A beach bar. My wife and I are with our cousins, James and Jessica. We are eating pizza. Somebody got a little crazy and even ordered oysters.
You know what my favorite part of any family gathering is? Not oysters or pizza. The part at the end. It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.
In this part of the world, the simple act of saying goodbye can last for three hours. Sometimes longer if it’s football season.
James and Jessica are cool cousins. I once rode out a hurricane with James. I’ll never forget it. Hurricane Ivan was tearing through Brewton, Alabama. The rest of the family was downstairs, listening to a radio by candlelight.
James and I were upstairs, the ultimate thrill seekers, watching the storm. But we couldn’t see anything because it was too dark.
So our entire conversation basically went like this:
“Did you hear that?”
“What about that?”
When the storm hit, we heard creaking and groaning. It sounded like the core of the planet was getting ripped from the soil and hurling through outer space somewhere above the casino in Atmore.
The next morning, the town had lost so many trees you couldn’t drive down Belleville Avenue. The power was out. It was tragic.
But Brewton’s families banded together. You could see people on porches, cooking food on gas grills, drinking beer at noon.
Because that’s what family does.
Family is important to me. It becomes even more important the older I get. I didn’t grow up with much. And at this age I have to sort of create my own, which isn’t easy because I have no kids.
This is tough sometimes because I really like kids. I like them so much that every child I meet—I know this is going to seem odd—I call “cousin.” I figure, why not?
Last week, for instance, I worked in the nursery at a Methodist church. They let me hold as many babies as I wanted. I spent most of the service bouncing a baby named Cousin Tray.
I couldn’t let him go. Cousin Tray had the fattest little hands I’ve ever seen.
Before I gave Cousin Tray back to his mother, I told him to call me if he ever needed anything, since, you know, we’re family.
Cousin Tray agreed. Then he gave me a high-five to seal the deal.
Speaking of cousins, this past Fourth of July I found new biological cousins from my father’s side. I had never met them before—at least I don’t remember meeting them. You might have thought we would have acted like strangers, but no.
When we said goodbye, we all stood by the door for nearly an hour conducting a proper Goodbye Ceremony according to protocol. It was the best part of the evening.
There is something about standing by the front door and getting ready to leave that inspires the storyteller in everyone.
Goodbyes with my sister’s family can last well through the night until “Live with Kelly and Ryan” finally comes on TV and various roosters start crowing in the distance.
My sister has two babies. I can never seem to let them go. I could hold them all day. I call them “Cousin Lily” and “Cousin Lucy.”
At the door, I like to fix their hair and kiss their fat cheeks and pinch their noses. I remind Cousin Lucy not to forget about me. I make a raspberry on Cousin Lily’s bare white tummy.
But most of all, I like to stand in the entryway, talking. To the untrained eye, it looks as though we’re saying goodbye. But we aren’t. Family doesn’t say goodbye. Not ever. In fact, we are telling each other the opposite.
We are saying: “Even though we’ll be apart, nothing can keep us apart for long. Because we’re family.”
Right now, my wife and cousins are leaving the beach bar. We have finally finished our pizza and oysters. We tip our waitress, we walk outside. The stars are out by the billions tonight. James and I are hugging in the parking lot. Jessica is hugging my wife.
Initializing official Goodbye Ceremony in five, four, three, two…
“We’re so glad we got to see you tonight.”
“Us too, we’ll have to do this again.”
“We really do.”
“It was fun.”
“It really was.”
“That pizza sucked.”
“Mine was actually okay.”
“Hey, remember that time when Hurricane Ivan came through Brewton?”
“What a night, huh?”
“How many years ago was that?”
“At least fifteen.”
“God, has it been that long?”
“I think so.”
“Fifteen years ago, are we getting old?”
“No, it’s just you. You’re getting old.”
“Gimme one more hug.”
“Drive safe, now.”
“Same to you.”
“You sure it was fifteen years ago?”
“Hey, is that gray in your beard?”
“No, it’s parmesan.”
“I gotta get up early tomorrow.”
“Okay, for real this time, bye y’all.”
“Let’s do this again.”
Forever and a day, and then some more.
Look me up one day, Cousin Tray.