Thomas Uther, 49, wife Sarah: Sons Arthur, 16, and Ryan, 12.
Grainne Vanora, 47, husband Tim: Daughters Jennifer, 15, and Rachel, 9.
Elliot Merlin, 41, wife Claudia: Son Mateo, 8.
June 22, 2013. Guinevere's 75th birthday.
"Hello, Baby," Gwen says, tilting her cheek up to receive a kiss from Elliot.
"Hi, Mom, happy birthday," he says, bending to kiss her cheek.
"Happy birthday, Grandma!" his eight-year-old son, Mateo, comes barreling in, hugging his grandmother.
"En Español, mijo," his mother, Claudia, reminds him as she walks in behind him.
"Feliz cumpleaños, abuelita," Mateo sighs, and Gwen smiles at him. She knows how important it is to Claudia that her son keep up with his Spanish. As he's gotten older and been in school, he speaks it less and less, so she reminds him frequently.
"Muchas gracias, Mateo," Gwen answers, kissing his forehead. "Claudia, are those tamales I spy?"
"Sí. I know they're your favorite." Claudia sets the crockpot full of homemade tamales on the counter and plugs it in so they stay warm.
"Elliot, why weren't you carryin' that for Claudia?" Gwen scolds.
"Because I don't trust him not to drop it," Claudia laughs.
"Where's Dad?" Elliot asks.
Gwen sighs and looks at the ceiling. "Oh, he spent all week practicin' on that Mario Kart, goin' on about how he was goin' to 'take the grandkids to school,' or some such foolishness, and…"
She is interrupted by Arthur's booming indignation.
This is immediately followed by the diabolical laughter of a nine-year-old girl. "Outta my way, old man!"
"You didn't have to knock me off the bridge!" Arthur protests.
"Um, yeah, Grandpa, she kind of did…" an older boy's voice answers.
"Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"My own," the boy answers calmly.
"That's it! I'm not sharin' my name with you anymore, Artie. You don't get to have it!"
"Grandpa, you can't do that!" the girl exclaims, giggling.
In the kitchen, Gwen just chuckles and shakes her head. "Sounds like Rachel is the one taking her cousin and granddad to school."
They sit around the large dining room table, eating Grainne's fried chicken (Gwen's recipe, of course), tamales, cornbread made by Thomas' wife Sarah, fruit salad, and greens.
"Sarah, I don't know why, but yours always tastes better," Gwen says, taking a bite of cornbread. "You gave me your mama's recipe, and I've made it, but…"
"Food always taste better when someone else makes it," Elliot chimes in.
"Only because you can't cook for crap," Thomas shoots back.
"Language," Gwen says sharply when Rachel and Mateo both giggle. They think crap is a bad word. Thomas does not agree.
"That costs a quarter!" Rachel declares.
"It does not," Thomas protests.
"It does," Grainne explains. "Real swear words are fifty cents."
"Put it on my tab," Thomas says, waving his hand dismissively.
"You're gonna be rich, Rache," Ryan, Thomas' twelve-year-old son teases.
"Hush," Thomas says. "What she doesn't hear doesn't cost me anything."
"Elliot, how's your book coming?" Grainne asks.
"Almost done. Just waiting for Nicole to finish the illustrations."
"Another Kevin book?" Grainne's husband Tim asks.
"Of course. The first two books are still doing well. The kids like that dragon, I guess," he says with a shrug.
"Hey, Jen, I was going to ask," Artie turns to his fifteen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, "Did old Mrs. Jacobson ever decide to believe that we're cousins?"
Jennifer laughs. "Eventually. I basically had to draw her a color-coded diagram, though," she rolls her eyes.
"What's this?" Grainne asks, interested.
"Oh, my freshman English teacher – who Artie had last year – saw us laughing together in the hallway. Then I gave him a quick hug, and she assumed that we were dating," Jennifer says.
"Yuck," Artie interjects, sticking his tongue out.
