I’ve mentioned before that my mother, sisters, and I are delightfully crazy. As far as mothering is concerned, my mom was and is of the eccentric sort. Our house was the Kool-Aid house, the one where the neighborhood kids came to hang out. I distinctly remember on one afternoon somewhere circa 1985, she choreographed a living room full of my friends in a sultry rendition of Lionel Richie’s “Running with the Night.” She’d taped the video, and rewound it repeatedly so that we could get the choreography down. The next weekend it was “All Night Long,” and we worked on it all day long. It was fun, mostly because I knew I had the mom that everyone seemed to wish they had.
By the time I was in high school, my family and I were a regular three-ring circus, with Mom as the oddball ringleader. People who came to visit who didn’t yet know us know us were always somewhat dazzled by the whirlwind that was our home. We spoke in a language of “you had to be there” moments, cracking up hysterically at things which we understood but made no earthly sense to our guests, who were both puzzled and entertained. There was always music and laughter and dance (Prince, assorted Jacksons, and others are also in our repertoire), and the more you came to see us, that’s the more you grew to get us. By their third visit, folks were considered family and felt like such, and often found themselves active participants in the freak show.
Then came Frank. We dated on and off (more off, than on) through the ’92-’93 school year, so his visits were infrequent. What I consider our official Year One began summer of 1993; he’d just graduated high school and was a month shy of age 18, and I was 15 with two years left to go. We had been in a long stretch of “off,” and I was fairly certain that the awkward hug and terse Good luck I’d said to him at graduation had permanently sealed Chapter Frank. But to my surprise, near the end of June he called me out of the blue and asked if he could come hang out. He was slated to head to Basic Training in a couple of weeks, and he was making the rounds to say his goodbyes. Oh, yes – Teenage Moxie’s heart did backflips, but I held no expectations; Frank had been…fickle, to put it lightly, and I harbored no illusioned hopes that maybe he was coming to the realization that what he’d been looking for had been sitting right there in front of him all along.
He arrived an hour later, gliding up the driveway in that unhurried way of his, dressed in red with a bookbag full of mixtapes slung over his shoulder. We spent the day talking and listening to music. Then day stretched into night, and then overnight. With Mom’s permission – at her suggestion, actually, he ended up spending the night. I KNOW. His mom had dropped him off that day and got tied up somewhere. Because it was already north of 10:00 and my mom didn’t feel like leaving the house, she told Frank just to stay over. My jaw dropped like I’m sure yours just did. Frank was glad to, and we relocated from my bedroom to the living room. We ended up talking through the night about everything and nothing. As much as I told my heart to shut the hell up and sit down somewhere, I found myself getting careless with tethers I’d strapped over it. Months of convincing myself that I didn’t love him were coming unbound, and in spite of myself I began hoping again that maybe, just maybe he loved me, too. I had to keep reminding myself that he’d walked into our home that day to say goodbye, but…
…then he never left. From then until he left for Basic two weeks later, we were inseparable. All of that time spent with me also meant ample time spent with the family. As animated as we were, Frank was equally laid back and quiet. By day three he was absorbed into the fold, but he was far too reserved to participate, choosing instead to watch in mild bewilderment undercut with low laughter.
And so it went for the next few years. He was stationed only a few hours away and when he came into town every 2-3 weeks, it was our house that he called home. My family and I continued with our wackiness and he’d sit on the fringe and allow himself to be entertained.
When we were married in ’96, Frank had one year left at his duty station. That was also the last year of his three-year enlistment. Because it was also my first year of college, we spent the first year of our marriage continuing to maintain our semi-long distance relationship. Just shy of our anniversary, Frank reenlisted in the Army for another four years under the condition that he would be stationed at the base attached to our hometown. Instead of getting a place of our own, Frank just moved in with the family.
On a weekend about about three months or so after he was settled in, Mom, my sisters, and I were up to our usual antics. At some point, Mom noticed that instead of his usual quietly amused grin, Frank instead wore an expression of slack-jawed revelation.
