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Department of Writing and Rhetoric

O'Dowd Hall, Room 378
586 Pioneer Drive
Rochester, MI 48309-4482
(location map)
(248) 370-2746
fax: (248) 370-2748

Familial Puzzle by Marianna Seal

A headshot of Marianna SealThe light of the yellow sun shone through the worn-out blinds and lit up the hardwood table. The plain birthday cake was bare except for the addition of “Happy Birthday” and my great grandma's name “Mary” with an exclamation point. I wanted to help write her name in that blue frosting too, but it was already messy enough; no need to make it unreadable by giving the 6-year-old a crack at it. 

Everyone was there. At least, everyone that mattered to us. My mom and dad, all of my uncles, aunts, grandmas, Dennis, and even all of the cousins that lived in the state. All of us with smiles you could spot from the moon, squished in my great grandma and grandpa's tiny dining room. 

We all sang happy birthday together, some of us trying to harmonize with the original melody which just made it sound like the song in different keys. But we always did it and laughed because it was awful. My great grandma loved it. It wasn’t much, but we were all here. As a six-year-old, the entire event seemed like a nice, fun evening celebrating my grandma's birthday. There was even free cake. 

Looking back at it now, it still seems like just a nice, fun evening. But now that I am an adult, there are so many pieces of the familial puzzle I realize I missed. The snide look my aunt gave my uncle, her brother, when he took another beer. The continuous coughing my grandma Joy had and the awkward silence that followed her statement, “I’m goin’ out for a smoke.” The quiet panic Dennis had while internally debating whether he should go with her or stay inside with us.

As a child I noticed these things, but I never drew conclusions or thought that they were anything other than ordinary acts. I simply did not care to know that there was anything else going on beside the cutting of that mouth-watering chocolate cake. Dennis decided to stay in which is good since he already smelled so strongly of cigarettes. It didn’t matter what time of day it was or what event we were at, he always smelled of smoke. A bitter smell that regularly made me scrunch my nose. I often thought that smoking must run in the family since Dennis, Grandma Joy, Aunt Amy, and Uncle Brian all smoked. My mom, Jennifer, was also Joy’s child, like Amy and Brian, but she was the only one who had never smoked a cigarette before. Which I was thankful for.

Dennis is my grandpa . . . I think. I actually do not think that he is blood related to anyone in the family. He was always with my Grandma Joy though. They were always laughing together in some corner of the room or outside. They came in a package just like Twix. Dennis could be my mom's dad. Or my uncle or aunt's father. I simply do not know. All I know is that I have called him Dennis my whole life. Even if we got a blood test today and discovered he was my biological grandpa, I would still call him Dennis, because that is who he is to me. 

Dennis was always there. Every family event, birthdays, holidays, reunions, all of them. I can't even remember when he stopped coming to them. I really liked Dennis. I felt like we were very close and that it was just natural to know and like your family. He was such a jokester, as a kid he always made me laugh and I thought he was magical. Every time I saw him, he had a new magic trick for me. My eyes would sparkle with unrestrained wonder.

“Show me the magic!” 

“Alright kiddo, I got a new one for ya,” he would respond. 

Following this line, he would pull a quarter from my ear or make a chocolate kiss appear from out of nowhere. Dennis knew I was a sucker for sweets. He would laugh at my amusement and ruffle my hair with a toothy smile that you could tell had seen its fair share of cigarettes.

“How can I do the magic?” I asked with absolute conviction.

“You’ll be able to one day, those who don't believe in magic will never find it,” he said, with the shadow of a smile. My nose scrunched and grin widened. 

I thought it was the coolest line and that it should have been in a book. Turns out it was. It’s a quote by the author Roald Dahl, the man who wrote James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and other children's literature books. Some of my favorites at the time. So at least he copied a man with a magical imagination. I wasn’t mad when I discovered that Dennis did not come up with that line on his own. I guess I was just a little disappointed. In my childhood wonder he stood out as a figure that rivaled superheroes and wizards. So, finding out that the magic he showed me was actually sleight of hand and that his famous quotes were not his famous quotes forced me to change how I saw him. The problem with that though, was that by the time I realized this, he had stopped coming to our family events. How was I to change my image of him if I didn’t know anything about him. Child me knew Dennis; adult me did not. I didn’t even know his last name. I never did.

