Home for the Holidays

T’was the night before leaving for Pittsburgh, and Mom called to inform me that it was very cold there. I hid my shock well, though I lived in Boston and it was the end of November. I assured her I’d bring a coat. She said she had called four times before, and hung up when she heard, “that answering machine pick up.” In five weeks, it will be 1990, except at Mom and Dad’s house, where 1956 will never end. Before she could say “See you tomorrow,” Dad interrupted to remind me to get to the airport half an hour before my flight. He said they would be waiting for me “with painted breath.”

The next morning would begin the four hellish days spent with my family. Ninety-six hours jam-packed with television, eating and being treated like an idiot.

I took a coat. Even though I’m 40 years old with a grown child of my own, I respond to these parental directives with the fevered, “Gimme a *^#!@!! break!” of a 15 year old. I had half a mind not to take a bloody coat. Whenever I deal with my parents, in fact, it’s with half a mind. What kind of ignoramus do they take me for? OK, OK: I should know better. But this problem doesn’t reside in the domain of knowing. This one is in the gut, where only anti-anxiety drugs seem to help.

How I envy people who enjoy the company of their parents without the aid of pharmaceuticals. Of course, my own daughter is among these folks, who share common interests, tastes and even a sense of humor with their parents. But for me, it’s a stiff regimen of meditation, hot baths, chamomile tea, Excedrin and lots of counting to ten. And judging from the horror stories I’ve heard about other people’s families, mine are terrific parents. They are, indeed, exceedingly good and well-intended people. Very well suited to attend to the needs of small children. If I were a perfect person, I would readily deem this far more important these silly little gatherings at which they still consider me helpless without their constant guidance.

They’re poor but generous—when they won $500 in the lottery last Christmas, they donated every last cent to a family whose house burned down. It shouldn’t matter to me that they eat cheese that squirts out of a can… nor that they drone on and on about the obvious. These gripes I could perhaps keep to myself. And what better time than Thanksgiving to give it another try?

I sat on the Pittsburgh-bound plane, running familial drills in my head. I’ll find absolutely nothing edible at their house. Mom will have stocked the place with sweets, unripened fruit, canned vegetables and squirt cheese. They’ll act as though I’m being haughty for insisting on fresh vegetables and desserts without tons of sugar in them. I’ll cook with fresh garlic. Mom will hold up a dusty container of garlic salt from 1956 and think I’m snooty when I say, “No thanks, I don’t mind chopping this.” It’ll be OK. I’ll remind myself that if I don’t act like it’s a big deal, it’ll just be a matter of grocery shopping and cooking for myself. I do that all the time.

They’ll tell me I’m too skinny. They’ll wonder if I’m anorexic or on chemotherapy. (Mom’s hobby is illness and doom. There will be plenty of boil and hemorrhoid reports.) I will try to accept this as a primitive expression of the problem of mortality. After all, I share that problem.

Dad’s hobby, creative worrying, would suck me into ridiculous conversations about terrorists, famine and compound fractures. I’ll just reassure him, no matter what.

The bed pillows will be like foam rubber surfboards. That’s OK, because I’ve packed my own pillow. Everything will have an artificial pine or lemon scent from some toxic product. It won’t kill me in just five days. I’ll roll with it. A frenzied eating will occur about every 40 minutes. Hey, everybody chooses their own poison. I’ll leave them alone about the smoking and the squirt cheese.

Andy Williams will bellow Christmas songs from the 1956 hi-fi while Dad watches the news. Over all this, my parents will conduct a full-volume conversation—about nothing— from different rooms. And I will be patient.

They’ll do things they’ve always done to drive me nuts and I won’t go nuts. I’ll translate every single thing into a gesture of love and concern. These are two things of which I’m certain. This time, I will exhibit a mastery over the situation. My hard-earned maturity will bridge the abyss. Yep, It’s going to be great.

An awful panic overtook me at 22,000 feet. I should’ve never started down Memory Lane, for many more land mines awaited me than just the aforementioned. Once this list making began, I couldn’t stop it. And my resolve to handle this mounting litany of predicable torments began to shimmy, but good.

Dad, a retired airplane mechanic, will take another crack at offering me advice about my business, which is writing. Mind you, he’s the guy with “painted breath.” They’d want to know if I’m any closer to being married and thereby resembling the picture they’d hoped I’d grow into. Mom will use her ‘scrabble calculator’ to beat me at Scrabble and then she’ll rub it in. They’ll mispronounce words. Mom will take her clothes off in front of me at least once. Horrible, grueling, unnecessary tidbits will be discussed at great length. I will have to learn about at least one amputation. Long-winded, bizarre theories about stupid things will rake my nerves. They won’t understand why I dress this way. Mom will talk through her nose.

Oh, God. We’re landing.

The airline lost my coat. I had put the very coat I had assured Mom I’d bring, into a drawstring bag and checked it with my baggage. The drawstring bag went somewhere else for Thanksgiving. I look like a local girl in Mom’s dorky coat. I’m already over the edge. I’ve been on the ground 30 minutes.

