Or a country lane in Sag Harbor. Sitting in the window seat watching the flakes fall, while the tree twinkles in the living room. Neil fries up latkes and bakes gingerbread in the kitchen, and through the speakers we are implored to have ourselves a merry little Christmas.
“WHERE ARE YOU???!!! WHERE???!!!” Reverie of a silent night evaporates as Neil shouts down his cell phone. It is two days until Christmas – Christmas Eve eve – outside Bush Intercontinental Airport (named for the father, ironically, since it’s the son who was the true false Texan. Poppy was always more New England than New South.) Neil is trying to locate his parents and just as his frustration reaches a boiling point I spy them gliding down the pick-up lane in their Caprice Classic. It’s as if all at once the entire reason for the GM bailout has come into full view. I don’t need to see the “God Bless America” sticker in the rear window or the old sheet covering the back seat to realize that if the Tea Party were an automobile, it would be pulling up in front of me right now.
We’ve discussed Neil’s parents before (here) but, as a refresher, they left the Bronx almost 40 years ago and they still tawk like dis. His mother cracks me up – she’s disdainful and misanthropic – and basically everything I love about Neil. His father is sort of brilliant, in a mad scientist sort of way – he’s the type of guy who can properly use words like “inveigle” and “ossify” in casual conversation, but uses his son’s name and the dog’s interchangeably.
I’m girding myself for a snowless Christmas that will begin with Mexican food in a strip mall and end with an argument that lasts until New Years.
On Christmas Eve, I finally drag myself from bed at 8am (9am Eastern time) – where I’ve been for the past ten hours. I’ve fallen back to sleep half a dozen times over the past four hours, and no longer have the capacity to force myself to stay in bed. It’s apparent I’m not going to get away with sleeping through the next five days unless I come down with malaria or chronic fatigue syndrome. (BTW, Carrie (of Carrie and Steven. From L.A. Keep up!) just got diagnosed with Kronick Fatigue Syndrome. This is sort of an inside joke, but is also funny if you know that every woman in her family is descended from the dervish; literally, they are a blur of activity and emotion and energy and junk food. They subsist on a steady diet of anxiety and Rice Krispie squares.) It’s also funny because not only is she stuck with some trendy yuppie fad disease, but she caught it a decade and a half after the fad was over. The only hope of making this cool is figuring out a way to make it 1993 again.)
The house is abuzz with activity; coffee has been made and drunk and there is talk of a second pot. Bagels and English muffins and an assortment of breads are on the counter. The dog is contemplating Eggs Benedict. (On our last visit, we spent approximately 70% of our time in grocery stores – mostly picking up samples and squirreling them away to feed the dog – an animal that gets more demonstrable affection than my husband or his sister. This is not a judgment. The dog is the grandchild they may never have; scraps from the H.E.B. are the toys and candies they’ll never spoil a toddler with.
I pad into the living room, bracing myself for 4 days of conversations about what our next meal is going to be (This is not a one-note conversation, by the way. You can discuss more than WHAT you are going to eat next. You can discuss WHEN you are going to eat it; WHERE you are going to eat it; WHAT specials the restaurant may be having; WHAT your favorite menu item is; WHY the regular prices are highway robbery; WHICH waitress is slow and lazy and which is nice. Truthfully, if you begin shortly after breakfast, you can keep the conversation going right up until that slovenly, slatternly waitress brings you your overpriced entrée.)
Which, quite honestly, is the struggle I am having with this trip. I’m going to warn you now – this is the part of the story where I am come off as less than sympathetic and somewhat selfish. Yes, we see my family on average of once a month in some form or fashion – but because they are local, each dosage is a four-hour experience; the filial equivalent of an aspirin. However, because Neil’s family is 1500 miles away, visits are immersion experiences, closer to radiation treatments. When they come to NY, they stay in a hotel (they’re always welcome with us, but the reality is the second bedroom is set up as an office, not a guest room. And the first bedroom is symbolic of a conversation we’ve managed to avoid for 6 years and there’s no point in facing it now.)
