My Family

Joe

Alex likes to say “Joe” and “Em.” Joe is his cousin, and Em (Emily) is Joe’s girlfriend and Alex’s babysitter.

Alex says “Joe” with a strong, drawn-out “oh” sound, and the “J” is kind of a blend of “D” and “J”…it’s kind of funny, like he’s channeling a tiny bit of Homer Simpson at the same time….

Joe and Emily were here for dinner the other night. Bill cooked – and didn’t cook. He served thin slices of raw, sushi-grade tuna over sushi rice mixed with thin slices of cucumber and avocado…. He also made a spicy tofu dish that I love, but since I’m avoiding most spicy stuff right now (heartburn galore), I didn’t have any of that, or the sushi (no raw stuff) and rice thing either. I did have edamame – soybeans – that were boiled and salted and I could eat by the ton. And I had leftovers from the night before.

But anyway…Joe and Emily were here Sunday night. They arrived before Alex had to go to bed, so he got to play with them for a while. Especially Joe. He is kind of fixated on Joe right now. And tolerant of him, too, in a way that he is not tolerant of us – or Bill, mostly.

I’ve spoken before of Alex’s 8 billion balls – from ping pong to soccer in size, and just about every kind imaginable, except for baseballs and bowling balls, which are too dangerous for a child his age to be throwing at people.

Well, Joe was sitting on the floor in our basement/living/family room, whatever it is, and Alex was bringing him balls to hold – and then expecting Joe to give them back when asked. That’s the game Alex plays with me, so I’m sure he figured everyone else knows the rules as well.

Joe, like Bill, avoided the rules and instead hugged the big black soccer ball (Alex’s current favorite – “Big BIG Ball!”) to his chest and said “Mine!”

Alex repeated his own “mine” – perhaps thinking Joe had misunderstood. Joe repeated it back and made a stubborn, toddler-like face. (Joe will be 21 in May, by the way.)

Alex promptly started to whine a bit, which is his tactic with Bill, too. And then Mommy intervenes and makes Bill stop teasing Alex before Alex starts to cry.

But Alex didn’t get all that upset with Joe. Somehow he sensed it was a game. So they went back and forth with “mine!” “mine!” and occasional mock-whining from Alex.

Finally Joe gave the ball back to Alex and the battle seemed to be over.

A bit later Joe was sitting on the floor leaning up against the ottoman and watching the end of “Finding Nemo” (oh yes, that was on. I can recite most of it word for word now.) – which he hadn’t seen before. Alex was trying to get Joe to read to him at the same time.

First “The Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss…and then the 1-2-3 book (which has one bunny rabbit eating a carrot, two teddy bears, three puppies, four fish, five boats, six chicks, seven peppers, eight shells, nine pumpkins, ten flowers, eleven pencils, and twelve finger puppets, in case you were wondering)…and then his favorite ABC book (I won’t go into detail with that – it would take way too much space)…and then he put that book away and turned back to Joe and started walking beside Joe’s feet along the length of Joe’s outstretched legs toward Joe’s face.

I couldn’t see Alex’s face from where I was – Bill told me later that Alex had this very intent look in his eyes and a smile that was not completely benevolent…he walked toward Joe, locked eyes with him, and reached his left hand out slowly toward Joe’s head.

I thought he was going to point to Joe’s ear, which was very easy to see, given his military hair cut…but no…that wasn’t it.

Alex reached past Joe’s ear, still smiling, still intent, and whacked Joe upside the back of the head.

(I had to say “upside” – it’s the only way to describe the way he did it…)

Anyway – of course the fact that you’re not supposed to hit people was overruled by the roaring laughter of the 4 “adults” in the room. We were all so surprised by it…this is not typical Alex behavior, for one thing, and it just seemed that he had been biding his time, after all the soccer ball-related teasing, waiting for the moment to retaliate.

I finally came to my senses and told Alex it wasn’t nice to hit (no matter how deserved it might be…or how funny) and to give Joe a hug. Which he did – and a kiss. Then Emily. Then me. Then Joe again, and Emily, and me.

Later, when I was getting Alex ready for bed, he lay there on the changing table repeating “Bye bye Joe!” “Bye bye Em!” over and over….

