Monday, July 4, 2011

back where it began

My grandmother died a few weeks ago, so last week we converged on the small town in Western New York where my family is from. Let's call it England, New York.

My family has been there longer than they've been anywhere else: 70-80 years, I think. My grandparents raised their family there, and my uncle stayed, so my cousin's three kids are now the third generation to grow up there. There's a pretty strong family resemblance, so if I'm wandering around town, people will say "Hey, you're one of them, aren't you?" and of course I am.

Despite being a pretty solid Rust Belt town, England is extremely well-preserved, with all sorts of buildings in pretty good condition from the past 150 years. There are about 15 churches in the downtown area, most being pretty nice to look at and with good stories. The Neo-Classical Wesleyan church building was built on the original designated site of the Episcopal Church; I don't know if the Episcopal Church came into some money or what, but they sold the site and the in situ building materials to the Wesleyans. The town of England hanged exactly one person, and I believe the Baptists were in charge at the time, and one guy got so mad that he donated land on Main Street to some other church (I believe the Catholics) with the proviso that they build such that the Baptist church couldn't be seen from the street. My uncle says he's seen the original bequest. It's that kind of place.

We had a nice memorial service for my grandmother. I ended up doing a reading, which I probably enjoyed more than was proper, because I like using my voice for people. It was a less-psychedelic (which is to say, carefully cropped) passage from Revelation, 21:1-7. I wasn't especially close with my grandmother--I visited her up north a few times a year before she moved into a nursing home back East, but we didn't have much to talk about--so it was good to hear how other people experienced her. The priest was a childhood friend of the family, and Nana had taught high school English for a long time too, so there was no shortage of stories.

Saturday night after dinner, the obvious thing to do was to head to the local dive bar with my cousin M and her co-parent. (They have two kids together, which is all that can be consistently said about their relationship: life is complicated.) This was actually the nicer dive bar, the old nastier dive bar having closed a few years ago. Supposedly it was karaoke night, once M's friends would show up.

The three of us sat down, waiting for my brother, and behind me one guy is saying to another, "Yeah, she came up for conjugal visits up until 2008 or so."

I looked at M. "Seriously?", I asked. "Yep," she said.

After Matt the bartender served the first round and meandered off, I said, "He seems nice."
"Yes. Just...don't ever mention any racial group in his presence."
"Yeah, some of it is what's expected from a small-town hole-in-the-wall bartender, some of it...well..."
Presently there was a ruckus outside, and then a police car blasting down Main Street with sirens and lights. Matt the bartender comes back:
"Them goddamn fuckin' nigger punks just beat up Andy and stole his bike!"
Andy turns out to be a slightly slow guy who everybody knows, and these two black kids came along and mugged him. This triggered some viciously racist commentary from Matt and the trucker and biker sitting behind me (of the "conjugal visits" conversation), and some talk of going out to find the guys responsible and beat the crap out of them. Things settled down, though.

The trucker behind me was telling stories to the biker that made it hard to concentrate on the genuinely cool conversation with my relatives.
"You use the walls of your cell to toughen up your fists, and then you gotta fight. He's not one for fighting, you know? He tries to avoid confrontation. But he's gonna have to fight."
No, I do want to hear how everyone's doing, I'm just distracted by this...
"So he calls me, and he's fuckin' cryin'. I said, don't you dare start fuckin' crying. I know where those phones are in Folsom, if anyone sees you cryin' you are dead. You stop fuckin' crying right fucking now or I am fucking hanging up on you. So I hear this choking noise on the other end. You got it together, I asked? Okay."
Yeah, the wedding's in November. Can you come? That'd be awesome. Your oldest kid is huge now!
"Them nigger punks trashed Andy's bike!"
More racist ranting. More family conversation. Another Tullamore Dew.
"When he called me, he said jesus, man, I just got transferred to Folsom. I said, well, you're fucked for the next ten years. I told him on the phone, once he stopped crying, you know how we used to hunt when we were kids? You know how you had to find that real cold place inside to pull the trigger and shoot that deer? You got to find that cold place again, and use that. Don't lose track of it."
I started to peter out about 11:30, which is just as well, because a group of guys in their 20s came in, and they were looking a little suspiciously at me and my brother. I'm not sure why, because my cousin's been hanging out there since she was in high school, but whatever. I was happy enough to leave.

The account is a little scattered because that's how I experienced it: the trip kinda wrecked me for a few days, because I never got a chance to sleep off the redeye flight. Awesome to see the immediate and extended family, though.

Rest well, Nana.

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