The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
“When your great-grandparents bought the house 80 years ago they named it Kish. There was a bloody mattress and the phone was ripped out of the wall.”
I can’t stop staring at the toothless void that is my great-uncle’s mouth as he tells me that if I go look, the bullet is still lodged in the frame of the bed.
“It was the Great Depression and this place was a whorehouse. The girl who was shot was beautiful, in a red slip. She still tries to escape at night. Did you hear the steps last night?”
I had heard the steps, and though every rendition of this story I have been told is slightly different, they all involve the beautiful prostitute. Though it’s never been clear whether it is her trying to escape at night or just mischievous relatives and the natural creak of an old house.
This is my favorite time of night at our family reunions: everyone is too drunk and tired to be argumentative and the warmth of the fire seems to provoke nostalgia in the older generation. The heat of the day seeps through the grapevines and a dry, wooden smell rolls over Napa Valley.
Not very much at Kish has changed in the past 80 years. The picnic tables are decrepit and the badminton net will always be two feet higher than it should be. When dinner is ready a rusty bell is rung and the chipped yellow cart of food is rolled out, no matter how impractical it is to drag over the bumpy terrain. Everyone complains about the condition of the place but refuses to fix anything. To bring something new to Kish is sacrilegious, everything is perfectly disheveled.
Today is the first day of the family reunion and some relatives have yet to arrive. I end up next to my cousin Aaron. He and his father are having a heated conversation about the precise definition of “lozenge” that results in the retrieval of a dictionary. When his father has pointedly won the debate, Aaron talks about the number of languages he knows and his struggles of traveling through India. I glance around and catch the eyes of my grandmother, who pours herself more wine and rolls her eyes at the ostentatious monologue. The toothless, Quaker uncle is not only incapable of hearing the conversation, but is not interested in arguments and takes it upon himself to smash every wasp with his fork, regardless of whose plate it is being executed on. His girlfriend is smoking clove cigarettes on the porch and my aunt has just arrived. She lifts the hood of her car to reveal the yogurt that she has made over the heat from her engine on the drive here. I find my gaze wandering to her fading tattoo of a line of musical notes. I have not seen her since Christmas, as she had disappeared to Spain. Aside from polite conversation, I choose to observe here.
The family reunion is not entirely different than high school. As I’ve grown older, I’ve figured out which relatives are “cool” and which are not. The family can be broken into five categories: hippies, anal intellects, tolerant married-ins, the cool ones, and those who have simply stopped coming. Although there was no official initiation, I find myself in the “the cool ones” group. There is a caste system, so I have my parents to thank for this placement. The cool ones find deep humor in the reunion and exchange sarcastic glances throughout dinner. The cool ones go into town for coffee and the public pool when the combination of the heat and the rest of the family becomes too much. The cool ones participate in ironic badminton matches. The cool ones drink a lot and make snarky comments behind family members’ backs.
One cousin, soon to be divorced, brings each family member down to the oak tree and tells them individually. Another cousin has locked himself in his own house for four months and will not talk to anyone. An aunt is having an affair with a married man in Spain. The air is heavy with gossip that the family attempts to gracefully ignore. It is awkward and clunky. I simply do not care about the people in the other categories as much as I feel that I should. I would not care if my great uncle died and I do not think he would notice if I died. Most of these people actively dislike each other. As dusk settles over us each night, we finally break from the dinner table and complain about one another in the comfort of the dark.
It is unclear why everyone chooses to return to Kish annually, perhaps it is just habit. Or perhaps it is comforting to know that no matter what is happening in your life, the rest of your family is still crazy and Kish is still decrepit, to know there is a place where nothing will change. I suspect the motivation is different for each individual; but I know that I will return for the sarcastic glances and the time after dinner when the history of the mess that is a family reunion unfolds.
Photo Credit: The Pigeon Press