September 11, 1997
Trial by Humor
A few Sundays ago, while a tropicalFlorida rainstorm raged outside, my second cousin Laura,granddaughter of my aunt Ruthie, married Geraldo Morales, in aceremony led by a pastor who quoted Jeremiah and mentioned Jesus onlyonce (we were all counting). The groom's family was dressed in black.The bride's side was expecting its fourth generation in three months.The interior of the non-threathing church looked a little like theback room of Trader Vic's, complete with sea gulls, a shell display,fish nets and no trace of organized religion.
Aunt Ruthie, who recently had one kidney removed,was not expected to attend. But anyone who carries the DNA of mygrandmother Sarah cannot be counted out -- even minus one body organ.And there she was! Dressed in a navy blue blazer (a compromise withthe bride, who wanted her in a navy blue dress), white slacks, whiteflower in her lapel, and seated in a wheelchair, with a ready supplyof oxygen feeding her through clear plastic tubes inserted into hernose. Her son, Michael, wheeled her down the aisle. I rushed up togreet her. She didn't recognize me at first and then she did. As Ihugged her, tears came to my eyes. Later, my cousin Hattie quipped:"There was the bride's side, the groom's side and Ironsides."
Michael kidded that he was worried the ceremonymight exceed the time it took for an oxygen tank to empty, and so hebrought a spare. I sat between my uncle Barney and uncle Joey, whowere the equivalent of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks for me when I was achild. So when the time came for the exchange of vows and the groomwas asked to say his "I do," my uncle Barney whispered into my ear,"He should say, 'I did.'"
Nothing was reserved for the sacred in my family.And everything was subjected to trial by humor. My grandmotherSarah's seven children formed a family-circle club and named it theGarnet Group -- after the gemstone associated with January, the monththey decided to hold the first meeting more than four decades ago.They met once a month in each other's homes, where the host wasresponsible for dinner and some sort of entertainment after theregular meeting -- usually a poker game that invariably ended withsomeone going home angry.
When the meeting came to our house, my brother andI were sent to bed before it began, but, instead, we sat on thestairs, out of view, and listened. My grandmother, who lived with us,went straight to her room and never attended any of themeetings.
The highlight of the meeting for me was thediscussion of the cemetery plots, which was always the same: Shouldthey sell some space to one of the outlaw's family? Should they buymore? Should they sell off plots for profit? (The last suggestion wasmy uncle Al's contribution.) But the fun part was when my uncle Joeywould take internment requests. Since eternity was a distant reality,the question of who would be buried next to whom gave the familyanother opportunity to kid each other. And seated on the steps, outof sight, were two small children with hands covering their mouths tostifle their laughter. There was no connection to death. All Iimagined was my mother changing her plot, much as she changed hertable in every restaurant she ever ate in.
The Garnet Group has disbanded. The meetings areover. The loose-leaf binder with the handwritten minutes has beenmisplaced. A few of the New Year's Eve costume theme parties -- myfavorite was The Cruise, where everyone had to bring two changes ofclothes and my aunt Ruthie and uncle Leo (who died last year) usedstring mops for wigs -- have been preserved on super-8mm film. Thecemetery plots remain as a monument to a family that gathered tolaugh, argue, play cards and, once, to square dance.
The wedding last month at Unity Church became, byaccident, more of a reunion. Michael, who has never had a closerelationship to any of the cousins -- the children of the GarnetGroup -- suggested that we get together "before it's too late." Hisvision is for all of us to sit at a round table, trade memories,identify our collective neurosis and talk about our parents -- the"baby" of the family, Sylvia, is 72. "The next 10 years will berough," he said.
So I'm going to send a letter to 10second-generation Americans -- the grandchildren of Sarah, ages 35 to60, with an assortment of professions, ranging from a buildingcustodian to a jai alai player. I'm calling a meeting. No agenda.Eternity is no longer a laughing matter. Besides, we have no ideawhere the plots are.
Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the LosAngeles Times, is the co-author of "Where To Go From Here:Discovering Your Own Life's Wisdom," due out this fall from Simon& Schuster.