A cat by any other name

A touch of family



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Meow to me

How do I describe what I saw last night? There is no way to adequately put into words watching a grown man climb into a six-foot tall bubble-gum pink balloon to the tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra, and then proceed to bounce it around the stage to refrains from The Nutcracker. Words do not give justice to this same man wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, adorned with eighteen strategically placed bicycle horns, all with a unique pitch, and then doing various bodily contortions including squats and chicken-flapping of elbows to honk out classical music in two-part harmony.

I don't know anything about the performer except that he was French-Canadian, and he was one of many who come to Lakeside to entertain. This privately owned resort has nightly concerts and acts, just one of umpteen things available here. I'm here for a family reunion - an annual event for my mother's side of the family that has been held in this same spot for decades. Each year the Hickson clan descends on Lakeside for one Saturday to catch up with distant relatives, meet the new ones, and share stores of family members absent or lost.

Lakeside is an idyllic little town. It's the sort of place where one has no choice but to relax. There is an air of peace and safety here. Doors remain unlocked. Strollers and bikes cluster in front of shops and restaurants, unchained and yet unmolested. It is the kind of place that is perfect for any type of family - young children with more energy than they can handle; teenagers trying desperately to be cool; older couples long since retired. There are things to do if you want them - a tiny miniature golf course, courts for playing horseshoes and shuffleboard, the beaches of Lake Erie.

My family has not always managed to make it out here every year, and it is rare that all of us can attend. But this year we managed it, squashing seven adults and two tiny children into a rented summer cottage with lumpy beds and a screened-in porch perfect for enjoying the evening. My dad and I rented a tandem bicycle and we wobbled around town, laughing at our own lack of coordination. My nephew was surrounded by an influx of cousins whom he never knew existed til now, yet he joined them at play, and was carted around by the older ones. My little niece was passed around into dozens of arms for kisses and cooing, and managed to endure it gracefully, all the while charming the relatives with her wide-mouthed grin.

Yet through it all there are bittersweet memories. The last time we were here was four years ago. My grandfather turned eighty that year, and through some miracle, every single one of his descendants made it to Lakeside. He was dying of Parkinson's, and we all knew that this particular reunion was too important to miss. He had his faults - quick to anger and it often came with a raised hand - but he was the only member of my family who had an educational background similar enough to mine to understand what it was that I was doing in college. That year we managed to talk briefly - the former chemist and the budding nutrition research writer - and he not only could make sense of my research, he was also able to ask questions. He was so old and frail, his body wasted into a brittle husk of what he had once been. It was almost painful to touch him, knowing that he was slipping away and despite my desire to get to know this man better, this would be the last time I ever saw him.

That visit to Lakeside was full of laughter, but there were also tears because we all knew what it represented. He died the following winter, and it was on the flight home from his funeral that my dad and I, stranded in the San Francisco airport for hours, talked about database programming and I finally decided to give this computer thing a whirl.

I wish I could have come earlier this year to Lakeside. I would have liked a few more days of a vacation that I didn't actually need a vacation to recover from. This little town may not hold the same weight of memories from years and years of reunions that it does for my mom and her sisters, but that makes it no less special.

The man I spoke of in the beginning of this entry - the one with the pink balloon dance and the orange horn-suit. One of his acts was to play glasses, and by that I mean that he had a tray of wine glasses, all filled with just enough water to give each of them a unique tone when he ran a dampened finger around the rim. At the end of his act, once he emerged from the balloon and the entire auditorium had finished the standing ovation, he did an encore. As the lights dimmed, he pulled out the glasses again and played Amazing Grace, the crystal notes echoing in the suddenly silent hall. My eyes got misty again, although this time the tears weren't from laughter, but from memories. How appropriate that he chose to play it as a finale for Lakeside, because Lakeside will always make me think of my grandfather. And it was my grandfather's favorite hymn.