Mama lived on 1st Street in the old cinderblock house. Hers was the place with the blue shutters, the scraggly live oaks, and the iron gnome on the front porch we nicknamed The Shin Killer.

I knocked on the door. My sister answered.

My kid sister was 14. Rosy cheeks. Sun-bleached hair from too much time on a bicycle. All tomboy. She still dressed in clothes with grass stains, and she still smelled like a kid, too. All kids have that trademark scent.

My new wife was standing on the doorstep with me. We were both carrying wrapped gifts with yellow ribbons.

“Happy birthday, kid,” I said to my sister.

Her cheeks were redder than normal. Her eyes were bloodshot, like she’d been crying. She bolted from the door, covered her face, and ran away.

I’m not the brightest bulb in life’s marquee, but I had a feeling something was wrong.

I walked into the kitchen. Mama’s house was one of those houses where you had to walk through the kitchen to get anywhere. The TV in the back room was blaring “Oprah” at a volume loud enough to affect bird migratory patterns.

Mama was banging in the kitchen loudly. She slammed cabinets, clanged pots, and muttered angry words beneath her breath.

“Hey, Mama,” I said.

She slammed a cupboard.

Mama’s kitchen was every fundamentalist kitchen you’ve ever seen. More linoleum than wood. Window over the sink. And porous walls that smelled like 200 hundred years’ worth of chopped onions, giblet gravies, fried chicken thighs, and pecan pies rich enough to short circuit a grown man’s endocrine system.

My mother leaned against the sink and began sobbing. She was covered in flour, and her hair was out of place.

“Your sister and I had a fight,” she said. “I lost my temper.”

Silence.

The ancient Frigidare hummed a middle C, Oprah Winfrey gave way to a Toyota commercial, and Mama’s dog started licking himself.

“You wanna tell me what happened?” I said.

“No, I don’t want to tell you what happened, Doctor Freud. Thank you very much.”

“Would you like us to leave?”

“No. This is supposed to be a party.”

Finally my mother collapsed at the kitchen table and stared at her hands. “What’s going to happen to us?”

“What do you mean, Mama?”

“I mean your daddy’s dead, and now you’re married and gone, I feel like we’re falling apart, like we’re three total strangers who once knew each other long ago.”

She wasn’t wrong. We were a skeleton-crew family. We weren’t the Partridges. Some lucky people out there come from huge clans dedicated to doing fun stuff together. They throw picnics, Sunday dinners, attend baseball games, and play Pictionary on the weekends.

Pictionary, for crying out loud.

We weren’t them. We were two kids and a single mother. We were a Nissan Altima, a cinderblock house, and The Shin Killer.

Moreover, we all lived beneath the perpetual shadow of a father who removed himself from this world in a grisly way. We were the family that people in your church prayed for.

“I’m getting older,” said my mother, “your sister is getting older, you’re getting older. Time is going by so quickly. It seems like yesterday that you were wearing your cute little overalls, clapping for yourself for going poo-poo in the potty. Now you’re someone’s husband.”

“I still clap for myself.”

She blew her nose. “It seems like last week that your sister was missing her front teeth, dressing up like Snow White.”

Then, the dam broke and my mother began to weep.

“Why does it have to go by so fast? Why do people have to die? Why is life so hard?”

We hugged because I didn’t know what else to say and I’m not good with speeches.

And as we were embracing, my sister and my new wife entered the room quietly. I could feel their arms snaking around my mother and me. The four of us became entangled in a four-person hug, right there, in Mama’s kitchen. It was, to date, the largest communal hug I’ve ever participated in while sober.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” said my sister. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier.”

“I’m sorry,” said my mother. “I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”

“I’m sorry, too,” said my wife.

“What are you sorry for?” I asked my wife.

“Don’t know. Just thought I’d go with the flow.”

Later that night, we ate spaghetti and garlic bread until our stomachs ached. And when the birthday cake made an appearance, we all sang “Happy Birthday” to the little girl with the grass stains on her shirt.

The tomboy heard our joyous singing and covered her mouth while her big eyes filled with saltwater.

My sister blew out the candles and got spit all over our cake, but we ate it happily. And gratefully. Because although our family was messed up, and fragmented, and lost, it was ours. And this alone made it beautiful.

We washed dishes. We put food in Tupperware. We wiped down the vinyl table and reorganized the fridge until the shelves sagged.

Then, and only then, did we sit down to play a game of Pictionary.

Happy birthday, kid.

33 comments

  1. Christina - January 25, 2022 6:27 am

    Thanks for sharing the realities of your life with so much vulnerability, Sean. It makes us feel less alone. And happy birthday to your kid sister.

    Reply
  2. oldlibrariansshelf - January 25, 2022 7:41 am

    Our home was cinderblock with BIG Florida windows. It was Mama’s dream house where she raised the last three of eight children. The first five were raised in a tiny frame house which Daddy added tiny rooms to as the family expanded. Both homes shared grief and laughter. Thank you for reminding me how healing cooking and a group hug can be! (I was born in the first house after Dad had plumbed it. We moved into second house when I was eight.)

    Reply
  3. Carol Anne Keene - January 25, 2022 8:09 am

    You have a wonderful family Sean

    Reply
  4. Nell Thomas - January 25, 2022 10:35 am

    Loved the story. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Joy Jacobs - January 25, 2022 11:03 am

    I always love starting out the day crying. ❤️❤️

    Reply
  6. Lyn - January 25, 2022 12:02 pm

    Happy birthday, Sarah, and wishing you many more!

    Reply
  7. Leigh Amiot - January 25, 2022 12:50 pm

    Happy Birthday to your baby sister and for leaving a beautiful part of the story to the imagination…I wondered what well-timed, caring words Jamie said to your sister as they entered the kitchen for a conciliatory hug.

