Monday, November 29, 2010
How I Spent My Holiday
I am including, for the first time since I started blogging, a non-musical video. I will apologize in advance for the fact that the footage is sideways; I shot it with my digital camera and have not been able to figure out how to rotate it. The video will give you a feel for the atmosphere at my Aunt Crazy's recent Thanksgiving get-together. At one point you can hear Cool Cousin advise, "Mom, lean your weight."
I thought I could not bear to be with my parents for Thanksgiving.
So I didn't.
Instead, I packed my bags and headed off to visit the one adult who has consistently acted in my best interests: Grand Ma Normal Family.
My father's mother has her faults, but I've learned to navigate around them. When she brings up, in the middle of casual conversation, some falling out that happened ten years ago, I remark on the unseasonable warmth of the weather. When the current of our discussion steers anywhere near the poisonous reservoir of hate she feels toward my parents, I ask for more cheesecake.
She either takes the hint or is successfully driven off course, and we're able to proceed on in tranquility.
It's easy for me, when the world seems chaotic and unfeeling, to yearn for the comfort of my grandmother's home. She and my late grandfather moved there in 1985, a full three years before I was even born, and she has remained ever since.
I attended four different elementary schools, three different middle schools, and three different high schools and have lived under seven roofs since 2001, but her tastefully decorated house has been a stalwart constant. It has also, just as constantly, been a refuge from the evils that exist outside of its walls.
When I was a child, those evils were all too manifest.
Everywhere offered me more demons and more pain, but my grandmother offered, for the most part at least, love, acceptance, a shoulder to cry on, and a whole lot of homemade cookies.
"This is my favorite place in the world," I once told my father when he came to pick me up.
"Really?" he asked, his face quizzical. "Why?"
He can't see through my eyes, of course.
As I've gotten older, my attitude toward the house at the end of a suburban lane has changed, albeit very slightly.
Now no longer my only salvation from unrelenting cruelty, visits to see my grandmother have become exercises in relaxation, occasions to remove myself from the world and gain perspective. The fact that her residence sits in the epicenter of my tormentors' plastic and rubbish kingdom, a region once so violently hostile to me that I am still afraid to venture out in public there, only adds to the appeal.
When I at last arrive safely in her driveway and drag my luggage inside, I feel I've entered a well-apportioned island of luxury and security in the middle of a boiling ocean.
That sea fortress is a particularly happy one to inhabit.
Its walls and doors are thick and sturdy, its cupboards and refrigerators stocked with delicious treats, its prosperous adornments the only ones that I have known uninterrupted for all my life.
I got there on Monday, November 22nd, and was treated my very first evening to homemade lasagna, which of course was delicious.
After a night of snacking and intimate talks, Grand Ma Normal Family and I were joined Tuesday afternoon by Tall Cousin, the seventeen-year-old son of my father's brother, Tall Uncle.
I don't see very much of Tall Cousin (his father and mine experienced a major fraying in relations when I was young and have not spoken in about ten years), but what I do concerns me, chiefly because it reminds me so much of myself.
An interesting contrast can be made with Rowdy Cousin, the son of my father's sister (Sweet Aunt) and also seventeen.
Rowdy Cousin, like Tall Cousin, is a Senior in high school. Rowdy Cousin also has parents who divorced and remarried and is also planning on attending college next year, but the similarities basically end there.
Rowdy Cousin is an only child, a young man doted upon by a loving father, an affectionate stepfather, and a mother who is fiercely protective but has been wise enough to give her son space and latitude. He is well adjusted, juggling a part-time job, a full social calendar, a vigorous athletic life, and all the mundane demands of high school with concerted efforts to win admission to one of Native State's best universities, where he hopes to study criminal justice.
He has this unnerving calm, in my view borne of exceptional parenting, that I've never seen in someone so young. If you ask him about his life or where he wants to go, he will look you in the eye without a hint of nervousness and tell you his goals. He is confident without being proud, firm without being forceful, a social butterfly without being insincere. I don't imagine that he's ever once doubted himself in his life.
Tall Cousin is a fitting counterpoint, a figure so opposite Rowdy Cousin that it seems the two were made just to be juxtaposed beside one another.
Tall Cousin, by all accounts an innocent teenager, has endured the double misfortune of a stepmother who treats him badly and a father too weak to intervene. Combine this with a mother as suffocatingly protective as she is religious and you get a boy whose personal growth has been seriously stunted.
