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Family Matters

How do you find out about your ancestors?

Thirteen asked me a few days ago about her heritage. How would she, she wanted to know, go about drawing a family tree? We talked a little bit about the family members who have completed genealogy studies—and then I asked her: what’s your interest? “I just want to know where I come from.”

Hers is a good and fundamental need to know. In part, I’m certain, she’s hoping there’s an exotic ancestor or a drop or two of royal blood in our past. And I suppose, if just about anyone traced back far enough, there would be both princes and pirates in some part of the family bloodline.

Our ancestry is mostly European, mostly western, with one significant branch of the family arriving just about the turn of the last century from Lebanon. My light-haired, blue-eyed children don’t look it, but they are one-eighth Lebanese.

My extended family isn’t awfully close and those drops of blood meant little when I was growing up. I had no bloodline connection to my most interactive grandparent, Norma Bourjaily, nor to my Aunt Eileen, married to my father’s younger brother—my Unca Paul (https://overneathitall.com/2014/06/)—for sixty-six years. But this remarkable woman, a tiny dynamo, was a relative life force in my world. It is her life I remember today, celebrating her memory in light of her death late last month.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

My Aunt was 96 when she died—the math reveals that I met her for the first time when she was my age today, 50. It was my first visit to their big house full of treasures in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but it would not be nearly the last. My Aunt and Uncle lived halfway from our Iowa home to the East Coast; so, they were the logical stopover any time we drove East. As a college student I was guilty of calling just a day or two before I would be arriving, of bringing friends or—once—a springer spaniel with me with even less notice, and of arriving late and leaving early. Nonetheless, with steadfast good humor, my Aunt always had a freshly made bed, clean towels, and a delicious meal awaiting my arrival. In the mornings, after our visit and breakfast, she would bustle around her kitchen in order to send me off with extras—a banana and a muffin, a bottle of water, a baggie of trail mix. If my adult cousins were in town, they would be summoned for my visit. Each time I would promise that the next time I’d stay longer or arrive at a decent hour. And off I would go, destined to repeat the pattern over and over.

My Aunt’s care packages sometimes included treasures: family photos; gifts for the folks at home; and once, the Pre-Columbian figure my blood paternal grandmother, a woman I never met but from whom I inherited both writing and yoga, wore around her neck for years. In my current mood of clearing out, I ponder especially the items that I will keep for my children. The most important, I believe, are the things that will connect them to their history, a sense of who they are. So although it’s not a piece I can picture myself wearing, the stone woman sticks alongside copies for each of them of my grandmother’s book. I am especially grateful to my Aunt for sharing this little figure with me.

Remembering—the kind of time travel our minds allow—is another gift. My Aunt, long before her mental acuity was compromised, had memory slips when she talked. Stretching for a word but not wanting to stall in the middle of a thought, she would replace the word with a charming little hmmm or the phrase “kind of thing.” If the word truly escaped her, she would put these together, “It’s a hmmm kind of thing.” And somehow, I like to think because we were related, I would always know precisely what she was talking about.

It felt odd to me to miss posting on the last full super moon, when there was a lunar eclipse no less. Driving my mother in the convertible to see easily the eclipse, conveniently timed in the 9pm hour, I saw neighbors out watching. The moon is my favorite rock, and that night it felt really good to celebrate its majesty in community with so many people. And somehow it was okay skipping that particular post, just as it feels really good now to sit across from Sixteen at a coffee shop, writing in celebration of my dear departed Aunt and a whole new cycle of the moon. Happy new moon—on our way to the Hunter’s or Travel moon. Thanks, as ever, for sharing the journey with me, Rxo

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Flower Power

What’s in the water?

When I was a little girl, my father told me the best bedtime stories. He would line up my stuffed animals and they would play parts. The stories varied each time he told them, but there were oft-repeated storylines—some he had been telling to children for years. My favorite involved a pearl necklace that disappeared from the neck of a patron in a restaurant when the lights went out. The patron was always played by a green hippo purchased from Harrods; the detective on the scene was Rabbitunya, played by a white silky bipedal bunny named Pretty Rabbit.

Rabbitunya is the star of her own story, a story that even in his ninetieth decade my father was still telling. Whenever he told a story, his crystal blue eyes sparkled and flashed. He connected with his listeners who would always be rapt. The last time I heard him tell Rabbitunya, my children his transfixed audience, I scribbled furiously on a legal pad, capturing the text.

Rabbitunya

© by Vance Bourjaily

            One day down by the horse barn, three kittens were playing in the dust. They were Little White, Little Black, and Little Grey. And they said, “Let’s play kitty fighting.” So they all played bite and scratch and kick and roll-in-de-dust.

            Little White said, “I’m tired.”

            Little Black said, “I’m tired.”

            Little Grey said, “I’m tired.”

            And so they rolled in the dust and went to sleep.

            Poor little kitties—there they were sleeping, exhausted, and along came Tail Thief. And Tail Thief said: “Oh ho—There are the kittens, and I will get their tails!”

