words: Marla Cantrell
images: Marla Cantrell and courtesy Terri Burton
Family gatherings have always been an important part of my family’s tradition. I live far enough away that I don’t get to see them often, but close enough to make it to most events. This has not always been true for me; at one point I lived a fifteen-hour drive away. After several deaths in the family, I realized I wanted to be closer to them, so I quit my job and moved to Fort Smith, about an hour and a half away.
At our celebrations, of course, there is always food. Everyone cooks and cleans—there are no gender boundaries for such events. Sometimes we try a new dish, but how can you beat a good old-fashioned hamburger?
Or a hotdog, if you are into exotic meats. For the get-together I’m about to describe, these were the two options on the menu.
We were celebrating my mother’s birthday. I had arrived early to my older sister Holly’s house, so I was helping prepare the food. There were five of us in the kitchen: my sister, and her children. Lauren was the oldest, at ten years of age. Rachel was eight, and Caleb was six. I was wielding a knife, carving vegetables on the kitchen island, while the kids watched. Caleb was standing on his tip toes to see, but even then, he was only just able to get his eyes above the countertop. Suddenly, his face scrunched and his head tilted. “What are hot dogs made of?” he asked in a squeaky, innocent voice.
In a moment of clarity, and perhaps divine
inspiration, the words, “They’re the fingers
of giants,” sprang from
In a moment of clarity, and perhaps divine inspiration, the words, “They’re the fingers of giants,” sprang from my mouth, and were followed by a variety of reactions. My nephew’s face lit up. Clearly, he was thrilled with the idea of something so exotic. My oldest niece, Lauren, through years of experience, had gained wisdom; she knew her uncle was not always completely honest. Her reaction was a guffaw and eye rolling. Rachel was somewhere between these other two in her understanding of when to take her uncle seriously. I suppose the excitement of giant’s fingers tugged at the part of her mind that allowed for the fantastic to be true. Perhaps sadly, she was also beginning to understand reality. She had discovered that her older sister could tell whether I was telling the truth, and she had come to rely on her for cues. She saw Lauren’s eye roll and heard the guffaw. Rachel looked at me with narrowed, accusing eyes that said, “I am not sure that’s true.”
Perhaps the most telling reaction came from the children’s mother (and my sister). She shouted from across the kitchen, “Don’t tell Caleb that; he will believe you!”
“Fine,” I said. “You tell him what hot dogs are made of.”
Her hands in the dishwater grew still for a moment that was both long and brief, until her voice filled with resigned dread. “They are the fingers of giants,” she said.
It turned out to be a cool and rainy spring day. It was perfect for sitting on the porch eating homemade pie and ice cream and talking about what we had planted in our gardens. We talked about the health and lives of friends and family. Nothing more was said about the new name for hot dogs. I don’t know how long Caleb believed they were the fingers of giants, or if he ever truly did. More important than that was the wonder I remember seeing in his eyes.
My nieces and nephews have grown up. My nephew is quite large; you might even say he is a giant, at least in my family. He is fourteen years old and is just under six feet tall. Only one other person in his immediate family is over six feet. While we are proud of these kids and the way they have grown, sometimes, like so many other adults who are watching kids grow, we miss the days when the fantastic was believable. I suppose the loss of the fantastic has happened to all of us. Perhaps that is a shame, and perhaps it is unavoidable. While I am certain I cannot reclaim the wonder I experienced during childhood, I have found that I can keep wonder in my life. It has many sources—my wife’s smile, the stars on a clear night, or even something as simple as a cool pool on a hot day.
If I could wish anything for my nieces and nephews, it would be for them not to have to learn the importance of family by being absent from them. That’s what happened to me, and I don’t want that for them. I hope they always stay close. And, of course, that they never lose their wonder.