“Should I take a nicer dress?” Melissa Duncan checked herself in the mirror and frowned. She worried about her weight, her hair, her shoes. The next day, at a reunion in Asheville, she was going to meet Michael’s larger family for the first time. She wanted to please everyone. Michael said that would be impossible. His family was “diverse,” with all kinds of different people, just like Melissa’s family. She took that to mean they would be judgmental, much like her own people. She was used to it, but that meant she expected it and therefore worried about it.

Melissa favored sunglasses and black clothing, adding to the contrast between her dark straight hair and light clear skin. Michael liked her blue eyes, so she picked blue as her second color. She had a small scar on her chin from childhood. Michael was average height, with mousy brown hair that would curl if he let it grow. His favorite hat was a battered gray ball cap that used to be white, with a red and black logo for an auto parts store.

Michael and Melissa Duncan were newlywed in September. It was now October. While she had met his parents and brother, she had not met the larger group of Duncans that were coming on Saturday. She knew the older generations would judge her by her appearance. What was in style for a country girl two years out of school? She brushed her long black hair and and gave a sigh. Tomorrow she could dust her spirits with coffee and donuts and march in bravely.

At the Duncan reunion there would be grandparents and aunts and uncles Michael hadn’t seen since he was a boy. There would be cousins, young and old. Michael was sure of some people, but unsure of others. Some were a little sketchy by reputation. On the good side, there was a second cousin who owned a sawmill. One was a dermatologist. There was another who had eight children by three husbands.

On the drive from Cashiers, they got stuck in a line of traffic that slowly inched forward. Michael drummed his thumbs impatiently on the steering wheel, glancing at the clock. Then an ambulance shrieked by on the shoulder. “Oh!” When Michael and Melissa caught up with it the ambulance doors were open, and the stretcher was alongside a smashed car. Melissa felt a jolt in her stomach. She noticed Michael gave a sigh and muttered a prayer under his breath. Melissa reached with her eyes as they crept past the wreck. She mentioned her great-grandfather who died in a tractor accident years ago, but Michael was distracted. Grandpa Lucky, they called him, though a tractor accident didn’t seem like luck. “Let’s talk about something else,” he said.

Reunions bring up memories. Growing up in a small town where everybody knows you, they remember everything you did and anything else somebody said you did. So, you separate your friends from your enemies, tracking where they go and where you go. Some things you just need to escape from, to leave in the past so you can move on. Some things you go back to anyway.

Melissa talked about her family, saying they should have a reunion. If it were her family they were going to meet, Michael would pick and pry out their stories. They called Melissa “Mellymae.” He could find their bragging points, their sense of humor, and let them carry on about it. Somebody would have a favorite story everyone else had heard a million times, but they needed to tell it again. Melissa had already told him about great-grandfather Lucky, who always claimed someone had written a famous song about him.


A train whistle blew in the distance the next morning as Michael and Melissa stepped out the front door where they stayed overnight at 100 Biltmore Ave. The owner knew Michael’s father. The day was dreary and cool but promised to turn out nice. Melissa shrugged off the coat she didn’t need and carried it over her arm to the coffee shop. “What did Daddy say when you talked with him?” Melissa said.

“Nothing much,” Michael replied. “He said the dog missed us and was howling at night. You know, he reminds me of my Uncle Rufus, always groaning about something. You might meet him or Aunt Betty

“Are you talking about my Daddy or the dog?” Melissa swatted him on the arm.

The street was quiet, some of the shops were boarded up, but they knew of a café around the corner on College Street. Michael talked about his family, the members he hadn’t seen for a while and the ones he had never met but only heard about, as if he were not all that proud of them. He pushed the food around on his plate while he talked, with his elbows on the table. Some were given to strife and prejudice, he said, and others to bitterness and grievance.

She scoffed, “You’re not alone. My family has its share of scoundrels. Honestly, what family doesn’t? One of my uncles shot his best friend Gordie in the leg by mistake when they were both drunk, then fell and broke his ankle trying to carry Gordie. The two of them laid out in the woods until somebody found them. I told you about that the first time we went out, remember? Hot Shot drive-in? Red checked tablecloths? George Jones on the jukebox? That waitress that was sweet on you?”

The reunion was at a public park by a river with a picnic area. Michael’s brother was already working the grill. There was a big table with potato salad and slaw near a full, sprawling maple tree for shade. Somebody brought homemade cookies stamped out like farm animals, sprinkled with red sugar. Some men were throwing a football around. The younger ones were throwing frisbees while smelling and eying the food.

Melissa felt shy at first, wondering how she would fit in. She counted over a dozen adults when they got there. There were that many children too, being watched by their mothers. The elders sat in aluminum folding chairs with woven plastic strapping. Michael helped by sticking to her side and introducing people.

She made her hands stop fidgeting and relax by her side. She let the peacefulness of the trees and water calm her. The morning clouds drifted into sunshine, warming the October chill. “It’s OK,” she told herself. “They’re just like me.” Watch and nod a lot, Michael had said. But then they were all so friendly and welcoming. They told stories about Michael growing up, crashing his first bicycle into the creek, winning first prize for a Halloween costume, working summers at the sawmill. They told stories about themselves and each other.