"I know, right?" Jennifer agrees, making a face as well. "So I told her that Art was my cousin, and she was all, 'No he isn't.' And I was like, 'He totally is, why would I even make that up?'"
"She's really old," Artie says, by way of explanation.
"Yeah. So finally I took some colored pencils and drew her a diagram, starting with Grandma and Grandpa. Had to explain everything, that Artie's mom is black so he's darker and my dad is white so I'm lighter, blah blah blah…"
"Wait till she sees me, she won't know what to think," Mateo grins.
"Teo, you won't have her," Artie says.
"'Cause you live up in Mequon, silly. Besides, she'll probably be retired by then anyway," Jennifer says. "Oh, Grams, when I told her your name she was like, 'Oh, okay,' like everything suddenly made sense. She said she remembers you from something you were at when you used to volunteer all the time back in the day."
"Jacobson, you say?" Gwen asks. "Short, fat lady with a bit of a mustache?"
Artie nearly falls out of his chair laughing at this.
"Yeah. I think her first name is like, Linda, or something," Jennifer says.
"Okay, yes, I do remember her. Strange lady," Gwen says, furrowing her brow.
"Yeah, well, she said you were nice. I agreed. Oh, and she also recognized that I was named after you, which is a first."
"But Grandma's name is Guinevere and yours is Jennifer," Mateo says. Rachel is nodding in agreement from her seat.
"Jennifer is the modern version of Guinevere," Grainne explains. "We updated it just like they updated my name from your great-grandmother's name, Ygraine. She was Grandpa's mom."
"Ugh, good call," Ryan says.
"Yeah," Jennifer agrees.
"So, is everyone named for someone in this family?" Mateo asks.
"Well, Baby, pretty much," Gwen says. "Thomas Uther is named for my daddy and Grandpa's daddy, Grainne's middle name is Vanora, which was my mama's name, and Elliot Merlin is named for my brother, Elyan, and y'all know Merlin."
"And I'm named for Grandpa," Artie says. "Ryan, your name comes from Mom's baby brother that died, right?" He looks at his mom, and she nods a little sadly.
"And my name is Grandma Wozinski's!" Rachel exclaims, grinning. Grainne nods, smiling at her sometimes-a-little-too-exuberant daughter.
"And Mateo, you are named for my abuelo," Claudia says. "He brought our family here to the US from Mexico."
"Cool," Mateo says.
"Well, now that we all know who we are, can someone pass me those tamales?" Arthur asks, holding his hand out.
"Arthur, you go easy on those tamales," Gwen says. "You'll be up all night if you eat too many."
Arthur makes a dismissive noise and waves his hand at his grandson, asking for the tamales again while Gwen sighs and rolls her eyes.
"Grandpa, when can I drive the '65?" Artie asks, handing him the platter. Thomas, Elliot, and Tim all look on with amused interest. Arthur's 1965 Corvette is his prized possession. He purchased it in late summer, 1964, and has kept it in prime condition for nearly 50 years. Artie has been drooling over it for two years now. Thomas and Elliot have each driven it once. Briefly. As far as Arthur knows, anyway. Tim has been allowed to ride in it.
"After that performance I just saw on Mario Kart? I'd say when you're 30," Arthur answers.
"That's a video game! And I've got my license now!" Artie protests.
"Yes, for two weeks. And I've seen you drive your father's car. Maybe next year. If you're lucky. And even then, I might consider letting you drive it to the end of the street," Arthur says.
"Arthur, it's only a car," Gwen says, sighing. Five sets of male eyes lock on her in stunned disbelief. "What? I've driven it plenty of times," she shrugs.
"You let Mom drive it and I had to beg?" Elliot sputters.
Arthur stares coolly back. "Your point?"
Just then the doorbell rings.
"Saved by the bell," Elliot says. "Mateo, go get the door."
"Who could that be?" Gwen asks. "Everyone's here…" She looks over at Arthur and sees that he's got that I've-got-a-secret-and-I'm-trying-to-be-cool look on his face.
