That Cousin Chuck, So Full of Surprises
A few years ago my sister got crazy excited about a black guy she saw in the library parking lot. She rolled down her window. “Hi, Chuck!” she hollered.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s our cousin, Chuck.”
A few things you need to know in order to fully appreciate this story. First, my family is of Norwegian descent, my father’s skin so white he practically glowed in the dark. So, while it’s not unheard of, certainly, to have black cousins in a white family (and vice versa), I would have remembered Chuck.
The second thing you need to know is that my sister has Downs Syndrome. And while lovely in her own ways, she is both an unreliable witness to history and prone to grand declarations. My mother calls me with regular frequency to confirm whether or not my brother and I are, in fact, planning an extended family trip to Disney World and/or coming over for dinner tonight and bringing chocolate cake.
Not long after I went away to college, my sister spent a Sunday morning at church telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a baby. She meant, someday. They heard, scandal. It nearly put my poor grandmother in the grave.
So that Saturday at the library, I had every reason to play along without believing a word about our mystery cousin. Instead, I paused to consider the possibility. Did she know something I didn’t know?
There’s only one reason I can muster to explain my hesitation that afternoon and it’s this: Chaos was the normative force of my childhood. It was a happy time, but it did require me to develop a certain expectation for the absurd.
For starters, my father was a people gatherer. I think he took Jesus’ directive to go out and be “fishers of men” quite literally, which I suppose was good since he served as a Lutheran pastor for 40 years. But there were also countless days (particularly during my adolescent years) that I would have considered the term, collector of strays to be a better descriptor. He was forever filling our living room with people.
“Who’s that?” I’d whisper to my mother.
“Oh, he’s your grandfather’s second cousin twice removed on his mother’s side. Or maybe that makes him your father’s third cousin. I’m not sure, let me think about it …”
And then, there was my sister.
I learned early-on that a girl who can’t understand why it’s inappropriate to ask a fat woman if she’s excited about the baby, also can’t be expected to follow the same social rules as the rest of us. She disappeared one summer evening when our house was full of people (yes, again) and we finally located her about an hour later when the police picked her up riding her Big Wheel down the freeway ramp. For many years, our entire family was coopted into a war of diligence against her compulsion to strip off her clothes and dance naked in the front yard or go visit the neighbors.
So, yeah. I paused for a second to consider the possibility of my new black cousin. And as I’d done so many times in the past, I went to my mom for genealogical translation.
“Oh, him?” she said. “That’s Chuck.”
Turns out, his was a relatively easy puzzle to piece together. Chuck was an adult assistant to my sister’s team at work. My mom suspected my sister was unable to distinguish the difference between our very similar last names. So, same last name … cousins.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that, of all of us, my sister is the least comfortable with chaos. Patterns and routine are critical to her ability to navigate her days, and asking her to stray from her carefully understood world is like ordering her to walk the plank. It’s literally terrifying. Green beans, for example, are only acceptable from a can. Serve them in any form resembling their natural, fresh-from-the-vine state and she’ll act as if you just handed her a plate of dirt. Fruit, too, is not to be mixed into any variety of salad, and fruit that touches other fruit makes her cry. Most important to remember when entertaining in our family is that, when she has finished her dinner and her Diet Coke, she will insist on leaving, regardless of whether the occasion is Thanksgiving or Christmas or a visit to the queen. In her world, it’s time, let’s go, now.
Because that’s the thing one has to accept when hanging with my sister — we are all just visitors to her world. She’s not the one who gets the rules wrong, we are. And she wishes desperately that we’d quit messing everything up.
So maybe, that day in the library parking lot, Chuck’s relation wasn’t the point. My best layman’s guess is that he was simply the guy at work with the big smile, the one who let her tease him about his last name and who always made sure she had a fresh can of Diet Coke at lunch. He was the guy who was forever putting the world right again.
When you think about it, who wouldn’t love a guy like our cousin, Chuck?