Tag Archives: cousin

It’s What We Do

While out walking yesterday evening I smelled sunscreen as someone passed by. In an instant I was mentally back on the beach waiting for cousins to come down from the house so we could get in the water together. I was also reminded of something I once wrote about years of our family’s summer traditions:

It’s a rustic, waterfront cottage on the Chesapeake Bay in an isolated cluster of other old cottages a mile or so off the main road. It’s been added on to over the last fifty-plus years and is filled with second-hand furniture, hand-me-down linens, and old pots and pans. To do anything from use the kitchen stove to turning on the water pump requires knowledge of idiosyncrasies so specific that they’re passed down like family history. There’s sand on the floor, the smell of salt water in the air, and to me it’s perfect.

The actual owner is my uncle but we in the extended family like to call it “ours”. My grandfather and uncle purchased the overgrown waterfront lot in the late 1950’s and family at the time helped clear the land and build the original cottage. My great-grandmother even spent time there, so starting with her and moving down the line to my own two children means five generations of my family have enjoyed good times there. It became, and has remained for close to 60 years now, a fantastic escape for the entire extended Perkins family.

As kids we couldn’t wait to swim in the gentle waves of the bay. Over the years various combinations of extended family have stayed there together. By day we swam, played on floats, and walked to the marina counting ospreys and bald eagles along the way. By night we filled beds and arranged cots so that everyone had a place to sleep. Most nights as we slept in the crowded cottage one cousin’s sandy feet were in another cousin’s sunburned face, but no one could have been happier. We were family and we embraced the unity. It’s what we always did.

Old morning routines continued as adults cooked bacon and whispered over coffee so as not to wake us kids. I’ve often wondered just how many in our family, for decades, have watched the same sun rise over the same spot on the same horizon while the same scene of boats pulling in crab pots played out just off the beach. Over time, family who never knew their relatives who had passed away years earlier slept in the same rooms, same beds, and spent days on the same beach as those before them. We learned to appreciate the family history of that place. I hoped when I had kids they would appreciate that history and recognize this cottage as a place where most of the people in our huge extended family had gathered at some point. I hoped they would “get it”.

There was a satisfying comfort in growing up watching simple family patterns repeat as part of the experience at the bay. We’d stop at the same seafood shop for the same deviled crabs. A bushel of oysters or a dozen soft-shelled crabs for dinner was routine. Fishing from the beach and walks to the marina through tangled marsh grass and sun-bleached driftwood were part of us. At the same time every day we’d come in out of the sun for lunch. After some time back on the beach we’d all come in for supper. Our parents had done those things, and so had theirs. It’s what we did. I really hoped my kids would get it.

Sitting in the shade of a pine near the beach, older family members spoke often of the fun they’d had there when they were our ages. Many of their conversations began with “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” Their spoken memories became part of our overall experience. And so did Rummy.

Granddaddy loved to play Rummy. He didn’t just enjoy it, he was a fiend. From an early age we were required, it seemed, to learn to play Rummy so that Granddaddy would have someone else to beat. He would play anywhere, anytime, but breezy evenings after a day of fishing and swimming were prime Rummy times at the bay. He played, my parents, aunts, and uncles played, and we cousins learned to play.

Years later as adults ourselves, my sisters and I started staying at the cottage together with our own kids. Decades old scenarios were now played out by our children. They swam with their cousins, walked to the marina, slept on the same sandy cots we had used as kids, and they learned to play Rummy. I found myself saying “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” I wanted them to learn family things I had learned. We buy bait here because Granddaddy always did, we get groceries from that little store in town because we always have, or after supper we’ll walk to the marina like we always do. Simple familiar patterns became part of the good times there. It’s just what we did.

One evening after a day of swimming, my kids and I played Rummy. While we played we talked about the number of dolphins we’d seen that day, who had found the biggest horseshoe crab, and the other important bay things always discussed at the end of the day. I remembered as a kid having similar conversations with my parents as we played Rummy after a day in the sun. Simple times spent with family had come to mean so much and I really did appreciate and honestly cherish them. But would my own kids feel the same? So many things we did while at the bay we did “just because” everyone in our family had done them for years before us. There was satisfaction in that. Simple, decades-old traditions helped keep our long family history intact. Would my own kids feel that?

We continued our Rummy game and at one point my son shuffled the cards and said, “Funny how even if we never play Rummy any other time, we always play down here at the bay. Why is that?”

My daughter dealt the cards and said nonchalantly without looking up, “We’re Perkins. It’s what we do.”

“Yep.” My son responded casually as he looked over his cards. “We’re awesome.”

I never again wondered if they would understand and appreciate the simple but powerful patterns established over decades by a huge, close-knit family.