"Uncle Merlin! Mordred!" Gwen's question is answered by her youngest grandchild's excited squeal.
"Get a couple more places set, please," she says, tapping Grainne on the shoulder as she rushes out to greet her surprise.
"Surprise! Sorry I'm late," Merlin says, hugging Gwen warmly. "Happy birthday, Love."
"Thank you. And you ain't late if I didn't even know you were comin', Merlin," she answers. "Did you pick him up from the airport, Mordred?"
"Yeah. It was no problem, Auntie Gwen," Mordred says, smiling. "If it means I get cake, I'll do nearly anything," he laughs.
"Cake is later. We're havin' dinner now, come on, Grainne is settin' up some seats for you." She walks with them into the dining room, Mateo clinging to Merlin like a monkey, where they are greeted loudly and warmly.
"Mijo, get down, you know you're too big for Tío Merlin to carry," Claudia chides. Mateo drops to the floor, looking guilty as he slides into his chair.
"It's all right," Merlin chuckles.
"Cabbage Head," Merlin greets Arthur, hugging him.
Arthur responds by shoving the side of Merlin's head.
"They only get bigger, they don't grow up," Gwen mutters to Grainne as they both sit back down.
"Don't I know it," Grainne agrees.
"Pass me those… everything," Merlin says, beckoning with both hands.
"Uncle Merlin, how is it you can eat like that? Have you always been that skinny?" Claudia asks, mystified, as she passes him a platter.
"Just lucky, I guess, and yes. Ooo, did you make these, Claudia?"
"Claro," Claudia answers. "Of course."
"Tío, I'm getting better at piano!" Mateo exclaims excitedly.
"Me, too!" Rachel pipes in.
"Well, then, you'll both have to play for me later," Merlin laughs. "And maybe you can help me play Happy birthday for Grams too, yeah?" he adds, winking.
"Oh, shoot, I just remembered," Artie gets up and dashes out of the dining room.
"Boy runs around like his breeches are on fire half the time," Gwen says.
"And that's exactly why he ain't drivin' the '65 until he's 30," Arthur mutters.
"He asked already, hey?" Merlin says, chuckling.
"Have you gotten to drive it, Uncle?" Elliot asks.
"Once. I don't think Arthur knows about it. Until now," Merlin laughs, glancing at Gwen, who is also laughing.
"Wait, what? What treachery have the two of you been up to?" Arthur asks, looking back and forth between Gwen and Merlin.
"Oh, Arthur, I think you were sick with the flu—"
"Food poisoning," Merlin interjects.
"Oh yes, that's right. You were bein' a right pain, and poor Merlin was visiting, and he needed to get away from you for a bit, so he went to get you some juice or somethin'. I slipped him the keys," Gwen says, laughing.
"Made dealing with your sick, whiny backside worthwhile," Merlin says.
"Uncle Merlin, I found this at a thrift shop," Artie has returned with an album in his hands. He shows it to Merlin.
"Bloody…" Merlin says, careful to censor himself in front of the little ones. "This is in really good shape."
It's a near-mint copy of Merlin's first album, Erin Go Blue. He flips it over. "Holy… look how young I was."
"So your ears always looked like that, huh?" Artie asks.
"Artie!" Sarah exclaims, glaring at him, but Merlin is laughing.
"It's all right, he's just teasin'," Merlin says.
"What does that mean, 'Erin Go Blue?'" Ryan asks. "Who is Erin, and why is she blue?"
"It's a bit of a pun," Merlin says, looking up from the album, avoiding reading the dedication To my beloved Freya. "I'm an Irish guy who plays Jazz music. Jazz, Blues, you know? 'Erin go bragh' is an Irish saying. It basically means 'Ireland forever.' So I was trying to be clever."
"Told you it was too obtuse," Arthur says.
"It's better than your suggestion!" Merlin exclaims.
"What was Grandpa's suggestion?" Rachel asks.
"He thought I should call it 'Jazz Leprechaun.' I told him that was kind of racist."
"Not to mention yuck," Jennifer says, sticking her tongue out.
