When I got the invitation to a private Facebook Group called “Gram’s 90th Birthday / Family Reunion,” I knew this year’s family vacation would be one for the ages. Clicking through, I learned it would feature not only custom T-shirts, but a Kinko’s-printed family cookbook, a prayer and worship service, and a talent show – participation mandatory. The gathering would be happening in a pair of oversized cabins in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, nestled along the Chattooga River in Georgia, right around where they filmed Deliverance.
I was instructed to send in my favorite memory of Gram and upload photos for the family slideshow by next Friday. I was also told that this year’s talent show would feature a popular dance from each decade Gram was alive, from the Charleston to the Cupid Shuffle.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I decided that this was the year I’d bring my boyfriend with me to Georgia to meet my family. Dustin and I had been together two years at this point, and lived together for one. It was either bring him or be forced to answer questions about our relationship the entire weekend. I chose the former.
“Great!” my cousin told me, “There will be a group performance of the Hokey Pokey. You and Dustin are assigned the Twist.
The cabins reserved for the long summer weekend were made for events at the scale of my family’s – that is, at the scale of an Irish Catholic family reunion. They’re wood-paneled and filled with taxidermy, which is about the only thing that qualifies them as a “cabin” instead of say, a “mansion” or “small hotel.” I knew from past reunions that there’d be a basement full of bunk beds, and a loft, a huge kitchen, a handful of bedrooms, plenty of hammocks, and an embarrassment of pullout couches.
I didn’t dare think we’d have our own bathroom, but I did hope for a room with a door. Images of Dustin and I lying on the floor of the basement in sleeping bags surrounded by cousins flashed in my head. I decided to call my mom before we bought plane tickets.
When I broached the subject of sleeping arrangements, my mom cut me off, “Oh actually! I talked to Gram and she says her only request is that the people who aren’t married don’t sleep in the same room.” She said it all very quickly, trying to sound casual.
“What?” I managed. My mom and I hadn’t really fought since I was a teenager but now all bets were off. “No. That’s not happening. Sorry. We live together, Mom. We’re adults. This is how it is.”
“Meaghan, Dustin is welcome to come. Everyone wants to meet him. But this was Gram’s only request, and it’s her birthday.”
In that case, I told her, we weren’t coming.
“Oh Meaghan,” she said, “Stop being so insecure about your relationship.” These are words, it’s worth noting, that no one should use when trying to console a crying woman. I stood up on my bed and started cry-yelling about the fact that maybe we don’t even believe in marriage, and that we may never, ever get married.
“When do we get our own bedroom, then?” I said, defiant, “When we turn 40? 50? When we have kids?” I want her to know that we are definitely adults and definitely do not live our lives according to the mores of a 90-year-old woman from Tallahassee.
My mom remained sympathetic but unmoved. She assured me that while she knew Dustin and I loved each other very much, my grandmother was born in 1922 and this weekend was about her. Plus, Gram’s paying.
I told my mom I’d think about it. The next day I texted her to say we would come but would stay in a hotel in the area. These were my boundaries. I think I may have even typed the word “boundaries” to her. I was drunk with power – an adult now, an adult with disposable income who didn’t have to pretend she was saving herself for marriage.
“Just come, Meaghan,” she wrote back. “You can sleep wherever you want, I don’t care. No one will notice.”
On the day we arrived, which also happened to be my 28th birthday, one of my many aunts picked us up at the airport in a rental van. We walked into the cabin just as everyone was lining up at the counter to serve themselves lunch. There were cold cuts as far as the eye could see and a big banner hanging in the window above the kitchen table, just below the head of a stuffed cougar. The sign, drawn in crayon in my younger sister’s handwriting, read “TAKE WHAT YOU WANT BUT EAT WHAT YOU TAKE.”
Dustin and I were writing our names on red plastic cups with permanent marker and hugging our way towards a cooler full of beer and Diet Coke when my Aunt Eileen strode up to us and patted me on the back. “Okay!” she says, “Your stuff goes downstairs on a bunk bed in the basement and Dustin will be in the cabin next door with the boys.”
I opened my mouth to respond but didn’t know what to say so I just nodded blankly and sipped at my beer. I turned back to Dustin, who was turning out to be the subject of great fascination.
“He looks French Canadian or something,” a cousin told me. “Like I want to call him Pierre.”
“No he looks like – like what’s his name? The guy who played Superman, or Clark Kent.”
“Are you a writer, too?” someone asks him. “Are you from New York?”
Dustin is six foot two and gangly, with dark features. His parents, like mine, are divorced. When my family prays, he doesn’t make the sign of the cross, but he does bow his head a little. They seem to love him anyway.
After lunch, I moved our stuff into an upstairs bedroom that my mom claimed for us. She walked in and suggested we set up camp on the screened-in porch off of the bedroom. I was dubious, but Dustin argued it would be nice to hear the water and the crickets and the breeze. Plus it’s on the second-story so no one will see us. I shrugged and we pulled a futon mattress off of its frame and out onto the porch, along with pillows, blankets, and our luggage.
Afterwards we stood there with our hands on our hips, shaking our heads.
“It’ll be great,” Dustin says, more to himself than to me.
By midnight everyone is either very drunk or asleep, having danced their historically appropriate dances gamely and with enthusiasm. Dustin and I exchanged glances and crept upstairs without saying goodnight.
