She was 16 when I was 7. I can still remember the way she stood in the center of the living room like it was a stage. A stage of green shag carpet, with a remote control for a microphone. Sitting on grandma’s worn-out couch and rocker, the rest of the family became her audience. She turned everyday stories into comedies. Like the time she got caught smoking at 10 and our practical German grandmother was more worried about her burning the house down than becoming addicted. Or the summer she wrecked my brother’s new 10-speed bike, stepped on a nail and came down with strep throat, all during her first vacation alone in Missouri. She could make us laugh with her southern twang and animations. A smile larger than the Cheshire Cat. Blond hair gone mad with curls. That was my cousin, Heidi. No, that is my cousin Heidi. Always blowing like a force of nature.
We’re a little bit older now. Heidi married young, like so many good Christian girls do in the mountains in Alabama. Her kids are all grown up. The oldest two girls now married with babies of their own. And Jacob, the youngest, now 19 and ready to take on the world. (I see a lot of her warmth and spirit in him.) It’s hard to believe she’s only 44. She’s still pretty and wild like a teenager. Newly single after 26 years of marriage and ready to start life again in a different way. She’s worked everywhere from Walmart to a chicken plant in the past year and still looking for something that fits. I admire her courage to try and fail. Her willingness to let life be messy. And I am sure she will find a good country road to follow soon.
This past week, my father and I drove down to Alabama to visit the family. His sister, my Aunt Margie, started following my travels on Facebook this past year has been very supportive of my experiences. She even said to me once, she would have done the same if she had had the opportunity long ago. And my Uncle Jerry, he’s one of dad’s best friends. They were in Saigon together 48 years ago, and connect in a way that only old veterans can. I am happy that dad could have this time with his old friend, the week of his 68th birthday. And I’m glad I could ask them questions about what it was like back then. Tell them about what it’s like in Southeast Asia now from my experience living in Thailand and traveling around. I encouraged them to come visit me, maybe make a trip back to Vietnam. It was a hard time back then. Young boys who just wanted to follow in their fathers’ WWII footsteps. Politically mislead and sorely punished for it. A time that still feels more present to my father than I can ever understand.
This was the first time in 8 years I’d been down to Alabama. So much had changed. My little cousins became adults, and mothers. My crazy cousin Heidi reclaimed her youth. My Aunt Margie and Uncle Jerry adapted to the era of iPads and Facebook from their remote home in the mountains. And I guess somewhere in that eight years I transitioned from adolescent to adult. But somethings didn’t change. We still play Yahtzee around the kitchen table. Uncle Jerry still feeds the chickens every morning. Aunt Margie still cooks everyone biscuits and gravy with her hair up in rollers. And Heidi, she still tells her stories in the living room for all of us to have a good laugh. The warm and loving laugh of family.