I went to my dad’s sister’s one hundredth birthday party. I haven’t seen my dad’s side of the family since his funeral in the late summer of 2016, and that day was such a blur that I don’t fully recall everyone I saw.
My favorite two memories of Aunt Edna Belle are quite different but taken together express much about her. She taught me how to do doughnuts with front wheel and rear wheel drive cars. And I helped her make popcorn balls at Christmas, which like many good culinary treats of the 60s and earlier involve masochist elements both in the eating and the making. Popcorn balls are made by using searing hot liquified sugar to bind popped corn together in a spherical shape, sometimes with a bit of food coloring to make the popcorn have an unnatural color to go with its unusual shape. Eating them would require immediate access to tooth picks or floss. When eating the balls like apples every square inch of your gums were vulnerable to popcorn detritus that is usually limited to the molars when tossing back individual kernels.
I say this with no sense of irony. I adored them. And as I am remembering what the exact experience is of eating and making them was, I have no explanation for my childhood feelings about those treats.
I saw several of my cousins whom I haven’t seen in years, and I was very happy I took the time to come. We are legion. I am the youngest of 32 grandchildren on my dad’s side. So just by the numbers it’s reasonable that I struggle to remember all of them, remembering spouses and children are out of the question.
I had two unexpected delightful experiences. First, my Aunt Susie, not the birthday lady, struggled to recognize me. She’s 90 and I look like a man, so honestly, I wasn’t in any way bothered by this. I told her who I was, and she immediately recalled.
Later she approached me and told me that she was stunned when she saw me because she thought I was my dad, and she really thought she was losing her marbles as he’s dead, and further would be many decades past my age. She said just for a moment she felt the joy she would have at seeing him, and she was grateful for it. I was happy to have helped her to it.
My cousin, Richard, told me about a letter he found that my dad had sent to his father, my Uncle Bray. He said he would send it to me. In it my dad expressed gratitude for all his brothers and sisters, and Richard thought I would like having it. I said my dad was a very sensitive man who expressed his feelings to the extent the age he lived in would allow. And Richard’s eyes lit up. He said all the Hawk men were.
He said one of the nurses who worked with his dad told him a story at his dad’s funeral. His dad, Uncle Bray, was a head surgeon at one of the hospitals in St. Louis. At the end of his 14 and 16 hour days he would take extra time to prepare warm towels and cover the infants and children in the polio ward with them before leaving for the day. At the time the only thing they could do for them was keep them comforted.
And like that we shared an unexpected connection. Richard has always lived in St. Louis, and I bet all the words we’ve ever spoken are a fraction of what’s in this post. And yet we both knew something so fundamental about our fathers. For how hard their lives were, The Hawks, all of my dad’s nine siblings, were shrewd but unfailingly generous and optimistic.
They had such an easy way of welcoming people to their raucous party. I envied the breezy way my dad could get people to talk to him. So, when my Aunt Elaine, my mom’s sister, who went on several trips with my dad’s siblings, told me after dad died that I am definitely a Hawk by nature my words of thanks caught in my throat. It is such a cherished complement. I am thankful to have known them and that parts of them live in me.