They got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Little Chicken Soup…

I began blogging a little over two years ago thanks to the encouragement of two close friends. I didn’t expect it to morph into such an enjoyable adventure!

Coming from a large family and a long line of storytellers I was born pre-loaded with the urge to regale anyone who would listen with anecdotes about family, friends, and everyday observations. So, encouraged by those two close friends, I hesitantly put the first post out there for the entire world to see. Then held my breath…

No need for nerves. Kind comments, constructive criticisms, and many a simple “thanks for that” poured in after the very first post. Fun interaction with other bloggers has been an unexpected bonus.

We write it because we want someone to read it and blogging provides a great platform for bouncing thoughts and stories off of others. I appreciate comments from readers and have been flattered many times by those who’ve asked whether I’ve ever been published.

In response, I’m now excited to announce that a story of mine will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering and Giving Back due out later this month!

I’m proud of the accomplishment and happy that the story includes and is based on a quote from my grandmother. Nannie was an extremely positive influence on me and her entire extended family. She had a calm way of teaching by example and she’d be proud, though modesty would prevent her showing it, to see that I learned one of her valuable lessons and tried to pass it on.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday I’d like to acknowledge the obvious individual…Mama.

She still laughs remembering Daddy’s funny stories. He artfully told his silly tales and endless supply of jokes to keep everyone entertained. Daddy could be truly funny and Mama was the first to laugh. After sixty years of marriage there’s no doubt she’d heard his material several times over but Daddy loved to see people laugh and Mama wouldn’t have him disappointed. She loved him and laughed hard at his jokes, chastised his colorful language, and coyly prompted him to repeat her favorites. Daddy enjoyed making others laugh and Mama happily served as the perfect straight man even if she occasionally found herself the brunt of his playful banter.

An aunt grinned and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy’s vegetable garden was perfection. His weedless rows were straight, well-watered, and produced profusely. He playfully bragged about having the first tomato, prettiest butter beans, or biggest peppers. Mama joined Daddy in the garden every morning to sweat alongside him ensuring enough was grown not just for her to freeze and can, but for Daddy to have some to give to others, which was a great source of joy for him. Daddy was proud of his garden. Mama, knowing what it meant to him, faithfully assisted. Ice tinkled in Daddy’s water glass as he rested in the shade and jokingly scolded Mama for missing a squash. She wiped sweat from her face and went back to pick it, playfully cutting her eyes at him.

A neighbor visiting at the time smiled and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy didn’t buy a lot but what he bought was top rate and built to last. When Mama needed a new washer it was a great one. A new dryer? Nothing but the finest. If Mama needed this or that then Daddy bought her the best. One Christmas he surprised her with a brand new car. The perfectionist in Daddy compelled him to give advice so Mama was reminded to keep the car full of gas, to let him know if it ever sounded odd, acted odd, or gave her trouble. She patiently allowed him to finish knowing it was how he showed he cared. She grinned and slightly rolled her eyes a bit when he was done. He grinned back.

My sisters and I watched their comical interaction and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

In all that Daddy did, and he did a lot, Mama was there to back him up. Daddy was a perfectionist but giving, rigid but generous, and a serious provider who enjoyed nothing more than a sense of humor. He and Mama were together for sixty years, raised four kids, and saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were a powerful pair when they needed to be, a comedy duo when the occasion arose, and always surrounded by family and friends. Daddy was unique and Mama supported that uniqueness. It dawned on me over the years that Daddy was free to be Daddy because Mama was Mama.

Daddy died almost two years ago now. His vegetable garden is no more, fewer friends stop by Mama’s for impromptu visits, and though we still laugh it’s not with the frequency or intensity it was when constantly bombard by Daddy’s zany tales. We all miss him, but Mama surely misses him the most. Friends and family do still visit Mama and inevitably they talk about Daddy and his garden, his jokes, and all he did for Mama.

One visiting friend recently asked Mama, “How in the world do you live without him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Long Row

A friend of mine will soon move to a new house and has been consumed with the process of packing for quite some time. He lamented the fact that no matter how much he gets done he continues to see piles and stacks and shelves full of things yet to be boxed. Adding to the stress, he’s nearing the semester’s end of coursework towards a Master’s degree. This combination has him overwhelmed. He complained a bit more about the work left to do.

“I’ll never finish.” he moaned after his update.

“Well.” I said. “It’s like that row of tomatoes.”

He didn’t get it.

With no idea what I meant he stared into the distance preoccupied by stress. Then, remembering similar comments of mine in the past his head whirled back towards me. “Wait, is that another Nannie thing?” he asked.

“It’s another Nannie thing.” I nodded confirmation and began my story.

