You know that old saying, “When one door closes, a window opens?” I feel like that tonight, here at the end of the Dia de los Muertos when the door to the other world is shut and our beloved spirits draw their visit to a close. Well, the door may have closed, but a window opened for me tonight.
Right around dinner time, just as the noodle water was starting to boil, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number or the strange area code. I could have ignored it but I was kind of in the mood to snap at a telemarketer.
“Is this Ashley?”
“Yes, this is she.” In my most imperious tone, reserved for strangers who call at 7 p.m.
“Well, it’s your old Uncle Kenneth here. How are you doing, honey?” My dad’s middle brother. Joe and Eunice Garrett’s boys: Charles, Kenneth, and Sammy. I haven’t seen Uncle Kenneth in at least 10 years and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to him on the phone. He and Aunt Margaret have lived in southern Florida my whole life, so visits were once a year usually, mostly back when Grandmama Eunice was alive. Every summer, Charles and Kenneth drove their long American sedans up the interstate to Gay. And as soon as they pulled up in Grandmama’s front yard, they’d jump out of their cars and start talking about what kind of time they’d made on the drive.
Kenneth was calling to say we had been on his mind. We talked about his health, and the weather in Miami, and the ages of my children. He corrected me for thinking he was thirteen years older than Daddy–that was Charles, who died back in the 1980s. He told me his birthday, and Daddy’s birthday, then did the math.
And my window opened.
“What was your daddy’s birthday?” I asked. I never met my Grandaddy Joe. He was killed in a car accident a few days before Little Gay was born, almost four years before I came along.
“January 30. He used to tell everyone that he and FDR–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was the president then–Daddy told everybody that all the smartest people were born on January 30.”
I get my story-telling from these people. My dad’s death has left a blank yawning abyss between me and all the stories that he never got to tell me about his side of the family. That tiny fact–that my grandfather’s birthday was January 30–completed a story that I’ve been carrying around for almost forty years.
One cold winter morning when I was about nine or ten, I was already dressed for school and waiting on the living room couch. Once Gay and Joe were ready, Daddy would drive us up the dirt road to the bus stop and we would wait in the warmth of the truck cab instead of out by the highway. Daddy was sitting in his orange chair, putting his boots on. He had paused to stare out the window over my head, into the hard white winter light.
“Today was my Daddy’s birthday. He would have been…” I can’t remember the age Daddy said because at that point in the sentence, he choked up and started to cry. It was the first time I ever remember seeing my dad cry. And now I know it was on January 30.
Uncle Kenneth told me stories about Daddy’s first haircut when he lost his princely curls. He told me about when he and Charles were filling out a Social Security form for J.P., the hired man who stayed with our family for 50 years. J.P. didn’t know what his initials stood for, so Uncle Charles declared him “James Pierpont Strozier.” And J.P. chose his own birthday–the second Sunday in August, because that was when his church had Homecoming. He told me about when their father died and my father wanted to drop out of vet school but his brothers wouldn’t let him. When we were talking about who was a blond and who was a brunette, Uncle Kenneth mentioned his own son, who has passed. We got quiet.
Then he took an old man’s deep breath and said, “Well, Mama always said ‘God won’t let you see around corners.’ And Daddy said, ‘Play the hand you’re dealt.'”
I’m so glad I answered the phone tonight. I saved that strange Florida number under “Uncle Kenneth” in my phone. The door may be closed for the next year, and we can’t see around corners, but he opened a window for me.