Somebody bumped my arm and half of my wine spilled from the cheap plastic cup out onto the linoleum floor.
"Sorry," someone I didn't recognize said.
"Not a problem," I responded. I wondered who the old coot was.
I would have been devastated, spilling wine, except that this was no great loss. It was Ohio wine, one step down from Boones Farm, which tastes like Welch's Grape Juice with alcohol added. The only thing to be said is that it was better than the beer. I noticed that a cousin, Russ, had snuck in his own beer in a cooler which he had safely tucked between his feet. He obviously knew what to expect.
I looked around the hall, now filled with people. They were all my relatives. That was a scary thought. It was a scene from Mayberry and I was related to them. How did I ever let my Mom talk me into this? She just had to come back to the family reunion. My God, it had been thirty years since she had been to a reunion. I just had to meet the Ohio relatives, ad nauseam. So I had relented and agreed to take her to Ohio. And not just Ohio, it was the sticks, where fine dining was Ethel and Joe's place. Just one more day to go.
Apparently on the Ohio side of the family birth control hadn't been discovered. My four Aunts and Uncles had managed to have fourteen kids who in turn had managed to have a slew more kids. I couldn't count that high without a supercomputer. And those were just my first and second cousins. The third and fourths were filling the local VFW meeting hall to overflowing. Now don't get me wrong. This really wasn't Deliverance, at least they wore shoes and had electricity and everything. I hadn't seen one banjo. But there is a real difference in outlook and attitude between San Francisco and outback Ohio. Things I take for granted like quality restaurants in walking distance and world class restaurants a cab ride away are not even in the same universe with Ohio. Lake Erie just isn't the same as the Golden Gate and the Pacific. The great heartland is just too provincial for me. So ok, I'm a snob. San Francisco is still one of the great cities of the world and that is what I was used to.
I found a table with several cousins my age. Their kids were crowded around. My Mom came up and introduced me around and made a special point of introducing one of the cousin's kids, Kristin. She was cute enough, seventeen or so, glasses which gave her a slightly studious look, but I was surprised by how Mom introduced us. Then I remembered a conversation on the flight back. Kristin was the pride of the family. A National Merit scholar, she had recently won some big scholarship. She was in the process of picking which university she wanted to attend from among a bunch who wanted her. I was lucky to even get into college. I was intrigued how this rose grew among the thorns in my family.
I caught her eye and introduced myself, "Cousin Mike from California."
"Yeah, I know," she said.
I waited. Nothing. "What are you planning to major in?"
She was bored by all of the small talk; remember when Uncle Ferd had the operation... Now this was something interesting to talk about. Her face lit up and she leaned forward, "Theoretical physics. I want to go to Harvard."
"Why Harvard?" I asked.
She looked surprised. "Harvard is the best school in the country," she said with some vehemence.
"First, it's not. There is no 'best' school in the country. Do you know how the accrediting agencies rank schools?" She shook her head. "This is what they did. They took Harvard and decided that it was the ideal. Then they rated all other schools based on how closely they followed the Harvard model. For instance, Harvard has the biggest library because they've been building their library since the 1600's. So other schools are rated on how big their library is compared to Harvard's. The bigger the library the better the school. Does that really make it a better college? Of course Harvard is always going to come out first when you pre-judge it the best," I said.
"I didn't know that," she said.
"Don't get me wrong, it is a fine school. And if you wanted to study business or law or wanted to make contacts with the East Coast old boy network to get into politics or government it is the best school. But it's not the best in everything. Yale, hands down, has the best drama program in the country. Julliard is the best music school. And Berkeley is the best physics school. Berkeley has more physical science Nobel Laureates than any other university in the world. If you want to do physics, go to Berkeley," I finished.
Just then Mom tapped me on the shoulder, "I want you to meet you cousin Delbert from Michigan."
I looked over at Kristin and shrugged, "Excuse me. Duty calls."
She smiled at the pained expression on my face, "I know."
