I knew I had an Uncle Mort and that was about it. It's bad enough to have one big, confusing family tree filled with nearly-anonymous relatives; aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, none of whom you could pick out of a police lineup.
Sadly both of my parents came from their own large, unremarkable collection of Christmas card senders who had the equally unfortunate habit of dying at the least opportune moments.
The last weekend of summer vacation. A sixteen-year-old wants to be out with his friends, shooting hoops or just sitting around talking, wearing jeans and a t-shirt bearing some slogan adults don't understand (thank goodness). A shirt and tie, and those uncomfortable shoes -- the kind that make you jealous of the deceased? That was not how I wanted to spend the day.
My mother assured me it wouldn't be that bad. I had my doubts; this coming from a woman who simply can't wait in the car to pick up a neighbor before going shopping, but has to go inside and spend a half hour talking to the entire family.
But how long could it take to plant the old guy in the ground? Yeah, the priest said a few words, people cried, and that was it. Or so I thought.
"Now we go to Aunt Martha's house for the luncheon," my mother stated, obviously pleased at the progress this family ritual was taking.
Now wait a minute? You just put a cadaver in a hole to be covered with dirt, and now everyone wants to eat? The momentary glimpse I saw of his face back in the funeral home was enough to gross me out for a week. Food was not something I could take for at least until we were safely back home.
But there we were, sitting around this big table, getting ready for the meal. I looked at all these strangers and started giving them new names. There was Aunt Dasher, Uncle Dancer, Grandma Prancer, Cousin Vixen, Aunt Comet, Aunt Cupid, Uncle Donner, Cousin Blitzen.
I guess that made me Rudolf.
What I found particularly annoying was how they all seemed to know each other and didn't bother explaining any details of their conversation.
"Well," Uncle Dancer said, "I thought he really got a lucky break -- and one that he did not deserve."
Wait, who got a break and why did he not deserve it?
"Yes," Aunt Comet replied, "but you have had it out for him ever since that auto mishap."
Again, why, and what auto mishap?
"Please," Aunt Cupid interrupted, "No bad news. My granddaughter started kindergarten this week. Already she knows how to print her first name."
'Aunt Cupid,' the one whose children were superior to all others. I was tempted to blurt out "Yeah, but all upper case, I'll bet." However I was feeling sufficiently out-of-place to keep silent.
Just as the food was being passed around, I decided that I did not want to eat. So I excused myself, saying I needed to use the restroom. But just as I turned the corner, I made a right instead of a left and sprinted outside. It felt a bit like the last day of school and leaving the building.
As I passed the cars in the driveway, I noticed one had an occupant in the back seat. I looked inside, female, about my age with long dark hair, and remembered her from the funeral. Probably some distant cousin. (All that second and third cousin once or twice removed stuff confused me). I tapped on the window.
She opened the door. "You're Aunt Mabel's son, aren't you?" she asked, motioning me to join her.
"Yeah," I said, stepping inside and closing the door. "After looking at a corpse this morning, I wasn't very hungry."
"Fat runs in my part of the family and I intend on being the exception. By the way, I'm Dawn."
"Tom," I replied. Did you know him? Uncle ... er ... the guy they buried."
"Eh," she replied, shrugging her shoulders. "For Christmas he always gave gifts that I was at least two years too old for."
"I have some relatives like that too," I said, nodding. "Sixteen is a bit old for wind-up toys."
She reached into her purse and pulled out a neatly-rolled joint. "Want to?" she asked, pulling out her cigarette lighter, leaving the purse open.
"Might as well," I replied, smiling. "It isn't going to smoke itself."
She giggled and lit it, "If my folks saw this, they'd disown me."
"Mine wouldn't be thrilled about it either."
She took the first hit and passed the joint to me. "Do you ever feel like you don't belong?"
"Like in there?" I asked, then taking a nice, deep toke.
"My whole life is like in there," she replied. "In school I got flack because my parents don't live in one of the ritzy developments that produces the community's in crowd. With family it's because 'I'm not normal', or so they claim."
"Wow," I said, surprised. She was a very attractive young woman, which I expressed indelicately by blurting out, "You're hot."
She started laughing. "Unpopular, abnormal, and hot. Quite a combination."
"Works for me," I said, grinning.
"Let me think," she said, an evil twinkle in her eyes. Your mom is my mom's ... wait. Aunt Dorothy is my mom's ..." She stopped, unable to untangle our mysterious but somehow shared roots.
I looked into her purse and saw the small foil square. "Does it matter?" I asked, tapping the foil with my fingertip.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
Two hours later, my parents found me sitting alone in the back seat of our car.
"You should have told us you weren't feeling good," my mother said, getting into the front passenger-side seat.
"I just needed some fresh air," I said, sitting back, Dawn's phone number in my pocket.
"Funny thing," my mother said, fastening her seat belt. "Your Aunt Dawn left early too, also complaining about not feeling well. You might have seen her; dark hair, about your age?"
I suddenly felt disappointment, bewilderment, and a slight hint of nausea. I didn't know whether to hope that was the last funeral for a long while or that some other anonymous uncle would kick off soon. Maybe I should just call and try to clear this up. But what if she enjoyed the afternoon as much as I did and the conversation got intimate -- and our folks overheard?
After using illness as a pretense of illness all afternoon, now I truly felt sick.