I've always hated family reunions. I feel like a fifth wheel, aimlessly spinning out into space while the rest of the world revolves around me. I expected to feel no differently at this gathering but was pleasantly surprised to see my Aunt Nora, fanning herself under a shady tree.
"Aunt Nora! What are you doing here?"
She broke into a smile, holding her arms open for me to slip into and we held the hug for several seconds. Aunt Nora's general health had been declining for the last few years and she was usually unable to attend any family function except Aunt Bee's Christmas party. To see her here was like opening a window in a stale house. We finally released each other and I knelt beside her chair, still holding her hands.
"I'm here to enjoy the festivities, you moron." She laughed, wiping tears away. "I should ask you the same question. I thought you hated these things."
I sighed. "I do, but Mom got me up at the crack of dawn to help her with the food so ... "
"So you thought you might as well come along and have some of Ginny's famous barbecued ribs, eh?"
My stomach growled at the mere mention of my mother's cooking. I wasn't 220 pounds for lack of eating, that was for sure! "Please, Aunt Nora, I'm already starving." I surveyed the rest of the party, taking in the decorations as well as the people milling about. "Why would Mom hold a family reunion on Veteran's Day?"
"Seems as good a day as any." Aunt Nora shrugged, using a tattered tissue to wipe the beads of sweat from her forehead. "Besides, it's a holiday as well."
Veteran's Day had never been a holiday in our house. It was never spoken of as was the man whose pictures littered every mantle and shelf in our home. We didn't feel like celebrating war when someone we loved so dearly had never returned from its clutches.
"Aunt Nora, what do you know about my father?"
She just stared at me for a long moment. "Why do you ask?"
"Just curious. No one ever talks about him ... "
"And for good cause, David. The Gulf war was horrible."
"Yes, but it's been more than ... "
"I know how long it's been, David. Time doesn't necessarily make things easier to handle."
"But why won't anyone talk about him?"
Again, that funny look from my favorite aunt. "Honey, leave it alone. Have fun at the reunion today and just leave it alone."
Frustrated, I stood up and just looked down at her. I knew I wouldn't get any more information from her. Aunt Nora was not jokingly known around our family as 'Aunt Knox' for nothing. Once you told her a secret and asked her not to tell anyone else, her lips were zipped and that only made me more curious. Obviously, she was hiding something. Why?
I decided to find my Aunt Bee next, knowing that she enjoyed gossip and would let me know what was going on. I found her in a quiet and deep conversation with my mother and when she spotted me, both turned toward me, fake smiles plastered on their faces. I gave my Aunt Bee a kiss, not missing the conspiratorial wink she gave my mother.
"Hello, ladies. What are we whispering about?"
"None of your business!" My mother exclaimed, tugging on my ear as she had when I was a mischievous little kid. "Why are you so interested in what old women are saying to each other?"
"Mom, you've never lied to me, right?"
"Then why are you lying now?"
She just stared at me for a few minutes, flustered and searching for an answer. Aunt Bee looked away, clearly uncomfortable with her sister's situation. "She's not lying."
"What is she not lying about?"
Aunt Bee looked over at Mom and shook her head. "You might as well tell him, Nancy."
"Tell me what?"
"About your father, David."
"My father's dead, right? He died in Kuwait, right?" I could tell by Mom's reaction that my statements weren't true. "He's alive?"
"Come with me, David."
Mom led me outside, away from my aunt who was crying openly and she took my arm, giving me a squeeze. "I never talked about your Dad because it was so painful to think that he was dead. I couldn't give up the hope that someday, he would come home safe and sound." She paused, breaking into deep sobs and I swallowed against the lump in my throat. What was going on? "David, I want you to meet your father."
A man in a dark suit stood from his place on the bench and I froze in place as he limped forward on a cane. "David? Last time I saw you, you were eight years old." His voice shook with the emotion he was feeling and tears fell down my cheeks as I remembered our last meeting. Mom and I saying goodbye to him at the induction station, waving to him as he boarded the bus. He extended his hand. "David Laughton, senior."
I was almost sobbing too hard to reply but I took his hand, then threw my arms around him, holding on for dear life. "Welcome home, Dad."