            So he crept up to them one by one and unscrewed their tails.

            He took Little White’s tail and Little Black’s tail and Little Grey’s tail and he put them in his tail bag. And off he went to the market.

            And the kittens woke up. Little White said, “My tail’s gone.”

            And Little Black said, “Hey, my tail’s gone.”

            And Little Grey said, “My tail’s gone too.”

            “What are we going to do?” And they begin to cry.

            Just then, along came Junky Monkey, “What are you crying about?”

            “Our tails are gone! Our tails are gone!” Cried the kittens. “Our tails are gone and we don’t know what to do.”

           “All we can do,” said Junky Monkey, “is call Rabbitunya. She will help you get your tails back.”

            Well, Rabbitunya was out playing golf with a couple of doctors. Her beeper beeped. Each of the doctors thought it was his, but Rabbitunya said, “No, it’s mine.” She called Junky Monkey, “What’s the matter?”

            And Junky Monkey said, “Tail Thief had stolen all of the kitties’ tails.”

            Rabbitunya said, “Where did Tail Thief take the tails?”

            And Junky Monkey said, “He has taken them to the market to sell.”

            Rabbitunya said, “We’d better get over there—Meet me at the market!”

            So Junky Monkey went to the market and Rabbitunya went to the market and when they got there Rabbitunya said, “Where is Tail Thief?”

            Then they heard his voice, “Tails for sale! I got white. I got black. I got grey. Kitten tails! You put them in the pot and make tail soup.”

            People were crowding around.

            Junky Monkey cried, “No, don’t sell their tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “Get out of here, scat.”

            Rabbitunya said, “No, Tail Thief, you may not sell those tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “Rabbitunya, what are you doing here?”

            Rabbitunya said, “Tail Thief, you must not sell those tails.”

Tail Thief said, “Rabbitunya, go away.”

            Rabbitunya said, “Tail Thief, give the kittens back their tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “No, Never!”

            Rabbitunya said, “If you do not give those tails back right now, I will turn on my flower power.”

            Tail Thief said, “No, no, no, don’t turn on your flower power.”

            Rabbitunya said, “You’re going to give back the tails?”

            Tail Thief said, “No, no! People will buy the tails and make tail soup.”

            Rabbitunya said, “I’m turning on my flower power.”

            Tail Thief cried, “No, no!”

            “Yes, yes!”

            “No, no!”

            “Yes, yes!”

           So she turned on her flower power and it wafted up into Tail Thief’s nose. “No, no …” said Tail Thief, then, “Oh, I feel so nice … Rabbitunya, you’re so beautiful … What can I do to help somebody?”

            “Give back the tails you stole from the kitties.”

           And so Tail Thief said he would, right away. And he went back to the horse barn where the kitties had been playing kitty fighting and were once again asleep. And one by one he screwed the kittens’ tails back on. But it was getting kind of dark, so he screwed Little White’s tail onto Little Black and Little Black’s tail onto Little Grey and Little Grey’s tail onto Little White.

            Then Tail Thief said, “Okay kitties, you got your tails back. Good Night.” And the kittens purred and rolled over in their sleep.

           So … When you go down to the horse barn tomorrow and see a Little White kitten with a little grey tail and a Little Black kitten with a little white tail and a Little Grey kitten with a little black tail, you’ll know how it happened.

I wish that I could adequately portray in white space the way my father wound up his stories. When he got to the “So,” there was a significant pause and those blue eyes would connect with the intent eyes of his listeners, including me in my forties, pen poised over the legal pad, anticipating the big finish even though I’d been hearing the story my whole life. When I was growing up the finish held even more possibility because we lived on a farm and had a horse barn and barn cats. I might have been able to spot that kitten with the wrong colored tail if I got to the barn early enough in the morning (in follow-up stories, Rabbitunya often saved the day by returning the correct tails to their rightful owners, after which more madcap antics would ensue).

Flower PowerThe Bohemian blend of Rabbitunya’s beeper, golf game and flower power has been rattling around in my brain of late. Not only do we currently have a Little White kitten with a very grey tail, but her anxiety in settling in to a multi-cat household lately caused me, on the veterinarian’s recommendation, to begin lacing the cat water with Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic blend of essential flower oils. The change in the behavior of all of our cats has been delightful—there is a softness to their edges, a calm even when they’re playing kitty fighting. And Starling’s objectionable behaviors have stopped.

In my blended world, where I practice eastern yoga and live in a western world, witnessing the miracles of modern ingenuity on a daily basis, many in my own family, Rabbitunya seems to me today like an apt role model. As I have done so many times since he died two and a half years ago, I want to turn to my father and tell him how prescient he was, how much he gave me. And then I smile and feel a twinkle in my own blue eyes, certain he already knows.

We’re enjoying a snow day here, a few days after the luminescent January full moon. Computer blues kept me from posting on time, but these, too, are easing. Thank you for reading. love, Rxo

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