“Cousins!” I hear a little voice call. Two small, sticky hands wrap themselves around my legs. I see two shining blue eyes beaming up at me.
“Pauline!” I turn around to see Uncle Brendan and Aunt Kathy striding toward me, warm smiles spread across their faces. I hug my uncle, and immediately I inhale the sweet, piercing fragrance of pine trees, a whole forest of them. He makes me want to go deep into the forest brush and take a sip from a cool, fresh stream. I bury my face into Aunt Kathy, and the warm, homey aroma of fresh hot cookies draws me in. But I am pulled away from them all too soon and led out by another pair of sticky hands to where the grass is up to my thigh. I then see the old, ragged tire swing I’ve known for more than half of my life. I run toward it and slide on, for even though it appears as if the slightest tap will cause it to collapse to the ground, it can be trusted.
The tree begins to sway and creak slightly as I glide serenely from side to side. I slip off, and jog over to the wooden fence out where the cows graze. I lean over to stroke their bristly coat and fish around in my pocket for my leftover apple slices to feed them.
“Come on, Pauline!” more laughing cousins shout. “We’re collecting wood for the fire!”
My cousins are all sorts of ages, sizes, shapes, and hues, but to us that matters no more than the types of clothes we wear. The soles of our shoes have walked the same ground, so we always play together as one.
I hurry to catch up with my cousins and we set off, a little wagon rumbling behind us. We find all sorts of wood around old barns so frail no one had the heart to knock them down. Driftwood, bark, pine cones, wood chips, even a long, slender black leg from a piano with missing keys. We bring it all back to Uncle Brendan, and we watch him whittle away on the sticks as we savor the captivating sunset. Any northern sunset can be beautiful, but a North Carolina sunset is really something special. The fading sunlight leaks through the trees like water through a strainer.
Uncle Brendan adds the shavings to the mountain of wood, which erupts into flames. We gather in a circle around the fire, shoulder to shoulder, sitting on logs, chuckling with each other in the firelight. There are grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins and more cousins. Everybody. Sparks dance in the air, like little lanterns held by invisible hands as we begin toasting the marshmallows and popcorn. The smoke rising up through the curls of flame gives off a wondrous scent. It smells of Uncle Brendan’s pine trees and Aunt Kathy’s cookies. It smells of sticky hands and old rundown barns. It smells of almost-burnt marshmallows and popcorn. It smells of home. Home sweet home.