Michael introduced Melissa to Betty Radford, one of his aunts. Two other family members were discussing how to make the best biscuits over on the other side of the picnic table. Michael said, “We’ve been married two months now. We live in Cashiers, just outside of town in a house her father owns.”

“Oh, my great-grandfather was from Cashiers.” Aunt Betty said. “He was a Tate. You know any Tates?

Melissa took a half step back and held her hand to her chest in surprise. “My grandmother was a Tate,” she said. “Who was your great-grandfather?”

“Why, his name was Louis Tate, but they called him ‘Lucky’ because he got away with crazy stunts. Seemed like he could get away with anything.” Aunt Betty waved over her son David and her daughter Lisa, who knew about the Tates, and introduced them to Michael and Melissa. Betty said, “I never met Grandpa Lucky, but I heard plenty of stories. He was an old man when he died. He fell off a tractor and got run over by that big wheel.

“Wait a minute,” Melissa said, her eyes widening. “I know who that is. He was my great grandfather too.”

Aunt Betty turned to David and Lisa as they approached, “Melissa’s a Tate from Cashiers. She’s Lucky Tate’s great-granddaughter, just like me.

Lisa said, “I know they called him Lucky Tate ‘cause he never got caught.”

David said, “He got away with everything. He took risks that would kill you and me. He was a good man who took care of his family, but he was never, as they say, a ‘law abidin’ feller,’ you know what that means? Just that, you know, he couldn’t be shooting straight all the time. Like when he drove his pickup from home down to the river on the wrong side of the road, just to see if he could do it.”

“No, that’s crazy,” Michael said.

“It’s true,” Melissa said. “I’ve heard the same story.”

Lisa nodded, “He was a bootlegger too.”

David said, “Hey, we all yank the curves out of the road when we can. It’s safe enough when you can see ahead a bit, but you never go around a blind curve on the wrong side of the road. You just don’t do it. It’s suicide; there are so many curves between home and the river. It’s just dumb luck he didn’t kill somebody else coming the other way

“His luck dried up when his big tractor wheel ran over his head,” David said. “We figure he was doing something with his hands, not holding the steering wheel real tight when the tractor hit a bump, you know, like a rock or a stump on one side. The tractor must have straightened itself up and just kept going on its way, but Lucky got thrown sideways and went head down under the big wheel.”

“Ouch, poor guy,” Michael said. He took off his hat, brushed it off distractedly, and put it back on.

“The neighbor heard the tractor when it hit the hen house, and she watched it come down the hill all by itself, chickens flying everywhere behind it.” David fluttered his hands over his head like scattering birds. “She watched the tractor go into the creek and turn on its side. Then she called her son on her new telephone, this was the 1950s, you understand. So, he goes over and finds Lucky laying there with his eyes popped out of his head. The chickens were still screeching and running loose, feathers and blood all over the ground. The tractor was still running somehow, the wheels going around, hissing and steaming where the water hit the engine.”

Lisa added, “Lucky made up nicknames for everybody. He used to say his people came from Irish potato farmers, so people should call him ‘Pa Tater.’ His son was named Robert; Lucky said the baby had a head like a new potato, so he called the baby ‘Bo Tater’ after that. They went around for years going by Pa Tater and Bo Tater until Robert grew up enough to be embarrassed about it.

David continued, “The funny part, though, years before Lucky died, is when Lucky’s son Robert married Mae Miller. Mae was older than Robert and already had a grown daughter June from her first marriage. Then when June took up with Lucky and those two married about a year later, why, you talk about complicated relations, lordy. With Lucky’s son married to June’s mother, Lucky married his own step-granddaughter. Then he went around saying he was his own grandson. Mae said she didn’t want any part of it, but they laughed her down and said she was a grandmother to her own self whether she wanted it or not.”

Lisa said, “From there, it goes down the generations. For example, Lucky’s son Bo became his own uncle. There’s that song called ‘I Am My Own Grandpa.’ Lucky said it was written about him, but I don’t know about that. You’ve heard the song, haven’t you? It’s hard to follow the story, but it goes by so fast in the song you can’t anyway.”

David continued, “Well, I guess we’re all cousins of some sort.”

Melissa said, “We’d be half second cousins once removed, I’d guess. And you and Michael are cousins, so that makes us cousins in-law through him.”

David said, “Well, I’ll be…” He gazed up at the sky. A hawk was flying overhead sharp-eyed, looking down at them

“…A monkey’s uncle.” Lisa said. “He’s a monkey’s uncle. I have a two year old boy named Monty. David calls him Monkey,” she made a wry ironic face. “Like Grandpa Lucky would’ve done.”

Melissa looked at Michael’s wide eyes and astonished expression and thought, “And I was worried about meeting his family. Ha!”


I’m my own Grandpa
Written by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe
Sung by Ray Stevens