My grandmother was a master gardener – not certified, but instinctual. Nannie used one green thumb in her flower beds and the other in her massive vegetable garden. It was no garden for the weak as it fed her and the families of each of her five children. All pitched in. On most evenings you could see some combination of aunts, uncles, and cousins pulling, picking, weeding, or watering somewhere along the lengthy rows.

One year Nannie planted more tomatoes than usual. It was work enough to keep vines picked clean on a normal year, but that was a good tomato year and there were additional rows. Somebody was going to have their work cut out for them.

“Somebody” that year was me and my cousin Jan.

I didn’t recall our volunteering for tomato duty. Still, Jan and I ended up on the front lines the morning Nannie called to say there were tomatoes to be picked. We walked casually towards the long rows, empty buckets swinging from our hands, not bothered in the least by a few silly tomatoes. The picking began.

“I’ll never finish.” I moaned.

Sweat dripped from Jan’s nose as she bent to pick another tomato. She seemed to be handling the season pretty well so far. She always loved tomatoes.

“I hate tomatoes.” she stood slowly with a full bucket.

Once tomato vines start producing they don’t stop so the picking was a daily chore. The first week of the season Jan and I met under the grape arbor to have a few laughs before starting. This would be fun. By the second week we weren’t laughing. This wasn’t fun.

We didn’t pick alone. Nannie was right there with us and if she wasn’t it was only because she was shelling beans, pulling corn, or freezing or canning one ripe thing or another. Weeks into the season and Nannie never faltered. Each morning she’d grab a bucket, hum a hymn, and walk methodically down a tomato row. Jan and I limped along behind her.

The rows were so long that I swore green tomatoes I passed at the beginning were ripe before I got to the end. Each tomato became a lead weight and the end of each row seemed farther away than before. Jan and I sweated, clutched our aching backs, and whined that the rows were getting longer when we weren’t looking. Nannie never complained which added to our frustration. How could she be so happy about this? Why wasn’t she tired of it? How did she stay so happy about a chore that seemed never-ending?

We asked her just that.

“Well.” Nannie began. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

Oh. And with that she effortlessly picked up two full buckets and headed back to the house, happily humming all the while.

I wrapped up the story for my friend by saying that while Jan and I did continue to pray for an early frost, we put Nannie’s advice to use for the duration of the season. Our muscles stayed sore and our backs still cramped, but admittedly the burden seemed lighter by looking at how far we’d come and not how far we had yet to go. I thought my friend might apply that notion to his packing and school work, or to any effort really.

He didn’t get it.

He politely thanked me for yet another Nannie-ism and grumbled that he had to rush home to the hassle of more packing and to finish a paper for his graduate class. I assumed that was the last I’d see of him for a while knowing his workload. However, I happened to pass him on the street just a week or so later. I prepared to hear the negative update on the packing and schoolwork, instead he was all smiles.

I didn’t get it.

He casually mentioned the packing he had left to do and although he’d finished the paper for school, he now had one more to complete. Still he continued to smile. I couldn’t help but ask about his new attitude.

“You still have plenty going on but it’s not getting you down as much?” I asked.

I was then afraid I’d given him a reason to sink back into the negativity of all he had yet to finish. I tried to clarify by saying I understood how stressful it was to have multiple things to accomplish and how understandable it was to feel bogged down at times. Knowing he had so much to get done I was happy to see he wasn’t overwhelmed by all he had left to do, which showed in his attitude.

“Well.” he grinned. “Sometimes you need to look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have to go.”

He got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Have A Seat

This was the second Thanksgiving since Daddy died. Mama’s house is full of sad reminders that Daddy is no longer with us but the most glaring is his empty leather recliner. “Daddy’s chair” still sits in the same room, in the same corner, in the same position that it has for years.

Thanksgivings past, Daddy would have supervised Mama’s cooking. He would have asked repeatedly what time we were to eat, then grumbled with a smile that whatever time she’d said was too early, or too late, depending on which he hoped might aggravate her the most. It would have been fun to hear him playfully pester her again.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

As we helped ourselves to turkey Daddy would have commented “Is that all you’re going to eat?” or “Did you leave any for me?” depending on how full he deemed each plate. He would have eaten dessert in his chair, hidden the TV remote in his pocket, and dozed off only to suddenly pop up and respond to questions asked from across the room. How comical it would have been to again hear him alternately snore, then comment on the various conversations going on in the room.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

Daddy also had a second recliner out on his screened porch. It had been on the same part of the porch and in the same position for years. He’d sit there on nice days to discuss life with neighbors, friends, or his grandchildren. Not long ago we threw that old recliner away. Years of “Daddy” had worn it out. The empty space left after hauling away the old chair smacked us in the face.

