The acceptance letter and the invitation to the family reunion arrive on the same day, an unseasonably hot day in late April. My past and my proposed future stuffed into the mailbox, a tiny dark space, pulling me in different directions.
I’ve been dreading this invitation, knowing it would be arriving soon. Now that the card, a sentimental thing with a collage of mothers, fathers, and children, is in my hand, I’m almost relieved that the waiting is over, and, yet, those echoes draw me in...
No excuses. Aunt Sal has been orchestrating the reunion for at least a year and has carefully picked a date most suitable for the one hundred people related to the Mallory family.
WHO: The Mallorys, Bacons, O’Flahertys, etc.
WHO: Danny O’Flaherty!
WHAT: Family Reunion.
WHAT: Command performance. Be there.
WHEN: June 20, 1990, from 10:30 a.m. to ????
WHEN: From the beginning of your existence to ????
WHERE: The Lake.
WHERE: Wherever you go, wherever you live.
COST: A favorite dish, plus $25.00 per couple, $7.50 per child, to help defray the cost of renting The Northwest Quadrant of the Winnehaha Pavilion.
COST: More than you’ll EVER be able to afford.
RSVP: Sally Millhouse, (712) 555-1234
RSVP: Or ELSE!
SPECIAL NOTE: We’ll be sitting for family portraits!
WHY: We want to dig out the secret spaces in your memory, we will make you face your past.
Typed on the “Directions” sheet:
THE REASON FOR THIS GATHERING IS BECAUSE THE LAST FAMILY REUNION WAS BACK IN 1972 WHEN PAPPA MALLORY, ROSIE, AND AUNTIE WERE STILL ALIVE. LET’S GET TOGETHER & SHARE MEMORIES!! PLEASE CALL OR RETURN THE ENCLOSED R.S.V.P. AND INCLUDE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES FOR THE FAMILY HISTORY. 250 wds. ADULTS, 100 wds. KIDS.
Most of whom I no longer know.
And I can’t figure out why she has chosen Lake Winnehaha; back in 1988, she and Uncle Phil fought against the Native American developers who eventually claimed–and won–the lake area as part of their reservation, forcing people like my aunt and uncle to give up their small lake side cabins for a settlement paid out by the federal government–in short, next to nothing.
“You can’t fight progress, even in Siouxland,” the Tribal Chief told The Sioux City Journal after lake side owners had presented 10,000 signatures to the reservation governing board.
I am tempted to call Sal and remind her that she has sold out to the “enemy,” but she would probably deny all allegations. It just isn’t worth the trouble.
You can’t fight progress, period. Nana, always the pragmatic matriarch– and my surrogate mother, off and on, from birth to age five and then for good from age seven until 17, when I graduated from high school.
I, myself, am charmed by The Lake, as everyone in Siouxland calls it, even though the premise of a Native American indoor theme park and a casino strikes me as being slightly hokey, but people love the complex, which also offers a shopping mall for hanging out, Siouxland’s version of Mall of America. The Winnehaha Quadrant, a glassed-in park with Olympic-sized swimming pool, is where the reunion will be held. Temperature control year round, protection from the sub-zero cold in winter and the suffocating heat in the summer.
Siouxland is not known for its temperate climate; rarely do the thermometer and humidity readings hit the happy medium of 75 degrees.
A metaphor for my life.
Which reminds me of the unexpected acceptance letter:
Council for International Exchange of Scholars
Eleven Dupont Circle, N. W. ● Washington, D.C. 20036-1257
Affiliated with the American Council of Learned Societies
April 15, 1990
Ms. Samantha A. Mallory
127 Tanglewood Road
Knighton, PA 17777
Dear Ms. Mallory:
It is a pleasure to inform you that the Council for International Exchange of Scholars has awarded you a nine-month grant under the 1990-1991 Fulbright program with France.
Your application to study painting overseas has been approved, and you will receive a nine-month stipend of $25,000, living expenses (for you, your spouse, and/or children), and studio space. You will receive additional information under separate cover.
Please sign the enclosed letter of intent and return by July 1, 1990.
Dr. Inez V. Shorb
I fold the letter and hide it in my underwear drawer. There is no way I can go to France right now. What would I do about Ian? Maybe next year....
Besides, I forgot to tell Sheldon I had applied for the Fulbright. Why bother? He’d never close up his successful practice and follow me to France on one of my whims. He’s worked hard for his standing in this community–for him to take off for an entire year, well, it just wouldn’t happen.
So why did I apply for this grant, anyway? Maybe just to see if I could do it. Yes, that’s it. But who would ever think they would take my application seriously? It’s a good thing they didn’t require a photograph. I would have been turned down for sure; I hardly fit the image of starving artist.
Still, I wonder what Sheldon would say if he knew about the grant? Or how I used an old artist boyfriend for a reference?
Evan must have really written up a killer recommendation....
What difference does it make? I’m not going to tell my husband. So I’ll never know his reaction. I’ll just have to turn it down.
And so that’s the end of it.
Back to reunion details.
So Aunt Sal wants everyone to write a short autobiography.
How can I cram my life into 250 words or less? I suppose she just wants an outline, a thumbnail sketch of our successes, our silence about our failures, our silence about our deepest fears.