He’ll see Emily again soon, but he won’t see Joe again for another 45-60 days. Yesterday morning Joe left, with more members of the RI National Guard, the 143rd Airlift Wing out of Quonset, for Iraq. He will be rotating in and out for at least a year, maybe two. Nothing’s cast in stone.

He won’t be stationed in Iraq, but he’ll be “flying missions moving materials and supplies throughout the Southwest Asian theatre,” as they wrote in the Providence Journal on Saturday.

Last fall he was stationed in Germany for about 3 months. He had expected to come home at the beginning of December for about 5 weeks and then fly out in January with the first rotation, but for whatever reason that changed and so he’s going now.

Joe was one of the first of Bill’s relatives that I met after we started dating, nearly 7 years ago.

Joe was 14 and, like all the males in Bill’s family tend to be, tall and skinny. He was a kid. He was over at Bill’s friend John’s house, using a remote-controlled car to torture the neighbor’s dog….

As I understand it, Joe didn’t like me initially. I don’t have a lot of detail, but I’m not surprised. I’m sure I was just seen as just some new chick who took Bill away from Joe and his younger sister, Lisa. I was not part of the family, I was an interloper.

I think he first started to tolerate me that Halloween, or just before it.

Bill and I went over to Bill’s mom’s house, where Joe and Lisa were staying for one reason or another that night…and we brought a pumpkin and a pumpkin carving kit. Spread newspapers out on the kitchen table and Bill cut the top off the pumpkin and scooped out the seeds.

While Bill and Joe “seasoned” the pumpkin seeds with salt and lots and lots of chopped, dried, little fiery red chili peppers, I carved the requisite scary face in the pumpkin. Fortunately I did a pretty good job of it, with cuts of varying depths and lots of sharp pointy teeth. The pumpkin went in the front window.

By then the seeds were baked and out of the oven. Bill and Joe sampled some of them and were apparently pleased with the level of heat generated by the bits of dried red pepper.

And then came Test #1, I believe.

Joe said “Make her eat one.” I was “her,” of course.

So either Joe or Bill – I can’t remember which one – made me a little sandwich of a relatively good-sized chunk of chili pepper between two pumpkin seeds.

I put on my blank stare of boredom (part of the psychological game, naturally) and popped the little sandwich in my mouth, chewed it up and swallowed.

I didn’t blink. I didn’t change expression. I didn’t tell anyone that my throat was on fire.

It’s pretty funny to remember – everyone watching and waiting for something to happen – either I would dash to the sink and drink a gallon or two of water, or cry, or my head would explode….

But no.

Bill asked “How is it?” and I merely shrugged.

He said “Your mouth must be burning…do you want some soda?”

I stifled a yawn (no, I didn’t, but that would have been effective), and said, in a “it doesn’t matter to me” way “okay, if you’re getting some anyway.”

And that was it. Or at least I think it was. The start of my acceptance into Joe’s world.

And over the years he has slept at our house to go on early morning fishing trips with Bill, and I have made him the traditional fishing morning breakfast of a fried egg on an english muffin with cheese, and sometimes ham…

And he helped us move when we bought this house…

And I’ve made him several birthday cakes over the years…

He played football in high school…and was on the wrestling team…

And I have watched him grow from a tall, kind of scrawny, occasionally goofy, occasionally difficult kid into an even taller, strong, serious-looking young man in a flight suit and a buzz cut. He is still occasionally goofy, fortunately. And he’s still young (compared to me), but he’s got that mature look about him that I mostly see in the military, and in freshly minted police officers….

His parents are now living in Florida. His father is one of Bill’s two older brothers, and was a member of the 143rd for 27 years. Bill’s father, like mine, was in the Navy during WWII. And so the military tradition continues into this generation.

He left early Monday morning, and we watch him go with a mixture of pride, a bit of amazement, and a quiet holding of our collective breath.

He has blossomed in the last couple of years – he has grown, he has found more of himself, I think, than he might have if he had gone straight to work somewhere or to college. He also found that he loves to fly. He has seen parts of the world that he might never have seen otherwise. He has been exposed to a variety of cultures and cuisines (and beers) that most people never experience.

He is restless with nothing to do. He was ready to go in January, so this has been nearly two months of waiting, really. So now, finally, he is on his way. He’s got something to do.

He gave me a big hug when he and Emily left Sunday night.

Bloodlines are mere technicalities.

He is my nephew.

I salute him. And I pray for his safe return.

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