Whenever relatives on Mom’s side visited in the summer, cousins, most of them my age or younger, few older, would congregate in a makeshift summer shelter in the trees between our Paxton home and the barn. Some adult, my father most likely, built it for us. There was a roof, old barn siding with holes, but only posts for sides. The roof was shaded by elm trees that dotted the farmstead. I’m pretty sure Dad strung a hammock between two nearby trees. And there had to be a tire swing, for there always was a tire swing on a farm. That sort of mock summer house caught any breeze that flowed through that valley, as did the trees. In the center of the shelter was a small sandbox, barely big enough for a toddler or two, around which we cousins played, fought for position, drank tepid lemonade, ate cookies. Since the only thing that our house had going for it was cleanliness–no room to speak of–the adults sat on chairs or blankets on the lawn to the east.
It was one of those Sundays when families visited families, sometimes prearranged the last time they met or to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. No birthday that day in our family, for my sister and my birthdays were in the spring, and Mom’s in February and Dad’s in November. Sometimes, most showed up at one person’s place or another as if guided there by some force, genetic more than likely, a kind of tick in the brain. We would travel to one place and find no one at home; then drive to the next place where all would be there. We never went somewhere without stopping in to see someone. By the noon meal, most everyone on one side of the family would be at a family member’s house. Then meals and visiting and cards, not always in that order. My mother’s brothers’ families, a sister’s family, and Grandma Hodder and her husband often came to ours. My mother’s younger brother Roy had two boys then; one of them my age; the other, two years younger. I had to be less than six, for in March before my sixth birthday, we moved to the Beh place. There were more cousins there, I’m sure. I believe Dick and Doug, Gene, LaVern, Bobby, Lois Jean; but I don’t remember. I do know that often when Roy’s family came, his sons and my sister and I paired up by ages; my younger sister with Les; me, with Larry.
I don’t know if there was a cause, if he was upset, if a father had disciplined him, as was often the case, or if it was random, but Les or Doug or Dick tried to hang himself in that shelter. Strung a rope through the planks in the roof, put the noose around his neck, and pulled. We kids playing around that sandbox didn’t notice, no kid chasing another did, until there was some resistance, until he tried to get his hands between the rope to breathe. I was still sitting in the sandbox when one of the adult men ran over and cut him loose. I don’t know why that memory has never left me, seeing a cousin flaying, fighting a rope that tightened with every twist and turn.