In Houston, we stay with them – in a spare room with a trundle bed that, last Thanksgiving, I pushed together while all four of us were setting up the room. If I were looking for a way to stall the chatter and small talk, I’d found it. In any event, trips to Houston are a 24/7 experience. To continue the analogy, it’s the family visit equivalent of chemotherapy.
Anyway, the truth is that no one comes out of this story looking good – least of all me. I knew we were headed to Houston for one of the late year holidays, and was sort of hoping that it would be Thanksgiving. Last year was perfectly fine – and you can sort of manage a Wednesday-to-Sunday between college football, extreme overeating, and mall shopping in a way that the days mostly evaporate. Plus, I’m not that attached to Thanksgiving. As far as holidays go, I love it: four days off of work; everybody takes the same time off so you can’t really fall behind like you do on vacation. But I’m not particularly attached to any Thanksgiving tradition. My mother has hosted it for years – but we no longer go to Connecticut like we did in the 80s and early 90s; she sold the house I grew up in almost 7 years ago. It’s basically just a big meal, an experimental side dish gone wrong, and waiting for someone to spill red wine so I can get blamed for it.
|This is NOT my family. I hope it's not yours, either.|
It is also tradition to visit Neil’s aunt and uncle in Westchester on Christmas Day. There is always a pile of presents and too much food, and his cousin not getting engaged to his girlfriend for the eighth year in a row. There are Catholics and half-Catholics and Jews and Jehovah Witnesses and a belly dancer. And too much wine. And seven-layer dip – of which at least three layers may have come from ingredients that were appropriated from his aunt’s Subway franchise.
And it’s fun.
So, with all the family we have in New York – it just seems wrong for us to go to Houston. Every year I hope – in vain – that we can figure out a way to fly them up to New York; then everyone can be together and no one has to make any hard choices. Negotiators would call this a perfect solution.
Except the travel is inconvenient and the airports are crazy at the holidays and a million other reasons that aren’t reasons – and also are reasons – all at the same time.
So, as autumn wore on, we kept skirted by the issue of the holidays and not making any decisions. “What are we doing about visiting your family?” Became the conversation I started without us ever really finishing. We did it as a drive-by. After the question was out there like an opening ante, I offered, “Well, the problem is that my mother just got married.” This was negotiating by implication. Translation: “We skipped Thanksgiving last year. Also, my sister was with her in-laws last year. My mother will expect that, if she can alternate, then we can alternate. Plus, Mom just got married, so I’m sure she has some Walton’s Mountain vision of a family Thanksgiving where she can show off her constipated graciousness and mediocre cooking skills. She’ll get to show off how much she “enjoys” entertaining by beaming as my step-dad carves the turkey and stifling her frustration or hiding a grimace every time some onion dip hits the floor or a child behaves like, well, a child. We’ll be force-marched through saying what we’re thankful for and in a few short hours we’ll be freed into the frigid night, left with nothing but heartburn and gratitude that the turkey was, in fact, completely cooked, the yams not covered in rainbow covered marshmallows that she didn’t realize were fruit-flavored, and Elliott Gould isn’t dead (all Ghosts of Thanksgivings past.)
To be fair, that opening bid didn’t leave Neil much choice but to raise with, “Well, we’ve never gone to Houston for Christmas.” This is more a statement of fact than a position, but the implication is obvious. On several hands he added, “My sister keeps talking about how much fun that one Christmas was.” One needs to be careful of statements like these. I’m sure – if I tried – I could find a Thanksgiving from that last ten years in which no one got yelled at, the meal was largely edible, and no one left in an ambulance. But statisticians wouldn’t call this a trend.
