It was Memorial Day Weekend, 1980, and the house was crowded with cousins. The house was very old and a heating system had never been installed. There was a fireplace and a kerosene heater downstairs for the cold nights. But on this warm summer morning the windows were open. Even before I opened my eyes, the musty smell of the old house told me where I was. The screens in the windows didn’t quite fit flush, so inevitably, the mosquitoes made their way into the room and buzzed by my ear. The breeze coming through the screens carried the sounds of the birds in the trees. I opened my eyes and tried not to wake the others who were crammed onto the beds stuffed into the small room.
When I was a little girl, I had a family like this. One where aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents gathered together for holidays and Sunday dinners. But my own grandparents had died ten years prior and I no longer saw my cousins or most of my aunts and uncles. However, now I was dating Rob, who also came from a large Italian family. His grandparents were still their focus and on weekends, they all gathered together at his uncle’s country house in upstate New York. The house was big and white and had a wraparound porch and the back kitchen door led to large yard. On the 27 acres, there was also a built-in pool, a basketball court, and another structure that they called the “play house.” Now that most of the cousins were in their twenties, the “play house” stood dusty and unused. It stored treasures from when a musician had owned the property years before and there was still an old piano that told the ghostly tales of what the building had once seen.
Waking up in “the girls'” room, I was happy that his cousins had welcomed me with open arms and hearts. In fact, his whole family had done the same. Here I was in the midst of this family that was not mine, but also felt so very familiar. I heard a car door slam. It was Sunday morning and his uncle had just returned from church with boxes of bakery items that he had picked up on his way home. We could hear the boys rustling around in the living room downstairs. That was the room where the boy cousins and the boyfriends of the girl cousins slept. Although there were three bedrooms upstairs and three bedrooms downstairs, there were so many people in the house that the boys had been relegated to sleeping in the living room.
Breakfast was a feast of jelly donuts, croissants, crullers, and many other delights. Grandma had the coffee on in the kitchen and the girls and I could smell it as we descended the stairs and passed through the large dining room. The family gathered in the old farm kitchen and I could see that the sauce was already cooking on the stove. Grandma was frying meatballs in the leftover bacon grease that she had saved from yesterday’s breakfast. She ignored her granddaughter, who was a nurse, trying to explain to her that there were healthier options to fry meatballs in.
Later that morning we were sitting in the backyard when I heard his grandmother call out to his grandfather, “Do you love me, Funzie?” Although it was the first time I had heard her ask, I soon realized that his exchange was one the family had heard often. He responded as he always had for their fifty plus years of their marriage, “Yes, I love you!”
Rob told me stories of when they were all children and grandpa would lead them on a parade around the house on Memorial Day. There had also once been a tractor that pulled a wagon full of grandchildren around the property. But the tractor was now stored, unused, in an old barn across the quiet country road. There was an apple orchard in the back of the property that you reached by crossing a little stream. He warned me to be careful of the poison ivy as I followed in his footsteps.
That was almost forty years ago, and yet, sometimes, I wake up in the morning and I hear the birds in the trees and feel the breeze coming through the screens and I remember that special time when his family began to become my own.
http://www.theresadodaro.com Theresa Dodaro is the Author of The Tin Box Trilogy