"Thank you," Merlin says.
"Pass that around, please," Sarah says. "I'd like to see it."
"Everyone wipe your hands before touching it. I don't want greasy chicken hands touching my album. Uncle, will you autograph it for me?" Artie asks.
"Of course I will. After I eat," Merlin says.
"Right," Artie says, and goes to sit.
"Oh, there you are, Rachel," Gwen says, finding her youngest granddaughter in Arthur's home office. It's more of a den/hiding place now, since Arthur has been retired for nearly ten years.
Rachel is staring at the framed print of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech that Gwen got for Arthur nearly 50 years ago. She's standing, shoes off, on the sofa cushions reading it, her lips occasionally moving.
"Hi, Grams," Rachel says, turning her face towards her grandmother for a moment. "I was just reading this."
"Did you learn about Dr. King in school?" Gwen asks, walking in, coming to stand behind Rachel.
"We always talk about him in February for Black History Month," she says, still staring at the words. "No one ever believes me when I say I'm part black," she giggles.
"Yes, well, there was a time when that would have been seen as a good thing, sweetheart. Where you would have denied to your last breath that you have a colored grandma."
"Grandma, no one says 'colored' anymore," Rachel chides, her little hands on her hips.
She may look like her daddy, but she has her mama's mannerisms. And mine, Gwen thinks, smiling.
She waves off Rachel's correction. "Colored, Negro, Black, African-American, whatever. As long as it isn't that other word, I don't care. In any case, that's not the point. The point is you are a lucky girl to not only be able to have some pride in the fact that you have African-American blood in you, but also to freely express that pride. When I was your age, you could have looked like you, with your dark blonde curls and blue eyes and still, if the wrong person found out you had a colored granny, you would have been treated with the same disrespect as any other colored person. I'm sayin' 'colored' now because that's what we said then."
Rachel nods, then looks up at her grandmother as a thought occurs to her. "And now we have a black president. And that's pretty cool."
Gwen nods. "Yes, it is. Grandpa and I never thought we'd see it in our time. You should have seen us smilin'." She pauses a moment, remembering Arthur's smile and his words. "This is a big moment for America, regardless of how you cast your vote. I'm glad I got to see it come to pass." "And President Obama is actually biracial, like your mama and uncles," she adds.
"Oh, that's right," Rachel says. "So our family has something in common with the president!"
"That's right," Gwen says. "He's a man just like your daddy or Uncle Thomas or Uncle Elliot. Well, maybe not just like Uncle Elliot…"
Rachel giggles. "Uncle Elliot is silly."
"Yes, but that's why we love him. Now, what do you think Dr. King would say about our country electing an African-American president, twice?"
Rachel screws up her little nine-year-old face, thinking. "I think he'd be happy."
"Most likely, but remember, not everyone likes the president."
"Well, from what Mommy has told me, that happens no matter who the president is," Rachel answers.
Gwen nods. "True. But you are right. I think Dr. King would be pleased that we've progressed far enough as a people and as a country to elect President Obama. It's a big step."
"It's so sad that Dr. King was shot," she says. "Do you think he'd still be alive if he wasn't?"
"Possibly, if he was lucky," Gwen says, drawing Rachel down to sit beside her on the couch now. "He'd be very old. In his eighties."
"Like Great-Grandpa Uther?" Rachel asks.
"Yes," Gwen chuckles. Uther is actually in his nineties, but she doesn't bother correcting the girl. Grainne and Tim took the girls to Memphis over their Christmas break this past winter to visit Uther. He lavished them with ridiculous gifts in his dotage, and so, at least for a while, Great-Grandpa Uther can do no wrong. "You do know why Dr. King was shot, don't you?"
Rachel scrunches up her face again. "Because people didn't like the things he said?"
"Basically, yes. He believed that people should be treated based on how they acted and treated others instead of how they look."
"What's so dangerous about that?"
Oh, the innocence of a child, Gwen thinks, smiling softly. "It was a new idea. It was different. People don't like change. Black people originally came to this country as slaves," she says.