The first of the bizarre theories came from Mom. She couldn’t imagine that USAir would lose one of my bags, and not the other. I pointed out that they didn’t keep people’s luggage together by nametags and that this was entirely plausible. Only 95 hours to go, I thought.

On the way home in the car, Dad was so busy with the harmony part to the song playing on the all-50’s radio station, that he took a curve too fast and the bag of donuts slid across the dash. Mom registered a near-death experience and criticized his driving. He muttered something about “not using enough rudder,” and pointed out a building where he had once had two teeth extracted. Then mom described a disgusting, seeping fungus their dog had in his ears. Nevermind that Bunky had been dead for years….

“Uncle Freddy is a great guy, but he farts when he walks,” Dad said. There is no way to offer repartee in the face of this verbal buckshot. I’m simply not clever enough. I must’ve seemed quite dull to them, staring out the window with my mouth dropped open slightly. Already defeated, wearing Mom’s coat.

My assimilation into their home life continued from there. And so did the riveting conversation. Mom actually read me a form letter from their insurance company. Dad reminded me again that all women on his side of the family had eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease and were full-fledged legumes before signing off. Then he played “Dark Town Strutters’ Ball” and “Anchors Aweigh” on the organ—melody only. And with the aid of that foot pedal, he created the sense that the Wurlitzer was actually lunging in my direction and then recoiling only to come for me again and again. Like a large, throaty cobra. This menacing effect added a hallucinogenic quality to the gathering, which didn’t seem to bother anybody else.

I fled to the upstairs bathroom where my suspicions were confirmed: I had gotten a nosebleed. It’s a wonder that’s the only thing that had ruptured.

Just as I was plotting a phony illness and an emergency escape back to Boston, a reprieve came along. NBA basketball. Channel seven. I convinced them to stop playing music and just watch the game. We snuggled right into a common interest. Mom criticized the Knicks’ defense and a chorus of “OH’s and YES’s began to remind us of our bond. Dad grumbled that, “stuffing the ball was no god-damned talent. W’hell—if’ you’re 6’11”, of course you can slam it in—but that’s not basketball!” And our traditional arguing ensued.

I employed the drills I had run on the airplane and changed the subject in a sudden burst of diplomacy. “How about some Scrabble, Mom?” Well, I hadn’t seen her move that fast in a long time. “You bet,” she said with victory already in her voice.

While we played, Dad loped out into the kitchen and dished up some pecan pie with whipped cream and a coke, sat down at the Wurlitzer and played “Roll out the barrel” while The Tonight Show theme song blared in the background. Then he took an applause-less bow and decided to spray the carpet with lemon scented anti-static stuff from an aerosol can. He sat down in a fog of that stuff and ate his pie. Mom kicked my ass at Scrabble.

Within this short time, I had resigned myself to somnambulating through the remaining visit, in the name of duty and gratitude…and yes, Thanksgiving. I didn’t think they would notice. We were all three dead on our feet now. The Zombie Family Reunion.

Without a reference point to the life I live when I have something to say about it, I sank into a withdrawn haze and began to think more and more about snacking. I reassured myself that I could resist the squirt cheese. To be certain, though, I resorted to a tested and proven distraction: old family photos.

Among them, I found pictures of my paternal grandmother, my father and both brothers posing with their respective basketball teams. And zillions of pictures from the ‘50s when my parents were still geniuses in my eyes. They were the ones with The Answers then. No empty banter. Their vast knowledge impressed me for many years and I was repaid with what seemed like unconditional love. I saw myself reflected in their eyes with a golden glow over me. This was the source of the idea that I was actually special, which later led me to break rules, become opinionated and set myself apart from others—key features of a creative person.

Those were happy times before the deafening clash of ideology. Before I could be criticized for being single. When I ate whatever was squirted in front of me…and before the globe incident.

Grandpa gave me the whole world back in 1958. He had no idea that he would forever disrupt the ignorant bliss that had kept our family a unit until then. I loved that globe. I felt a certain reverence for the plastic ball, thinking I’d never been that close to the whole world before, and now it was mine. I remember my father pointing with a darning needle to a spot near the middle of North America, and saying, “There’s Columbus, Ohio—this is where you are right now.” I can’t express how thrilled I was by this. Because that meant that no matter where I looked on my globe, there was somebody there—right now, too. I tried to picture them, so I could fill my whole world up with the appropriate people in the right places, right then.

This led to a series of questions about other people in the world that marked the end of my parents’ genius. Up to that point, Dad was an authority on aerodynamics and clouds. Mom knew the names of really fancy diseases and could spell anything. They could identify any animal and tap dance adequately around tougher questions. But right then, my world got bigger than theirs. And I developed a preoccupation with the fleeting consecutive “nows” that passed in distant places without my experience of them. I plotted to replace the sacrificed contentment of home with my very own big world.

