The Family moved into the trailer across the street from my parents’ house about fifteen years ago. It took that many years before I saw them outside.
My grandparents live next door to my parents, which in rural Mississippi means about a football field’s length through the woods. They’re the most skilled community gossipers I know. Until the past couple of years, the two of them used to wake up at 3:00 AM sharp every morning. Paw Paw stayed home, and until his bedtime at around 8:00 PM, he didn’t miss one car that passed or one human muscle that moved within a quarter-mile radius. Most mornings, you’d find him in the porch swing, his gaze scanning. If he wasn’t on the swing, he’d be in the rocking chair that sits next to the backdoor so that his view remained unobstructed. Paw Paw is practically deaf, but he still has eyes like a sniper.
On days when Maw didn’t have to work (greeting customers at Walmart), she joined him on the porch swing. Together they are collectors of fact particles which they love to embellish, exaggerate, and share. Getting information from them has always been like reading the tabloids instead of The New York Times, but on the subject of The Family, they’re the only source we have.
The Family consists of the grandfather, the grandmother, and their four granddaughters. Maw always claimed an uncle lived there, too, but I never saw him. The girls are all in their late teens or early twenties now. They never went to school, to town, or seemingly anywhere at all. They don’t have visitors.
We know almost nothing else. For years Maw claimed that all of the girls were blind. It seemed too far-fetched to believe. When they moved in, they put a fence around the front door of their trailer with a sign warning everyone in blocked letters to BEWARE OF DOG, DO NOT ENTER. I never saw a dog.
It was a couple of years after The Family moved in that Maw started buying them Christmas gifts. My dad’s side of the family celebrates Christmas Eve at Maw and Paw Paw’s house. We meet at the annually designated time of “’bout dark” to open gifts and feast on cheesey sausage bread, macaroni and cheese, and cocktail weenies. When we arrived that year, Maw had a mission for me, my sister Whitney, and my cousins. “Y’all bring these over to those little girls,” she said, handing us several huge Christmas bags.
We trekked across the street, contemplated approaching the front door, thought the BEWARE OF DOG, DO NOT ENTER sign might be an indication we shouldn’t, then approached the side door instead. We hid behind Whitney, the oldest, and waited for someone to answer our knock. The grandmother came to the door wearing a long nightgown. She’s a large woman with long gray hair slicked back in a ponytail. I’ve never seen her in real clothes or without a cigarette. I don’t remember the details of that visit, only that she seemed so surprised, so grateful.
That was how we started the tradition of delivering Maw’s gifts to The Family every Christmas Eve. At first Maw filled the Christmas bags with things like Barbies, crayons, and coloring books. As the girls got older, she started giving them brushes, make-up, hair ribbons, and lotion.
A few weeks after that first Christmas Eve, the grandfather brought Maw a plastic shopping bag full of little purses the girls had crocheted for Maw’s granddaughters. The grandsons got no gifts. They didn’t know how many granddaughters Maw had, so there were an abundance of the purses, all of them made with multi-colored yarn and a strong smoke smell that never faded. This is the only evidence I’ve ever had of what the girls might do with their days. I imagined them sitting hermit-like and silent, crocheting for hours at a time, like morose nuns in a convent.
After the first couple of years, the grandmother came to expect us, and in return for our gifts, she gave us three tins of store-bought short bread cookies: one for my uncle, one for Maw and Paw Paw, and one for me, Whitney, and my parents. One year our tin had already been opened, and half the cookies were gone.
I might have considered that the four girls were one of Maw’s more elaborate fabrications if I hadn’t seen them for the first time five or six years ago. We delivered our Christmas Eve gifts, and the grandmother said, “Hold on, I’ll get the girls.” They emerged together behind the screen door of the trailer, dressed as if they were characters in Little House on the Prairie. They had uniform long, braided hair and outfits made entirely of cotton. Maw was right—there is something wrong with their eyes. Maybe not blindness, but something close to it. They have the half-squinted lids of week-old kittens. But they were full of smiles and earnest thanks, and we left feeling slightly stunned.
My cousins and I eventually added to our ranks. My sister’s husband and a couple cousins’ boyfriends started joining us for the annual delivery. We remember highlights from each visit. One year when the grandmother opened the screen door, she proclaimed, “Oh, I’ve gotta sit down!” as if she’d run a marathon. She held her cigarette in one hand and held onto the wooden rail of the steps with the other as she lowered herself down.
Whitney was all practiced cheerfulness. “Merry Christmas!” she said. She’s good at these visits. We handed the grandmother the gifts, and as usual, she thanked us earnestly, saying, “Y’all know we ain’t got no other family, so this means a lot to us.” Two of the girls crept up behind her to take the gifts and hand the grandmother the cookie tins. They thanked us in well-mannered whispers, and then retreated back out of sight. The grandmother started trying to heave herself back up, and one of my male cousins stepped forward to try to help. “I can give you a hand, ma’am,” he said. “Honey, I weigh 300 pounds, I’d break you,” she replied, and we all held our polite smiles. Whitney, 115 pounds at the most, didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, you know, sometimes I have trouble getting up, too!”
Later that year, the uncle, who did exist, shot himself in the backyard. My uncle, who lived next door, spoke to the police when they arrived at the trailer. After that, their trailer was silent again, as if the uncle had only ever been a ghost in the first place. I could not imagine what mourning looked like for them. I could not imagine how it was different than everyday life. The next Christmas Eve, we entered the house for the first time. The grandmother opened the door and beckoned us into the room that had been built onto the trailer (where the uncle lived before his suicide, Maw claimed). Shelves lined the walls. 360 degrees of floor to ceiling VHS tapes, most of them cartoons. We left quickly.
My sister, cousins, and I have all moved away now, but we still come back for Christmas Eve. Maw is retired, and Paw Paw is in his nineties and has less energy than he used to. But Christmas Eve still feels the same. This year, for the first time ever, my mom, dad, aunts, and uncles joined us for the annual delivery. And for the first time ever, as we approached the trailer, we saw the girls standing outside. For inexplicable reasons, they were all wearing blue bunny ears (“Did they mix up the holidays?” my cousin whispered.). The grandmother was with them. “The girls wanted to come out and meet y’all,” she said. The girls were beautiful. They each introduced themselves in clear, quiet voices and thanked us as we passed them our gift bags. We’d reached an unexpected pinnacle that felt like a gift of its own.
We returned to Maw and Paw Paw’s house for the usual group recap. For that one night each year, we can’t take our minds off of The Family. We talk about any new gossip that Maw and Paw Paw have gathered about them throughout the year, and we always wonder, “Should we call someone?” which translates to, “Should we report them to the Department of Human Services?” When the girls were younger, my parents, aunts, and uncles considered it often. The question of whether or not the girls would be able to function in a society they’d never been a part of made them hesitate. Would it be better to leave things alone than to destroy the only world the girls had ever known? Plus we never had anything to report. We paid attention for any sign of abuse or neglect, and we never saw anything. But we wondered if they were happy. What did their version of happiness look like? Now a couple of the girls are legal adults. Do they choose to stay, or have they ever known they had a choice?
We wonder about all of these things and laugh at the absurdity of it because we can’t figure out the appropriate emotion to feel, and then we open our gifts and eat too much. Most of us leave a few days later to return to our regular lives while the The Family remains inside those walls, invisible.
About the Author: Kayla Smith grew up in South Mississippi but spent the past ten years living in Rhode Island, New York, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. She received her MFA from Columbia University and her BA from Brown University. Her work has appeared in The Toast, Deep South Magazine, and Allegory Ridge.