Our Own  "Circle Game"

            spring 1999

      Lots of us are  "children of the sixties."  Somewhere back there we heard Joni Mitchell sing  "The Circle Game,"  and thought we knew what it meant.  I thought I  knew what it meant anyway.  Given what I'm finding out I do know,  it seems important to say I'm writing from the perspective of being nearer sixty than forty.

When I was a boy, at family gatherings there were three groups, all of whom had certain functions at our get-togethers.  "The women"  - - including my mother - -  cooked and served up dinner, and engaged in much secretive talk and giggling and gossipy whispers while doing the dishes afterwards.  Dad and his brothers and cousins were  "the men"  engaged in heavy labor like cranking ice cream makers, or lofting horse shoes  - - real ones - -  toward a distant stake.  If it was too hot they sat on a shaded porch and told stories.  "The kids"  were expected to stay clear of both groups.  Neither clot of adults wanted us to hear what they told about ones who weren't there...

The elders of both adult groups, my grandparents and others their age were supervisors.  The female variant knew where all the dishes belonged, and determined the geography of the kitchen table, where each dish was to be placed.  Their male counterparts adjudicated the placement of horseshoe stakes, decided when the ice cream was  "done,"  directed the course of talk on the porch.

So...

About that circle I thought I understood...

Twenty two years ago my folks threw a three day reunion on this place.  More than two hundred Sloan blood kin showed up, with a lesser number from my mother's family.  I was sitting on the porch with some male cousins, remembering this and that, recalling times and places we'd shared, while my father and his brothers made sure everybody got a chance to talk about their  "stuff,"  that each generation got a turn...

When I went in the kitchen to refill my coffee cup I found girl cousins with whom I once chased around yards and across fields laughing at the sink, while Mom told them where to put everything once it was clean.  Beyond a window I could see my sister's kids and my brother's kids chasing my kid...

At that moment, for the first time in my life, I really understood  "The Circle Game."

Except the damn circle had shifted maybe ninety degrees while I wasn't looking...

And now some of us are of an age to experience a heavy responsibility our folks knew when they were forty or fifty:  we are burying those who've been just ahead of us all our lives.  Aunts and uncles and parents reach the end of that portion of The Circle visible to mortal eyes, and we do for them what they did for those who led them.

We witness the end struggles.

We pick out caskets and headstones.

We are pallbearers.

We cook food to take to mourning families.

We try to  "help,"  and wonder why oh why didn't we get around to asking very small questions that loom large once their answers are truly gone.  I have boxes and albums of photos in my house, of people no one can name because I never got around to getting my mother to label them...

We are painfully aware the dawn of each new year means a smaller crowd going along in front of us, that we are ourselves move nearer the head of the line with each new year, with each new day, with each exhaled breath.  Some of that awareness of moving up in line is more ludicrous than painful:  I realized, thirty minutes into a conversation with a youngster the other day that in lots of ways, for him I'm an  "old timer."  That's a real headshaker...

The Appalachian generation just ahead taught us to tie our shoes, to tell time, to button our clothes.

And, I'm beginning to realize, the last lesson they teach us is how to die.
 



 
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