We would go visit them, my big sister and I. Five kids! The biggest kids I had ever seen, all piling out of the same car. Sometimes it was the stationwagon, other times the pick-up with the cover and the windows. I would get lost back there.
They weren’t our closest cousins — we saw others much more often. But they were different somehow. Older, with homework and boyfriends. There were so many of them, they could be in each other’s way. When I was the youngest I couldn’t remember all their names. But they weren’t mad. They hugged me just the same.
Their house seemed as big as my school. They had a big field behind it that my mom said used to be a farm. One year they told me they had caught a rabbit back there and had cooked it. I thought they were joking, but they got some out of the refrigerator and showed me. I couldn’t believe it. My uncle even ate some and asked me if I wanted any. I took a bite and it tasted like a sweet, scrawny chicken. I wouldn’t eat any more.
They didn’t have regular games and toys like we did. They had roller skates and keys. And charades and plays under the pecan tree. And after bedtime they had flashlights and ghost stories about the big empty house through the trees with the broken windows. They had ghosts.
I remember one year we went to their house for the weekend. When we packed up to drive back home, the car wouldn’t start. It made me scared but my dad didn’t even get mad. We just stayed another day. A free Monday with no school and my dad and my uncle drinking beer laughing and working on the car all day until they got it fixed. It was a magic place. A magic house full of kids and fun and days without school.
The memories, they filled up suitcases. I carried them with me everywhere.
When I was in third grade they were all going to come to our house. We were so excited, even my new baby sister. But when the day came they just called on the phone — they were all sick with the stomach flu so they couldn’t come. My older sister and I were so sad all weekend. Then the next year we moved away to Florida. They came to see us there. We had fun but something wasn’t the same. I don’t know what it was. That was the last time we saw them all together.
Years later I would see one or two of them, at a family reunion or a wedding. I even stayed with one a few times when I started college. I enjoyed seeing them, but it didn’t seem like the people I was talking to were grown up from those kids. Maybe I didn’t either. If they remembered the Monday with the car, they never said anything. Neither did I. Maybe it never really happened.
One of them told me they sold the house, and I was lost somehow but didn’t know why. Then I looked and realized my hands were empty, my suitcases left packed in the back of an old broken-down car on the side of the road somewhere. Or forgotten in the house, locked up tight in the attic. Ghosts.
If you asked them about the pecan tree, or the rabbit or the roller skates, they might smile and nod, but those little moments, they were like dreams. Tiny little dreams you hold in your hands, diamonds in that moment when you wake but then they slip away even as you’re remembering them, even as you’re holding onto them. Maybe that was all real once, for a little boy who isn’t little anymore. Maybe it was real. But now it’s gone. Just a smile. Just a dream.