Afraid but not alone, I’d driven those miles many times in three years. Five hundred miles to my hometown.... turn south at Fargo and you can’t miss it.
Cowboy and I were driving to Omaha. A trip my Volvo could do in reverse, but one foreign to the man from Up North.
The journey was one of endings and beginnings. Vinny’s final voyage was Cowboy’s first. First to Omaha, first to the family, first time to meet the in-laws in Iowa.
Terrified, I’d taught him the card game of my birth. Euchre. Known as the game of bowers where the right Jack is higher than any ace, some in-laws attempt a first game with my uncles, and then never return for a second.
Don’t let that happen to you, I said to the Cowboy. You have to get to know them. They aren’t going to get to know you.
I’m not worried, he said.
Well I am.
Cowboy’s good with meeting new people. He doesn’t shy away from shaking hands and story-telling, the customary get-to-know-you rituals. But my family is as tough as it is big. (My mom is one of 11 children and I’m one of 39 cousins. We served 60 people that Saturday.) If you’re going to bring someone new into the family, they seem to say, he has to impress us. We won’t bother to impress him. In fact, it’s the opposite. The uncles find it funny to scare future family with phrases like “With which hand do you smoke your crack?” and “Don’t trump my ace, you bitch.”
Without knowing it, Cowboy was under the second-most pressure of any decedent of of Eldora and Paul. My father is known as one of the most vicious. Known for his taunting and teasing, many cousins warn their mates to avoid him.
The only uncle worse is one of three Uncle Bills. For those unfamiliar, you’ll know him by his neck: it’s thicker than my thighs. A two-time war veteran, Jujitsu champion and narcotics enforcement officer, Uncle Bill searches all the boyfriend’s pockets and wallets... in search of paraphernalia of the drug and birth-control persuasion.
Uncle Bill wouldn’t make it for Easter, but I was scared anyway. I won’t baby-sit you, I said. I can’t. You’ll have to make conversation with people you don’t know all on your own.
Don’t worry about me, Kate, he said. I’ll be fine.
You don’t understand.
My mom, though, she knew it too.
She and an aunt took me dress shopping, a custom customarily sans-man.
You’re going to let him meet your grandmother, without you? she asked.
Guess so, I said, shrugging my shoulders like I didn’t care. And when it comes to my grandmother, I didn’t. I cared about their first impression, yes, but was I worried they wouldn’t hit it off? No.
Play cards with her, I said. And when she tells you to eat something, just do it.
Six hours, 60 wedding dresses, and the one I’d picked out weeks before later, we arrived at a home minus one Cowboy.
He’s at the boat, Grandma said, gambling with the boys.
So, what’d you think of him? I asked.
Well, he kept leading trump aces, she said. An evaluation meaning: he’s got work to do.
The next morning, grandma’s kitchen resembled an elementary cafeteria with relations eating with their fingers and crowding the center table. The noise level rivaled that of Superbowl Sunday and one child even stood in the corner and covered his ears. Oh wait... that was my dad. And then another child threw jelly beans at my aunt. Oh wait, that was my dad too.
Cowboy didn’t seem to mind. He did OK with names... all except for one. I introduced him to my Aunt Karen, but he called her Aunt Shirley. He learned the names of my cousins and remembered the names of the relations he’d met gambling the night before.
Signs pointed in the right direction, but the true test was when I left him to his lonesome. Anxious for my bridal shower, another sans-man activity, Cowboy navigated the river of uncles and moseyed over to the big kid’s Euchre table. At the big kid’s table, only experts are allowed, as the number of players double and the speed of play triples.
My mother, myself and my grandmother at my bridal shower in Manchester, Iowa. Thanks for the photo, Aunt Bev. :)
You’re going to leave him with the uncles alone? my cousins asked.
Do you know how many times we’ve walked into places where he knows everyone and I know no one, I answered, nonchalantly. This happens to me all the time without so much as an introduction. This is my one chance to get back at him, I said, wiping the sweat from my brow.
By the time I opened my presents and read from recipes I’ll never be qualified to cook, even if I’d wanted to find Cowboy, I couldn’t. He talked to one cousin about wiring projects and an uncle about cattle. Words like “Cat 5” and “cattle magnet” escaped their lips. Words foreign to me, but cozy to the Cowboy.
I may have driven him 600 miles from his land of origin, but with my family, he was already home.