Que sera, sera. Dad was pouting. I could even tell from the way he was chewing that pecan pie. He went down into the basement where his all-50s radio was blaring, to work on another of his primitive wire airplane sculptures. When he didn’t sing along with Doris Day to “Que sera, sera,” I knew he was really steamed about something. It was me. I had declined their invitation to go to church, which they insisted would be entirely up to me. I opted to stay home and watch the national news and try to remember who I was. When I asked Mom why Dad was acting that way, she lied and said he was pissed at her. But I knew she was just trying to prevent a confrontation, a long-standing family tradition—often conducted with the “Up with People Singers” in the background.

So as soon as Mom skunked me at Scrabble, I took a boiling bath and a Valium to prepare for the following day. And don’t you know USAir delivered the missing bag with my coat in it just then. I looked at it with a weird jealousy before opening it, wondering where in the big world it had gone without me.

Grazing began extra early on Thanksgiving morning. My brothers arrived with assorted girlfriends, wives and children. And there were fried eggs, pancakes, “crew-sonts,” fudge cookies, and sticks of butter disguised as every manner of food. Mom made us go look at the long icicles coming off the corners of the shed. The kids bounced up and down. Dad recited in-flight emergency procedures. And on TV, the Johnny Mann Singers sang, “Y’gotta have heart,” as only they can. Dad repeated his complaint about uncle Freddy repeating his stories. Mom told everyone about the oozing lesion of somebody we didn’t know. The question, “Is Disneyland more fun than Busch Gardens?” was tossed out for debate. Dad went outside to look at the sky and missed Mom’s brief history of nasty gashes suffered in our family.

Mom and Dad lumbered about the house, all swollen, like bloated ghosts, chewing as they walked. It was like the Macy’s Parade of Parents. People cordially offered each other another appetizer. Bizarre theories about things flew. Dad speculated that the airport would be busy again soon because people don’t get Friday off.

Thanksgiving breakfast just sort of blended into lunch, which turned into a crescendo of dinner, followed by a deafening, corpulent silence.

Casualties of the meal sprawled out in various unlovely positions in front of the TV, horrified at what we had just eaten. And the only thanks I could think of was ‘thank god it isn’t Christmas,” because Christmas is the same scene, PLUS gift-giving and receiving, the dramatization of which is a robust undertaking. In my family, believe me, it is far, far better to give than it is to receive.

Last year, I got a size 18/20 dress from one of my brothers who’s ‘born again,’ making him my youngest brother, I guess. He hadn’t seen me in two years and figured I’d probably doubled in size, like most Radants do. He also tossed in a stocking stuffer inspirational tape, the cover of which reads, “No matter your age, the approval of your parents affects how you view yourself and your ability to pass that approval along to your children. Many people spend a lifetime looking for this acceptance the Bible calls The Blessing.” All that year, I felt just a little bit suspicious about his gift. Like, what was he trying to say? I always felt blessed by our folks—does he know something I don’t?

My niece and nephew gave me a perfectly nice black sweatshirt, onto which they had applied some sort of clumpy paint substance in a random design. I finally got it scraped off with a razor blade so I could wear it to the gym.

Mom and Dad, defeated from years of giving gifts I obviously hated, asked me to buy my own damned presents last year. They gave me $100 and told me to go wild. And I did just that.

My youngest brother—the one who arrived in 1962, several years after the globe—the baby brother who knows me, gave me a watch with a hologram of a globe on the crystal. That was a wonderful Christmas.

• • •

Mom’s voice broke the silence with an offer no one could refuse: a round of Alka-Seltzers. And a thunderous fizzing ensued.

Later that night, I creamed Mom at Scrabble. After everyone left, I cleared the table, examining bowl after bowl of the food, which had cooled to a consistency of Jell-O infused with tub and tile caulking. It wobbled. I stood there for a moment, realizing that this is the stuff my parents are made of and that’s why they wobbled in the same fashion. I looked up at both of them for a comparison and found them looking back at me, puzzled that I was standing there shaking bowls of food with that look on my face.

Then we went out to see a movie about airplanes that Dad wanted to see. I heard him muttering to the screen to “keep the nose up…air speed’s too low…” On the way home, Dad worried that I might, someday, for some reason, be taken hostage. Mom squirmed in the front seat to show me where her back hurt. And finally, back home, we—or should I say I reviewed my Scrabble win. It was the healthy 120-point spread that made it such a definitive victory. I declared that I would never play Scrabble with her again so that my championship would stand in perpetuity. She congratulated me and told me that Mike Nolan had died mercilessly of a horrible brain tumor.

They took me to the airport the next day. I wore my own coat and my hologram globe watch from last Christmas. Dad was concerned about the plane I was taking back to Boston, and about the possibility of another ice age. I resisted turning a series of cartwheels at the airport. Any minute now, the big world would be mine again.

I looked into their eyes and saw myself again with that golden light all over me. They never understood my ‘alternative’ ways and yet they’ve tolerated me all this time. I saw how much they missed being geniuses.

My heroes.