Laura had been preparing for the whole year for this occasion. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the marriage of her parents and Laura was arranging one grand family bash.. She had collected narratives from everyone who knew her parents and was collating them into a Memory Book, complete with old and new photographs. This family reunion was so important to Laura that I thought that our marriage might founder if I didn't attend. The kids also knew how important it was to their mother, so and all of them set aside the time to go.
Laura's folks lived in Tuttle Creek; a small town in the farming country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The town itself consisted of a small grocery store, a gasoline station, an antique shop and a town hall, which served as a meeting place for any occasion that involved a large number of people. Grandpa Tuttle, Laura's paternal grandfather, had founded the town and she had been raised there. There were two churches, a Baptist and a Lutheran, neither of which was located in the center of town. It was almost as if the founders had intended to keep the town's center secular, or at least not allow the Baptists and Lutherans to get too close to one another.
Bill and Celia Tuttle were in their mid seventies. Bill had been a farmer for most of his life and, in reality, still was. His "small" garden could have fed the entire community, and sometimes might have. He didn't sell his produce, he gave most of it away to anyone who would come and pick it. Every spring he tapped the maple trees and made maple syrup. Laura and I were at the receiving end of this bounty, because he sent us a gallon of maple syrup every Christmas, some of which we used and the rest, we parceled out to kids. Most of it went to the children because, much as we loved pancakes and REAL Maple Syrup, we had reached an age where large breakfasts could no longer be a routine affair. The syrup was trotted out when we had guests and Laura fixed a farm breakfast -one of her special culinary accomplishments. Laura's mother, Celia, prior to her retirement, had been a school teacher and, as she had to be, a farm wife. It was from her that Laura had learned the teaching profession at an early age. Like an ice skater who starts skating when she is old enough to walk, Laura's skills became a part of her. They were not things that had to be thought about. They were instinctive, like walking.
The Tuttles were deeply religious, going to church on Sunday and saying grace at every meal. Much as I disliked religious graces, I deferred to their age and Laura's culture, and we said them when the Tuttles visited us.
Once, in self defense, I said the grace: "For those things which we are about to receive, we are truly grateful, Amen."
I only did it once and was not asked to do it again,
for which my tapeworm and I are truly grateful -Amen! I guess
that they didn't consider it adequate, nor valid without the invocation
Everyone came to Tuttle Creek at different times.
Ellen, Kit and Allen had jobs that only allowed them a week. With
travel time, that left five days each. Laura wanted to be there
a week in advance to get things ready. We both agreed that it
was not only unnecessary, but undesirable for me to be there for
that week, so I planned to visit some friends in the East and
join the family for the week of festivities. I got there a day
before the kids did.
Allen was the last to arrive. There was something about his entrance that gave me the feeling that he expected applause. My old Allen used to dress casually. A few years ago I would have expected him to be attired in a sport shirt, slacks and a sweater. Now, he wore a dress shirt, red tie and tweed jacket. His hair was parted and combed. He looked like someone who had stepped out of California Magazine. The three pens in his shirt pocket showed that he meant business. He exuded confidence. I was sure that he hadn't studied Stanislavsky, but if he had, he would have recognized that his manner had just that hint of exageration suitable to the intimate medium of a living room. He was professional and everything went together to provide a coherent whole: the combed black hair, which was shorter than a Hippie's and longer than a Marine's, went with the dark eyebrows which went with the sparkling Murine eyes. His modest moustache provided an appropriate contrast to his sparkling white teeth. And he stood tall, lending an air of majesty to his six foot frame. He exuded confidence and I fully expected him to try to sell me an insurance policy, even though I knew that that wasn't what he did. One of the first things that he said to me was "we'll have to get together for a long talk."
The closest that we came to talking was swapping a few quips. Allen said very little to me; that is in private. In public we conversed cheerfully and said nothing. That's not quite true: he showed me a newspaper clipping which stated that the store that he was assistant manager of was one of the defendants in a suit by a prominent lawyer who was suing a tobacco company on behalf of the family of a client who died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking their brand of cigarettes. I had spent most of my life doing cancer research and the cigarette industry represented, to me, a greater evil than the Mafia.
"We are being defended by the lawyers for the tobacco companies." Allen said; "I can't understand why they are suing us. We're a small store and we had nothing to do with the mans death."
"It's common legal practice," I answered, " to sue everyone involved, no matter how trivial the involvement. When a doctor is sued, they sue the hospital, the nurses and the pharmacy."
As I write this, I would like to say that I calmly asked him to explain that position, but that is not what I said. The whole picture of my son in cahoots with the tobacco companies struck a nerve. My voice went up in both pitch and volume, as, I assume, did my blood pressure.
"Well," I said "how does it feel to be on the same side as the biggest bunch of murderers our society has?"
"I'm not on their side. They are suing the store I work for. Besides, we didn't make that man smoke."
"No, you were only doing your job; following orders. If you sell a man poison, and he takes it and dies; aren't you partially responsible?"
"We're a grocery store. All grocery stores sell cigarettes. What's wrong with that?"
"You think that it's O.K.to smoke cigarettes, Allen?"
"No, I don't approve of cigarette smoking."
"Yet you sell cigarettes. It's the same hippocracy that allows people who don't believe in killing to sell guns, people who don't approve of drinking to be bartenders."
I could feel Allen's anger at my backing him into a corner and could see the tenseness in the rest of the group, so I backed off and let the matter drop.
I was ashamed at having lost control by getting angry. Kit had a look on her face that was one of terror; as if I was beating Allen up. When it was over, I felt that I had won an argument at the cost of a friendship.
The rest of the affair went off pretty much as such affairs go; there were presents and speeches and stories swapped and food -lots and lots of food.
Allen managed to talk to his sisters in private, his mother in private, his cousins in private -to every one but me. I wanted both to talk to him and not talk to him; so I made no overtures. If I talked to him I wanted the time limited, so that I wouldn't try to argue him into the ground, as I am wont to do when I feel passionately about something. I thought that I would get the chance when I volunteered to drive him to the airport at four o'clock in the morning. I figured that no one else would want to get up that early. A lot can be accomplished in an hour. Whatever I had planned to do collapsed when Kit and Laura decided to come along.
I don't know what motivated them to do that. Perhaps
they merely wanted to say a last goodbye, or perhaps, they wanted
to protect Allen from me. I think that they both felt that I was
immensely powerful and that Allen was fragile -that I might crush
this delicate flower by being too direct. I knew better, but I
wasn't sure enough to run the risk that I might be wrong. If he
was really as fragile as his mother and sister thought I might
push him over the brink the way that those EST people did to some
of their subjects. If I had learned anything in my almost sixty
years, it was that it was always possible to say something later,
but you couldn't retract what had been already said. There was
also a principle in group therapy that one waited for a person
to ask before giving an answer. Further, that whatever the answer,
it should not be cruel, but should be direct and honest. Allen
had pretty well sized up his parents when he once said to me,
after I had given him an opinion that he didn't want to hear:
"I asked you instead of Mom, because she always says something
good, so I never know if it really is good or she's just being
nice. You will give me an honest opinion even though it may not
be what I want to hear."
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