I straddle the generational line in my extended family. Some of my aunts and uncles are closer to my age than my mother’s. I have one uncle who’s two years older than I am; my grandparents were only in their 40s when I was born. I have 25 first cousins; I’m three years older than my oldest, and 33 years older than my youngest.
When I was a kid, the grownups would crowd into one room, chattering and laughing and bickering, and I’d herd the little ones in the next. I was old enough to understand the adults’ discussion, but I wasn’t quite allowed. Besides, I loved kids even then, and my cousins loved me back.
As I gave horsey rides to my cousins or played chess or read to them, I’d listen to the grownups, their stories and jokes, always feeling a little melancholy that I was still in the other room, never quite cool enough to be with the grownups.
It’s a dynamic that’s still true today in some ways; we never outgrow our childhood identities within our family. I don’t think I’m viewed as a good mom or a successful author in my extended family; I’m just Kristan, the sweet, dorky kid who was so good at babysitting. One of my uncles once said to me, “Of all the people in the family to be a writer, who could’ve guessed it would be you?” Insulting, but there you have it.
The thing is, of course it was going to be me. Invisibility has its perks. I can’t tell you how many inappropriate conversations I overheard as a kid. Instead of trying to be the storyteller, I was absorbing the stories, tucking them away for someday, though I didn’t know it then. Battles over loyalty, stories of heartbreak and disappointment, accusations of lying, hurt feelings and tightly held grudges…but also memories of relatives gone, adventures as children, the days of childhoods past. I remember hearing the swells of laughter as my aunts and uncles competed for who was funniest, fastest, sharpest. Nothing could be more wonderful than being there in the kitchen where I wasn’t quite allowed, where conversation would quiet if I sidled into the room.
I managed. The back hall was great for overhearing things, as was the little space beside the radiator and the stairs landing.
Today, as I was working, I could hear my mother and aunt as they talked, their voices rising and waning on the breeze that blew through my windows. I couldn’t make out their words, but it was lovely, my aunt’s husky laugh, my mom’s higher voice. It was like old times; I was there, but not quite, and still wondering what the grownups were talking about.