    Reply
  8. Bonnie Vandercook - January 25, 2022 1:32 pm

    Joy, I’m with you. Grabbing a kleenex…..

    Reply
  9. Jan - January 25, 2022 1:56 pm

    Love the story. Families are imperfect jumbles of love and memories. Happy Birthday to your sister! Thank you!

    Reply
  10. Paul McCutchen - January 25, 2022 1:57 pm

    Things get fragmented but the pieces are still there and, most of the time, can be rejoined together.

    Reply
  11. Shelton A. - January 25, 2022 2:55 pm

    Happy birthday! And many more! There’s a big span between me and my brother and sister, too. You are lucky to have Sean, Jamie, and your family. God bless to all.

    Reply
  12. Elaine Price - January 25, 2022 2:59 pm

    At 65 I still feel the ache of having basically only my 2 grown sons and 2 precious grandchildren….everyone else is gone. But I am blessed with their love and knowing that however far away they live, if I need them they will come. I feel the way your mom felt often…but I’ve learned that when we know God we are never alone. I’m glad He has blessed you with such a loving family.

    Reply
  13. Sue Adams - January 25, 2022 3:00 pm

    This one hits close to home. I look forward to your thoughts.

    Reply
  14. Gayle Wilson - January 25, 2022 3:00 pm

    If someone tells you they lived behind a white picket fence and everything was beautiful and bluebirds sang every morning. Feel sorry for them because they are hiding behind some kind of hurt that won’t let go.
    Sean, thank you for the beautiful way you described the dysfunction of your family and that there are still moments of glimmer and love that shine forth.

    Reply
  15. Nancy Turner - January 25, 2022 3:26 pm

    Those communal hugs are the best. Iron gnome shin killer and Pictionary healing…you can’t be makin that stuff up!

    Reply
  16. popdawgyhotmailcomTommy - January 25, 2022 3:34 pm

    There’s no such thing as a ‘functional’ family. We’re all human, made of clay. Including the ideal ones dressed in their finest. They may be the worst of all.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: Sean of the South: Kid | The Trussville Tribune

  18. Judy - January 25, 2022 4:35 pm

    I have been to that home also and shed a ton of tears but remind myself that God really is good.

    Reply
  19. Becky+Souders - January 25, 2022 5:33 pm

    I’d say you are pretty good with speeches, written or spoken. Another good one, Sean. Thanks.

    Reply
  20. Linda Moon - January 25, 2022 6:03 pm

    I have what could be a Shin Killer, but she’s an Angel in a corner where no shins go. I wept just now…and am still weeping after reading “Kid” because of your mother and her kids. Two families of mine were very much like yours, Sean. But we’re beautiful. We play Pictionary a lot. Happy Birthday to your kid sister! And love, so much love, to you all.

    Reply
  21. L G ARNOLD - January 25, 2022 6:21 pm

    I know how your Mom feels. I have 3 children …. the youngest just turned 31. They have their own lives … jobs, spouses, kids of their own. It seems like the only time we all get together is for a few hours at Christmas. And it seems like Father Time is competing in the Indy 500. I still have my husband, thank you Lord, but the house just seems empty … even after more than a decade that they’ve all been gone. So, what I recommend to all adult “kids” is a simple “Remember your parents”!! Make it a habit to call, not for any specific reason, but just to chat. Stop by with the kids for no good reason. Give your Mom a huge squeeze! I promise you, she’ll LOVE it!! It’s not easy being of a certain age, the mind is as clear as ever but the body just can’t keep up. Go give you Mom a hug. You won’t understand how much it means to her until you’ve lived as long as she has. Oh, yeah, and your Dad, too!

    Reply
  22. MAM - January 25, 2022 7:32 pm

    Happy Birthday to Sean’s kid sister. I can relate to the story, as I imagine most moms can. Our daughters are all grown up and we still sling angry words where feelings get hurt on both sides. But apologies and hugs always mend things.

    Reply
  23. Lisa - January 25, 2022 8:06 pm

    Pretty much described my mamas house. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  24. Stacey Patton Wallace - January 25, 2022 8:25 pm

    Happy Birthday! I hope you live to be as old as my grandmother, Mother Mac; she was 104. Sean, you are a very good man. Love you, Jamie, your Mama, and baby sister.

    Reply
  25. Mary McNeil - January 25, 2022 9:37 pm

    Thank goodness that what Jamie was sorry for wasn’t marrying into your family !

    Reply
  26. Chasity Davis Ritter - January 25, 2022 11:12 pm

    Happy birthday Sarah.

    Reply
  27. Anne Arthur - January 26, 2022 1:27 am

    Beautiful, Sean. Happy birthday to your kid sister. You guys are amazing and I love how your love shines through your writing.

    Reply
  28. Susan Ogden - January 26, 2022 3:06 am

    My heart…. Every family so different yet still somehow the same

    Reply
  29. Karen Snyder - January 26, 2022 3:46 am

    Just like families everywhere.❤️ Happy birthday to your sister!

    Reply
  30. Debbie g - January 26, 2022 12:53 pm

    Happy birthday Kid. Your brother loves you. And we love you Sean
    Inspiring story to keep on keeping on
    Love to us all

    Reply
  31. Keloth Anne - January 27, 2022 3:22 pm

    A story about so many of our families—through it all—no matter how fragmented— they are “our family” and that makes them special ♥️
    Happy Birthday to your Shin Killer sister 🎂💕

    Reply
  32. Julie P, RN - January 28, 2022 3:44 pm

    This could be about any family. All you have to do is look around, including your own. Thank you for bringing your dysfunction out in the open. You’re not hiding behind a false sense of perfection…your family is REAL. Thank you, Braveheart, for sharing💔

    Reply
  33. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - April 24, 2022 1:32 am

    Reply

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