At the close of yet another Holiday season, complete with all the social interaction stress, heartburn, and credit card debt, which causes a bit of its own monetary stress and heartburn, I hesitated over the proper opening words to this story because although plainly cliché, the description would be entirely accurate. That said,
"It was a dark and stormy night".
The clan of five was distributed across three sets of seats in the Honda Pilot, as a means of voluntarily separating themselves from one another to avoid I surmised, the highly contagious blight associated with the involuntary and random act of accidentally "touching" each other. "Cooties" was the worst of communicable and incurable diseases between children ranging in age from 3 to 6 years old. The memories of 15 years earlier were still fresh and visually clear as if the yelling from the driver's seat had just finished and there was again silence, albeit temporary, in the cabin of the oversized station wagon. Now 18 to 22 years in age, the three were still casting verbal barbs and pillows all throughout the 450 mile journey, save for a brief respite through Illinois and Indiana where the bickering was replaced by an unexpected quiet as they all seemed to fall deeply into their own personal Ipods or pillows or both.
Thankfully it was all interstate driving, literally from door to door. The snow had held off through the first two states of the journey, but targeted the coast like a hurricane as we rounded the bottom of Lake Michigan. My mind wandered back to a business trip I took to the Netherlands ten years earlier, working in Den Haag but staying in a resort town called Scheveningen. I remembered trying to describe to my customer contacts where I was from and how the weather patterns must be similar to their towns, being on the Eastern side of the North Sea. I shared a description of how big the Great Lakes were and what the concept of "lake effect snow" meant. Seeing the parallel in location to water, they shared a story with me of how they used the name of the town where I was staying as a test of citizenship during World War II. Apparently if you were German, you couldn't pronounce "Scheveningen" with the proper amount of phlegm. That alone promptly earned you a bullet to the head. I reluctantly told the highly nationalistic lunch table, we swapped these friendly stories at lunch after all, that I was indeed German, then admitted quickly that our lake effect weather couldn't be nearly as severe as in "Scheveningen". Their ears perked up again when I tried to pronounce the name of the town. I was sure that somebody would have popped me if the articles of war had still existed.
Lake effect snows are akin to a skittish and unreliable mistress. You never know when they are going to come, but when they do, its best to buckle up and hang on for a wild and slippery ride. I have to admit, that while writing this, I revisited that last sentence three times weighing the removal of what was a truly disgusting and inappropriate mixed metaphor. In the end, obviously because you're reading it now, I said "fork it".
It was a true white out for approximately fifty miles, caking up piles of slushy packed ice on both sides of the windshield, but it thankfully faded as we veered further north and east of the lake. The clan awoke only when pulling off the highway to drop another $75 in the tank, taking advantage of the stop to make a quick visit to the porcelain throne.
By 4:30 PM on darkened Christmas Evening, we had arrived at the home of relatives, tired and sore from the seat padding engineered by Japanese men in white coats who apparently are quite comfortable spending the entire day on the fiberglass bench seats of their public transit systems. We entered the warmth and friendly smells of a favorite Aunt's ranch home, while I immediately picked up the fragrance of ham warming in the oven. Pork. I was then immediately transformed into a happy man with the expectation of slow cooked ham with stone ground mustard resting on a plate with little room left for vegetables. The clan dispersed, and hugs were shared while I dropped off my coat in the open bedroom, first off the hallway to the left of the kitchen.
The first person I met at Christmas Dinner was my father. 83 and shrinking, the once six foot seven inch tower of a man was now shorter than me, though his handshake seemed unwaveringly firm. We talked about the trip, the lake effect snows, the number of cars left in the ditch along the way, and of course where the cooler was located. With beer in hand, we continued the never ending task of catching up, trading of bad jokes and limericks we've already told each other, and discussing the passing of mom who would be missing her second Christmas. His color was good and disposition strong, though evidence of some higher function degeneration was becoming more obvious and difficulty in performing certain personal grooming activities was clear. He could have fashioned the hair coming out of his ears into an attractive goatee.
We stayed in the back hallway for a while, avoiding the rest of the family and selfishly keeping time for ourselves. Nothing was new of course. I had heard all the same stories and updates from our phone call the week before, but it was his way of staying connected and my way of maintaining the ties. Somehow the conversation shifted to whether or not I had seen the recent news from NASA, taking him down the memory path of his days working at Cape Canaveral. Designing missile guidance systems for the Redstone rocket back in the 50's, he would often get locked down on base without the ability to contact his wife or be contacted by her. This was problematic if you wanted to start a family, namely me, but I think it was his proudest moment. A guy without a college degree, but whose military training with electronics and proclivity for building circuit boards put him on that exclusive team. I still wonder if he regrets starting a family and leaving Florida. My mother used to say that she would never have stayed, and despite the more attractive and regional name of "Palmetto", that they were all just invasive, huge cockroaches to her.
