These family holidays are what you make them – Love it up!

Our computer has a thermometer reading on the desk top. I find it’s a match with my porch thermometers. When I got up this morning, it registered 31 degrees, and now it says 34.  I’ve wanted to take the dogs outside, but they pretend to be asleep.  Good!

This coming holiday weekend is like a big wad of wet cement in the road. There’s no getting around it, it’s just there. Stops traffic, holds up everybody’s life until it’s over. When I was young, I worked a job that required holiday shifts, and boy was I glad. My grandmother was getting too old to cook, and nobody had stepped up. So, our family was in this limbo – going every year to a different relative’s house for Who Knows What. It was actually a very touching time – we had to talk among ourselves, make real plans, actually get to know each other, instead of migrating in our sleep to the old home place, making the usual nods, leaving as dark settled in and the last of the dishes was put away.

I’ll never forget the last impromptu T-day at my mom’s house, arrangements made hastily by phone just the day before. My grandmother was well into Dementia,  kept saying Hello! to me as though I’d just walked in.  We were all very depressed. My mother’s cousin and her husband had driven a long way, skipped dinner with their kids, to tote my grandmother’s last surviving sibling, Brother Dryden, so they could see each other one last time. Dryden was weak but still quite alert. He had recently piled his ’38 Plymouth into the old tree that had been allowed to grow too close to the garage door, so was no longer driving himself. His oldest sister, wife, and younger sister, my grandma’s twin, had all died within the last couple of years, and here was his last remaining nursery mate, who didn’t even recognize him.  His face hung so low to the ground I wanted to scoop it up in my hand.

Suddenly, the two in-laws, my husband and my mom’s cousin’s husband Clif, had the stupendous idea to go out and get a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was Thanksgiving, after-all, and shouldn’t we get a bite to eat? Did you know, Kentucky Fried Chicken is open on Thanksgiving? They jumped into the car, and I’ll be darned if they weren’t gone for the better part of an hour, when KFC is within a mile of the house.  Later I found out, they had one of those, “so, you’re new to this crazy family, eh?” conversations. They had a lot in common – both were raised in Germany as young children, and brought back to the states, separated for life from most of their important relatives. Luckily both had been raised within the extended family, had been “imprinted” with human feelings.  Both visited the relatives, but found it was really hard to keep the relations going when you couldn’t afford to travel very often. At that time, people weren’t as hooked up to e-mail, especially older people, and letters took forever, sometimes never getting there. The gist of the conversation was, “be glad to get what you got. These people are weird, but they love us.” End of story.

After my grandmother died we had the opportunity to drive up to Placer County and spend the afternoon with the cousins, one last time before Clif died. We had no idea  then, he was in great shape. He took my husband and I and our two kids to the neighborhood pool. Way back in the 50’s when the neighborhood was being built, the home buyers got together and bought a lot to place a swimming pool. They put an assessment district in place to pay for it, and there it was. It was well fenced, and everybody got a key. Whenever we visited that branch of the family we took our swim suits and flip flops and Clif would lead us kids like ducks down to the pool while our moms all yakked it up like a hen house full of nasty chickens. So, even after all the years we’d been absent, I remembered to pack our swim stuff. It was so comforting when Clif came into the kitchen, where my mom and her cousin were talking about their childhood like two people who expected to die soon, and asked us if we’d brought our suits, just like I was still 10 years old. They still had the little tiny bathroom alongside the garage, where we changed. It was like a Barbie Doll bathroom, so tiny, just for kids.

Just like old times, we trooped in line out to the pool behind 70-something year old Clif. And it was just like old times. How do they do it? How does a relative who has not seen you since you more than half dozen times over 20 years act as though they just had a conversation with you yesterday? I kept up at Christmas, sending chatty cards, but I almost hadn’t expected them to recognize me. And they hadn’t seen my kids since they were babies – once! But Clif just fell into stride with my 8 year old, as though he’d known him all his life, and they chatted up boy stuff.

We got to the pool, and it was just like I remembered – albeit, smaller. There were some neighbors lounging around, old friends of Clif, they talked like kids, poking and jibing. They left, and I got to have my first adult talk with my uncle. He asked about our house, and it just so happened, we were engaged in a battle with a new neighbor over the  removal of some old valley oak trees growing right on the property line. Here we sat in a neighborhood full of some of the most magnificent Blue Oaks you have ever seen. My uncle got a little upset! “Why would he want to cut them down?” He spent the next 40 minutes or so lecturing us about the value of mature native trees. I realized suddenly, how much these people had shaped my personality.

Boy, was I glad to have that day with my uncle – he died, horribly, of skin cancer, about two years later. His wife, my Aunt Linnis, sold out of the expensive town they lived in and moved to Grass Valley, where she lives in a trailer park. She’s pushing 80, but she still gets out and drives to her card parties and other gatherings. I think she takes Amtrak to visit her kids, who are a couple of turds. Every Christmas she sends us a card to let us know, she’s still alive. In her icy way, she sends her love. That’s my family.

Now my husband and I are so far separated from our relatives, we are footloose and fancy free for the holidays. I’ll admit, it’s a relief. I’ll admit, I hate roast turkey. I’ll admit, I don’t have anything in common with my remaining relatives, and I have lost touch with most of my family. We find it easier to relate to my husband’s family in Germany. No criticism, no nosey questions, just fun stories and jokes.  No worrying about what kind of woman your relative will bring this year, or is so-and-s0 still employed or when will she make her kids behave! None of that, just love, thankyouverymuch!

I hope all of you will get a plateful of love this weekend. Thanksgiving can be a depressing debacle, but it can also be a good time of year to sum things up, get ready for the new year coming.

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