It's been just over a year since the first post on The Feminist Grandma. Please give me an anniversary gift: urge three friends to take a look.
In August we went to Maine to celebrate my brother’s 80th and my nephew’s 50th birthday. Twenty-five years ago my brother Richard, a writer, and his wife Esther, a painter, bought a house on an island fifteen miles off the coast of Maine. Over the years four of their children have bought houses on the same island. It is an island of about 1300 year-round residents, mostly lobstering families. In the summer the population swells with artists and a few tourists. Richard and Esther spend the whole summer there, and their children coordinate so they have at least a week when they are all there, and the young cousins can hang out together.
The trip from Florida is long and complex. We spent the night in Jacksonville to catch an early flight to Boston, then drove five hours to Rockland, Maine, where we took an hour-long ferry ride to the island.
We arrived on Monday afternoon on the 4:30 ferry. The weather was hot, with bright blue skies. We left on Sunday morning on the 10:30 ferry. The island was fog-bound. Above our heads, the foghorn blasted every two minutes. We weren’t five minutes out when the island had completely disappeared, as though our week there were a magical time removed from our lives.
With no cell phone service or email, no TV or electronic devices for the kids, it was magic. We swam in the quarries, cold clear water that tasted clean enough to drink. We explored rocky tide pools. We kayaked in coves with fog hiding the open ocean, staying close to the shore to ensure we would find the way back. An osprey flew toward us, calling to distract us from its mate in a high nest.
There are seven cousins including Amanda, ranging in age from three to fourteen. (The eighth cousin is married with twin babies of her own; they’ll undoubtedly join the gang when they’re older.) The five older cousins run in a pack, moving from house to house, supervised by one couple or another. Amanda had three sleep-overs with the only other girl. On our final night Joe and I took them all out to dinner. The children sat by themselves at a table by the window. Amanda had her first whole lobster, which she demolished with glee; Joe and I sat with Don and Doris, my oldest brother and his wife, and our own lobsters.
We celebrated the birthdays with two family parties. Friday evening Ben and his husband Scott had a cocktail party at their rented A-frame on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The children disappeared up the cliff, and soon seven-year-old Gus returned crying. The big kids had run off and left him. There was a rumor that the test for inclusion was to define “puberty.” Amanda certainly knows what puberty is.
The next night there was a big party at the house that Michael and Fleeka and their two boys share with Luke and his daughter. Richard and Michael had crowns decked with ribbons and wildflowers. We sat in a row to watch the 2012 Family Olympic Games.
Amanda won the sack race. Then she and my niece Claire tied their ankles together and doggedly practiced running with three legs. But at Ready, Set, Go they hopped a few yards and fell laughing on top of each other. The suitcase relay was chaotic as teams kept mixing up their vests and hats. I took part in the rolling-down-the-hill race, and spun so fast I was sure I must be winning. But I arrived last at the finish line, and lay for a moment until the world stopped spinning.
I was very proud of myself to have participated and survived, but the real star of the hill roll was three-year-old Gabe, who rolled in circles like a little grub, and kept on rolling long after his rivals had crossed the finish line.
After the games, the ribs were just beginning to cook, so we saved them for dessert after the cake, and made do with burgers and dogs, salads and chips. When the mosquitos arrived, we went inside.
The children and several adults crowded into the playroom to rehearse the play, adapted by Maria, the oldest daughter, from The Wind in the Willows. Most of us were ducks, with cardboard beaks and tails, waddling and waggling in a line through the living room, down the hall, back through the playroom to the living room again. Mole and Toad and Ratty had recitations, and as each said, “Heads down, tails up,” we ducks all complied. Gabe was the star again, with a particularly fetching tail waggle.
After the play it was time for cake and presents. A spice cake, a chocolate layer cake with whipped cream frosting, and then gifts and homemade cards. A huge bag of potato chips and a leather-bound Bible for Richard. Smelly cheese for Michael, and a print from one of the local artists, to be selected by him. Don and Doris brought books for all the children - a beautiful book about horses for Amanda.
The guitar came out, and we sang while Amanda played tom-tom. Then we danced to a mix tape put together by my nephew Jamie, and Amanda was able to strut her quite astounding stuff. No sleepover that night; we bundled her back to the motel to get some rest.
Last spring we took Amanda to her friend’s birthday party. When we arrived a couple of hours later to pick her up, the mother urged us to stay: “We haven’t done the pinata yet, or opened the presents.” The children played in an inflatable pool with a hose and water balloons, smashed the pinata, and squabbled over the candy. We sat under the portable canopy, shelter from the fierce sun, with the other grown-ups, eating hamburgers and watermelon, drinking tea and beer.
We were the only non-family and the only non-blacks, and everyone tried to make us welcome. I talked knee replacements with the grandmas and aunts, and Connecticut winters with a boy who was heading to college up north. The birthday cake was a work of art, made by a 16-year-old cousin who has mastered fondant - a beach scene with umbrellas and clown-fish and bright blue fondant ocean. When we left, I told the mother and grandmother that it was the nicest children’s birthday party I had ever been to: “You can’t rent family at the Party Store.” I went home grieving for Amanda, who yearns for black family gatherings.
Amanda is in an odd and challenging situation, a black girl who began her life in tough poverty, raised now by old white people who have more than enough. Who knows how long Joe and I will last? I want her to have plenty of family when we're gone
Now she has three families. There is her mother’s family. She rarely sees her mother, but I keep her in touch with Grandma Cookie and her maternal aunt and cousins. There is Joe’s family - grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. She sees them often, and the love is mutual. And there is my family, who welcomed her into the pack of cousins as though she had always been there.
A wise woman I know says “All families are multi-cultural.” I want Amanda to see many places and many ways of living. Exposed to so many different worlds, maybe she will never feel she belongs anywhere. But if all goes well, she will understand that she belongs everywhere.
THANKS TO JOSEPH S. JACKSON FOR THE PHOTOS FROM MAINE (and for making all the travel arrangements!)
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NEXT POST SEPTEMBER 14: "WHAT'S IN A NAME?"