Because You Left

On Christmas Eve and/or Christmas day, it’s always a crapshoot as to who is actually going to show up for the festivities. Because of an unfortunate string of events involving beanie weenies (see Reasons I Elected to Find a New Mamaw), a verbal altercation between my Aunt Susie and Dad, and a continual shunning of me and my brother because we read books, we no longer visit the Kirkland side of my family on any holiday other than the occasional Flag Day. As for my mom’s side, there’s still no set-in-stone plan, but every five years or so, the majority of us end up at once house or another and we celebrate Christmas as if nothing has ever changed.
I guess it had been a while since we had all found ourselves under the same roof because as everyone filed in, I scanned the room and realized that I hadn’t seen, or just didn’t know, at least a handful of people that were in the room. I was sitting at our kitchen counter, surveying the room of all these people trying to recount names and faces, when my mom asked me Do you know who that girl in the corner is? And I said, Yeah, I have no idea. I think that’s Josh’s girlfriend? I really have no idea what’s going on. Eventually, the poor girl asked my mom if she could get a drink, to which my mom responded, Sure. First, who are you? Well, it was my cousin, Kasi. None of us had seen her in years, and I imagined that maybe she was sailing around Peru or had pulled an Elizabeth Smart on us and was living some veiled life somewhere in Utah. Once we had identified who everyone was in the room, it kind of hit me that it had been years, literal years, since I had seen some of my relatives.
I went to college relatively close, but the distance started once we had all began to grow up, I guess. People started having babies and moving to different states; we never really knew who was doing what except for that I was apparently the constant: I was in school somewhere doing something in relation to academia. Other than that, it was a free for all. The difference between then and now is that at one point, I was close enough to know what was going on. I would catch wind of family happenings on my weekend visits home, and even though I never particularly saw these people, I had the comfort of knowing they were less than an hour away if I really wanted to visit them.
But this year, I had to explain exactly why it was I had disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic seaboard. Apparently, in my rushed state, I had not reminded my immediate family to let anyone else know where I had gone or what I was doing, similarly to when they kept switching out Beckys on Roseanne. When I was explaining what I’m getting my degree in, and what I was doing, they kept asking me Why are you doing that? I thought you were doing journalism. My life had become this mystery, and when there were these cavalier bombs dropped throughout the evening about how people had changed or who they were dating, I was shocked and immediately asked for a recap. Every explanation was ended with the sentiment, oh yeah, you wouldn’t know that because you left. No one ever meant anything by it, but there was this tinge of separation, as if there were some perforated edge between me and the rest of the family. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it’s like in a matter of minutes, everyone had grown up and made children and/or ended up in jail or stopped believing in the celebration of Christmas.
But it wasn’t minutes, and it wasn’t the happenstance of six months away from Knoxville; I had left years before that, and it really didn’t hit me. Everyone grew up really quickly in my family because of one decision or the other. One misuse of a condom or drunken night behind the wheel forced you to turn over your childhood card because those choices are matters that don’t allow you the opportunity to go back and play with Lincoln Logs again. Me, I just happened to pursue multiple degrees and forego sex all together. We weren’t the family that often played with each other, and in a way, Christmas was our only time to catch up on each other’s lives. Instead of fighting to keep us together, I willingly let go of them and never considered that there would be any regret involved in that.
As the night came to an end, I stepped outside and caught Kasi, the mystery cousin, smoking a cigarette. She’s sixteen. The seven year old inside of me immediately felt compelled to run inside and tell someone, but considering that she’s pretty much the end of the line for my generation, it seemed kind of useless. Someone had to buy her the cigarettes anyways, so I did the cool, wise, older cousin thing and lit up with her. I apologized for my entire family’s inability to identify her (in our defense: the excessive face piercings and multi-colored hair didn’t help too much), and I tried to catch up on her life in the seven minutes it takes to casually smoke a cigarette. And no, you can’t make up that amount of time in the course of one cigarette, but as we get older, we don’t know when the next scandalous cigarette break is going to take place. So I used the moment to do what I had avoided for years because I didn’t see a point in it: I tried. She walked inside because she finished her cigarette first and she was too angsty to stay outside to finish the conversation… oh to be sixteen again… but if I could have really told her one thing, it would be Please don’t smoke. And don’t hate everyone so much. Dress like you’re sixteen and not twenty-six, and quit acting like no one understands you. We believed that no one understood us at sixteen, when in fact, we were just hoping that our lives were complicated enough to not be understood. You are much too young to be this old.
But I didn’t, because I guess you have to learn all of that stuff in your own time. And I guess we’ve all learned it (or are still learning it) in our ways, too. My cousins have been faced with surprise children and drugs and alcohol and all these other things that I’m sure seem very dangerous and worthy of an A&E special, and maybe it is. But then there’s me, who hasn’t dabbled in any of those things (though I do love a Long Island Tea), but I learned the same lesson. And all it took was being away, not by distance but by priority, to teach me that anything and everything can change in an instant.

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