Our "immediate kin" consisted of Sandy, who by that point had become more like a sister to me and like a favorite aunt to Mattie; Sandy's daughters, Heather and Jamie Dobbins, and her son, Chris Dobbins (all were teenagers or young adults then); and Mema and Papa. We playfully called this group the "Step'obbi'comb Fam"—combining Stepanek, Dobbins, and Newcomb into one "kinship unit."

Some "extended kin" were also a part of this beach vacation, including Mattie's best friend, Hope Wyatt; Hope's mother, Susan (Susan's husband, Ron, on a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo at the time, was the one who brought Mattie the United Nations flag); and Nell Paul and her husband Larry. Sandy had met Nell in a La Leche class when they were both expecting their first children, and through her I had become good friends with Nell too. Mattie called us the Three Granny'olas.

It turned out Nell hadn't broken her leg after all. And although the gash on her forehead was a nasty one, it wasn't anything time and some pain medication wouldn't heal.

Nell had been a source of humor all week. The night we arrived, she explained that she was having health problems that made it difficult for her to stand on her feet too long. But she offered to help Sandy make a chicken tetrazzini dinner that night by calling out, without a hint of irony, that at least while sitting at the table, she could very easily "cut the cheese." When we all burst out laughing, she responded with some amount of confusion and indignity that "not being able to walk around a lot has nothing to do with my ability to cut the cheese"—which only made us roar.

Nell grew up a preacher's daughter in the South in the 1940s and '50s and simply didn't know certain idioms and other common wordplays. We had such fun teasing her all week about the T-shirts you see at the beach with suggestive double entendres and such. We entitled that vacation "The Education of Nell," playing practical jokes on her as we went. One day I looked sidelong at Mattie with a mischievous gleam and said to her, "I suppose you've never heard the phrase 'duck on the head.'" Mattie went along and called out, "Mom, I can't believe you'd even tell her that. That's, like, rude." I then said to Nell with feigned indignation, "Never mind, we aren't going to go there."
Excerpted from MESSENGER by JENI STEPANEK. Published by arrangement with New American Library (NAL), a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright©Jeni Stepanek, 2009.


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