never knew anyone who looked like me.”
That’s sort of what today felt like. To be with freckled people. To see that much red hair in one place. To hear names I haven’t heard in a long time.
My father is in Beulah Land, leaning over the Bannister of Heaven. He’s been there for almost three decades. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder about him.
I wonder what he would look like if he were still alive. I wonder whether he’d like me. I wonder if he would enjoy my company.
There are some things I guess I’ll never know. But for now, it doesn’t matter.
Because this Fourth of July, for the first time, I’ll be hanging around with a lot of freckles.