My father didn’t dwell in the past. In fact, he treated any attempt to delve into family history as a rude and useless waste of his time. For that reason we grew up knowing only the bare bones about his family – particularly his father’s side. People would appear from time to time introduced as aunt this or cousin that and we were expected to accept these branches of the family tree without questioning what kind of a tree it was. However in the mid-sixties one of his relatives began showing up on a regular basis and was known to us as Cousin Jim. He was a college student up in Oregon and that was all we knew.
Now, we owned the oldest and rattiest piano in town. It was an upright that sat against a blackboard wall and had a tinny sound that put you in mind of the honky tonks up in Virginia City, which is probably where my mother found it. Although not one of their children showed any signs of musical talent, my parents had it stuck in their ever-loving Republican brains that well-raised children took piano lessons and so every week we trudged off to mortify Madame Z, a tiny Bolshevik with a thing on her chin that looked like a dead mouse and a passion for Hanon Studies. She probably wasn’t a Bolshevik. It was a rumor started by her older students which if I reported to mom and dad, I got a swat across the side of the face, but nor was she a sweet little old lady. I expected to be boiled in the cauldron full of cabbages and beets and a bit of animal grizzle always brewing on her stove if I hadn’t practiced my scales to her satisfaction.
But that piano and what Cousin Jim could make it do were always the highlights of his visits. He rarely attempted something classical on that old pile of shit, sticking mostly with rag-time jazz and show tunes, all played with an energy that rivaled Scott Joplin. He also had a 1964 Ford Falcon convertible that my brother openly lusted after and in his late teens finally got his hands on. Cousin Jim would show up mostly on holidays until he graduated and joined the Navy. Then he would show up on shore leave and tell us stories of the places he’d been to – Palma de Majorca being his favorite. By then we were self-centered teenage buggers who never thought to ask him why he didn’t go home to his own family. I was seventeen before I learned that Cousin Jim was not our cousin but my father’s.
While my parents were together, and we were young, Cousin Jim was a moon calmly circling our hostile planet although, unlike the moon, he had no phases but always showed the same stoic face, cracked as though his many lakes had dried up centuries before. Then the planet burst and we all drifted through space.
When I next returned to the rubble of my childhood, Cousin Jim was living in Carson City with his widowed mother. I can remember meeting her for the first time at a Christmas dinner and noting the complete lack of affection between my father and his aunt. In fact being close to her made him winch as if in pain. I sat next to her that night on the stone mantle my father built from desert rocks. She was still a pretty women, though now old. She glared into the flames as the children opened presents. Then she mumbled.
“I hate Christmas.” She pounded a tiny wrinkled fist upon the stone. “They just kept calling me. ‘Your son is sick and he’s crying for his mother.’ They just wouldn’t stop.” And then she began to weep. No one in the room did anything to comfort her. We sat stunned.
After they left we browbeat the story out of my father. He told it in the same non-judgmental way he was famous for when talking about his family. This is what happened and now I don’t want to talk about it again. After he told the story we all wished we hadn’t asked him. You see, when Cousin Jim (who is an only child) was six, his father decided he needed to be toughened up and so he was sent to military school. There he stayed for most holidays and vacations until he turned eighteen and left for college.
The irony in this story is that Cousin Jim became the family historian. He knew everything about everyone, save for a few very carefully hidden horrible secrets that came out only in wills after the elders died. His taught history to junior high schoolers, never got married, adopted at risk boys and died two days ago.
The way I’ll always remember him.