After Thanksgiving dinner the other day all of the grandsons headed out to sit on the porch where they’d grown up listening to Daddy’s stories. My son Evan hadn’t been on the porch since before the old recliner was removed. I wondered if he’d notice and how he might be affected by the giant void left after taking away Daddy’s “throne”.

The grandsons were out there a long while. I suppose they talked about whatever five cousins who grew up spending hours with their grandfather in that space might talk about. Finally they came back into the house. I asked Evan if he had noticed that the old recliner was gone. He very quietly said yes, it felt weird to them all, and that they had “moved some things around”.

Not knowing exactly what he meant, I went to see for myself. In addition to Daddy’s recliner there have always been several plastic lawn chairs out there for use when friends and family visit. The chairs stay lined up along one side of the porch. I opened the porch door and saw the line of white plastic chairs positioned as usual, but one was missing.

While they talked together out there, the grandsons had moved one plastic chair from the row and placed it where Daddy’s recliner always sat. They put it on the same part of the porch and in the same position as his old chair. Those five young guys spent time that afternoon in a place where each alone, and together, had spent time with their grandfather over the years.

It would have been like old times for them if Daddy had again been holding court from his recliner, lecturing, advising, or laughing over his own dirty jokes. It was obvious that his absence bothered them all.

But that empty plastic chair reminded them that yes, he was still there.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Frozen in Time

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

It’s a chest freezer actually, from the 1960s I think. Dirty white with spots of ancient rust and it makes a horrifying screech when the lid is opened. For decades it sat on the huge back porch of Nannie’s farmhouse, ran perfectly, and never skipped a beat.

When Nannie died, Daddy debated what to do with that old freezer. He feared moving it would cause it to stop running but he hauled it across the field to his own screened porch where it still runs perfectly and never skips a beat. Daddy is gone now too, but the freezer runs on.

That freezer has a lot of life in it, in more ways than one.

Every summer Nannie filled its frosty racks with butter beans and other garden goodies. I’d take the path to her house and hear the familiar screech of the lid as I got to the porch. Nannie would be comically bent over head first in the freezer, digging through frozen packages, surrounded by the cloud of cold “smoke” that puffed out as she stirred the air inside.

Over decades the freezer took on a life of its own and became more than a useful place to store food. It became the focal point of Nannie’s porch with its broad surface that made a handy place to leave things, do things, and grow things.

It was a fine spot for African violets and a Christmas cactus. In early spring Nannie started vegetable seeds in trays and lined them up along the top of the freezer. She’d laugh for causing herself extra work when she had to move them all just to get a package of frozen corn for supper.

A lot of life went on around that freezer.

Nannie kept small weigh scales on the freezer in case someone from church came by to get a pound of snaps. Quart baskets of blackberries we all picked sat on the freezer until someone came to buy them. A random green apple, a forgotten eggplant, or a pie Nannie made and meant to give to a friend might all be on the freezer.

If one aunt had coupons for another aunt, they were left on the freezer. If a visiting friend found a cousin’s toy army man under the swing, it was left on the freezer. If an uncle returned a borrowed tool, it was left on the freezer. If you carried something when you stopped by to see Nannie you could leave it on the freezer. On the way out you just picked it up from the freezer.

I stood at the freezer with my aunt Noody on several Thanksgivings as she cut up the turkey before families arrived. She’d spread the giant bird out on the freezer, plates to the left for light meat, plates to the right for dark. The broad surface made a perfect work area.

Nannie left bags of homemade rolls on the freezer for me to deliver to aunts across the field. On countless summer evenings the freezer held glasses of iced tea, ash trays, and random conversation pieces brought over for a night of family stories on the porch. Sometimes the top of the freezer was cleared, newspaper spread, and a watermelon cut up for whoever happened to be visiting.

A lot of life revolved around that freezer.

Today the old freezer still runs on Daddy’s screened porch. I looked at it a few weeks ago. Nothing sits on top anymore, nothing being done there, nothing growing there as in the old days. I lifted the lid and the familiar screech was as strong as ever, the icy “smoke” still swirled, but the frosty racks were mostly empty.

Mama’s health issues have prevented her from gardening and freezing the summer’s goodies. I saw a few iced over packages labeled in her handwriting, “Corn 2012”, but they’re old and should be thrown away.

For decades that freezer was the accidental center of a lot of what Nannie and her huge extended family did. The conversations it heard, the family meals it held, the cousins, babies, and babies of cousins who wanted a turn sitting on its broad top are too numerous to ponder.

It’s still running, but just like the last few freezer burned packages of corn inside maybe the old chest freezer itself should finally be thrown away. But who could do that? Not me.

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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