Another Way of Forgetting
Among the many things my adoptive family gave me was a romantic reverence for the Fourth of July. Every year on that day they offered up a reliably cheerful tangle of popsicles, softball, sparklers and patriotically inspired cake designs. I recall every Fourth of July as perfect: no unexpected rain squalls, no weeping skinned-knee children or dropped hot dogs in the dirt. But then, memory is just another way of forgetting: you place a picture in your mind and the longer you entertain it, the further it pushes all other possible truths away.
On the last Fourth of July before my two older brothers went to Vietnam I sat on our porch and regarded my paradise. There in the denim bikini that Uncle Charlie disapproved of so much was my sister Angie surfacing after a quick dive into the lake. She pulled herself up out of the water and onto the dock and her hair reflected light like black glass. She smiled at me and I got the same happy lift in my chest I always did when she smiled.
Our brother Eddie has the same electric grin but it doesn't always make me happy to see it. Angie's happiness, on the other hand, has always seemed symbiotically linked to my own. I am the youngest of my siblings and she the oldest, with the boys sandwiched between. That summer I was nineteen, Angie was twenty-two, and Perry and Eddie were twenty and twenty-one. We saw ourselves as organized in pairs: Eddie and Perry had each other; Angie and I had each other.
And all of us had Hank, more or less. Hank is Uncle Charlie and Aunt Eleanor’s son, and none of us remembered a time without him because even before we were adopted into his family, our parents were inseparable friends. There were times when I swear we were more comfortable in Uncle Charlie and Aunt Eleanor’s house than Hank was, but that could simply be because we outnumbered him.
I heard my brothers in the living room working on a duet on the pianos they bought in May so they could play together all summer. Perry and Eddie played competitively, aggressively, badly, whole-heartedly. It was Eddie’s idea to get a second piano. They played Scaramouche with a galumphing bravado, Eddie adding trills and then dark minor chords for comic effect. In previous years they’d sold the second piano back to the dealer when school began, but on this particular summer Angie and I had promised to do that for them so they could play right up until the very last moment without any distractions.
Uncle Charlie and Hank were assembling some kind of grill, and from my seat on the porch I saw Hank bending over the tools, as graceful and beautiful as my sister. He was twenty-two that year--the same age as Angie. He raised his head from his work to watch her shake the lake water from her arms and start raking our two-ton delivery of sand by the lake's edge. He watched her intently.
Every Fourth of July we constructed this artificial beach, and by every August the lake absorbed it. The impossibly white sand drew children all through the long holiday afternoon and into the early evening of the picnic, freeing their parents to drink beer and yell at the volunteer softball umpire. Each year we dot the little beach with toys and leave it to do its job. That morning, like every other Fourth of July morning, Angie and I had gone to thetoy store to buy pails and shovels, plastic dump trucks and front-end loaders. We’d been most satisfied with a little ferris wheel whose seats were actually buckets that moved when you filled them with sand. She waved at me and flung sand in my direction with her rake by way of greeting. I waved back.
In our family I was the fair one, conventionally pretty, the only one among us who expected a smile and a little kiss to change Aunt Eleanor's mind about something. But in the larger world I disappeared where Angie stood out. Angie had muscle--a kind of physical authority whose power was magnified by her indifference to attention of any kind, be it praise or judgment. It was always a very interesting thing to watch.
Uncle Charlie gave up wrestling with the new grill attachment and was drawn into the house. I could hear the running water from where I sat so I knew why he'd been distracted. A Fourth of July overnight guest had been in the shower an unconscionable six minutes, ignoring the three-minute timer that Uncle Charlie had placed discreetly by every shower. Only Aunt Eleanor can ignore the timers with impunity. We all knew that though Uncle Charlie wasn't going to say a thing to the guest, he would pace in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs until the hot water was turned off. Sure enough, within two minutes I saw Charlie back on the lawn with Hank, puzzling over the mysteries of instruction booklets.
Uncle Charlie consulted on military defense contracts. His character and looks were shaped almost entirely by his years with the Marines, and people in the Pentagon trusted him. He had a high security clearance, he knew the admiral or general to call, and these men returned his calls. Uncle Charlie got things done. Because so much of his work was in Washington our year-round house was just outside Arlington, but we lived at the Lake House summers as well as lots of spring and fall weekends. Eleanor’s garden had a powerful hold on her, and Charlie took up hunting and fishing as we spent more and more of the year here on the lake.
The Lake House had been my mother's. When she died and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Eleanor became our legal guardians, they moved in here with Hank and took up our family’s summer routine. Our father had gone through military school with Charlie. They met their future wives at the same off-base bar, courted them together and got married in the same June. The two couples had entered adulthood together. Their first dress-white balls, their first married-couple parties, their first children--they experienced these things as if their lives were firmly bolted into parallel courses. When Uncle Charlie and my father were both drawn into the earliest years of American involvement in a Vietnam that was still called French Indochina, our mothers accepted this as the natural order of things. They settled down into being best friends and waiting for their husbands together, expecting this strange parallel course to continue for the rest of their lives.
