At 5 A.M. on the day of the family reunion I wake up thinking about homonyms. I don't know why I am being assaulted by a grammatical phenomenon I haven't thought about since grade school. Still, rather than settling back to sleep, my mind obliges this random hook of thought and foggily fishes for words: lush, sound, mind. Vein and vane. Ferry and fairy.
I meet my sister at my parents' house and we caravan up to Idaho for the reunion. We are heading to a small town near Bear Lake where my aunt and uncle have recently moved, ostensibly because the fresh air is good for my ailing aunt. My sister and I discuss this as we drive, how this move reminds us of those old, flowery British novels where the feeble and sick are always relocating to the seaside. This remedy of fresh air seems improbable, although somewhat romantic. As we reach the lake, we roll the windows down and I rest my feet on the dashboard. There is something to say for fresh air.
We turn off the highway and follow a narrow dirt road for several miles. As we roll into the small town, the dust settles and we assess our surroundings. My sister confides that the thought of living here makes her feel "panicky." I agree. Somehow, the unbound landscape is oddly claustrophobic.
The family reunion is held at the town's one and only park. We arrive just as they are finishing the raffle. We have missed dinner. Our small delegation walks toward the pavilion, my sister and I trailing our parents and clutching weary children to our chests. "If you had made it on time, we would have had 107 for dinner," my aunt says by way of greeting. 107. A big number, but not big enough, considering that I have 66 first cousins and more than twice that many second cousins. Obviously, my dad's siblings have sent small delegations of their own. Too many of us are not here, most notably the two who started it all - Grandma passed away nearly a decade ago, and Grandpa is in a care center.
We exchange sideways hugs and polite conversation with cousins and aunts and uncles. My children gravitate to the whirling, riotous merry-go-round on the playground. They manage to climb aboard and wrap their slender, tanned arms around the bars and hold on tight. I watch them, remembering the summers of my childhood, when my dad's side of the family met at the park every Monday night for a potluck dinner. That was when my cousins and aunts and uncles were at the core of my world. We were a livelier bunch then, without the strained conversations and perfunctory hugs.
The sun starts to set, and as I look across the fields, I understand how a setting like this could be therapeutic. It really is lovely, but it's getting late and we still haven't had dinner. There's a Taco Time in Montpelier, someone says. Just before we leave, my dad notices his Acadia has a flat tire. We wait as he puts on the spare. The tire looks too small for such a big car. We say our goodbyes and drive into Montpelier, behind the lopsided Acadia that is still lumbering on, despite the small tire. Tire is a homonym, too, I think. It belongs to that tricky category of words that look alike but have more than one meaning. I think about the rather enervated family reunion we have just left, and how time has a way of making homonyms out of more than just words.