FRESH YARN presents:
What is it about the holidays that makes us temporarily forget how misguided the concept of family togetherness is? Are we all so highly suggestible that the media with its perpetually playing Wonderful Lifes and Miracle on 34th Streets actually makes us believe that we, too, have a warm, loving family where people with smooth hair and fabulously tailored ensembles welcome us home with tears of joy? Are we forgetting what our families look like? Maybe if we'd bothered to get last year's Christmas photos developed we would've noticed that in every picture our wild-haired, sweat-pant clad loved ones are either asleep or mid-argument. We might recall that the tears on our little nieces and nephews faces are not tears of joy, but of resentment over getting the green flashing toothbrush instead of the RED one.
But no, whenever the holidays roll around we somehow get it into our thick little heads that being together will be fun, possibly the most fun we'll have all year. I can't wait to see you! we all say excitedly, forgetting that last year after a few days of living under the same roof with those same people, we were ready to rip their legs off and beat them over the head with them. We giddily pack our perfumes and ties, our good jewelry and a series of fancy outfits conveniently misremembering that during past holiday vacations we never once left the house or our pajamas, or even took a shower for that matter. How can we keep fooling ourselves, year after year after year? It's a baffling phenomenon.
Last year for Christmas my parents decided to rent a rural lakeside house in Bucksnort, Tennessee for a week of familial bonding. Why Bucksnort, you say? Why not Nashville or Memphis or better yet, some place where fringe doesn't constitute formal wear? "It's cheap, kiddo," my dad explained, "Plus, this place has a bed that hangs from the ceiling and swings!" Yee. Haw.
Because my husband Andrew wanted to see his family before being forcibly incarcerated with mine, we flew to our mutual home state of Maryland and made plans to drive to Tennessee with my parents. Now you'd think that a minivan that seats ten people and can fit a tiger in its trunk would be big enough for four people and week's worth of luggage. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.
My parents are excessive people. Everything about them is too much-from their giant, oversized barcaloungers to their giant, oversized sweatpants, to their giant, oversized guffaws -- they have never understood the concept of understated. This, of course, trickles into their buying habits. My parents worship at the temple of Costco. They buy things in one size, XX-bulk. And if there's a sale of any kind, whether they need it or not, they buy it by the truckload. My dad once bought 39 jars of peanut butter because they were on sale 3 for $10. "What a deal, Hon! I mean, you can't beat that!" my dad said, proudly describing how he bought out the stock from five different grocery stores. I think, all in all, he saved a total of $5.00. Less gas, of course and if you don't take into account that he spent $130.00 to begin with... and that he bought the smooth peanut butter instead of the chunky that we all like.
Thus, for the two day drive to Bucksnort, Andrew and I found ourselves tightly wedged in amidst a wealth of bulky, cheaply bought items-many of them wrapped up, not so discreetly, as Christmas presents-the vague outline of a can of WD-40 here, the tell-tale sound of cereal rattling in boxes there. That's also been a long-standing tradition in the DiPaolo household. Not having the storage or really the need for half the items they get "great deals" on, my parents got in the habit of disguising said items as presents. I distinctly remember a surprise birthday party in my early teens when I unwrapped a five-gallon tub of Noxzema in front of a roomful of my friends. It was one of those character-defining moments you never forget. I had that Noxzema all the way up into my junior year of college.
The car ride was relatively uneventful. For most of the drive down we followed my sister, Rita, and thus had the privilege of hearing many loud, breathy renditions of yuletide carols as sung by my tuneless niece and nephews over the CB radios my parents bought for inter-car communication. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Had a very shiny nose. Like a light bulb!! Luckily, my dad had filled the radios with cheap generic batteries he got on sale, so we only had to suffer for an hour or so.
By some miracle of fate we all arrived at the rural house in Bucksnort around the same time. My brother Mike and his wife had flown in with their two young boys and pulled up in their rental just as we were beginning to unload the cars. None of us kids were expecting much from this place. This wasn't the first family getaway trip my parents had put together and we had learned the hard way that brochure photos could not be trusted. But I had to admit that at least from the outside, the house pretty much resembled its advertised image. Yes, there were an inordinate amount of lawn jockeys, and some cigarette-filled ashtrays lined the front walk, but they were evenly spaced apart. And to be fair, the pile of empty beer cans in the tall planter by the front door actually looked kind of nice -- like a colorful aluminum welcoming torch.
