Every year in October, my father-in-law’s family has their annual “camp-out”. It’s really just a family reunion that takes place in the woods, next to a creek that runs through his cousin’s property. A road made of worn down grass and weeds winds around until it gets to a clearing in the trees. As always, they build a big bonfire, and all the women bring food, and lay it all out on the back of a wooden trailer.
Every year it’s usually the same folks that come…everyone is always happy to see cousins from far away. This year a new baby made an appearance. A miracle baby, in a way. A cousin’s oldest son is a little person. Two years ago, he married another little person. About a month ago, they give birth to a baby little person. She is a beautiful baby, and so far, she has no health issues to speak of. Everyone knows that could change, because little people can have big health problems.
So, they were there, and that was cool. Both of my kids were there, and that made me happy. The usual older aunts and uncles were there, sitting in the fold out chairs around the smoking logs. They don’t talk as much as they used to. They just kind of look around and smile, say a few words here and there.
The people you notice right off the bat, though, are the two-year old twin boys. They aren’t identical, but pretty close to it. They remind me of the odd couple. One is all neat and clean, and the other has scabs and scrapes on his dirty face, his blonde hair sticking up everywhere. They had a big, red wagon equipped with fold-out back rests in the front, and the back. They would climb in and sit facing each other in the wagon, after successfully charming a relative to pull them around the campground.
The person you most often see pulling those two around is a large, hulking man wearing overalls. I noticed this year the buttons on the sides of his overalls were barely keeping his belly reigned in. He has reddish gray hair with a matching mustache and beard. His name is Gary and he is the twins’ grandfather. It is his land that the campout is held every year.
Gary’s hair used to be red as fire, but it almost looks strawberry blonde now with all the gray that has grown in. He is my husband’s first cousin, and they’ve been more like brothers than cousins. Gary used to work at my father’s hardware store, back in the 80’s, when he was a teenager. We still laugh at the memory of him burning out the clutch in my dad’s work truck. Which, of course, wasn’t funny at the time! If it wasn’t for him, though, my husband and I wouldn’t have met! His family was very active in one of the Methodist churches in our town, and my husband’s family never went to church. When they were old enough to attend youth activities, Gary would drive fifteen minutes to pick up my husband and take him to church, because he couldn’t drive yet. A couple of years later, we started going to that church and the rest is history!
Gary can talk more than any one person I’ve ever met. He’s always had stories, and man, are they long! He loves history, and he is deeply devoted to his family, even the ones that are long gone. See, his family has deep roots in a rural area outside of the town we grew up in. Great-great grandfathers, great-great uncles, and the farms and land they all grew up in, are still in his family. That land and those stories are part of what makes Gary who he is. When he would tell stories about those folks, his eyes would light up.
He and his wife finally could afford to build a house on some of that land, and I’ve never been happier for anyone. It’s like he was home. His brother lives a couple of acres over, and Gary was always figuring where the best building sites were for his son and daughter, should they ever decide to build.
Yesterday, I was standing next to a tree talking to one of the cousins, when I looked over and saw Gary in his old overalls, walking towards the makeshift road. In front of him ran one of the twins, and the other quickly caught up from behind, his arm raised as he ran, so that it could find Gary’s hand. I stood there in silence and watched as Gary slowly walked across his beloved land, with his two precious grandsons, and my heart broke in two.
The person who wasn’t at the camp-out was Gary’s son. His name was Jack, and he died six months ago. He took his own life. He was 25 years old, the same age as my oldest son. They used to actually camp-out at the camp-out. My husband and boys, Jack, Gary, our nephew Dylan, and some of the other young cousins would sleep in tents and go for night-time strolls through the woods. They have so many stories of camping out there next to that creek, scaring each other, talking all night long. Jack never missed a camp-out.
Gary is one of the kindest people I know. He was his son’s biggest supporter when he was battling addiction and demons, and never gave up on him.
The image is burned into my memory, Gary in his overalls, holding his grandson’s hand, walking away from us through the grass. He moves slower, and he doesn’t seem quite as tall as he used to. The little boy awkwardly maneuvers through the tall weeds with his grandfather’s help. I recall his face as we talked earlier, how he wasn’t quick to smile, and he hasn’t told any stories today.
Gary doesn’t get to share his family land with Jack anymore, but he will share it with Jack’s children. He shares it with my children. Someday soon, I pray that his eyes turn bright again, and he tells us stories that never end.