My mother’s sister had 10 children, and that was one reason that I felt there were too many relatives to keep straight. Plus, of course, my father had siblings and they produced cousins, and everyone had family friends, some of whom were referred to as aunts and uncles, out of respect. If I complained about having to remember all these uncles and aunts, the ones who were blood or the ones who married in, my mother would shrug and say, “On any given day, how many people really matter to you? You’ll figure out who they are eventually — or they’ll go away.”
Her mouth got tight when she said, “or they’ll go away.” I knew she’d lost a baby. That lost baby was always there, in the background, lying quietly in her crib or sitting silently in a corner. I was very small when it happened, but I remember it in a kind of sideways way. At any rate, I filled the space of that lost baby; I had personality enough for two.
Not everyone is important all the time.
But everyone is important some of the time.
I made a little story about it.
I wrote it after my Uncle Reynard left his wife and their 10 children.
Once upon a time a man looked around and saw that he had too many children. He couldn’t keep them all straight and in fact he didn’t care to. His wife came from a family that didn’t divorce; as a consequence, he spent as much time away as he could, only coming home to sleep and, of course, beget another child. He had once had dreams, joys, aspirations, hopes. He no longer did. He clumped off to his job as a machinist, washed his hands with hard soap at the end of his shift, asked his coworkers who was doing anything that night and went with them. He handed over most of his pay, which never kept pace with the number of children, and kept just a small amount for himself.
His friends and coworkers knew he was the kind of man who could nurse a beer for the whole night; who ate only the cheapest things, whose feet got wet when it rained because his shoes were worn and holey.
Some of his children shrugged their shoulders and ignored him. These were the teenagers.
Some of his children climbed all over him on his day off. These were the young ones.
He left early and came home late. He showed up for family parties and grinned with his brother and sister, clutching a drink, happy to be with the adults he had known since he was a child. This was his true world.
Once upon a time, everything was in place for a bright and happy future. He had believed in marriage, he looked forward to it, he did his best with it, but in truth, he was not a man who loved children.
He hadn’t known that. He could have managed with one or two. He had 10.
One day, which was a day no different from any other day in terms of weather and commitments and getting dressed and drinking coffee — one day he just left. He went to work and nodded to his friends and took his paycheck (which he had worked for all his life and always given to his wife) and he left.
His wife wailed, and the children cried, but he was on a bus going out of town and he never heard them. For the first time in a long time, he smiled.
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