We stopped at the door, opened it just a crack, and found my aunt and uncle fast asleep and snoring heavily in the bed we thought my mom had claimed. After standing frozen at the doorway and shrugging at each other for what felt like an eternity, I knew it was now or never.
We nodded and then snuck past my aunt and uncle and onto the porch, hushing each other as we changed into our pajamas in the night air. The door to the bedroom flew open with the wind and we covered our mouths to keep from laughing. “This is insane,” I said. “Yep,” he said. We kicked the door closed with our bare feet, jumped under the blankets, and proceeded to have what can only be described as teenaged sex — desperate, muffled, and quick — with one eye towards the door, waiting to be caught.
I crept back to the bathroom and was brushing my teeth when Janie, my divorced uncle’s “special friend” swung open another door to the bathroom and walked in wearing pink silk pajamas. Janie has been around for almost 20 years but she’s quiet and no one can quite place her, since my uncle will not admit they are anything but “special friends.”
We both jumped when we noticed each other, clutching our hearts and apologizing profusely.
I was very confused until I realized the hard truth: Janie was a 50-something year old woman who was sleeping in the bathroom closet on an air mattress. She waved her hand and closed the door again, presumably waiting until I was finished to use the bathroom herself.
I snuck back out onto our porch, grateful that my stubborn streak had at least gotten me laid.
The T-shirts we were mandated to wear on Day Two were baby blue and had, “The greatest garden I ever grew was my family,” screen-printed across the chest. This is something Gram said around the breakfast table one day, apparently. I thought it was a bit much but everyone else’s voice nearly broke when they read it out loud, they were so touched. My cousin Matt did the illustration, a line of surreal-looking flowers that are markedly less dark than his art typically is.
Matt smokes a lot of pot and rumor has it he doesn’t believe in God, which meant that for the family prayer service planned for the afternoon, Matt and I were assigned the “story.” The story we read was the only secular thing on the program (yes, there was an actual program), about my grandfather doing something saintly. I edited it as I read, wobbly from all the wine I’d just chugged, trying not to look at Dustin who was stoic and taking it all in.
When the service ended, Dustin and I darted out onto the deck. We stared off into the river and I told him what a great sport he was for the 10th time that weekend. He said something like, “What? Are you kidding me?” and we then we took photos of each other in our matching T-shirts. I posted the photos to Instagram, like a flare signal from the other side of the world.
Soon after someone yelled our names through a window, calling us back inside for family photos. We’d missed an entire, tear-filled presentation on the life of my long-dead grandfather and my mom had the look on her face to prove it. I yelled “We didn’t know!” up the stairs at her as we climbed up to the loft to pose for photos. Dustin quickly volunteered to be the photographer.
My aunt handed him the camera but after a few snaps my mom fought her way through the crowd and demanded that Dustin jump in, too. He stood behind me, nervous, and I wondered if one day he’d be long gone and I’d get upset looking at this photo, or embarrassed by all the hope I had for us, by how much I fought for us to be treated like the real thing.
Later that night my cousin Katie and I sat outside drinking beer and catching up. We’ve always been close, but the more Catholic she gets, the more atheist I get and the less we have to talk about. There are too many things we have to avoid. She tells me how much she loves Dustin and asks me when we’re going to get married.
“Oh I don’t know,” I tell her, “I’m sure we’ll do it eventually. Probably. I mean, we talk about it.” I don’t know where this comes from, and it feels a little like defeat, but true, too.
I wanted to talk to her about my ambivalence, but decide against it. How to say, of course we have thought about it, this is really the only narrative we’re handed as two people in love, isn’t it? But this is maybe one of the most complex and personal decisions a person makes, or keeps making, or wonders about late at night, or quietly in the morning the first few minutes after waking. How to hold all these ideas in your head, in your hands, at once?
“And then have babies!” she says.
“And then have babies!” I echoed. I let myself feel her happiness for us and I savored it.
The last morning at the wood-paneled mansion, everyone left in shifts, eyes teary, cars over packed. My mom promised to take Dustin and me to Waffle House on our way out of town – a rite of passage in and of itself – so we said our goodbyes on empty stomachs in the driveway.
Right before we got in the car my Uncle Joe, “special friend” to Janie, shuffled over, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other on Dustin’s.
“Thank you for coming here and being such a great example of love for everybody,” he said to us. Uncle Joe can be painfully sincere. I nodded, feeling thankful it was so sunny out that we all had to squint, which meant no one would accidentally make any horrified facial expressions. “But really,” he continued, “How much you guys love each other is so evident to all of us, and I think it’s a really good thing for the younger kids to see.”
“Thanks,” we managed, then climbed into the car.
“Sure,” my uncle said. “It’s an inspiration. Hold onto it.”
When we pulled out of the long driveway all three of us waved through the back window and exhaled a little. I wondered if that was what I really wanted out of the trip all along, for some family member to pat me on the shoulder and say we were doing a good job at loving each other.
“Uncle Joe is so weird,” I said out loud to the van.
“Oh I know,” my mom says.
“Aw,” Dustin says, “I thought that was nice.”
I looked back at Dustin and tried not to smile. I wasn’t ready to admit how much I’d liked hearing it too.
“Okay, “ I said to them. “But when is he gonna marry that poor woman already? She was sleeping in the fucking bathroom closet.”