By Wendy Hodge
Family vacations. Everyone is planning one this time of year. Just yesterday in Kroger, I overheard a conversation between a little girl and her mom about how Mickey Mouse was waiting for them in Disney World, and how they’d be there in just a few weeks.
“Just be patient, Lindsey,” the mom said.
“But how long IS a few weeks, Mom???” Lindsey whined. “I can’t stand it much longer!”
I smiled and walked past, feeling sympathy for them both. It’s not easy being a mom, and it’s not easy being a little girl. I’m sure it’s not easy being Mickey Mouse, either.
The first family vacation I can recall was in the Smoky Mountains. There were eleven of us. My mother and her sister both had three kids. We were stair step cousins – my brother, my sister, my cousin Betty Anne, and my cousin Lamar, all a year apart. And then there was a nine-year gap before my cousin, Dawn, was born. And, at three years younger than Dawn, I was the baby of the bunch. My grandparents would load us all up, along with our parents, in their RV and head for the Smokies.
There were several vacations like that, but the summer I was six stands out the most in my memory. It was the summer I realized that my cousin, Dawn, was special. Not because of her developmental delays, which kept her from developing beyond the intellectual level of a 10-year-old. No, that wasn’t it at all. It was her heart, plain and simple.
I don’t think a more innocent soul ever set foot on this planet. She was without guile or pretense. She loved openly and fiercely. Plagued by fear of things she didn’t understand, she was still trusting and faced every day with a smile. She couldn’t add or subtract, but she could remember everyone’s phone number. And movie stars! Lawd, that girl could tell you everything about anybody who’d ever been in a movie or on TV. Clark Gable’s birthday? Dawn knew it. The very first western series on TV? She knew that too. Who won an Oscar back in 1964? Ask Dawn, and she could tell you.
Her brother, Lamar, was my favorite cousin. His smile is one of my first memories. I’ve always loved to talk, and Lamar never got tired of listening. In fact, he would ask me to recite the books of the Bible or to count backwards from 100, just to hear me talk. His laugh was high-pitched and completely unselfconscious. It made me laugh just to hear it.
Betty Anne, the oldest of my three cousins, had the longest hair I’d ever seen. I was fascinated by the way she had to move it aside to avoid sitting on it. I dreamed of having hair like that someday. It would be dark and shiny and smell like the perfume she wore. She wore a ring on every finger, and my little girl heart could hardly stand how exotic that was.
That summer, in the Smokies, on one very hot afternoon, I took the book I was reading and slipped under a weeping willow tree behind the RV. I liked the way its sweeping wispy branches bent over like a ballerina touching her toes. It was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen.
When the wind blew, it became an exotic free-form dancer, dipping and swaying. With the heat making waves in the air, it was an oasis where I could lie on my back and make up stories about underwater cities and horses that fly. In those hours under that tree, I slipped away from time as told by a clock and lived apart from the world for a bit.
I don’t remember how long I was there, but I do remember hearing my grandmother’s voice calling my name.
“Wendy Lynne?” I closed my eyes and held my breath, hoping she wouldn’t see me under my tree. I wasn’t ready to give up my solitude yet. But I could see her feet as she stood close by, and then she knelt down and reached in with her long fingers that were always cool no matter what the Alabama heat was doing to the rest of us. She patted my arm and said, “Come on out of there. Join us out here among the living.”
I closed my book, shook my head a bit to clear the fog, and slipped out into the sun. And there they all were. My parents, my aunt, my cousins, my brother and sister, and my grandparents. I can see them all frozen in that moment:
The hat on my granddaddy’s head. My grandmother smiling at me. My mother holding a basket of fruit. My dad reading a newspaper. My sister and Betty Anne laughing and pointing at something in the distance. My brother and Lamar bent over a radio they were fixing. My aunt brushing Dawn’s hair. And Dawn, clear-eyed and happy with her head tilted to the sun.
On March 28 of this year, just a handful of days ago, there was a fire. And my aunt, and Betty Anne, and Dawn never woke up that day to see the sun. They are no longer among the living.
My cousin Lamar, who the city of Opelika knows as Officer Roger Motley, was killed in the line of duty years ago. No longer among the living.
My granddaddy, state trooper and master gardener, died of heart disease decades ago. No longer among the living.
My grandmother, whose hands were always cool and who was the only one to call me Wendy Lynne, died before my youngest child was born. No longer among the living.
And my sister. A loss I still can’t find words for. No longer among the living.
At the funeral home, on the day my aunt and cousins were buried, there were flowers and photographs everywhere. From where I sat, I could see one of Dawn and me with our arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, six and nine years old, grinning and untouched by the loss of anyone we loved. It was too much to bear, the pure joy on our faces. And so I would close my eyes and see that still picture from that day I crawled out from under my willow to see all of them, everyone I loved, on vacation in the Smokies, being their true selves. Among the living.
Cherish the days. If you love someone, tell them. Take the trip. Don’t’ keep Mickey Mouse waiting. Look at the sun. Watch it rise and set. Hold hands. Laugh long and loud. Be open and throw your arms around life. It’s the one and only life you’ll ever have.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.