"I know," Rachel says solemnly.
"So they were automatically seen as inferior. Slavery was outlawed, but people's ideas and beliefs didn't change."
"Because they didn't want to change. Rachel, there are a lot of things wrong with this world, even now. Remember last summer when that idiot went and shot up that temple down by the airport just 'cause the people that worship there look different and believe different from him?"
Rachel nods again. "That was scary."
"Scary is a good word for it. But that's the same kind of person that shot Dr. King. And that kind of person is a coward."
"It doesn't make sense," Rachel says.
"I know, Baby, it doesn't. That's why the main thing to remember is that you can't control other people, but you can control you," Gwen says, poking Rachel's nose.
"Do you remember what Grandma's favorite story is?" Gwen asks.
Rachel nods. "The Sneetches."
"And do you know why?"
"Because 'no kind of sneetch is the best on the beaches,'" Rachel quotes. They must have read that book thousands of times.
"That's right. I have two favorite doctors, you know. Dr. King and Dr. Seuss," Gwen says.
"Is Dr. Seuss a real doctor?"
"Not at all."
"He's dead, too?"
"Yes, they're both dead. Dr. Seuss wasn't killed, though. He died an old man. I believe he had cancer."
"Oh. But Dr. King was a real doctor?"
"Yes, but not a doctor like Dr. Edwards, your pediatrician," Gwen says. "He was the kind of doctor like…"
"Dr. McTiernan, Uncle Merlin's friend?" Rachel asks.
"Yes, like that," Gwen says. Even after 45 years, she finds it difficult to believe that Gwaine has doctorates in both philosophy and history. None of them knew he even had a brain, and now he's a distinguished professor at Memphis State. "Some doctors are called doctors because they got an awful lot of schoolin'."
"I want to be a doctor. A medical doctor," Rachel says. "So I can help people like Auntie Morgana or Uncle Elyan."
"If that's what you want to be, child, then be it," Gwen says softly. She had gotten a call from Alvarr down in Florida this morning to wish her a happy birthday. He couldn't give any good news about Morgana, who has been steadily slipping away from Alzheimer's Disease these past three years. Elyan had died the previous year from a massive stroke.
"So why is Dr. Seuss called a doctor if he's not a doctor?"
Gwen laughs. "I don't exactly know. I'll tell you this, though. Dr. Seuss and Dr. King came from very different backgrounds and cultures. Dr. King was black; Dr. Seuss was white. One did civil rights work, the other wrote children's books. But their beliefs and ideals were very similar."
"You'll probably understand that better when you're older," Gwen says. She bends down and kisses the top of Rachel's head.
"There you two are," Arthur says, appearing in the doorway. "We're all waitin' on you, you know."
"Sorry, Baby, I just found Rachel here reading your poster," she says, pointing up at it. "So we were havin' ourselves a little chat about Dr. King and how his work still isn't finished."
"It's not?" Rachel says. "Oh. Right, I guess it isn't…"
Arthur nods, a small smile on his face. "We can't sing 'Happy Birthday' without the birthday girl, you know. Merlin's even waitin' at the piano for you," Arthur says, holding his hand out to Gwen and helping her to her feet.
"Oh, Lordy…" Gwen says, rolling her eyes. Rachel bounds out of the room, eager to sit next to Uncle Merlin at the piano.
Arthur pauses now, and Gwen sees his eyes tracking the words on the poster. "Is it wrong to be happy when these 50-year-old words still haven't fully come to fruition?" he asks softly.
"No, Baby, it's not wrong. I was just tellin' Rachel that you can't control other people, you can only control yourself. We've worked hard for our happiness. You've helped thousands of people find theirs as well. We've instilled the same values in our children, and they've passed them along to their children. That's all we can do."
"It's been quite a pursuit, but as long as I have you, I have my happiness," Arthur says, smiling down at his wife. "Happy birthday, darlin'," he adds, bending his head to kiss her still-soft lips.