Then Charlie came back to Eleanor and my father stayed on, and what they thought was the natural shape of their lives was crumpled and restructured. My father accepted assignment after assignment that kept him away from us. By the time I was born he was merely the occasional visitor who dropped in when he was in the country.
Then our mother died he stopped coming back to us. He settled in Paris and married a French woman whose family had roots in the Far East rubber trade. There were letters at first, birthday cards and false promises of visits. Then there was nothing. Finally Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Charlie informed us that our father had given them legal custody.
I hardly noticed the shift because I had always lived in their care and had few memories of the people that biological fact called my parents. I was happy with Eleanor and Charlie. My brothers and sister were older and less sanguine, perhaps, but Eleanor smoothed every path. She continued all the Sunnaret family traditions here that my mother had made. On birthdays, for example, we followed my mother's habit of giving the birthday child a cake upon waking and another one at night. The morning cake was accompanied by joke gifts, the evening cake by serious ones. The birthday child determined his own schedule and was free to cut school and request alternative activities. Requests made upon the birthday itself--particularly those made right after the morning cake--were much more likely to be granted than those made on any other day of the year.
That summer we celebrated Perry’s twenty-first birthday--a significant day because it marked the year he became a soldier and changed his life forever. His wish had been to set out on a car drive with Eleanor whose path would be entirely determined by flipping a coin whenever they came to an intersection: right for heads; left for tails. She agreed. They got so far away they checked into a motel rather than try to reach home that night. He'd loved it. "When I get back from overseas we'll do it with Eddie, the very next birthday after I get back," he'd said when he and Aunt Eleanor returned. No experience was real for Perry until he had shared it in some way with Eddie.
to Georgetown's small radical bookstores. No cultural shift seriously interfered with her glamour. When the flips that dominated our middle school years gave way in the sixties to headbands and stick-straight sheets of hair, Angie could accommodate the changes as if they had been invented to suit her.
Hank had similar powers, but he didn't know what he looked like and had he known he wouldn't have cared. These qualities, of course, made him even more attractive. His senior class had voted him both "Best Looking" and "Most Mysterious" which was a mystery to us, because in the family Hank was seen as a direct person, honest and quiet--a peacemaker at petty squabbles and the most reasonable among us on crabby hot days. I figured that he was voted most mysterious by the pack of girls who couldn't figure out why he wouldn't date them.
Hank became one of us--not exactly a sibling, but certainly an equal and a member of our tribe. He, too, was offered two cakes at birthdays, joke gifts at breakfast, an annual gift, a glass of champagne on his sixteenth birthday. He always asked for the same thing--a day with his father. He let Uncle Charlie choose the day's activities because they were not, to him, the point. The point was that he got Charlie all to himself with no interruptions from us clamoring adoptees or from his father's work. The two of them usually ended up on the air force base firing range, followed by a long lunch and a few hours hitting golf balls. I don't think Hank ever liked guns or golf. He fired off bullets and smashed little balls to gain access to his father's world, an entirely foreign country whose charms interested none of us but Hank, who hoped, like any diligent suitor, that if only he showed interest in what his father loved that he would be more lovable.
Uncle Charlie might be a stern man but I never doubted that he loved his son. After all, he loved me. His love was as much a fact of my life as gravity, so certainly he had to love Hank as much or more. Uncle Charlie had taken us under his wing like a small platoon that needed guidance and conditioning. My siblings sometimes chafed under his rules but I leaned right into them, happy with the way they built a kind of wall against confusion. Charlie made it clear that we could and should know exactly where he stood on everything. We were the troops. Aunt Eleanor was his partner, his lover, occasionally his Commanding Officer, so knowing where he stood demanded that we pay attention to her. To my mind, knowing Aunt Eleanor’s views was a snap: she loved us, which made her, I thought, transparent to us.
That Fourth of July morning I had stepped around a corner to find my Uncle Charlie seated at the kitchen table, smiling up at a blushing Aunt Eleanor as he lifted her hand from the kitchen table to brush it with his lips. They’d turned simultaneously when they heard me, their faces rearranging into more public configurations: parents again. Uncle Charlie's clear sense of his own authority and his belief in his responsibility to shield and guide what he called the fairer sex worked a magical tension, set as they were against Aunt Eleanor's own competence and intelligence. She made it look like she merely indulged him in his deluded, but charming, idea of her as helplessly in need of his protection. Had Aunt Eleanor been a different kind of woman, then my uncle's posture might have left a bullying aftertaste. But that wasn't the way it was. Their perspectives were different, but each of them face every day knowing that the other stood at their back, as reliable as sunlight or rain.
