It’s late June. The bright orb of the Mississippi sun is high and motionless in a sky that wears a smattering of low level clouds stretched out across its blue expanse like spun sugar over a verdant summer scene. The first spent blooms of the fragrant umbrella magnolia litter a patchy carpet of St. Augustine grass like carelessly strewn breadcrumbs leading into the necklace of surrounding marshland that was the background: a lush, swamp-like fortress of evergreen oaks, bald cypress and tupelo gum trees.
Cicadas scream from thick, wide-spreading branches draped with hoary mantles of Spanish moss. Their cacophonous symphony is joined by an avian aria and percussive frogsong—signature sounds of the southern bayous and deltas.
The camera pans to the left and suddenly the commotion of a family gathering joins nature’s clamor. Quiet music and laughter, as well as the distant sound of ATVs coming from somewhere off screen. A small crowd mills about in the distance beneath a web of pink and white streamers threaded through low-hanging branches. Matching mylar balloons bounce in the light breeze from pearlescent ribbons tied to table legs.
A veritable rainbow of bodies buzz like bees around picnic tables heaped with food, while others sit in lawn chairs clustered together in small groups. Barefoot youths screech as they chase one another across the camera’s field of vision, weaving through the throng in that turbulent way only children could get away with.
“Okay, mom—” The high, fluting voice of an older teenage girl comes from off screen as a petite brunette in her early forties becomes the camera’s focus. “Say somethin nice fer Olivia.”
The woman, Sherry, heaves a sigh, but there’s a fond edge to her smile. “They don’t live on the other side of the world, Emily.”
“Chattanooga’s six hours away,” Emily disagreed.
Sherry sighs again, appearing resigned, and shifts her gaze to look directly into the camera. “Gee loves you lots an’ lots, sugar.” Something off screen catches her eye and she leans to snag the arm of a passerby, dragging a much taller male onto the screen with her. So tall Emily is forced to drag the zoom out a bit. “So does Pawpaw.”
“What’re we doin?” The man’s Pacific Island ancestry is unmistakable.
“Emily’s makin’ a video for Olivia, Jake.”
Jake looks down at his wife and then into the camera. “Pawpaw loves you, bit! Be good for yer mama, now, ‘n make sure you poop all over yer daddy ‘cause payback’s a bitch—”
“Jake!” Sherry’s hiss is punctuated with a smack of her hand against the man’s chest. “Don’t use that word.”
Her husband manages to look contrite before starting again. “Make sure you shit all over yer daddy ‘cause payback’s a bitch.”
The older woman clucked her tongue, scandalized. “Emily Joan, you better erase that!”
The camera jostles, and Emily’s amusement is heard in the form of a quiet giggle.
“Your pawpaw is terrible, Olivia.” Sherry tries to push her husband out of frame. “Don’t you listen to a word he says, precious.” Entirely unmoved by his wife’s weak protests, Jake pulls her instead into an embrace for a kiss she howls through, though it’s clear her ire is not serious.
“Gross. Get a room! Literally no one wants to see that.” Her parents’ laughter is heard as Emily wheels the camera away from their affectionate display.
The scene cuts to a new location where an elderly woman with tawny skin sits hunched in a metal lawn chair under a sun tent, wrinkled hands folded in her lap and graying hair in a long braid over one shoulder. A happy banner stretched across the canopy’s front welcomes a baby girl.
“Puna!” Emily’s voice again as she makes her way past people carrying red solo cups and paper plates piled high with barbecue. “Puna, I’m making a video for the baby so she can see our faces every day. Say hi.”
Instead of looking into the camera she smiles up at Emily, squinting into the light until the girl comes closer, joining her in the tent. Lifting a wrinkled hand, she waits for Emily to take it before saying, “Ku'u momi makamae. E pili mau na pomaika`i ia `oe. Aloha Kaua; No keia la, no keia po, a mau loa. A hui hou.” Soft-spoken, the cadence and rhythm of her voice carries with it the tranquility of a prayer.
