Dibs on Nala

Published in The Britton Journal on October 8, 2014

If you are at all familiar with the three Veblen Hill brothers, you know about each of their two daughters and one son. Almost an eerie symmetry.

All nine born in nearly consecutive years, family get togethers were easy and looked forward to by all of the cousins. The six girls sat around the “kids’ table” in our grandparents’ kitchen, with the three boys stationed at the breakfast bar. In this formation, we colored pages out of our grandma’s collection of coloring books. We had kumla-eating competitions. And, most importantly, we battled out who was going to play who in our annual tradition of reenacting The Lion King.

For the boys, it was easy. Simba, Mufasa, and Scar. They probably rotated, and it was completely fair. But for the girls, it was more of a source of drama. Each of us wanted to be Nala—the prettiest, most important lioness. It usually went to whoever just dove in and took it. Every year we made the loft in The Green Bedroom our Pride Rock.

But then, out of nowhere, the oldest cousin didn’t want to play. And then she graduated. And then she sat at the “adults’ table.” At some point, our Lion King reenactment fizzled out into memory.

Just as consecutively as we were born, we all had moments. Graduation after graduation. Wedding. Another graduation. College graduation. Each new year held another milestone. And then, this September, I found myself in the basement of a farmhouse with half of the six girls, getting ready for the second Hill cousin wedding.

“It just feels like yesterday that we were playing Lion King at Grandma and Grandpa’s,” one said.

“Do you remember how worked up we got about who got to be Nala?” said another.

“Remember how upset we were when Ashley said she didn’t want to play?”

“I mean, bless her. Someone had to be the first to say no.”

I looked at my cousin’s reflection in her vanity mirror, carefully applying her makeup. It is so strange how unnoticeably we divided. Multiple gatherings a year at Easter and every other Thanksgiving and Christmas turned into just the procession of big moments. Even then, one of us usually couldn’t make it, since we were all dispersed around different states. We had school, internships, jobs.

Underneath the strung lighting of a barn wedding, it felt familiar to the kids’ table in Grandma and Grandpa’s kitchen. Although one of us was missing, and we had a couple new members, the Hill cousins got to talk like they used to—loud, and all at once. We clanked glasses. We talked about where we were and where we were hoping to go. And, most noticeably, we didn’t battle out who got to play who in a reenactment of The Lion King. But that didn’t mean that table wasn’t our Pride Rock.

And when I got home and started writing this column, I looked up what the name Nala meant in Swahili.

It means gift.