Still, this year Uncle Charlie was a bit more impatient and risible than usual because the boys were leaving soon. Aunt Eleanor was rattled as well and I know that because everything in the house was symmetrical. The order in her home increased in direct proportion to the degree she felt unsettled. All month the candlesticks had been set as if a ruler and plumb line were involved in their arrangement. Her beloved silver birds sat six inches each from the center of the lowboy, and every boxed grocery item that entered the house had a place, an exact place, and if we put it elsewhere we were chastised.
After Perry told us he'd volunteered she’d started wanting the foods arranged by nutritional content--all the carbohydrates clustered apart from proteins or fats. If her objects were pushed out of place, no matter where she was in the house or yard, she sensed it and become uneasy until she found the asymmetry and corrected it. In the last few weeks we'd all seen it--Aunt Eleanor lifting her head from the peony she was staking, hesitating, finally rising to walk inside to find that Eddie or Hank had knocked something six inches off center, correcting it and returning to her garden again. One night Angie and the boys pushed things around a dinner table she had just arranged and then set up a betting pool on the number of minutes she could stand it before rearranging them. I'd spoiled the pool by leaning forward and setting things back in their places just as she entered the room, timing my intervention with her arrival so they wouldn't have a chance to undo my work and upset her again. I loved Aunt Eleanor, and her distress only deepened my affection for her. There were lots worse things a person could do when she was upset, I knew, than put a couple of silver birds in a straight line.
The underlying anxiety in the household was held in check by the traditional patterns associated with the Fourth of July. The holiday spoke directly to all of Uncle Charlie's strongest impulses, providing special foods, explosions, military-style games and a large bonfire at its conclusion. It honored fidelity, pride, and nationhood.
Aunt Eleanor made the table-sized tart she prepared every year, arranging strawberries and blueberries in the shape of the American flag's stars and stripes. Breakfast had been arranged on plates with little flag-stripes of bacon unfurling from a scrambled-egg square studded with tiny sausage stars. Two years ago, when the entire country was anticipating the moon walk, she'd presented us with a space rocket-shaped cake and Jello salad turned out of an American eagle mold.
That year’s Fourth was organized in the same fluid rhythm that began every Fourth. We scrambled to get bunting, barbecues, beach toys and balloons in position by mid-morning. In the early afternoon enough guests arrived for Perry to kick off the scavenger hunt. Then Eddie organized any willing participants for Capture the Flag. We reached the full flood of the day around five, when the meat was flying off the grill and the hardier guests floated in tire rings off the dock, beers in hand. The Jello molds were sufficiently savaged by then for Angie and I to start clearing them, and the last of the Tab and Orange Crush floated in melted ice at the bottom of the chests down by the dock. Softball and sack race prizes were awarded, and we were finally called for the lighting of the shed-high pile of wood that Uncle Charlie and Hank had finished assembling at seven this morning.
The prelude to the fire was, as always, music. Neighbors and guests could volunteer to sing, but family members were required to stand and deliver a patriotic song. Some years this practice has been funny and true but that year the mood was more uncertain. Angie and the boys considered but rejected "Eve of Destruction" and "Ohio" and I had set off into the past to find more conservative alternatives. Hank had settled on "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning" but switched in the end to "The Fleet's In."
Finally I stood beside Hank and the boys and heard him warble, "Hey there, Mister! You'd better hide your sister, 'cause the fleet's in,. . Hey there, Mister! Don't say nobody's kissed her, 'cause the fleet's in. .If they do as well on the sea as they do on the shore, hey there, Congress, you can tax us some more!"
I looked past Hank to Uncle Charlie, whose expression remained impassive. He was nervous with Angie's song still unsung and none of us sure what she’d do. But she stepped forward and swung loudly, enthusiastically, into"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," and he beamed in relief. The tension vanished, and when Aunt Eleanor sang "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and cried, we cried with her. Mr. Terindalle from next door stepped up to do "Dixie" and seven-year old Petunia Anderson from across the lake did "My Country 'Tis of Thee" which she said she learned this year in chorus. She remembered all the words and she got the most applause. I have the only voice with a big enough range to do it, so I closed with the national anthem.
That 's always Uncle Charlie's cue. At the last note of the national anthem left my lips he leaned forward with his bic lighter. It was a point of pride with him to have laid the wood so skillfully that gasoline was never unnecessary. Petunia passed out sparklers, and all in attendance stood in reverent silence as the whole thing blew into flame and ate its way up to the higher wood.
We had all been drinking beer. We had all sung songs in front of people we'd known and cared about for as long as we'd known anything at all. The bonfire licked up so high the lake caught its reflection and flung it away in loose arcs. I watched my brothers horsing around in the flickering light, my luminous sister raising an eyebrow at them and sighing. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Eleanor turned toward one another and kissed lightly, clearly satisfied with us and how this day had spent itself.
I thought my life was as knowable and open as a field of corn.