I was already formally engaged, as we used to say, to the girl I was going to marry. But still, I sometimes went out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding . . .
“Hey Uncle TJ! Uncle TJ!”
I looked up from my book. “Yes?”
“Hey watch this!”
Bart ran to the end of the diving board and jumped, sending up a big splash.
“Hey!” his brother Billy shouted from a float nearby. “He splashed me!”
Bart’s head emerged from the water. He swung his hair to one side. “Uncle TJ, did you see?”
“I did! That was a big splash, Bart.”
“You got me wet, butthead!” Billy complained.
“You’re in the water, moron! You are wet!” Bart bellowed, slapping water in Billy’s direction.
“Bart, please don’t splash your brother. Billy, maybe you should move your float while Bart is jumping. And both of you, drop the name calling. ”
“I was here first!”
“It’s a very big lake. I’m sure you can work this out.”
. . . out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding, in December, I was in an automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen . . .
I looked up from my book. “Yes, dear?”
Lillie held her belly and rolled her eyes. “I’m sta-aa-arving.”
My grandmother raised herself in her chair. “Do you want me to get some lunch for the babies?”
“No Nanny, they are fine, thank you. I’ll go up later to make lunch.” I turned to my daughter. “Lillie, we just had breakfast a little while ago. Why don’t you eat some of the grapes we brought with us?”
“I’m sick of grapes.”
“Well, then you can wait for lunch.”
“Baby, do you want some of these cheese crackers I brought?” Granny reached for her bag.
“Yes! Cheese crackers, cheese crackers!”
“Wait, is she getting cheese crackers?” Bart shouted from the water. “I want some!”
“You just mind your jumping,” Nanny hollered back.
“That’s so unfair!”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Nanny wavered. “But you keep swimming.” She lowered her voice to me as Lillie took the crackers. “That boy just never stops eating. He can’t stand to miss any opportunity to eat some more.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”
“Well,” her head bobbed on her shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He needs to lose weight. That’s why I hid the snacks you got for your babies.”
“Probably a wise idea. You okay now, Lillie?” She nodded.
I looked at Jason floating across the slip on a foam noodle. Collie, wearing a life jacket and grasping another noodle, paddled behind.
“You boys stay on this side of the boat house, okay?”
“Okay, dad,” Jason yelled back.
“Dad, look how far I am!”
“I see, Collie. Just stay where I can see you.”
I watched for a moment longer. Things quieted down. I sipped my can of Miller Lite and returned to reading.
. . . automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen —not the accident itself, which caused no serious injury to anyone, but the accident plus the presence of that girl.
“Dad, will you swim with me?” Lillie asked. Her face was now sprinkled with orange crumbs.
“Uh, sure.” I put the book down. “Let me adjust your lifejacket, sweetie.”
“You want me to go fix the lunches?” my grandmother asked, beginning to stand.
“No ma’am, that’s all right. I’ll take Lillie up after our swim. You want to help me make lunch, Lillie?”
“Yes, if I can make my own. And Collie’s!”
“Deal. Let’s swim.”
“I don’t mind going,” my grandmother said.
I looked at the fifty-three steps leading uphill from the pier to the house. I looked back to my eighty-two-year-old grandmother.
“No, that’s okay, Nanny. It won’t take us but a minute to do it. Just keep an eye on the boys, okay?”
“Shoot,” she chortled. “If anything happens, all I can do I sit here and holler.”
“That’s about right,” I smiled, holding Lillie’s hands as we stepped into the water.
I didn’t mind making lunch. I had assumed that on this trip, as in previous years, I would be the head chef for my family vacation—that is, if we wanted three squares.
The night before, my brother Frank came over unannounced just as I was starting dinner. He brought two of his three boys.
“Well hey, Frank,” I smiled as he pulled me into a bear hug. “This is a nice surprise. I didn’t know we’d see you tonight.”
“No, neither did I.” He laughed. “But I got out of work early and so I decided, ‘Well hell, let’s go to the lake and see TJ.’”
“Dad, I’m hungry,” Bart whined.
“Well, get yourself something to eat,” Frank said. “And get me a beer while you’re at it.”
“Are you staying for dinner?” I asked.
“Sure, what are you making?”
“Pasta,” I said, opening a cabinet to trade the pot I had chosen for a bigger one. “Would you put this roast in the fridge and take out a chicken, please?”
I have to grin and bear this part of time with my family: the aversion, among some, to planning ahead.
My life in New York is set by schedules. I have my kids on certain nights and weekends. My work is delegated to overlapping deadlines.
With the time remaining, I plan dates and orgies.
All of these days are set well in advance.
There is very little wiggle room, but I don’t much mind. I like knowing what to expect, so I can plan for it.
I’m not sure how I arrived at this desire for order, but one thing is certain: I did not inherit it.
When my parents bought this lake house a decade ago, they were attracted to the fact that it was a good size to suit their needs and to accommodate the guests that are inevitably drawn to waterside properties.
There was a bedroom for my parents, another for my grandmother and a third for guests. There were two and a half baths, a nice kitchen and a living area large enough for a fold-out sofa.
Perfect for most weekends.
When I came for a visit, my kids went in the guest room. It was assumed I would sleep with my grandmother.
This is a long-standing family tradition. As I am up late, and my grandmother rises early, it makes sense that we share a bed, as we would only be in it together for a couple of hours.
