Archive for cousins

The Wayback, the Tree Monster, and American Cyanamid

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , on December 4, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 3

We had a wayback. We had a tree monster.  My cousins had American Cyanamid.

As a child, I never quite caught the name of the place, and in my imagination it became some sort of enchanted forest.

I don’t know what they did there when they were nine and ten and I was still only four or five, but it was something akin to the battles fought by the Pevensie kids against the White Witch in Narnia.

They got there through my cousin Richie’s backyard. Beyond the pens where my uncle raised collies, beyond the crab apple trees, on the other side of the pool, up and over a hill, out of sight.

Not that my cousins needed an enchanted forest to stage an adventure. They did just fine in Brooklyn, and in Wayne, and in Smithtown.

My cousins, in particular Joni, Jaci, Dave, Steve and Richie, were mythical creatures who existed on the slightly scary, definitely fascinating, lawless edges of my life as a little girl. Joni and Richie captured a goose and walked it home along Hamburg Turnpike. Richie, Dave and Steve put firecrackers in crab apples, lit the fuses and tossed them out over the road in front of the house. They teased “the publics,” the kids who went to public school instead of to Catholic school with them. They fell in creeks in the middle of winter and came home wet, half-frozen, gleeful and in big trouble.

When we got a little bit older, Dave and Richie would persuade Mike and Billy, who were much younger, to ring and run the long-suffering neighbors of my Pacanack Lake cousins during their Thanksgiving dinners, to steal light bulbs out of their lamp posts, to peek in their bay windows making scary faces, by telling the boys they’d be “real men” if they didn’t get caught. “You stay here and watch Adrienne and Kathy,” they’d say to me.

I wanted to be them, but they were always just beyond my reach, as audacious and elusive as the eighth graders seemed to my second-grade self on the school bus to St. Patrick’s–as those eighth graders seem to me, in some ways, still. It was enough, mostly, to be in their presence.

Our wayback is the open, weedy part of my parents’ backyard that comes after the patio, the lawn, and a tiny bit of forest–just enough trees that you can’t see the wayback from the house, so it always felt secret and secluded.

The tree monster was in Freddy Kranz’s backyard next door–an old tree trunk that fell on to another tree and was suspended that way for years. It was a neighborhood meeting place: something to climb on and build forts under. It was base for countless games of Manhunt on muggy summer nights swarming with buzzing mosquitos, and probably where my brother and his friends practiced smoking cigarettes stolen from their parents’ packs.

American Cyanamid, Joni told me during Cousins Weekend last month, was the name of the pharmaceutical company that owned the land behind my cousins’ house. I guess the space was a planned industrial park that never quite got finished. Turns out, American Cyanamid’s Wayne, NJ plant produced tetracycline and an oral polio vaccine in the 1950s, and its president’s name was William Bell. Maybe it was an parallel universe.

For me, American Cyanamid will always be something not-quite-real, just out of reach, more intriguing than anything going on in my real life, a world my cousins created that I could only ever aspire to.

We Built This City (Or, the Happy Side of Deconstruction)

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 1

When I was little and my dad was putting me to bed, we’d kneel and pray. I’d pray for Jaci-Joni-Dave-Steve-Jay-Bobby-Carol-Tommy-Richie-Billy-and-KathyAnn–my cousins, all in one breath, and then my aunts and uncles and parents and brother, and Captain, our collie. (Adrienne was born later.)

Now, my dad has dementia. and reciting all my cousins’ names in order is how we help him remember who we’re talking about, or which cousin belongs to which of his sisters.

My dad has a story for every one of my cousins—the year Carol got an “Easter Bastard” from the Easter Bunny; the time Richie repeatedly spilled the bucket of soapy water my father was using to wash the car until my dad threw a wet soapy rag at him and it wrapped itself around his face; the time Grandpa Cone threatened to spank Jay, and Bobby, in turn, threatened, “I’m going to kill Grandpa,”; the day Jaci colored in Steve’s face with a magic marker as he lay in his crib, and said, “I thought it was paper”; all the times Joni was woken up and allowed to dance on the kitchen table late at night when she was a toddler; the time my dad gave 4-year-old Dave a cigarette on the back stoop of the house on E. 2nd in Brooklyn, because, as Dave said, “All working men smoke, right, Frank?”

In October, we had our first official grown up Cousins Weekend–Jaci-Joni-Carol-Adge and me. (Kathy Ann is in Florida.) I don’t know why it took us this long, but I have to thank Joni for getting us together, just for the sake of being together.

That weekend, we sat in my living room, and on the porch, and in restaurants, and remembered being little together, although we weren’t all, actually, little together, and talked about who spoiled who, and put together family secrets of which we each knew only parts.

I don’t know if it is this way for my cousins, but it is for me. We are family more because of our shared history, our shared stories, our communal narrative, than because of blood. We are our own community of practice, as we’d say in more professional contexts.

We share a memory; we share a discourse, a vocabulary. We have our own jargon.

Does it feel this way because I am a collector of stories? Am I a collector of stories–family stories–because I am adopted? (My brother would say yes.)

What would it mean to challenge our meant-to-be-a-family story emotionally, for me? I’m not sure I know how to do it.

Too many of us are adopted to say our family is “natural;” but our family has long been naturalized.  Our family is forged of things more ethereal than blood and bones and DNA.

We built this family, story upon story, lives and souls imbricated in narrative.

We Narrate: Therefore We Are

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on September 14, 2012 by chateaucone

As I said in my last post:

A million other Lizs exist, subjects I have hidden from you, the reader, consciously or unconsciously, for reasons of genre, of appropriateness, of repression—

Of Just. Not. Knowing.

All these voices. And each can be called into question. None is reliable.

And they circle around the adoption story, changing constantly as they consider, reject, reconsider, consider from another perspective. But do they ever break the narrative? Do they stop short? Is there a Liz able to take it any further? And which Liz is that Liz?

I can do this, play with these narratives and narrators, but there’s a part of me that all the play can’t touch. I have set out to write something that illustrates the ways in which the center does not hold, but I can’t, because the center will always hold inside me. I can do this as an academic, but inside me there’s always a little voice saying, “But really, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” The stranglehold of the metanarrative wins.

Has this Liz chosen to stand in this one spot in the adoption narrative, and just not move from it? I am looking for a place to stand in Angel Guardian, on E. 2nd St., a center for the adoption story, something to  hold on to. There is nothing there. But “Hymns to the Lares” Liz resolves that too—makes it okay.

And what if I did break the narrative of the adoption story, of my identity as, at once, a Cone and a Chosen Baby? What does that do to who I am?

It unwrites me.

No. It revises me.

But first, yes, it unwrites me. And that’s scary.

The physical fact, as well as the narrative fact, of our family is working to keep the narrative alive. We are. We narrate, therefore we are.

And we narrate everything.

I sit on Jaci’s deck on a summer night and listen to five of my first cousins tell stories, one sliding seamlessly into the next, and I realize that we are a family rich in narrative. We narrate, therefore we are. I wonder how I can be the only writer, because I am certainly not the only storyteller. In fact, I am not an oral storyteller at all.  Joni, Jaci, Dave, Steve and Adrienne narrate. My father narrates. And therefore I am. And therefore I know who I am. And this is how it has always been. My father, and now my cousins.

My Aunty Ann nods toward me in the light of citronella torches and says, “Look at Elizabeth, taking it all in. Watch out–this will all be in print someday.”