When I was a little girl, Labor Day marked the beginning: the beginning of the fall, the beginning of school, the beginning of catechism. The beginning of hard frosts and sweaters, of hard sole shoes and dresses everyday, of schedules and memorizing. Of course every beginning follows an ending. And Labor Day marked that too. The end of summer: the end of white Sunday hats and sandals, the end of baseball. Right on Labor Day, we had our last big family picnic of the year. Always, always all Dad’s brothers and his one sister, Barbara, with all their spouses and all their kids. All Dad’s brothers were laborers, except Uncle Ellis; all the wives were housewives, except Aunt Barbara, she was a teacher. I guessed Labor Day was for men to stop working and rest a little, and for women to just keep on working, ’cause a woman’s work is never done. Anyways that’s what Grandma told me.
Uncle Merle worked for Consumers’ Power Company and Dad worked for Ma Bell. Those two brothers both liked to climb poles and fix things; and they both liked to tell stories. Uncle Merle was Dad’s best-friend-brother, like Bonita was my best-friend-sister. Uncle Merle and his family lived in our house and farmed with Dad, until it got too crowded. Those two had the same star-blue eyes and the same smile that tugged up the corner of their mouth when they tried to look all straight-faced and tell a joke.
Uncle Frank and Uncle Gerald worked in the Shop making cars, one for Ford and one for Chevrolet. I could never keep it straight who worked for which, but those two were always arguing about who made the best cars in the whole wide world, Ford or Chevrolet.
I never knew what Uncle Glenn did at his work; he was a good listener and stayed kind of quiet But that was the end of quiet in that part of the family, ’cause his kids, Jeffrey and Gary were rascals. Mom said they were just boys; boys were all motion and mischief. For sure, that’s what those two boys were. Uncle Glenn told me he had a pet fish when he was a kid; he caught it in the river, brought it home and kept it in a pail. He said that fish could do all sorts of tricks, and he even taught it to walk on land and stand up on its tail fin and beg for food. Then one day, that fish just walked away and he never saw it again. Right then, I knew where Gary and Jeffrey got all their mischief-making ideas, ’cause I could see some sparks in his blue eye, too, just like Dad’s.
Uncle Ellis was rich. He lived down in the Motor City and he was The Boss. He was the guy everybody else wanted to get a rest from, ’cause The Boss is the person who gets the Big Bucks and makes everybody else do all the work. Nobody told me Uncle Ellis was rich, but I figured it out. Uncle Ellis only had one kid: that’s all rich people get, just one or two kids, not a whole bunch to make up for them not having much else. Besides bosses can order people around to do chores for them, so they don’t need any kids to boss around. Dad took me down to the Motor City to visit Uncle Ellis, and that’s where I got the real proof that he was rich: he had a brand new house that still smelled like sawdust, and a lawn with absolutely no weeds. When I got out of the car and put my feet down on his lawn, it was so soft and cushy I felt like my feet were sinking into velvet carpeting. I touched it with my fingers and picked a piece so I could taste it. Yep. That was real grass all right.
“That’s sod,” Uncle Ellis said. “They brought the grass in big rolls and made me a lawn in one day.” I looked at Uncle Ellis’s eyes and the corners of his mouth. He sure looked proud, and he looked dead serious, too. For sure, only a rich person could get a lawn that way. Holy Cow! If I was rich, I would find something better to do with my money than have already grown grass rolled out on my lawn. Besides, I kind of liked the way dandelions made a lawn look like drops of yellow butter splashed all over it; then when it went to seed, it looked like fairies were floating through the air. That was super.
When everybody got tired of talking and eating, we got together and played one last game of baseball: all the uncles and all the kids. Moms were too busy cleaning up, changing diapers and rocking the babies to play ball. There were special rules for ballgames with family: Little Kids get unlimited strikes, grownup bat left-handed, no umpires—we were on our honor. Nobody had gloves; everybody forgot the score and we played until it got too dark to see the ball. Then we headed up to the house for some cupcakes and Kool-Aid that the moms laid out for us. Tomorrow school started.
“Did you ever see a dog climb a tree? My dog Butch can,” Uncle Merle told me. I knew he was teasing, ’cause dogs can’t climb; everybody knew that. “Come on, we’ll show you.” His sons Tom and Donald got the dog, and all us kids went out to a little apple tree in the back yard, the kind with a crook about three feet off the ground. Up jumped Butch into that crook and planted his front feet high on the next nearest branch just as proud as he could be. Donald and Tom split a gut laughing at the look an our faces. Then that dog did the darndest thing: he looked around at all us kids, and I swear he winked one of his brown eyes, and the corner of his mouth twitched up just a little. I could imagine how Uncle Merle taught Butch to get in that tree, even though I knew that was a far-cry from climbing. Still how d’ he teach that dog to wink and grin in just the very same way he did? I never did figure that one out.
There’s only two uncles left now: Uncle Gerald and Uncle Glenn. We still get together every year toward the end of summer. Those two uncles make sure we all know everything there is to know about haemochromatosis, because that’s what took their other brothers away and it’s a disease that’s easy as eating pie to treat, if you just know you have it. I remember how Dad sobbed like a child when Uncle Merle died, ’cause he lost his best-friend-brother; and I remember that same lost look on his brothers’ faces when Dad died. But there’s no need to remember those dancing eyes or those grins creeping up one side of their faces and washing over the other side until their whole faces are all lit up. Those eyes and those grins are on the faces of Jeffrey and Gary, Donald and Tom, and my own brothers Loren, Frank and John. I see it on my sons’ faces and on my grandsons’, too. I have a sneaking suspicion those star-blue eyes and slow grins are gonna keep on multiplying until there as numerous as the stars in the heaven.