I followed Mom off to meet Cousin Who's It from Michigan. The rest of the day was spent meeting and greeting and drinking bad, really bad, wine. It did keep me from over imbibing.
Finally it was over. We stayed with Uncle Jake that night and got an early start for the airport. When I finally boarded the flight back to California I felt like kissing the plane. This must be what it feels like when hostages board the plane back to freedom, I thought. Free at last, God Almighty, free at last.
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon the following year when the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Thanks a lot," said the disgusted voice on the phone.
Quickly sorting through voices which might be disgusted with me, I came up blank. "Excuse me," I answered.
"I said thanks a lot," the female voice said again.
"Who is this?" I asked.
"Cousin Lisbeth," she answered.
"Oh. Hi," I said. No wonder I didn't recognize the voice. I had talked to her for five minutes exactly once in my life. "What's this about?"
"You talked Kristin into going to Berkeley and I don't want her so far away," she said.
"I did what?" I asked.
"At the reunion," she said.
"Oh shit. All I said..."
She cut me off, "Was Berkeley is the only school if you want to study physics."
Laughing, "Sorry but that's not exactly what I said but I suppose that could have been inferred from what I said," I admitted.
"Well Kristin inferred it. In fact, she's been accepted at Berkeley."
"Tell her congratulations," I said.
"I don't want her out in the Land of Fruit and Nuts," said Lisbeth.
"Hey, some of us are normal," I countered.
We talked for quite a while, me calming her fears about the big bad city, her letting me know she was holding me responsible for Kristin being in Babylon by the Bay. I suspected that much of the allure of Berkeley for Kristin was escaping from the very attitude I was hearing on the phone.
I finally hung up and wondered what it was going to be like having a cousin in the area. I'd find out in due time.
I picked up Lisbeth and Kristin at SFO the week before classes started. I had invited them to stay with me while they got Kristin settled into Berkeley. They had accepted with alacrity.
Kristin wanted to head straight to Berkeley, Lisbeth straight to Fisherman's Wharf. I compromised; I headed to Union Square where they could go into all of the fine stores. I don't know many women who can resist the allure of all of the Tony shops on Union Square. We had lunch on the square and then headed to Fisherman's Wharf via cable car. We were lucky and the tourists weren't crowded into every possible inch of the car.
Lisbeth and Kristin both tried a bowl of the chowder on the wharf. We toured Ghirardelli and they both had chocolate. Kristin looked pretty svelte but if she was going to eat like this she'd blow up in no time.
We rode the cable car back to Union Square and got my car. I drove through the Haight. They were disappointed that there weren't any hippies. C'mon, that was thirty years ago. I did drive through the Castro. Two pairs of eyes bugged out at the couples, guys with guys and girls with girls and some other couples whose genus and species was an open question ambled down the street. This wasn't Ohio anymore. I could see Lisbeth getting worried again.
"Lisbeth it's not contagious you know," I said.
"What?" she asked.
"Gay. It's not contagious. Kristin isn't going to catch Gay," I chided her. Kristin broke into peals of laughter and Lisbeth huffed a little at being caught.
"I'm a mother. I'm allowed to worry," she said.
"That's fine. Just worry about things that are real, like Kristin eating so much she weighs 200 by December," I said.
"Hey," Kristin burst out slapping me on the shoulder. "I'm not eating that much."
"Yeah. Just lunch, then chowder then chocolate..." I said smiling.
"I'm on vacation," she protested.
"Well, it's not like Mom is setting a good example."
Lisbeth slapped my other shoulder, "Take that back. I'm on vacation." They were both laughing now.
That evening I fixed them a light dinner and they hit the sheets, tired from the trip, excitement and time change.
The next day I drove them over to Berkeley. Kristin checked in and got her dorm room assignment. Lisbeth and I helped her move her stuff into the room. Kristin looked excited by the idea of living on her own. Her roommate hadn't arrived yet so she got her choice of bed and dresser.
.... There is more of this story ...