Rites of Passage: When a quirky old man who lived on the Cape died, I thought I didn’t care
Eddie died. It didn’t bother me. Eddie was an old man the entire time I knew him, a relative I didn’t get to know until I was 12. “We’re going to visit your Great-Uncle Eddie and Aunt Emily in Falmouth,” my mother said one summer during a camping trip on Cape Cod, said it like we were just stopping at a gas station. The sentence served the double purpose, outlining our itinerary while also letting us know that some people named Eddie and Emily existed. And that, further, we were related. Apparently we’d visited them briefly when I was four. It didn’t ring a bell. So, on the car ride over, Mom turned to us every few minutes and offered facts without context, trying to build some hype around these people. “They lived in Okinawa for years.” “Eddie was a pilot.” It was like cramming before visiting some bizarre country: their main exports, I assumed, were hard candy, corduroy, and judgment. For my mother they were sweet relatives she hadn’t had time to visit. For me, at 12, the news registered just above neutral, as only slightly interesting. Mom may as well have been telling us about some lame, peripheral color in a box of crayons. These were burnt sienna relatives.
My parents, my two siblings, and I pulled up to Eddie and Emily’s house in our blue Caprice station wagon, a species of car that, like certain dinosaurs, had achieved absurd proportions and freakishly specialized features only then to become extinct. The car’s body, the length of a Camry tailgating a Prius, got wider at the end like an ant that had let itself go. The back space would flip up to form two more backward-facing seats, as if the designers at Chevrolet were both encouraging drivers to conceive more children and providing an actual location to do so. In this way-back area, miles from the reach of Dad’s palm, a Wild West, Lord of the Flies subculture would develop. Pinches went unpunished, thigh space was taken through eminent domain. Little things no one would miss, and sometimes socks, were slipped through the pop-out window slits as we drove. Cars behind us were given the thumbs up and then, as we got a little older, mocked for their enthusiastic replies.
We piled out of that airplane hangar of a car and crammed into the neatly decorated living room of Eddie and Emily’s Cape Cod-style house, a place full of doilies, dusted hardwood, and stiff, 1950s-looking couches. Everyone looked at everyone else pleasantly, blinking and occasionally saying words. My mother tried to kindle the conversation, poking at decades-old embers. For me, the slow conversation was nodes on a family tree morphing into real people, the way dots on a map, once visited, become real places where you can get a good burger or picture yourself living—or places you decide are only worth driving through, not worth stopping at again.
The exception to the general stillness was Emily, a slender, energetic woman flitting around the house with hospitality. The sister of a grandfather who had died years before I was born—a man I was always told I resembled—Emily kept singling me out with glances, wistfully saying her dead brother’s name out loud, and then feeding me elaborate meals. It was an arrangement we both accepted immediately. Long after everyone else got full, I kept taking her up on her offers of coffee cake and hot dogs. So we sat, me chewing and her staring, each of our hairstyles a variation on the bowl cut.
“Eddie likes fishing,” my mother said about the World War II bomber pilot staring at me. “Maybe he’ll take you fishing.”