The long holiday weekend began with packing and primping for the 7 hour, 500 mile crossing to various and sundry Mapquest destinations dotting the southern coast of the world's 4th largest lake. After four years physically removed from our respective families still clustered around the bottom edge of Lake Huron, my wife and I always start out our annual Christmas trek with sincere plans for mirth and merriment, but it never seems to end that way.
Mea Culpa. This year's fight was brought on by yours truly following an attempt to butter some early morning toast. You can't just make this stuff up, you know. I innocently reached into the refrigerator, found the heart-healthy blended canola oil spread on the top shelf right in front, and I took it. After plunging my knife into the yellow tub of oily goodness, I was immediately reprimanded by my lovely bride of 25 years for taking the full tub, when there was still an older one with butter substitute still left, hiding on the bottom shelf behind a stack of pies that had yet to be packed for our trip.
"Of course". I said. "After being gone all week, working in a different city, I should have known that there was a hidden tub of fake butter somewhere else in the fridge while this new tub waited in ambush, in front, on top, for me to mistakenly open". I never actually said that last part, but I thought in retrospect that it would have been a snappy comeback.
I asked next if this was the way the whole weekend was going to be like, making a reference to a comment she had made to me on Thanksgiving Day, with several members of her family scattered around the dinner table.
That went over like a fart in church.
Oh, if only an evil stare like the one I received could stop war, get people in Congress to actually do something, and prevent forest fires. I was pretty sure that a hole had been burned quite handily into the center of my forehead.
It was 5:00 AM on Christmas Eve and my daughters were stumbling downstairs at the time, trying to remember the last time they had actually been awake this early in the morning. All they really heard was the tail end of our friendly conversation in the kitchen after my wife had discovered the almost empty tub of butter stuff, sticking it in front of me while taking the full tub of butter away.
While the silence grew to become deafening in the kitchen, my youngest daughter who will either become a fine argumentative lawyer or corporate contract negotiator some day spoke up first. "Seriously? You're going to fight over butter?"
Of course it had nothing to do with the butter, or fake butter or whatever that artificial stuff was in the plastic tub, but her point was well taken. We had let the stress associated with the hurried packing and loading and long drive across four states get to us.
The actual drive through the Midwest was uneventful, unaffected by weather and dead quiet for seven full hours, except for a stop to fill the gas tank. Only then could I hear the women begin a time restricted speed talking event as I stood out in the cold. It was for me, a literal and figurative place to be.
We had booked a multi-room suite at a nationally known hotel, so that we could keep our three kids, now adults, with us. We were about 15 minutes from the lake and in between both families that we would be visiting with. Our son met us there from college and we exchanged hugs and handshakes all round. It was good to have the whole gang there, and the petty anger that had started the day was beginning to fade.
The newly found peace and feelings of joy and contentment had lasted about three minutes until we entered the room. We wondered if they had recently removed the yellow police tape from the door, because aside from the neatly made beds, symmetrically placed pillows on the living area couch, and folded towels in the bathroom, it looked like a crime scene.
Hotel room carpeting usually comes in either a single color, or patterned multi-color depending on the motif of the hotel. I was a frequent world traveler; you tend to notice these things. Our Christmas Eve hotel room carpet was a bit of a hybrid of those two options really, mostly a single neutral earth tone color, except for the large dark stain right in the center of the main living area. I'm not a forensic scientist, it might not have been blood, but after many hours invested in those wonderful crime scene dramas, I'd like to say that the pooling characteristics of the stain were suspect. We searched our closets. No bodies or weapons were found.
