My 102-year-old aunt died this month, outliving her six siblings and greatly skewing my family’s longevity average up. She passed on in her sleep, quite possibly out of boredom; when I last visited she was one of the few residents still mobile and interested in conversation. To be fair, the retirement village sits in the middle of extra-sunny New Mexico and most everyone out there takes midday siestas if only to take a break from shading their eyes from the sun.
The last year of phone calls with Janette took on that gallows humor feel, each time we spoke her hearing had grown worse and the entire thing became a ping-pong game of WHAT? and I SAID I LOVE YOU. I never really got the hang of shouting loud enough for her while also sounding loving rather than aggressively insecure. I hope her muffled ear canals somehow softened and rounded my words into a soothing reassurance.
My cousins and I swapped texts across the country letting each other know she’d passed and lamenting the end of a generation. The texts were subdued, gentle; not at all our family’s style. We come from a line of pranksters and one-uppers who have been known to put the fun in funeral. But Janette was the last of our parents’ siblings, and it had only been a couple months since my uncle Sam, the elder statesman of our family, and the one who taught me to sign the guestbook at funerals with the name of someone famous to impress the neighbors, had passed. Maybe, I thought, we were too sad, too tired, too far removed from each other to find a laugh.
I needn’t have worried. As I tried to think of something to lob into the void of our texts my phone dinged.
“We should get together and have a poker game in honor of them.”
“They’d love that.”
“What was that one game? We’d put a card against our foreheads…”
“Screw your neighbor.”
“Do you remember liar’s poker?”
“Weren’t all the poker games liar’s poker?”
“There is that.”
And so it went, all of us cousins patchworking a quilt of funny memories from California to Florida to New York, North Dakota, and Indiana.
Over the last few days I’ve caught myself smiling at some memory or another, the time one of my uncles took a large group of us to dinner, then excused himself for the bathroom and told the waitress I was buying. Or the time I was speaking to a boyfriend by phone and two of my aunts shouted hellos, but purposely called him by the wrong name and laughed hysterically.
Every member of my mother’s side of my family took part in a prank called Fire in the Hole. This prank could happen anytime, to anyone, and might involve immediate retaliation but more frequently the prankee would take note of the prankster and return the prank at a later, strategically more inconvenient time.
The idea is simple: the prankster finds his or her way to the second floor of wherever we were– most frequently my Hobart family’s house for a yearly reunion. Said prankster would fill a vessel with cold water (extra points for large containers such as Koolaid pitchers) and wait near a window for someone to pass by.
Now, there were a few of us who’d come to such events already thinking about a strategy, and we were usually the first to fire. I, for instance, would go up to the second-floor bathroom of my aunt’s house, open the window, and set a full tumbler of water there. Because the bathroom overlooked the deck, the wait was never long and no man, woman, or child was off-limits.
As soon as someone sat down in the chair closest to the window I’d shout, “Fire in the hole!” and toss the water. Most of my family are slow movers, so the prankee didn’t generally get all the way up from the chair before the big sploosh. It was great fun to complete a successful prank, especially if it started a series of scuffles to get up to the launching area or away from the bullseye.
My sister was a favorite target of my cousin Paul’s. She’d announce she was not to be doused, which just put a mark on her back, and Paul would meticulously set his plan in motion. When she was soaked–because it happened every time– she would screech indignantly and then try to return the prank too soon and too obviously, resulting in various people (but not Paul) getting drenched.
The whole afternoon might be spent taking long routes around to the deck to avoid all the windows or luring unsuspecting relatives as close as possible to the danger zone without giving away the goal too soon. Shouting fire in the hole was required, or it was just considered unsportsmanlike. We were many things but unsportsmanlike? Well, yeah, we were that, too.
When I got married at a lovely historic home under a beautiful blue sky it was early May and still the tiniest bit cool outside. As my mother, sister and I waited for the guests to sit we watched from the second-floor window of the dressing room. The window, an old hand-crank type, opened noiselessly.
My family meandered to and from their seats chatting, while my soon-to-be husband’s side walked with purpose, sat quickly, and dutifully opened the program. One of my uncles– the one who stuck me with that hefty dinner bill– glanced up and smiled at me. I waved back, then filled a wine glass with water and called him over. He pretended not to hear me. I called louder. Still nothing. I did what any girl in my position would: I cranked the window as wide as possible, leaned all the way out, and shouted as loud as I could.
He mosied over, still smiling up lovingly at his niece on her wedding day. I shouted, “Fire in the hole!” and doused him. Some traditions cannot be ignored.
Thinking of all of them, my mom and her siblings, I imagine they’re playing poker somewhere in the beyond. They’ll be laughing and bluffing and talking about all our good times, just as we are doing here on earth. It’s too quiet without all of them; the shouting of fire in the hole, or I said I love you replaced with quiet air and memories. But there’s a poker game in my future with enough cousins that we’ll have to shout to be heard, so that’s something.