How can I possibly give her what she wants? I’m still editing my life. As long as I’m alive I’ll always be fine tuning my vision, staring at those concrete blocks that some higher power–I’m still trying to figure out who that might be–seems to place in my zig-zag path. No matter what turn I take, that no-good being finds it and plunks down another barrier.
Still, for Nana, I’ll write something short and safe. She’ll be dead soon–maybe even before the reunion, but I doubt it–and then I can write anything I want. If only I could remember something significant about my life. Not much there, really: I was born, went to Catholic schools, was graduated (if not with distinction), did the typical rebellion thing, had a child, got married, got divorced, went to college and graduate school, remarried, taught Intro to Psych courses, took up painting–in that exact order. If I change the order slightly and delete “rebellion,” I’ll have the sanitized version of my autobiography.
But I wish I could tell Nana how I really feel about my life and myself:
I wish I could tell you that I have discovered the right way to live and that my story will serve as an inspiration for God-fearing souls, you worshiper of Our Lady of Fatima and Mother Theresa. I wish I could tell you that I attend Holy Mass once a week, but the truth of the matter is, the Unitarian minister is lucky if she sees me twice a year, and then she has to ask my name. I consider myself lucky if I experience any kind of epiphany in my life–like finding my long-lost laundry list–and the only kind of rapture I know occurs between my legs. I still pray to St. Anthony when I lose something that must be found, but my pleas are sprinkled with intermittent swear words. By now, I have certainly worn out my welcome with the saints. I still love St. Christopher–though, like me, he has fallen out of favor, receiving a bum rap from Mother Church who doesn’t seem to understand him. All I know is if I needed help across the Winnehaha pool, St. Christopher would carry my 200-pound body without complaining. No fat jokes, either. On the other hand, part of me is still afraid of loving him too much and then being shunned as a heretic, afraid of what you would say.
I wish I could let you know how angry I am that you allowed my baby sister to slip out of my life for 30 years. I know that you had good reasons for not adopting her when you adopted me, but knowing them does not fill the hole in my life, the empty space that I sometimes try to fill with food. I wish I could tell you about the last time I saw her as a baby, how I cried and begged Daddy Platts not to take her away from me. I’ll never forget the despair in his eyes as he took Ruby away. I can’t tell you these things now–you’re too old and sick. I should have told you how I felt back then when it might have made a difference.
Now it’s too late.
And then there’s that time when Danny...well, I don’t really want to talk about that.
I want to tell you about the pain I felt when I got pregnant with Nikki, why I couldn’t tell you about the baby until after she was born. I wish I could commiserate with you about how Nikki and I don’t talk anymore, but, then, we’ve never really talked either.
I want to tell you that I should have never married Sheldon Weiss, the only living Jew in your estimation to qualify for sainthood. Would you be shocked if I told you about Ian, my new lover, how he gives me the psychic energy that Shel sucks from my soul?
You lied to me, Nana: men DO love fat women after all, especially if they have big tits. I’ve been fighting boys and men off all my life, and now I’m tired of fighting. I was never meant for monogamy, I’m afraid, not even serial monogamy.
Just like my mother, your daughter.
I want to tell you the details of my liaisons, some of them serious, most of them frivolous: Jackie, P.J., Andy, Darryl, Tom, Rob–
Snake. Snake Bodine.
–Doug (how you hated him when he had the audacity to marry me after calling you and Pappa “Uptight Hoosiers”); Evan, the artist; the drummer whose name I can’t remember; Tyrone, Doug’s best friend; George (I don’t know if I can count him–I’d never actually met him); Sheldon; Brian; and, now, Ian. But if I told you these things, you might not be shocked, and that would shock me....
I want to tell you that I’m now a slinky 5 foot 4 inches, weigh 105 anorectic pounds, have short saucy black hair, a creamy complexion, and slanted green eyes, but it would be a lie–except for the slanted green eyes. I could also tell you that I glide through life, blessed with a glib tongue and effortless ways, having become the granddaughter I never was but wanted to be, but that would be the biggest lie of all.
High self-esteem still does not come easily.
So, then, this is my other story, a story that even as you read, changes color each time I draw a breath, a story that zigs and zags as I stumble willy-nilly from point A to point God-knows-what.
Instead, I jot down the standard bio information: married to Sheldon Weiss–I don’t mention husband #1–has adult daughter Nicole, teaches nebulous college courses, such as “Painting and Psychology,” “Van Gogh and Jungian Theory,” “Freud and the Blue School.” Amateur oil painter. Main obsession: portraits.
Has painted over 100 geometric self-portraits in various shades of Prussian Blue.
Hides grant letters in her underwear drawer!
Never makes waves.
For more, go to Quillery Press_________________________________
What Happens When the Fat Lady Sings, copyright 1992-present by Jennifer Semple Siegel, may not be reposted or republished without permission from the author.
I originally wrote What Happens When the Fat Lady Lady Sings back back in 1992, long before I was granted my own Fulbright. Back then, never in a million years would I have believed that I would be awarded my own grant.
Life imitating art? I think so, at least to a certain extent.
Unlike my character Samantha, there was no waffling over accepting the award. After receiving the acceptance, my first question:
"How fast can I pack?"
Lake Winnehaha is a fictional place and exists only in my imagination.