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.”
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.