The second person I met at Christmas Dinner was my brother, who despite the last 20 or so years of being satisfied by a handshake greeting seems hell bent on doing that whole urban brotherhood, "man hug" greeting. Some chest on chest pressing and a couple of pops on the back and we were both ready to refresh the beer supply and talk of manly things. No bodily fluids were exchanged. We talked about the old neighborhood a little south of Six mile and Gratiot, close to City Airport, which interestingly enough was now considered the "hood". My kids were ostracized a little in school when first moving to our new state and new home, once their classmates learned they were from Detroit. Actually, they were from a nice little suburb well north of the city, but within 50 miles of the city and you were labeled apparently, as being from "That City". My brother and I laughed about being from the hood, when it was really nothing more than a working class neighborhood back in the boom manufacturing days, with two families living per house, one upper, and one lower. We never had much back then, and few things were new. We joked about our first bikes as kids, reclaimed from an alley somewhere, fixed with new tires and chain and spray painted blue or red. Older kids that we knew used to walk around the streets in groups, just "hanging out", we thought. Nobody used the term "gang" back then. We didn't know.
The third person I met at Christmas was cousin Larry. Everybody has a cousin Larry, I'm sure of it. Skirting the law as a teenager, quietly arrested once for possession of an illegal substance, though the wider family members was never supposed to find out. Cousin Larry always has something "Hot" going on in his right pocket. The inside track, the hottest thing in electronics, the newest piece of software, the invention that will soon make him rich, the neighborhood band that he is somehow "associated with", Larry was known for working the angles. This year it was Herbal Supplements. If only I could commit to $170 a month, I would be healthier than I had ever been, with the energy of a 20 year old, the brain function of scientist, the vision of an eagle, the restful sleep of a passed out drunk, and the sexual performance of a porn star. To me that sounds like caffeine, fish oil, carrots, Ambien and Viagra, and I can get all that for far less than $170 a month. Someone else called out to greet me and I turned to shake the hand of another uncle while quite innocently backing into Larry slightly as I turned. The bodies were packed into the kitchen area a bit by then. I was sure to check for my wallet after leaving Larry.
The Fourth person I met at Christmas dinner, was Uncle Allen. Uncle Allen fancied himself a comedian, though the stories hadn't been updated in nearly 20 years. I offered him the standard Midwestern greeting of "How are you doing?", and began to shake my head and bite my lip almost as the voice inflection normally coupled with a question mark had left my lips. "Everyone I can and the easy ones twice", replied Uncle Allen. His head reared back in laughter knowing he had just pulled off another "Gotcha" at this once-a-year gathering. I decided then that a strategy of playing along would expedite the whole Uncle Allen process. He asked me if there was something "eating me", I replied "no" and asked in return if there was something eating him. "Well, a couple of fleas and a tapeworm at the moment, but I imagine a few bedbugs will join the buffet while in repose watching Conan tonight". The joke had actually been modified this time around. Uncle Allen was updating his material to keep it fresh. He must have looked up the word "repose". Needing a fresh beer, I thought I would fire one across the bow towards Uncle Allen. My standard ice breaker. The one liner most people don't remember and fall for every time. "I've got to tell you", I started. "You know what really burns my ass?" Unprepared, Uncle Allen said "No". Holding my palm out about the height of my beltline I replied, "A flame about this high". While Uncle Allen was laughing, I made my exit.
The fifth person I met at Christmas dinner was Aunt Edna. She was the consummate hostess for the evening, mastering the kitchen like a seasoned commercial chef, timing the cooling of the pies perfectly with the serving of dinner. In her 70's now, the telltale signs of an almost-healed cold sore at the corner of her mouth was warning enough to opt for the kind of hug that puts your chin on Aunt Edna's shoulder, negating any chance of a kiss on the mouth. The cousins still talk about Aunt Edna's storied past. For years we would meet a new Uncle around the holidays while Edna, with no kids of her own, would find herself a new beau as the mood struck her. Pictures of Edna in her youth would provide enough of an explanation to her ability to land a fine catch of the day. One year, while dropping keys from the pocket of my jacket near her bed, which served as the annual storage location for coats, hats and purses, I noticed a large eye bolt protruding downward from the corner of her wooden bed frame. Lifting up the dust ruffle, I saw a similar bolt sticking out from each corner of the frame and a small pile of rope directly under the center of the bed. I never told anyone, but found a whole new respect for Aunt Edna. Hard to picture her tying down Uncles Fred, Ron, Dave, Mel, Tom, Tim, Kirby, Chester, Mark, William, Mike, Dave (The Second), and Hector. Hector lasted for more than 7 years actually, but passed away from heart failure, in bed, on a Tuesday. We went to Hector's funeral out of respect for Aunt Edna. We were never quite sure if the mortician was instructed to put a smile on Hector's face, or if it was just more difficult to remove. You go Uncle Hector. Take it easy next time, Aunt Edna.
Called to dinner, the ham was all that I had hoped for, and the cheese laden potatoes were to die for as well. True to form and personal commitment, not a single green leafy vegetable made it onto my plate, though I did manage to munch on one carrot stick while waiting for the ham platter to be passed in my direction. I felt like Homer Simpson, even trying to duplicate the voice, "Mmmmm. Haaammmm".
We sat and ate. We laughed. We were asked constantly about our new home now four states away, surrounded literally by corn fields and dairy farms. We described an actual event at our girl's high school called "Senior Tractor Day" to be experienced in the month of May just before Graduation. And yes, Goober, you will be expected to drive the family tractor into the high school parking lot. It is a right of passage, apparently. Our youngest daughter, the last to graduate high school, will be driving the Pilot instead. She promised to get it muddy before going to school. We agreed that it probably wouldn't fool anybody.
Happy New Year!