There may have been a struggle. The overhead kitchen light fixture was cracked but doing all it could to hang on until duct tape could arrive. The refrigerator door had several deep rounded and clustered dents in the front, where it had either fallen face first into a bunch of marbles, or had the impressions made with brass knuckles. The lucky ones who survived the fight must have left the room by virtue of the windows, because three of them were left unlocked and open perhaps in an attempt to come back later to clean up any errant evidence. We surmised that it must have started out as a party, because under the couch, between the sleeper mattress and the mesh that holds the mattress, was a litter of popcorn, popcorn kernels, dog kibble, ground up potato chips, and a few pretzel fragments. Finally, not that this has anything to do with the crime scene, but a reservation that was supposed to be one room with a queen bed, another room with two twins and a roll away bed for 5 adults, turned out to be 2 queen beds and a fold out couch covered in crispy food fragments. Oops, almost forgot to mention the dust layered over the paneled doors and the toothpaste dribbled down the front of the bathroom cabinet. Perhaps one of the survivors had time to brush before evading the police. Your teeth are your best friends after all, that and a Smith & Wesson .45
Now, depending on who you are and where you grew up, this is either totally disgusting and unacceptable, or just a bump on the Christmas Eve road less traveled. My wife and I both grew up in Detroit south of Six Mile, and came from pretty much nothing. We were used to all things void of glitter and gold. So, with the windows locked, mattress crumbs removed, the sisters sharing the other queen bed and our son throwing fresh linens on the mattress, we called it "Done". Truth be told, we all tended to avoid walking over the mysterious stain in the main room.
Christmas Eve dinner with my father was a welcome respite from the trip and the hotel. We avoided the full family entourage this year and spent the evening at his house, bringing the food with us so that he wouldn't have to cook. All we really had to do was warm things in the oven. Slow roasted ham, potatoes covered in cheese, and a few things that weren't of the meat and potato food varieties, which of course I carefully avoided. Our conversations were a rehash of everything discussed over the last few weeks leading up to our trip home, but it was good to see his face and talk of things he had forgotten that we discussed before. The medical update however, was new.
I still wonder to this day why many senior citizens find it acceptable to discuss detailed medical procedures with anyone who will listen. As if the details surrounding multiple orifice penetration procedures with various diameters of tubing would be interesting if not informative to friends and family. Perhaps at the bar, after a few beers, it's acceptable for a father to update his son privately about his health, but maybe not immediately after serving the cheesecake and apple pie. Good times.
The short evening eventually gave way to Christmas morning. We had packed the kids' presents in the truck and after making breakfast in the crime scene kitchen; we watched them open their wrappings and reminisced about the days when they were younger. No assembly for dad this year, thank God, but memories returned about having extra bolts after bicycle construction, or extra screws and nails after doll house assembly. Instructions after all, were for wimps.
My twenty-something children were the beneficiaries of all things electronic made in Asian countries this year. This meant that the only tool I had to lift was the plastic card from my wallet. Their smiles were just as bright, and the "thank you" responses were genuine, but we knew that this might be one of the last years that they would all be around. They would all be off on their own soon. We enjoyed the moment, and regretted opportunities missed to make them smile more often. In the end, we all do our best I think, given the circumstances surrounding us. People grow, things change, the world moves on. I hoped that our children would look back on us someday and appreciate the things we did try to do for them.
Christmas Day dinner was held at my mother in law's house. A fine spread, a comfortable chair, the (American) football game on TV, and good conversation. I always liked that lady, even though it is fashionable to bag on one's mother-in-law, mine is actually pretty cool, and always welcoming into her home. The kids all received small gift bags filled with colored tissue paper, which was required for the annual wrapping paper fight in the great room of "Grandma's" house. This action continues unabated until an errant throw tips over a knick knack on a table somewhere. That signals the international cease fire rule, and all combatants participate in paper bomb clean up.
My wife and I had temporarily forgotten about the butter incident as my daughters called it, and we enjoyed the waning hours of the Christmas holiday. We talked about the upcoming New Year Holiday, and a trip planned to Chicago for New Year's Eve. We talked about our own kids, their relationships and who might be married first. We wondered what the future held in this difficult economy for them and us, knowing our own jobs could be impacted at any time and that finding work after college would be difficult for the kids. We blended happiness with concern, because that is what parents do with emotion at a family gathering, after a few glasses of wine and several Bailey's on the rocks after dinner.
