When I was in second grade my teacher assigned a genealogy project. We were instructed to ask our parents where our ancestors came from and then write a paragraph or two about our family's country of origin. Mom's European Mutt family (Swedish, English, Spanish, French, German/Jewish, German/Catholic) was too complicated for my slacker ass to explain in one or two paragraphs, so I chose to focus on my dad's side of the family.
The problem was, I was too scared to talk to my dad about much of anything, let alone to interview him about our family history. In our family it was an unspoken rule that no one talk to Dad, especially when he first got home from work, at the dinner table, while he was watching TV after dinner, or just before bed. I'd heard rumors that Dad was relatively cheery first thing in the morning, but he always left for work before I even climbed out of bed, so that option was out too.
Every summer we went to the Key Family Reunion. The Keys were on my dad's mom's side of the family. My grandmother had died when I was only five, so I barely remember her, but Dad dutifully brought us to his mother's family reunion every summer to visit with his aunts and uncles. My grandmother was the eldest child of twelve, so there were lots of aunts and uncles to visit. My grandfather died in 1950, twenty years before I was even born, and my dad wasn't as close to his dad as he was to his mom. But we occasionally also went to the Burton Family Reunion, to see my dad's dad's side of the family. My grandfather was the eldest child of ten and grew up on a farm in Bethany, Missouri next to my grandmother's family, so lots of his siblings also married my grandmother's siblings. With lots of aunts and uncles not just on his side of the family, but on both sides, we usually killed two birds with one stone and just went to the Key Family Reunion.
It was the one time of the year I ever felt like my dad was proud of me. It was weird and I always felt awkward. I'd be sitting at a picnic table eating the breading off the fried chicken--I refused to eat meat on a bone--and brushing the salt off my slice of watermelon--I complained to Dad that I hate salt on my watermelon every year but he never listened to me--when suddenly I'd hear, "Becky, come over here and say hi to Aunt Lorella/Uncle Elmer/Aunt Opal/Uncle Clyde" or whichever relation Dad was standing next to at the time.
I'd walk over to my dad, my heart racing, my face getting hot, and when I stood next to him he'd always pull me closer and squeeze my shoulders in a side-hug, saying, "Lorella/Elmer/Opal/Clyde, this is my youngest, Becky."
I'd smile shyly and look at the dirt and say "hi" in my mouse-squeak voice and then, the instant Dad loosened his grip on my shoulders, I'd run back to my breading and salty watermelon.
Dad was never very affectionate, physically or verbally. He didn't like to be hugged or kissed, especially in the winter, because the dry air in our house inevitably caused us to shock him, so these once-a-year summertime side-hugs were it. He never, ever, said he loved me, or anyone else in our family. I finally gathered the nerve to tell my father I love him when I was in my early thirties and he called me on the phone two states away at his winter vacation home to inform me that he was about to go in for quadruple bypass heart surgery. His second bypass surgery. He'd had a triple bypass twenty-one years prior to this one.
"I didn't know a person could have two bypass surgeries in their lifetime, Dad." I said.
"Me neither, but I guess if you live long enough they can go in there and clean you out again. It's like getting a tune-up on an old car." Dad half-heartedly laughed.
"Do you want me to fly down there?" I asked.
"No, no. I'm fine. I just thought you should know...in case something happens," Dad said.
"Oh. Yeah. Sure. Uh. Ok. Well, I, um. I, uh. I love you, Dad," I said.
"I love you too," he said without hesitation.
At that moment, it felt like it was my heart that was about to stop ticking.
Dad got through the surgery just fine and he's still around, at age eighty-six, dancing and playing bridge and just being a general curmudgeonly old fucker. Whenever we talk on the phone now, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he is to me, I make a point to end our calls by telling him I love him, and he always says it back to me. It takes an effort, but it always leaves me feeling courageous.
But I wasn't courageous enough to initiate affection or even simple conversation with my father when I was young, so when I was working on my second grade genealogy project, even though it was about Dad's side of the family, I went to Mom with my questions.
"So where does Daddy's family come from?" I asked.
"Well, when Glen and I had our first date I asked him where his family comes from and he said, 'Uh, I think Kentucky originally.'" Mom laughed.
"What's so funny?" I didn't get it.
"Well, Punkin, Kentucky is a state in our country. When I asked him where his family comes from I meant farther back. I meant which country in Europe does his family come from," Mom explained.
"Oh, I see. So he wasn't going back far enough."
"Right. I don't think your father knows very much about his ancestors. But 'Burton' is a Welsh name, so I'm pretty sure his family comes from Wales," Mom said.
It all made sense. I ran off to write my paper, satisfied with Mom's answer, asking no further questions.
Really? Our family comes from whales? That must be why everyone on Dad's side of the family is so fat.
I wrote my paper about how my family evolved from whales. I was excited to show it to my second-grade teacher, who I loved. I knew she would be impressed. I even drew a picture of a whale with water shooting out its blowhole at the bottom of my paper. As I placed my assignment on top of the pile of my other classmate's papers, I wondered if anyone else was lucky enough to be related to an animal.
I remember my sweet second-grade teacher pulling me aside as the others went out for recess the next day. She showed me my paper and said I'd done a lovely job on it, but that I should know that people can't be related to animals.
"But my mom said Burtons come from whales," I said, confused.
My teacher smiled and said, "Oh, Honey, I think she means Wales, the country. It's a small country in Europe, on the same island as England." She walked me over to the globe in the corner of the room and put her finger on it where, right there I could see with my own eyes, there is an actual country called Wales.
Huh. Well, I guess that makes more sense, I thought.
But I was disappointed too. It kinda felt like finding out there really is no Santa Claus. My family is normal and boring, just like everyone else's. We didn't evolve from beautiful giant sea creatures. Just a bunch of stocky peasants who moved to Kentucky and then to Bethany, Missouri, and then to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then to Kansas City, Missouri, and then to Overland Park, Kansas where I reside now with my husband and our daughter who will one day ask me where our family comes from and I'll get to share our story with her.