“All this time,” he began. “All this time, I always thought you guys were just showing out, like, because you had company or something. But you guys are really like this. I mean, REALLY like this. ALL OF THE TIME. ”
After pausing for the half a second it took us to realize that he was just then cluing in to the fact that, yes, we really were like that, we all erupted into hysterics – including Frank.
A couple of weeks later, at the (customarily lively) dinner table Frank suddenly interjected, “I want to take you guys out crabbing.”
Forks stopped in midair and my mom, sisters, and I side-eyed each other skeptically. “Crabbing” sounded like perhaps the most countrifried activity that had ever touched our ears.
“Crabbing?” I questioned tentatively. As if I hadn’t heard right, for clarity I asked, “You mean like, fishing, or whatever, for crabs?”
He nodded to the affirmative and looked at us expectantly. There is little that manages to get through our din deep enough to stun us into silence, and the ummmm, okay moment was heavy with WTF?
It was Mom who spoke first. “Okay, Frank. We’ll go crabbing.” She cut her eyes sharply at Chanel and Dani, who were ages 15 and 11 respectively, before they could voice the protests she sensed were bubbling up just behind their lips. “We’re going,” she said more emphatically. “This is the first time Frank has wanted to share something that he enjoys doing.”
For the next week, Frank’s excitement was evident. He talked more actively than he ever had before, telling us about his childhood days in Louisiana spent crabbing in streams close to his grandmother’s house. As secretly unenthused as we were about the idea of driving out to the middle of the sticks essentially to cast a few nets over a bridge and wait, we were all charmed by Frank’s newfound animation. It seemed like for the first time, he was really feeling like he was a part of the family and not just a casual observer.
On Saturday morning, we were up early and on the road at O-dark-thirty. We arrived at a little bridge out in the boondocks just as the sun was beginning to rise. The summer’s heat and oppressive humidity were already beginning to lean their weight on us, and we slapped at the ever-present mosquitos and gnats. Frank was unfazed as he went about preparing the nets, which involved tying chicken thighs to the insides of the ringed, basket-shaped nets and bricks to the undersides as makeshift weights. He showed us how to ease our nets down into the stream.
“And now we wait,” he said, as he leaned back against the low wall of the bridge.
Heaving minutely dramatic sighs of boredom, we took posts close to each of our nets and exchanged furtive glances of mild disinterest with each other. After five or so minutes, Chanel was the first to pull up her net.
“I CAUGHT CRABS!” Her laughter-infused yell sliced through previously quiet morning. Mom, Dani, and I went rushing over to her. We leaned over and saw that she had indeed, caught three crabs in her net. We four ladies felt our excitement levels go from zero to full-throttle in the space of seconds. As Chanel continued to pull up her net, Mom, Dani, and I ran to see if we scored, too.
Our shouts and hysteric laughter quickly joined in chorus with Chanel’s: “I CAUGHT CRABS, TOO!” “I HAVE CRABS!” “WE ALL CAUGHT CRABS!” We laughed as much about the double entendres as we did about our unexpected enjoyment.
When I glanced at Frank, he was still leaning back quietly. Only this time, a knowing smirk graced his lips.
Over the next couple of hours, we managed to catch thirty or forty crabs. Frank cooked them that evening for dinner (I ate chicken; back then eating crab grossed me out). We were our typical loud and silly three-ring circus, laughing hysterically all over again about catching crabs. Frank laughed hardest and was the silliest of us all. For the first time, he was there for a “you had to be there” moment of his doing.
You had to be there.
Yesterday, Frank and I told the kids to pack lunches and to be ready to leave the house within an hour. We didn’t tell them where we were going or what we were doing. They’d heard the story of the day Frank took us crabbing for the first time and had been asking us to take them for a while. When we got to the bridge and told them what we were there for, they all cheered excitedly and were quick to express their thankfulness for us bringing them.
We showed them how to ease the nets into the water, and as we waited, they busied themselves with exploring the nature around them.
Though they giggled and joked and chased each other around, we were struck by how astutely they observed things when one or another zeroed in on something that caught their attention. We caught each of them in pensive moments.
We didn’t catch anything today other than random fits of the giggles. Our nets came up empty, but we left with our hearts full.
Happy birthday, Frank. Here’s to being carelessly in love with each other for exactly half of your 36 years.