Indeed, Emily’s response is colored with fond reverence. “That’s one of my favorites.” The camera bounces, finding balance again once she’s kneeling beside her great grandmother; the screen shows the two with their heads bent together, Emily’s hand still cradled by the old woman’s. “Will you tell her what it means?”
Still she does not take her eyes from Emily. “My precious pearl. May blessings ever be with you and may there be love between us; from this day, from this night, forever more. Until we meet again.”
“Mahalo, Puna! Aloha au ia 'oe.” Emily slips her hand free and leans, presumably to hug the woman, but the camera cuts out.
The next clip is of an auntie who blows kisses at the screen.
An uncle this time. Koozie in one hand, cigarette in the other. Mustachioed and gray; he’s never left the 70’s. His message is short and sweet.
A trio of tow headed children with sun-kissed faces, gaps in their smiles from missing teeth. They chatter excitedly at the camera, offering their small cousin words of inane childish wisdom. Seen behind them, in the background: a shirtless Cajun with his arm slung around the shoulders of a slim young man. They’re laughing.
The video resumes this time centered on Emily’s smiling face. Her long brown hair is so dark it’s almost black. Perfectly styled curls and the heavy presence of makeup are in contrast to the dirty, battered ballcap on her head. She coos down at the tiny, dark-haired baby asleep in her arms, limbs sprawled every which way in the summer heat.
“Seein’ as I am your only aunt, that automatically makes me the best auntie ever. But even if I wasn’t, I’d still probably be the best.” She leans in at the same time she lifts the snoozing babe, close enough to rub her cheek against the child’s soft head. “I love you so much, sweet girl. I miss you already; I wish you didn’ have ta go. Tell yer mama an’ daddy y’all have ta come visit—”
The obnoxiously loud engine of a passing four-wheeler drowns out the rest of Emily’s heartfelt message to her niece and frightens the six week old from slumber. Emily glares at the offender off screen, twisting the video camera around as the baby begins to whine. The camera zooms in on a shirtless, helmetless boy zipping away on his four-wheeler, hollering delightedly.
“Don’t cry, ‘Livie! Auntie’s got you.” A honeyed shush of reassurance. The screen bounces up and down as Emily tries to soothe the infant, but soon the whine becomes a wail.
“What’chou doin’ ta dat lil’ beb, Em?” The unmistakable sound of Canaan’s voice filters in over the baby’s warbling cries.
“I didn’t do anything!” Emily protests. The camera is pointed at the grass. Her bare feet are joined by another pair, decidedly of the male persuasion. “It was the stupid ATV. Scared her awake.”
“Gimme dat beb.” The camera jostles around again as Emily transfers the baby into her Uncle’s arms. After a moment, she focuses the screen on the large Cajun holding the tiny infant up in front of his face in both hands.
He looks older here, early forties. Short blond hair, clean-shaven, no piercings. Only what appears to be a silver ring set with a large, flat, polished black stone. The lines around his eyes speak of trial and hardship, but there are laugh lines, too.
“Who dat makin’ all dis fuss, huh? Fais do-do, beb. Ça va?” He smacks a loud kiss on one of her cheeks and then the other. The baby continues to wail, prompting Canaan to chuckle. “Pauvre ti bête. Dat’s a big bahbin. You got a mouf’ bigger’n a catfish, you, yeah?” The glittering green forest of his gaze finds Emily. “Reminds me ‘a someone else I knowed when she was jes a shrimp.” He chuffs another laugh, then tucks the baby against his bare chest, bereft of the scarring he wears in the present day. “Should find d’ mama.”
“I’m makin’ a video for Avery to play for her when they go up to Tennessee. Say somethin’?”
Canaan’s muscled arms are curled protectively around the baby, but he still looks awkwardly unsure of himself. Olivia quiets down a little now that she’s not being held up like Simba by Rafiki, yet she continues to cry. “You can hear anyt’in’ ovah dis racket?”
“Oh!” Emily squeals, bouncing in place in her sudden excitement. “Y’all should sing fer her! That’ll quiet her down, and I can get it on camera. It’ll be just like old times, Uncle Ko. You sang for us when me an’ Avery were kids. Now y’all can sing fer our kids.” Emily pauses, then rushes to add after Cane gives her a look. “Not that I’m planning on havin’ any of my own anytime soon!”
