There are a lot of people at this backyard party. Adults, kids, dogs, cats, toddlers wearing poopy diapers, politicians, etc. One little boy runs around screaming. Another child is—if I’m not mistaken—shoving mud up his nose.
My mother and I are in the corner together, nursing SOLO cups. This is a belated surprise birthday party for my little sister.
We’re all awaiting her arrival. My mother and I are sharing memories. You know how that goes:
Remember when we…?” Or “How about that time when we all…?” And you sort of stroll down Memory Lane together, hooking arms.
There was the time when you had the flu one Christmas. The time you almost broke your arm falling from a treehouse, picking mulberries. The childhood church potlucks when four different women would bring casseroles with the cornflakes on top. God bless that wondrous recipe.
I’ve said it before, but the world would be a better place if more women made that humble potato-cheese-cornflake casserole.
My mother is holding a Miller Lite in her hand while we talk. This is a modern miracle.
When I was growing up, she did not even allow cough syrup in the house. She was the sort of woman who closed her eyes during “Rock of Ages,” and during Ronnie Milsap songs, and would douse the Sears catalog with gasoline and set it on fire before I saw it because it contained ads for women’s underwear.
I never thought I would know the pleasure of sharing a Miller Lite with my mother. I always wanted to share a beer with my father, but I never got the chance.
A child runs past us. The kid has dark smears on his face. If that isn’t mud up his nose, I don’t want to know what it is.
Memories can be fun to rehash. But I haven’t always felt this way. It’s taken a long time to enjoy my own memories. Nobody tells you that memories can sting. Even good ones.
For example, a few years ago my mother gave me a big box of family photographs. Some photographs reached back into the early 1900s. Other photos were of Young Me.
I never expected to cringe when I looked at old photos of myself, but I did. I was upset for days after looking at all those photographs of a chubby little boy who had no idea how unsightly he was or how ugly his red hair was.
It was painful, but I forced myself to keep looking at them until they didn’t hurt anymore. It’s taken me years, but now I can look at them without flinching. And even though I was not a nice-looking kid, I don’t hate Young Me anymore.
My mother says, “Do you remember that time when we got stuck on the side of the road…?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Or that time it was late, and we were in the middle of…”
“Or how about that time we went to San Antonio, remember that?”
“When I fell in the river?”
I fell off the Texas tour boat when I was leaning over the side. I splashed into the water like a chubby little cinder block. The tour guide, a Mexican man, pulled me out. For the rest of the tour, I sat in wet clothes. And the only thing worse than being chubby is being chubby in wet clothes. The material clings to the curvature of your backside.
Every passenger on the boat was looking at the sopping wet cute little fat kid. Finally, that Mexican man wrapped me in a giant Texas-flag beach towel. I’m a Floridian, but I have been a big fan of Texas ever since.
“Hey,” I tell my mother. “Remember the time when we—”
But I am cut off.
“She’s here!” someone whispers. And everyone gets deathly silent.
My sister walks through the gate.
Everyone shouts, “SURPRISE!”
My mother raises her beer. My wife, too. My sister looks like she’s about to cry. Her husband wraps his arms around her. Fifty-three small children run in circles, screaming and removing their clothing.
“I don’t know how your sister grew up so fast,” my mother whispers to me. “When did that happen?”
I know exactly how she’s feeling. Sometimes I look around and can’t believe how fast it’s all moving. It seems like yesterday that I was a child, staring at casserole dishes with cornflakes on top. It feels like only last week that my mother was racing across the back lawn to cradle me after I’d fallen out of my treehouse.
My sister weaves throughout the party crowd, her husband beside her.
I still remember the baby my sister used to be. Rosy cheeked and pale. I still recall holding her in my arms during crucial moments of her teenage career when she thought she’d never breathe again. Girls without fathers can be kind of dramatic sometimes. Brothers do the best they can, but we screw up a lot.
“Sean,” my mother says to me. “Would you like another beer?”
As I live and breathe. There’s something I never thought I’d hear Mama say.
The kid with the mud on his face runs past me, hands waving, screaming like a boy with his hair on fire. I hope that’s dirt on his face and not something else.
Somehow the world keeps moving faster. And I keep getting a little slower. But I am grateful to still be here without mud in my nostrils.
God bless the Texas flag.