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  • When I open the front door, the heat rolls in as if I'd opened an oven. I remember how my gram used to call me from California to say, "It's 110 degrees outside today, but it's a DRY heat," like that made it easier to bear. Well, this is a WET heat. Just breathing is an effort. Outside is a mud-scented slog of humid, heavy air that glues itself to your clothes and skin until the body can only respond in kind with sweat.

    Such is July in the foothills of North Carolina. There are 22 of us at a family reunion in a big, old house we've rented in the woods. We've driven from Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania in honor of my gram who died last year. We are distributing the last of her belongings. Every item has a past, and my dad and my aunt want to share the stories. We have all just arrived and are busy unpacking, but we need supplies, so someone presses a damp list in my hand and sends me to find a supermarket.

    The house is perched on the shore of a muddy creek that is swollen from recent rain. Global warming isn't just a concept. Even indoors, the ice in our sweet tea melts before the second sip. The only defense is moving quickly from the refrigerated house to the air-conditioned car. I understand now why people in the South spread beach towels on their car seats, no matter how far they are from the beach. Even cloth seats will burn your thighs if your car sits too long in the Southern sun. A towel is also useful as a mop when the trek from house to car has you swimming in sweat.

    I barely know some of the people here. I haven't seen my cousins in years, so most of their kids are strangers to me--tiny mysteries I can't wait to read. My brother, who had hoped to make this trip with me, cancelled at the last minute because recent heavy rains uprooted a massive oak tree in his yard and laid it across his neighbor's lawn. Despite his remorse, I heard a hint of determination in his voice when he called yesterday. As a homeowner, my brother's a problem-solver, and this problem practically knocked on his door. So, instead of carpooling with him, I drove here by myself from Pennsylvania.

    Not only do we need supplies, but I am determined to get bars on my cell phone. I was recently laid off, and I am hoping to return to grad school if they will accept me. I have to touch base with the school to check my application status. I sit for a few minutes in the car, unable to touch the fiery steering wheel yet, and think my gram would've found some way to endure this. She would've made some joke or told a story. No, on second thought, she would've said "Oh, I heard this joke the other day, but I forget what it was..." She was always doing that -- forgetting the joke but remembering the punchline. She'd say, "It was so funny though... the punchline was 'NO SWEAT!'"

    She had this amazing laugh. But right now, I have no bars.

    Gram would've disapproved of me traveling alone. She always said people should have company in life. She told me once that she married my Grandpa Joe "because he was cuddly." Whenever she asked why I still wasn't married, I always told her I hadn't found anyone cuddly enough yet...

    Touching the steering wheel still isn't safe.

    Why do people come here?

    Just then, my dad emerges from the house, rubbing his whole head with a bright red bandana. He waves at me form the front porch and blows a kiss. I lean across the hot front seat to yell out the passenger side window. "Hey, Papa! You need something else from town?"

    "No," he replies. "Just you!"

    And there's my answer. Gram. She was always saying stuff like that.

    "OK. I won't be far away! I love you!" I holler.

    Without hesitation, he yells, "Love you back!"

    I wouldn't have missed this for the world.
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