Upon entering, however, we were greeted by a shocking sight. Mounted on the wall opposite us was a massive hissing tiger, frozen mid-leap and staring down at us hungrily from atop his rocky perch. The kids scattered, shrieking with fear. But that wasn't even the scariest thing in the room. Displayed on standing easels by the living room fireplace were two life-sized photos -- one of a baby floating eerily in a sea of black, below which "Destiny" was written in fanciful gold-lettering; the other, of a smiling mullet-haired boy holding up the sagging head of a recently slaughtered deer -- which appeared to be tracking my every move with its dead glazed eyes.
Every room seemed to have its own theme. If the living room's theme was creepy life-sized family photos, the two upstairs bedrooms' themes were basketballs and enormous porcelain dogs. Downstairs in the master bedroom, where the infamous swinging bed was located -- the theme was simply tacky. It had mirrored walls, a mirrored ceiling and even mirrored bedside tables on which plastic flowers and heart-shaped candles rested and reflected into infinity. On the one non-mirrored wall, hung faded framed photographs of clinking champagne glasses in the glinting light of a dissolving sun and a solitary sailboat out at sea in the glinting light of a dissolving sun and finally, just a picture of the glinting light of a dissolving sun.
As usual, Andrew and I being the only couple without kids got the cheap end of the bedroom stick otherwise known as the porch. That first night as we struggled for several hours to find a cushiony spot on the cracker thin futon mattress, we became aware of the winds. Though the porch was, thankfully, enclosed, its windowed walls lacked the insulation necessary to keep out the blistering December air. Try as we might to find warmth beneath the whimsical basketball quilt my sister kindly gave us from off her bed, it became evident that we'd need heat from the master bedroom to which the porch was attached-the one my parents were occupying.
Now my parents are snorers -- a fact they will actively deny even when their own loud gravelly exhalations wake them up. What was that? my mother often says suddenly awaking from her car-ride slumber, her eyes popping open in a startled manner. You were snoring, my sister Rita explains, exchanging a knowing eye roll with my brother and me in the backseat. No I wasn't! my mother replies defiantly. I wasn't even asleep, so how could I be snoring? Was I snoring, James? My dad barely looks up from the steering wheel, I didn't hear a thing.
Needless to say, Andrew and I did not sleep the entire vacation. The cold and snoring aside, our "bedroom" provided the only passageway to the basement in which the "game room" was situated, consisting of an ancient pinball machine and a lopsided foosball apparatus. Every morning at six a.m. we'd hear the pitter-patter of leaden feet as my niece and nephews trampled past us down the stairs. Occasionally, a faceless parental figure would urge them in loud whispers, be quiet! Aunt Cara and Uncle Andrew are still asleep! And for a few seconds, at least, the kids would try to keep their voices low. But soon we'd hear the distorted pings and electronic whoops of the pinball machine and the banging of foosball figures against the hard ball, followed by the screeches and wails of the children who weren't getting enough time on either.
By day two we had run out of things to do to keep ourselves occupied. You can only walk around a lake so many times before you start saying to yourself, what's the big deal about lakes? There's nothing to see here but a bunch of water. By day three we'd run out of things to talk about with each other and were already starting to recycle stories. Did I tell you I ran into Mrs. Bowen at the store last week? my mom would begin, hopefully. Yes, we'd all reply dully. You told us.
I know being in the middle of nowhere, out in nature and away from the hustle and bustle of the city have its merits, I can just never figure out what they are exactly. What do people do out here? I wondered. Don't they ever want to see a movie or go to a Starbucks, for chrissakes? Dont they ever crave ethnic food or a mall? Or even a Panda Express at a mini-mart? Even the lakeside goats seemed bored. We'd pass them on our daily walks and I swear their monotone bleats seemed to be saying, Blaaah, blaaah, blaaah.