Because it's my job to worry about the future, I couldn't sleep that night. I worried about my career and if it had already peaked, I wondered if our own jobs would hold out through the economic challenges. I hoped that my kids would find employment opportunity somewhere, make money and find a way to be happy; I wondered how many miles I could put on my car before needing to make another major part investment, and I wondered if Bruce Jenner could ever someday be free of manipulative Kardashian women. Don't ask why that last bit found its way on paper, my mind just works like that sometimes. I'm starting a new movement based on the atrocities imposed on the former Olympian. "Free Bruce". "Free Bruce Now".
While the family slept on the day after Christmas, I got dressed and ventured out to a nearby bakery that I knew would be open. It was early and nothing else along this 8 lane parkway was open. I sat shivering a little at a stop light while waiting for the SUV to warm up, but then I saw an older woman crossing at the light. She was wrapped up from head to toe in mismatched colors. A pink hat and oversized green scarf had covered all but her eyes. The hood from some sort of sweat shirt was visible protruding outside of her men's woolen overcoat, which extended almost down to the ground.
She was carrying multiple oversized shopping bags in each hand from local stores, and you could see that they were stuffed full of soft, balled up fabrics rather than the sharp edges of boxes or cans. My intersection wasn't near a bus stop, or a parking lot, or a subdivision, or an apartment complex. She was just moving from one closed retail section of this major thoroughfare to the other side without a visible or logical destination in sight. As viewed from the secure and slowly warming microcosm of my relatively expensive family vehicle, the reality of this woman's situation had hit me in the face like the cold wind blowing in hers. There, but for the grace of God go I.
I felt like an asshole for triggering or prolonging the spat with my wife, and was reminded how fragile, fickle and fucked up life and luck can be sometimes. I was lucky to have a roof over my head, family and my health, much less career growth, or a new car. Not that any of us would claim that our lives were perfect, but can it ever really be that way? I became instantly thankful for the things that do matter and realized how petty I had been over the weekend. I felt guilty for the ability to easily buy fresh bagels, muffins and cookies, but thankful that I could still provide for my family. The memories of the old neighborhood crept back in and were as fresh as yesterday's sunset. We never had much at all back then. When you're a kid, you don't know any different. You had a bed, you had food, and you had clothes and that was all that really mattered. We were lucky back then too, but not mature enough to know the difference between what we had, and those who really have nothing. I was reminded of the difference. I guess even Bruce Jenner is lucky too. God help him.
When I returned from the bakery along the same route, the woman had moved on, hopefully to another place with shelter and warmth. I thought again about the basic necessities in life that we all take for granted and how I might be able to do more for those who aren't as fortunate.
We spent the day after Christmas with old friends in Royal Oak. It was a nice lunch, some hand crafted beer, and great conversation. I miss them all and count myself lucky to have been able to spend any time with them along the way. We wrapped up the day and prepared for a departure back home the following morning. Our son sauntered off to school and work later that day, while we enjoyed the beauty of the season's first real snow fall. Wonderful to look at while it fills the trees and covers the grass, but shit to drive on. I was thankful for the sight of the snow, but reserve judgment about all those who couldn't seem to drive on it. I'm sure they were all good and thankful people themselves, but I would have been even more appreciative had they been thankful by experimenting with winter driving on some other road.
We arrived home late that afternoon, the snow adding another hour or so to our travel day. Stopping to pick up our 13 year old Brittany spaniel from the doggy hotel, it was good to be bringing another male home to the sea of estrogen that fills the house. He and I bonded like old friends while he sniffed my pants to see just where the hell we've been. He gave up quickly when confident that no strange dog had come into carnal contact with my leg.
And so, another holiday season comes to a close. I freely admit that I started out by being a pig nosed turd. But, I did come to appreciate those things that were and are important to me. I hope my own kids learn to appreciate the importance of the basic necessities of life as well, considering everything else to be a blessing. Shelter, food, clothing, security, and people who care about you are all anyone needs. Everything else is frosting. We are lucky and blessed and thankful for the things we have and it's pointless to dwell on or worry about those things we don't. This Christmas holiday provided me a cold reminder of those things that are most important. I hope the spirit of your own holiday season and recognition of those things that are truly important stays with you for months to come, and that you all have a warm, happy and healthy new year. That wish applies to any former decathlete named Bruce as well.