Now, that plan works fine, unless my brothers decide to crash there with their families.
I have never understood why they would do this, as their own homes are only an hour or so away.
But when I visited, it was not at all unusual for the house to bed our entire family for the night.
Me and my three kids—four if Rachel joined us.
My brother Jesse and his two kids.
My brother Frank, his wife Sharon and their three sons.
My brother Lee, his wife Tanya and their daughter.
Nineteen people. Three bedrooms.
We slept on chairs and boats, in sleeping bags and hammocks, on a screened-in porch.
If everyone was staying over, I never knew where I would be sleeping from night to night. Chances were good I wouldn’t know who was staying over until they went to sleep.
Tanya and her daughter go to bed early, so they would take my place in Nanny’s bed.
I would usually tuck my kids into bed early and take whatever was left when everyone else had passed out.
This year was a little different.
Last Autumn, a tornado had damaged part of the house.
The damage was not too severe, and the house was insured. My brother Frank resolved to make good use of the settlement by contracting the repairs himself. In the process, he designed an addition that would add three rooms to the house.
So it was that this year, for the first time, I had my own room.
Or at least, I did until Frank and his boys arrived. When I heard their voices at the door, I immediately wondered if they would take my bed.
“So,” I asked casually, as water boiled and I chopped chicken. “Are y’all staying overnight?”
“I wish I could, man, but I have to work. So the boys will stay, but I can’t.”
“Oh.” I stirred the sauce. “The boys are staying over?”
“Yeah, just for a couple of days. Then Sharon and I will come down too.”
“I see.” This was news to me. I kept my eyes on the sauce. “Well, you know Dad and Mom are working tomorrow and the next day, so Nanny and I will be the only adults.”
“Yeah,” he sipped a Miller Lite. “Is that all right? You know the boys are cool in the water. They are so excited to play with their cousins.”
The names of Frank’s boys all begin with the letter B: Buster, Bart and Billy. They are collectively known as the “Three Bs.”
Aka Brat, Bully and Baby.
No one would ever choose to be trapped with these children. They are wild and insatiable for attention.
But I am Frank’s big brother, and their Uncle TJ.
And I have always hated the way my family considers the grandchildren as extensions of my generation. This fact has never worked in Frank’s favor.
My kids are thought to be geniuses because I got good grades and went to college.
Jesse’s kids are thought to be athletic and socially adept because he was a popular football player.
Lee’s two-year-old girl is treated as a doll because he was the baby of the family.
Frank was a difficult child, always in trouble. This was primarily due to the fact that his ADHD was undiagnosed until late adolescence. He was unhappy and suffering most of childhood.
We didn’t know this at the time. Back then, we just thought he was an asshole.
As a child, Frank fought Jesse and Lee all the time.
I wouldn’t fight him. Fate had assigned me, as the eldest, with the role of peacekeeper.
I would yell at Frank and Jesse for fighting, and grab little Lee away when Frank got too rough.
Among us four boys, that passed for diplomacy.
Now, as an adult, I was having none of this theory that the grandchildren were variations on the four brothers. It annoyed me to see Frank’s boys considered hopelessly out of control, just as it annoyed me to see my own children assumed to be brainiacs.
They are all just kids.
“Sure, man. Leave them. We’ll have fun.”
What else could I say?
Still, the next day at the pier, as my grandmother and I supervised five children under the age of twelve, I made it clear that Uncle TJ is more lifeguard than party animal.
“Uncle TJ, can you give us ride on the Sea-Doo?” Bart begged.
“No, I have to stay on the pier to watch everyone.”
“Can we go out on the boat?”
“Nope, I don’t have a boating license.”
“You mean, we just have to just stay here and swim?”
“Gyah! That’s so lame.”
“I know. I’m pretty lame.” I looked at Lillie. “Ready to make some lunches, sweetheart?”
“Let’s do it.” I lifted my head to shout. “Jason, Collie, come back to the shallow water.” Lillie and I stepped out and collected towels. “Okay Nanny, you’re in charge.”
“Are you sure?” she shifted in her chair. “You don’t need help?”
“No, just yell loud if anyone goes under.”
That night, alone in my room, I finished the story I had tried to read all day, “The Old Forest” by Peter Taylor. It was included in a collection I had given my father twenty years ago, but never read myself.
The story’s narrator looks back on a car accident that occurred forty years earlier, in the Thirties, just days before his wedding. He had been traveling with a young woman who mysteriously vanished from the scene of the accident.
His fiancée joined in the search for the missing woman.
Together, they discover a loosely knit subculture of shop girls who sidestepped the class hierarchy of Memphis society by creating their own support networks.
This allowed them a measure of freedom denied most women in their time and place, as they relied less on caste and wealth, and more on one another.
If they looked out for one another, they reasoned, they could get what they wanted from the men and women who shopped in their stores—and their sons, who took them on dates with no hope of matrimony—to whom they were otherwise interchangeable “girls.”
I closed the book and took my bourbon outside.
I listened to crickets as I took a leak near a tree felled by the tornado. If I had gone inside to the bathroom, I might have disturbed Frank’s boys in the living room.
I settled into a seat on the pier, and watched the stars.
That’s the trick to personal freedom, I thought. Figure out the restrictions and work around them.
You may not be able to change the universe to your liking, but you can certainly create your solar system within it.
You can make your own freedom.