I’ll never forget showing up to my first family reunion on my stepdad’s side. I won’t forget the last one either. The first one was awkward ‘cause: 1) I didn’t know anybody there, since it wasn’t really my family yet, and 2) No one knew me either and so they are all looking at me funny trying to figure me out, and 3) I was the only one with red hair and freckles. I’m almost always the only one like that.
Swarms of aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles and all the cousins…oh my god there were so many cousins. And every single one of them wanted to know: which family I belonged to, and how did I get there, and where did I live again—and in what town, and who was my Daddy, and oh was I just a friend of a cousin someone had brought along with them to this, and who ever knew of another Smith-Williams-Davidson family member to have red hair?
I was seven years old. And drowning.
Till my new grandma bowled through the crowds and scooped me up to sit on her hip like I was still a baby. Like I didn’t even weigh anything. She carried me to her car, put me in the backseat—buckled me up like I couldn’t do it myself—and then she wiped her eyes, clenched her jaw, and forced a smile through the rearview all the way to the store where she snatched me up and carried me to the back wall and stood there holding me with one arm while her other hand played with her lips.
She scanned the wall of shiny little boxes for what felt like an hour until she reached, grabbed a box, held it against my head, set it back, grabbed another, held it to my head again and said, “Mmm. That’s it.”
Back home, we didn’t go to the backyard to be with the rest of the family right away. Instead Grandma took me through the front door and had me wait on the couch while she took care of something in the bathroom.
Her hair was fire when she came out.
“I used the dye on it,” she told me, stepping into the living room, wiping her head with a towel, “What do you think?”
At the last family reunion Grandma died from natural causes and everybody stayed a few extra days for the funeral. And while all the aunts and uncles, and great aunts and uncles, and every god damn cousin in the world, while they all threw their roses onto her coffin and said their goodbyes, I dropped a plastic bag filled with red hair dyes and whispered, “Thank you.”
Garrett Mostowski’s work has appeared in The Galway Review, Across the Margin, Geez, Clerestory, and others. He’s a doctoral candidate in theology and creative writing. Twitter @RevGMostowski