So when my dad mentioned that he was thinking of taking a drive to the nearest grocery store, Andrew and I jumped at the chance to join him. It produced such a flurry of excitement you'd think he had announced we were going to the moon. Maybe we can get some salmon, my mother said giggling like a schoolgirl. And cookie dough for the kids, my sister added. Yay!!! the kids replied in unison. Maybe they sell videos there or something, my brother suggested. Or a crossword puzzle book. Andrew offered, helpfully. The possibilities seemed endless. Visions of civilization danced in our heads. I brushed my hair for the first time in days.
All our hopes were dashed when, a half hour later, my dad pulled the minivan into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. This is it! my dad said enthusiastically, hopping out of the car with surprising alacrity. This is it? Andrew repeated quietly, as we both surveyed the dismally gray industrial building, which might have been mistaken for a prison if it hadn't been for the mirthless dancing pig hanging precariously atop a pole in front.
Inside, the flickering fluorescent lights revealed aisle after aisle of the most depressing food ever imagined, consisting mainly of assorted canned meats, assorted fried pork rinds and assorted chewing tobaccos. One tiny corner of the store was devoted to "specialty foods" where the more discerning Bucksnortian could find such unusual items as "spaghetti" and "wheat bread." Since it was the only section that looked familiar to us, Andrew and I quickly loaded the cart and made our way to the check out counter while my dad went in search of sterilized water.
We soon discovered that checkout people in Bucksnort are not nearly as friendly as the checkout people in Los Angeles. In California, Andrew and I are treated like royalty. Our register people always ask us if we've found everything okay. They offer us options as to bag type and whether or not we need assistance to our car. They may despise us for our petty requests: Can I have paper in plastic, please? and secretly want to throw melons at our heads, but at least they attempt to hide it beneath a veneer of obsequiousness, which we appreciate: Of course you can! No problem!
At the Piggly Wiggly, there were no such niceties. The chubby check out clerk named "Pepper" appeared almost openly disdainful. She didn't even look at us as she began scanning our items and tossing them, rather aggressively, to the back of the counter. As our food started piling up with no hint of a bagger, we began to wonder if we were supposed to do it ourselves. But just as Andrew made a motion to begin the process, Pepper, seemingly addressing the scanner, let out a hoarse, Walt!
"Walt" turned out to be a large, ancient man with a cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth. He was dressed comfortably, like a homeless person, and didn't have a nametag or anything to suggest he actually was a Piggly Wiggly employee. Nevertheless, "Walt" immediately began throwing our groceries into bags, making no attempt to put like foods together or concerning himself with organizing by weight -- shoving bread in first and wedging eggs between two glass jars of juice. Still, I felt it only polite to thank him for his efforts. He replied by simply staring at me blankly then squinting his eyes slightly as he inhaled his cigarette. I could have been reading him wrong, but I got the impression he was imagining me gutted and tied to the front of his truck.
The rest of the vacation passed slowly, interrupted by the occasional explosive fight whenever we attempted to play a game together as a family. As individuals, the DiPaolos aren't so bad. Sure we can be a little overbearing and sometimes tend to talk too much, but no one would call us monsters. But put us together in a room with a game board and suddenly we are more horrible than anyone could imagine. We gloat and backstab and connive, all in the name of healthy competition. It's been a rite of passage for each of our significant others. Andrew still hasn't gotten over the first time he played Trivial Pursuit with my family when we were first dating and the "friendly" game turned suddenly sour. At one point Andrew found himself being pelted in the face by tiny colorful triangles as my brother and I lobbed them at each other, screaming, Here's your stupid piece of the pie, loser!
By the end
of the week we were all ready to go. We packed our bags, said our goodbyes
and readied ourselves for the flight home. My parents dropped us off at
the Nashville airport five hours early, claiming they wanted to "get
on the road early." As we were waiting in the lounge area for our
flight to be called, Andrew got a call from his mother. Guess what?
she told him, excitedly. We're renting a place on the beach this
summer so we can all be together! Andrew smiled and looked at me with
"pay back time" written all over his face. Great! he
said enthusiastically, we can't wait to see you!
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