All of this scares me to death for him because it mirrors so closely what I was, follows so exactly a story whose progress I know very well.
I, like him, was shockingly innocent at seventeen; I, like him, came from a background of abuse (though his seems to lack the physical component that made mine so terrifying); and I, like him, did not have many friends.
Whether through chance or design (it is more, I suspect, design), Tall Cousin has very few mates and rarely goes out. That doesn't bother him, for now. He's got his home and his computer games that are incessantly on, and at present that's enough. Soon, though, it won't be.
When the warm surroundings of childhood are replaced with what initially seem to be the cold ones of university, he will, if he is anything like me, desperately crave companionship. He will also, if he is anything like me, find that eighteen years of failing to lay any groundwork leaves you with a poor foundation on which to build a life.
I really hope I'm wrong about this awkward young man, this boy who seems so standoffish to those unfamiliar with him.
For if I'm not, I know exactly what is about to happen to him, and it breaks my heart to think of how awful it will be.
I have tried to do what I can, encouraging him to assert his independence from his domineering mother and showing him the school clubs for the community college where he is thinking of going, but the whole time I couldn't help but wonder if I was staring at a 6'3" version of myself.
"So BB," he asked in a moment that revealed more than I think he realized. "How do you make friends in college?"
"Oh, it's easy," I lied. "You hang out with your roommates and go to clubs and before long you'll know tons of people."
For many, that would be true.
But for a seventeen-year-old boy with almost no friends, confidence-crushing parents, a narrow worldview informed by religious dogma, and painful shyness, I fear things will be a lot more complicated.
I pray that I am mistaken.
In the meantime, Tall Cousin remains ensconced in an insulated cocoon of church and video games and visits to his grandmother's house. Only time will tell how he emerges from it.
He accompanied my grandmother and me Thanksgiving day on our much anticipated trip to Aunt Crazy's house.
Aunt Crazy, as her name suggests, has quite a bit of personal flair.
The same woman whose chronic forgetfulness has resulted in hysterical social gaffes and joking accusations of dementia is famous for her gusty declarations of "It's hard out here to be a pimp!" and her willingness to do almost anything, no matter how ridiculous, in the name of a good time.
"You know, your Aunt Crazy was always the life of the party," my grandmother has told me on countless occasions. "When we were younger she'd be the one dancing on a table or leading the mambo line. And boy could she wail. She sang just like Janis Joplin."
It's good to see that some things never change.
Aunt Crazy is refreshing to me, and not just because of her profligate insanity.
She, and most of the rest of my father's family, stand as an ideal that I have always found comforting, especially in contrast to the violence and lunacy that abound in the families of my mother and birth-mother.
Aunt Crazy and Uncle Responsible never hit their two daughters (Cool Cousin and Liberal Cousin), and when those daughters graduated high school their middle-class parents ate less and leveraged more to ensure that the girls were put through college.
"Your Aunt Crazy and Uncle Responsible went into debt to pay for their school," my grandmother said. "They did without for years. They felt like it was worth it, though."
That verdict seems to be correct.
Today Liberal Cousin is happily married to her high school sweetheart, is a doting mother to her intelligent and courteous ten-year-old son, and occupies a position as the president of a wildly successful communication services company that counts among its clients some of the biggest corporations in the world.
Cool Cousin is an established chiropractor who hasn't slowed down enough to start a family; when she isn't at her office she's out on the town with friends, or hiking through the Costa Rican rain forest, or volunteering on the ground in Haiti to provide crucial relief, as she did in March.
Sweet Aunt, my father's sister, is one of the most elegant and refined women I have ever met, and her husband, Uncle Mustache, matches her kindness with his gregariousness. Uncle Mustache and Sweet Aunt, like Uncle Responsible and Aunt Crazy, have applied discipline without contorting it into abuse, and their son is a singularly happy boy with a bright future because of their stewardship.
Apart from wondering where and how my father fell off of this bandwagon, seeing his relatives gives me hope for the future that can be.
They are financially stable, professionally successful, emotionally mature, and able to provide the love and support that parents should because they are actual adults with an actual sense of moral obligation. Not one of their number has ever shown me anything but respect and affection.
I want to be like them.
In particular, I may wish to emulate Aunt Crazy, whose every word and action make her the very definition of joviality.
Anyone who can hop on the Wii Fit in her mid-sixties, flail around like a discombobulated chicken, and still come out as the crowd favorite is a winner in my book.