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Cracker Barrel and the Hayes Clan

The rain pounds down in slanted sheets and driving demands concentration. My ankles are cold, my toes damp and sticking to the insides of my shoes. I wish I had a jacket. I wish I felt calmer. The grayness of the day belies the waving palm trees and the frequent billboard reminders of the Sunshine State. Phony palm trees.

I’ve never been to a Cracker Barrel but hope they serve alcohol to help smooth over the awkwardness for my first meeting of the ‘cousins.’ “Cripes” I mutter as I flick past the limp possibilities of country, club, or seventies music. “not one good radio station in this entire state.”

I pull into the packed parking lot, taking deep breaths, and feeling the stomach queasies, like before an interview for a new job. Turning off the car, I touch up my face, the rear view mirror revealing there is no help for my hair; it will expand like dough rising sideways in an oven. I run across the parking lot, my purse on my head, sloshing in the puddles, completely soaking my shoes and feet.

I expect to enter the restaurant, but instead walk into a crowded gift shop where hungry people chat and shop and wait for their names to be called for tables. I look around, feeling vulnerable and nervous, thinking that I will recognize the cousins from pictures on Facebook. Are they here? I don’t see them. Will they spot me first? “Deep breaths” I tell myself. The crammed shop is lined with shelves displaying plush teddy bears, penguins, puppies, pigs, and unicorns. I brush my hand briefly across the white stripe of a silky soft skunk, prettied up with a red ribbon and bow at her neck. The cutest ever infant and toddler T-Shirts hang everywhere; a grandma’s delight. Waiting grandpas stand around the perimeter with arms folded across their chests. Glass cases and spinning racks of earrings sparkle throughout the shop.

I see them come in. I count nine of them, coming in twos and threes. I walk over to Eileen “Hi!” Kathy turns “Hi cousin!” They quickly hug me, wide smiles on their lightly tanned faces. Eileen introduces her husband, her daughter and her two grandchildren. The young man who I know is Brian, a second cousin, steps forward to greet me with a handshake and introduces his girlfriend. Melissa, Brian’s sister, is the last to smile and hug me. Melissa had been the one who contacted me after Ancestry connected our DNA dots. She had been the one who told her aunts that their uncle John, the catholic priest, had a daughter, me. It hadn’t been easy for her, and it had precipitated an exchange of emails, curious but friendly, and one long friendly phone call from my new cousin Eileen. Melissa arranged the luncheon today while I was visiting in Florida, so we could all meet face to face. We make small talk over the din, as the hostess announces loudly “Party of four, Johnson, party of two, Sheppard…” And then, “Party of ten, Hayes.”

In the cavernous dining room, the essence of Eau de Pancakes and Bacon is infused into the very walls. Sitting down, we busy ourselves with the menu, but questions are on our minds. I ask my new cousin Kathy, sitting next to me, what her reaction had been when Melissa told her. “Well, it was shocking I admit, but when I got used to the idea, I thought well, I’ve only ever had one cousin, but now I have two!” She and Eileen happily agree that I bear a strong family resemblance to their deceased sister Maureen. They don’t share my vivid memory of having been to their house with uncle John and my mother when I was six years old. Lunches come to the table, and Brian asks someone to say grace; I’m relieved when no one looks my way. But, as we pick up our forks, Kathy and I say, in the same breath, “Bon Appetit!”. Looking at each other, we laugh. “Uncle John always said that” she says. I agree. “Yes, he did.”

As we ready to leave, I say “Oh, I have a question! Does anyone in the family have this sticking out left ear?” I push my hair back to illustrate said ear. Kathy pulls her wallet out quickly, pointing to a picture of her and her five siblings. “Look at Willie.” There, behind the girls, stands Willie, his left ear sticking out like an open car door. “Ah, at long last, I’ve found someone related to me that has the big ear.”

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