In the time before smart phones, in that now forgotten time, when life was simpler, because not everyone was online, in the green city of Bartlett outside of Chicago, a little girl would visit her Grammy.
It was a time of Easters that were sunny and Easters that were windy, Easters where girls with bowl cuts and frilly floral dresses were flung about in the wind and collected colored eggs worth forty cents. But most of all, it was a time when everyone had a place, and everything made sense in the kingdom of Bartlett.
There were laughing mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers; there were favorite aunts and fun aunts and aunts who made marshmallow casserole and favorite bean dip.
There were indomitable fathers and grand-fathers; bachelor uncles and uncles who played pool and old uncles who sat and played checkers.
There were brothers and big cousins, little cousins, and second cousins… and all together, they made a great big noise.
That was the one constant in that little kingdom: there was always a lot of noise.
At the top of the cousin chain of command there ruled the eldest, and she ruled uncontested. Never did it enter her mind that anyone would unseat her, for she sat upon her throne – which was really a director’s high chair – with such adamancy and control as she corralled them all into a back room for hours on end, only to release them again to an eager audience of mothers and cameras, that the idea never occurred to any of her underlings either. Under her imperial direction the cousins sang The Sound of Music, traveled the Wizard of Oz, and they were the joy and wonder and ingenuity behind The Nativity Story.
After her came the cool kids, or so it seemed to those beneath them. How they gave off the impression of not caring two straws about the queen and her commands! How they disappeared into secret chambers, or rode away to strange parks. From them the little girl learned H.O.R.S.E on a tilted black pavement, offense and defense, how to rescue footballs from trees, and how not to see the world through a rosy prism, for they were older, smarter, and understood life just a little bit earlier.
After them came the little girl’s own group, and for being made up of three little girls, there was surprisingly little drama! There was, however, plenty of make-believe, pretending, and play, and they were a self-sufficient little threesome, in their own little world. There was a fourth little one, with straight dark hair, who visited on occasion, and then instead of play, they talked. Sometimes they joined the cool kids, and how lucky they felt! And sometimes they hid away in the craft closet, pretending like it was their own little vault, and if they talked very quietly, no one would ever find them there. How they laughed, as they switched off the lights, when they heard someone calling them to dinner, but no one ever found them. Then they would come up, and their little cousins would wonder, saying “where were you?” But they would only smile, and they never told.
Poor little one! There is always someone in a class all their own, too old or too young, too different, to belong anywhere in particular. A lost little lamb, who must learn to find his place. Someday, he would have to move away from the kingdom of Bartlett to find himself… but he would, and it would make a man of him. Then he would come back a new person, not at all the little boy who played alone and tagged after the groups he could never quite enter.
After him came the babies, patted by everyone, who entertained themselves all alone, or were young enough to sneak into the older groups. With chubby legs and sweet-smelling Snuggies, they played house with the kitchen set, or hide-and-go-seek with the house.
Such a simple, understandable little world, with clear rules and hideaways and vaults, and people to pet and people to admire. But now that house is long gone. Destroyed in a flood, with a wash of destructive water, a thousand childhood associations swirled away, and a fresh coat of paint could not find it again. The kingdom had changed, and so had they. Grown up now, no more bowl cuts or frilly, floral dresses, no more H.O.R.S.E, or forty cent eggs.
Half of the cousins are married, and many have moved to faraway lands and strange coasts, wandering the world, looking for happiness. But life is not like they pretended; it is not a sound of music, or a road with yellow brick. The nativity story can be hard to remember, and secret vaults don’t exist. But somewhere, in a grown up girl’s heart, there is the impression of a green land of Bartlett, with favorite aunts and no cell phones and marshmallow casserole.