This time she's got a baby with her. He's very well behaved, with a full head of hair and a sweet smile.
"He's got your eyes," I tell her.
"No." She replies a little bit too firmly, "He's got his father's eyes."
I look around for the boy's father but he must be in the other room with the throng of relatives. We chat some more about nothing, just passing the time until we can leave. And that's when she mentions that she's a single mom.
Something connects, and I look closer at the little boy.
Ten or so minutes go by, and my sister and mother and I have made it across the room to a quiet corner, and that's when I whisper to my mother what I've wanted to ask, "Is she the one? The one you told me about with the husband who..." She nods before I can finish the sentence.
It was a summer afternoon and we were sitting on the screen porch when talk got around, as it usually did, to casinos. "Those places are no good," my mother said. And then she told me a story.
It was the story of someone she knew - a grand-niece or a daughter of a friend, something like that - someone who wanted very much to have a baby. She and her husband had tried for years to get pregnant, finally, but successfully attempting IVF. The proceedure had been expensive. They got behind financially. Way behind. The woman, now pregnant gave her husband the cash to pay some bills one morning. But while she was at work, he drove to the Twin Rivers casino in Rhode Island, thinking he could take that bill money and turn it into more bill money - and lost it all. When he returned home, he realized he couldn't pay the bills or face his wife, and killed himself. He was laid to rest in a Middleboro cemetery. His baby boy was born several months later.
"Those places are no good," my mother repeated.
It had been a year since I'd heard that story. Sometimes I wondered if it were even real. But when I got tired, or discouraged, I'd remember it. I'd think about that little boy whose face I'd never seen, whose name I didn't know, and I knew I had to keep going. Because I'm never going see the face, or know the name of every child left without a parent, or neglected by one, or abused by one, if casino gambling comes to Massachusetts.
But they'll be there. And they'll be in other towns, further north and east and west, places where, right now, it takes too long for most people to drive to a casino.
How many times have I heard it, "we already have gambling addiction here..."?
I wonder if they said that when they built the first casino outside of Las Vegas. "We already have the problems, we might as well get the revenue." That's what they probably said. And then someone looked over at that casino and said the same thing. And so another casino got built. And now, when people say that there's already gambling addiction where they live, it's because of that last casino that went up. The one not terribly far to drive to.
Had there been no Twin Rivers, that baby's father might have driven to Foxwoods to find a reason to end his life. But he might not have. But if Twin Rivers and Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun weren't there, he'd be alive right now. He wouldn't have an excuse to lose the bill money, to feel like he'd failed his family. He'd be here showing off his beautiful baby boy to all the relatives.
"All that money's just going across the border," they tell us.
I look across the room at the baby and I think, let it go...
I am reminded of the map, the one with the circles showing the 50 mile radius of the people who'll be the most negatively impacted by a casino. A ring of fire.
I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
and the flames went higher.
I went down,down,down
and the flames went higher.
I recall someone ridiculing that map once - pointing out that Middleboro is less than 50 miles from Twin Rivers - and insisting that it had no impact.
Not for him.
His son still has a dad to teach him how to tie his shoes, and ride a bike, and throw a baseball.
"It's all about choice," they like to say. "It's my choice, if I want to gamble my money or not."
But where's that baby's choice? I think his choice would be to grow up with a dad.
I think his choice would be to grow up in a world that didn't make it so easy for his Dad to lose hope. That didn't use people's weaknesses to balance budget shortfalls. But he doesn't get a vote.
If a casino goes up in Middleboro, or slots in Plainville, who'll be next? The seemingly endless procession of casinos and slot machines, followed by addiction and broken lives, marches on, finds virgin territory, and leaves it's mark. Another 50 mile circumference on a map. Another ring of fire.
My Aunt Ginny comes over to say hello, and says she can't believe it's really me. I only recognize her from old pictures, but according to family lore, she was the one who took care of me when I was very young and my mother had to work.
Aunt Ginny, whose gravity-defying hair would make any iconic country western singer proud, left Massachusetts for Oklahoma back in the 70's. I have no memory of her, but love her instantly. She is very funny and cheerful and I'm grateful to have her sitting with us, taking our minds off the wake and the baby and casinos.
While we're talking, a woman stops by and says hello to my mother, who introduces us. A flash of recognition, and an eyebrow lifted superciliously.
"So," she says, "You're the daughter who's against the casino."
She says this as if she were actually saying, "So, you're the daughter who recently escaped from a mental institution."
They always manage to find me, apparently even at a wake.
Aunt Ginny laughs. "What's the matter with casinos? I love the casino! I've got one right down the end of my street. I've won big a few times there, too."
My mother leans in and whispers in my ear, "Ask her how much she's lost..."
But there's no need. Aunt Ginny is obviously a woman of modest means.
I get up to take my leave. I had a board meeting to attend in Lakeville that evening. Probably another shouting match. I'm tired, I'd rather go home, or out to a restaurant with my mother and sister and Aunt Ginny.
Instead we gather in the hall for hugs and goodbyes. We all agree that wouldn't it be nicer to get together somewhere besides funerals and wakes.
Across the street, in the quiet sanctuary of my car, I decompress. I let the wake and the family and all of it wash over me, flow away. All that's left is the little boy, who's real now. A little boy with a sweet smile, a full head of hair and his father's eyes.
If only his father could see them.