Cane grunts vague approval while adjusting the baby against him, trying gently to fit her into a more comfortable position. It’s clear he’s unpracticed where small children are concerned, but there’s concern etched into the furrow on his brow. That he cares for the tiny girl is plain as day. And though it takes some time, she eventually settles...grudgingly.
“Let’s go find your mom an’ em, yeah?” He croons at the baby with a smile.
Another scene change. The screen comes back to life in time to show Canaan passing the baby to a darker skinned man of a similar build to himself. Mid to late thirties. But where the Cajun comes off athletic, this man’s wire frame glasses give him a cliched bookish appeal. A dark curtain of long, wavy hair spills over his shoulder when he leans to kiss the baby’s cheek. She’s immediately content within the cradle of his attentive, sure hands that sport an identical ring to the one Cane wears in the video.
Avery, the slim young man seen in an earlier clip steps into view, his arms around his exhausted young lover who leans against his chest. They can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. When Cane petitions the group at large for a guitar, others begin to gather ‘round.
“What’re we doin?” Jeremy looks up from the baby’s face to others, tracking Cane who is walking away.
“Singing,” says Emily from behind the camera. “And gettin it on tape so they can have it when we’re apart.”
There’s about a minute of idle chatter as they wait, but the Cajun comes back empty handed. “How de fuck ain’t a single guitar t’be foun’ in dis family?” He scoffs, smoothing calloused fingers over the baby’s scalp when he comes up alongside Jeremy. “Tol’ya I should’a brought mine.”
“You did,” Jeremy concedes, reaching up with his free hand to pat Cane’s cheek. The affection is short-lived, almost clipped. A sign of the times. His smile, though, brims with adoration.
An Hawaiian directive floats in from off-screen.
“What’s that, Puna?” asks Emily.
“She says you don’t need a guitar,” Jeremy translates.
Cane’s muscled shoulders roll in agreement. “What’chou wan us t’ sing den?” Hazel eyes bounce from Avery to the camera, expectant.
“Y’all already know my pick.”
The Cajun shakes his head at Emily and folds his arms across his chest. “You know what I’mma say ta dat, you.” But instead of speaking the words, he pulls one arm free and points a finger at the ground in front of him. “You, too,” he adds, darting a glance toward Avery.
The young man balks, but his young wife twists around in his arms to press a kiss against the underside of his jaw. “Go,” she says. And that’s that. He can’t deny her, even as his cheeks flush a dull red.
As he shuffles toward his uncles, Emily passes the camera off to her mother whose voice can be heard next, encouraging, “Now it’s a party.”
When she’s within arm’s reach, Cane snatches the ballcap from Emily’s head. “Gimme my hat back.” She squawks indignantly, rushing to comb long fingers through her hair. He puts it on, backwards as usual, and scoops the teenage girl into a side hug, dragging her closer to Jeremy and the baby and her brother.
The quiet murmur of the crowd falls silent as Avery counts them in and the quartet begin a somber, well-practiced four part harmony. Jeremy’s voice stands out best, complex and entrancing, like smoke on the horizon. He carries the melody while his lover provides the base line, Avery the mid tones, and Emily rounding things out with her high, clear soprano.
Cane’s smile is a slow-building serenade, a tranquil expansion from his mouth to his eyes, which close a moment later as the pitch rises, the song’s tonal power increasing. The interweaving of their voices is in perfect accord, a pleasing arrangement in which each of them adds feeling, depth, and texture to the song in equal measure... But then it’s Avery who outshines them all, climbing into an effortless sliding falsetto that makes Jeremy grin and a sends a ripple of appreciation through the crowd.
The sweet nocturne ends after a few bars of harmonized humming. A generous round of applause is joined by calls for another song. Cane smears a kiss in Emily’s hair before turning to Jeremy. Their eyes meet and they’re smiling at one another; the camera captures only a split second of the private moment before cutting out.