Through passive-aggression – here we are. For six days. (By the time we booked the tickets, the schedule and prices weren’t terribly accommodating, so we’re in for a Thursday-Tuesday marathon.) And the reality is that this is my fault. My attempt to double-down on a strategy that got me Thanksgiving while betting that he wouldn’t want to give up Christmas has resulted in a visit that is longer than many of the vacations we’ve taken. And, feeling caught between my mother and my spouse (can anyone relate?) I failed to say what I wanted, which was that I could take or leave Thanksgiving, but didn’t want to miss Christmas.
So I will spend Christmas Eve quietly, trying to keep my pouting unnoticeable. We will go to the mall with my father-in-law, where we will appropriately express horror at the price of everything, and Neil will become increasingly frustrated with his inability to figure out a gift for either of his parents, with having waited until Christmas Eve to go shopping, and with the holiday in general. I will try to comfort him be reminding him that his mother has never been abroad, and that for several years I’ve been saying we should send them to Rome so that – before they die, they can see something older than each other.
It’s not just Houston and its cookie-cutter suburbs – which struck me as tedious long-before I knew Neil, when I used to travel here on business and figured the only reason the city grew was because there were jobs in the oil and gas business. It’s San Antonio with its cheap tourist attractions and general lack of industry or culture. Even Dallas and Austin – both of which I actually enjoy – still leave me puzzled. I think of Manhattan; the energy of the city and its unlimited options; the ability to do anything and be anyone you want to be; of the beach towns on Long Island, the bedroom suburbs, the mountain cabins of the Catskills – so much culture and nature – and it just confuses me beyond belief. In a world where there are so many choices – about what kind of life to have; what to participate in – it seems like so many Americans would politicize and proselytize about the American spirit than actually exercise it. I guess it’s easier to just sit at home, feel superior, then turn on Two and Half Men and microwave some pizza rolls.
Fortunately, the pending snowstorm on the east coast is dominating the coverage, as we are otherwise subjected to year in review reporting that will include the election of Scott Brown, the November election and its “refudiation” of the Obama agenda, and the continuing transformation of Sarah Palin from the ignorant accidental governor of Alaska – who by virtue of John McCain’s cynicism, good messaging, and general good luck – has managed to become a true cultural phenomenon despite any actual knowledge, experience, accomplishment or even any particular affection for American government. I always wonder why people like her want to be part of the political conversation if they disdain it so much?
And no year-end news round-up would be complete without the lame duck session of Congress, particularly the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – sure to cast a pall over the living room. (Besides – what would I say? Other than the fact that I see it as a huge civil rights victory, my only other reaction is to reminisce about being 25, living in Washington, and getting to hook up with military guys suffering from low self-esteem. DADT may have been discriminatory, but it landed me a few dates that were totally out of my league.)
I awoke on Christmas morning no more optimistic than I had gone to bed. As I head into the living room, however, there is a pile of presents under the mantle (decorated with garland, but there’s no tree.) After everyone’s awake and Neil’s sister arrives, we begin to open presents – and I’m stunned to find a sizable stack with my name on it. Scarves and shirts and housewares for the homes I share with their son and brother. And the final present was a book from Neil’s father – directly from his personal library. And so my Christmas really brought a miracle; of a touching gift from my father-in-law, of actions – more demonstrative than words – of being welcomed, included, and made a part of this family. And in that moment my dissatisfaction and frustration and selfishness evaporated, replaced by contentment and peace and no small amount of embarrassment at missing my family, when I was already with family.
Oh, and there was one more miracle. As we sat down to dinner – the eggplant parmesan that had been prepped in advance (thank god) and reheated in an electric skillet, the Italian meats that boiled in homemade sauces on the range – my mother-in-law boasted about the great deal she got on the sausage because she found it in the section of meat that’s close to or just past its expiration date. For nearly forty years I’ve been looking for an effective way to curb my appetite on the holidays and I think I just found it. Meanwhile, when my sister-in-law suggested that this might not be critical dinner table conversation – or one that you’d want to share with a table full of guests, the response that followed was, “What? It tastes just as good and no one’s getting’ sick.”
Really, that woman cracks me up.