* * *

I do not remember the last event that Dennis came to, but one of the last times I saw him was at Grandma Joy’s funeral. I was 9 at the time and remember it being the first death in the family that I could fully comprehend. All of us huddled around the open casket. Sniffles and the sounds of noses blowing were the only noises for a while. It reminded me so much of that birthday when I was six. All but one of the same people were here and instead of celebrating another year of life for great-grandma Mary, we were remembering and honoring the entirety of grandma Joy’s.

“Are you okay?’ my mother whispered. Her tear-streaked face showed just how much her mothers’ loss was affecting her.

“I’m okay.” With a hug I began rubbing her back. Dennis was there. In a faded black jacket and standing next to my great grandpa John who looked like any parent forced to mourn the death of their child; broken. I had given Dennis a hug earlier, he smelled of smoke and looked so tired; this time I did not ask for a magic trick.

“I would, uh . . .” Dennis cleared his throat. “I would like to say a few words about Joy.”

“Before that, we pray,” said great-grandpa John. Dennis did not believe in God, but he closed his eyes anyway.

“Lord, you have taken another angel up to heaven with you. My daughter Joy was a blessing that we will all miss.” He paused for a while, trying to reign in his overflowing emotions. Eyes clenched and bottom lip trembling as he continued. “She was always smiling. Her children Amy, Jennifer, and Brian were her greatest treasures. She was so full of life… and I… I just… I can’t believe she’s gone.” 

He broke down in a sob. I had never seen my great-grandpa cry like that before and my tears began to pour out before I could try to stop them. I hate crying at funerals. The vulnerability it shows is too much for me sometimes. My grandpa was able to finish his prayer with great effort to which we all responded “Amen.” All of us but Dennis.

My Aunt Amy and Uncle Brian were hugging and crying. My great-grandma and grandpa were holding each other and crying. My mom and dad were both by me, crying, with their hands on my shoulders. Everywhere I looked there was some form of hugging and crying. Except for Dennis. For Dennis there was only crying. If this had been anybody else’s funeral, he would be crying and hugging Joy. Dennis never did say those words.

* * *

I saw Dennis recently. For the first time in 10 years. At a McDonalds. I was waiting in line to order, and it was like getting hit by a truck driven by my own memories. The smell of the greasy fast-food joint filled my nose, and I could hear my blood pumping through my eardrums. My eyes widened to the size of saucers as my body froze in shock. I started breathing heavier and was actually scared I was going to have a panic attack. I always liked Dennis. We were so close. And seeing him then, I had to debate on whether to pretend I didn’t see him, or greet him with a hug, or just go say hi. 

None of those seemed like the right actions to take. I did not know this man. At least not anymore. It’s not like I could simply run up to him and ask for a magic trick. I never knew why he stopped coming around. It could have been that after the death of my grandma the family just didn’t seem the same to him. Or that seeing us without her there was simply too sad for him. I believe another strong possibility is that he felt like he no longer fit in our familial puzzle. That with Joy not there he no longer had that connection to our family. But he did. Or at least he used to.

 I see his eyes. We make eye contact briefly, and then we both look away. The room is getting hotter, and I can feel a drop of sweat run down the right side of my face, the side on which he is sitting in a booth not 15 feet away from me. We are both extremely uncomfortably aware of each other's presence. He is panicking, too. I know it. 

I order my food in a haze. I don’t even know if what I ordered is what I wanted. All I can think about is the guy in that booth. Giving me the side eye, wondering if I can recognize him. Which I can. He is skinnier and has more wrinkles but it's him, it’s Dennis. And I think, What are we? Are we family? Friends who haven’t seen each other in a while? Acquaintances?

I see him stand up and throw away his food. As I'm standing to the side waiting for my order, I realize that the doors are right next to me. He needs to pass me in order to exit. I pretend that the walls are the most interesting things I have ever seen. I am thinking of what I could say. What we will talk about. 

And he leaves.

He walks right past me without another glance and exits through the door. The smell of cigarettes follows after him. After my momentary shock fades, I realize that he has given me an answer now. He willingly chose to remove himself from our family. I hoped that he had been doing well since Joy’s funeral and that this interaction is just what happens as life goes on. I tried my best not to be disappointed or sad about that realization. But now I know exactly what we are. I am not the six-year-old little girl asking for magic tricks and he is no longer the man that comes to every family event. Now we are simply strangers. Puzzle pieces that once connected but are now from entirely different puzzles.