A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

Birth Daze

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...
Image via Wikipedia

Birthdaze

On my thirteenth birthday, parties and multiple presents suddenly ceased.  There was no special stature afforded me on the anniversary of my birth.  My father slipped out the backdoor as he did each morning and left for work.  The kitchen was choked with the usual frenetic preparations for school obscured in a haze of fried bacon and burned toast.  My mother mentioned that my birthday dinner of hamburgers would be warming in the oven when I got home from football practice, as she and my father were out entertaining clients that evening.  It seemed as though I was no longer a “cute” puppy worthy of special attention.   I stared at the ground not wanting to cry and secretly wished stigmata would appear on my palms to reveal my deep spiritual martyrdom.  My only birthday present, a baseball glove, had been purchased weeks before and immediately put to use.  My only other gift was a bizarre offering from my grandfather, whom I was now certain, was slipping into senility.  Instead of my annual birthday card replete with a crisp $10 bill, he sent me a coffee can full of pennies and peppermints.

That night, I surveyed the wreckage of my birthday and considered the cruel net present value of my waning childhood — pennies, mints and a shriveled burger on a stale bun.  My older brother sensed my dejection and confirmed my worst fears: “Dude, your birthdays are over…”  My dog Max trotted over and flopped next to me with a heavy sigh.  I looked at him and he seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me.  I don’t even know how old I am.”

Denial became anger.  My friend, Gary, was having his Bar Mitzvah.  I was not even sure what this ancient rite of passage entailed but I heard it meant money, presents, cake and the ability to invite girls to a party.  Now I wanted to be Jewish. Gary would be carried in a chair as everyone celebrated the fact he had become a man.  People would stuff money in his trousers like a Chippendale’s dancer.  He might even grow a beard right then and there from the sheer testosterone of so many acknowledging his manhood.  And here I sat, the Protestant nobody, eating a stale burger and counting out $3.23 in pennies that smelled like Maxwell House.  I suddenly realized that birthdays, like hormones, changed.

In the post pubescent teenage years, each birthday is an event in two phases: the perfunctory family celebration, endured by the teen like a morning in church, followed by a “bash.”  In the lexicon of the ‘70s, a successful bash was defined as an event with no adult supervision, limited police intervention and no one getting sick in your car.  In your twenties, the festivities involved an evening out with everyone, I mean everyone — friends, coworkers, and that Romanian immigrant you met who was bussing your table at the wine bar in Century City.  Then birthdays become justification for self-indulgence and life lessons.  The “I made it” mentality kicks in and you seek to reward yourself.  This leads to an extension course at the school of hard knocks as your celebrations take a bizarre turn — resulting in waking up the next day with a fat lip, no idea where you parked and a $1000 wad of your VISA receipts signed by someone named Little Ray.

In your thirties and forties, you celebrate your birth anniversary with the parents of your children’s friends who have become your friends.  You realize your social circle is now completely composed of those who live in your dimension.  Their unwavering companionship is your gift.  They offer you understanding and never question why your foxhole smells the way it does.  Their foxhole is in the same shape.  You dream of the perfect adult birthday present: zero accountability for 24 hours — everyone just leaves you alone.  All you want is to sleep in, work out, play a little golf, maybe get a massage or haircut.  You want to eat something unhealthy, watch your favorites on TV and not be told to turn the channel, clean a dish, pick up a kid or move a trash can.

In your fifties, you begin to dread birthdays like the snap of a latex glove preceding a prostate exam: “This may feel a little uncomfortable.”  You mourn the passing of each year and consider celebrating the day of your birth tantamount to dancing on your own grave.  Some regress, anxiously looking in their life’s rear view mirror to inventory all regrets.  The day becomes an unnecessary black Sabbath of angst and meaningless self-pity.  This may culminate in the rash purchase of a sports car or, worse yet, running off with your personal trainer (Porsche and Viagra ads actively target these unfortunates.)  Yet most of us avoid these irrational impulses and pay homage only to birthdates divisible by five.  We use the “in between” birthdays as justification for binging on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

As you get on in years, you appreciate every birthday you’re granted but prefer celebrating in privacy, perhaps just a quiet dinner with another couple or someone older than you.  You buy all your own birthday presents because you are no longer willing to be gracious.  Hell, it hasn’t really been about you for the last 20 years.  You eventually get to a point where you don’t want to see anyone, including yourself in the mirror.  A great birthday is simply a day when all your body parts obey.

Birthdays follow a cunning symmetry in life.  As an infant, your first few find you wetting your pants and rubbing cake all over your face while unfamiliar people crowd around you and take flash photos.  You really haven’t a clue as to what’s happening or why that fat woman with blue hair keeps pinching your cheek.  You get angry when someone you don’t know sits next to you — that seat was reserved for your imaginary friend.  Then 80 years later life comes full circle and you’re once again wetting your pants, wondering what’s going on and missing your mouth with cake by a country mile.  You still get angry when someone sits next to you as you tell everyone repeatedly that this seat is reserved for Lana Turner.  They don’t listen, so you hurl your cake and it just happens to hit your stuck-up daughter-in-law in the face, who runs from the room crying, claiming after all these years you still hate her.

Now that is a great birthday.

Living With The Lost Boys

Cover of
Cover of The Lost Boys

The sudden pivot in the meteorologist’s forecast was highly displeasing. Having already missed an opportunity for a white Christmas, I was now fixated on our imminent four day mini-break to Orlando where we would achieve some old fashioned family time with our increasingly oversubscribed teenagers.

Boxing Day was spent sluggishly cleaning up from Christmas and nervously watching the weather channel as the predictions of a winter nor’easter were confirmed.  A perfect storm of airline emasculating, zero visibility winds and tarmac snarling snow had descended over the entire region. With snowfalls predicted to entomb the tri-state with levels of up to three feet, I started to understand why native Northeasterners have come to loathe the romantic notion of a late December snowstorm. The woods may be lovely, dark and deep but snow means no flight out to find some heat.

Our flight had an ETD of 6am Monday — during the peak of the storm. The question was not whether our flight would be delayed,  it was simply whether we would be able to book a later flight once the airline came clean and cancelled our morning escape to Florida.

At 11am Sunday morning, Flight 987 was officially cancelled. The 800 number provided by the airline was overwhelmed to a point where any ticket holder tenacious enough to cling to the queue was being asked to call back later – and then uncerimoniously dropped from the call. Logistical certainty was in short supply on this day. We continued to badger the airline to determine if a late Monday or early Tuesday departure might salvage our best laid plans.

After finessing our way to a customer service operator ( I do not recall how we found this trap door – perhaps we indicated that we had “ special” needs ), we were told that we could get five tickets to Orlando late Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning. The understanding agent did not seem to divine that this new itinerary would afford us less than 48 hours in the Sunshine State.  Given that 30 of those hours would be either dark or with temperatures less than 50 degrees, I was skeptical of a decent return on investment.

The agent offered to reschedule our return but this would require rebooking my tickets for an additional $150 penalty per ticket.  I did some quick napkin calculus and determined this vacation would cost us around $100 for each hour of potential sunshine. I could save $3500 if I bought everyone their own jar of Vitamin D and three free sessions at Savage Tropic tanning salon.

We peacefully euthanized our vacation late Boxing Day afternoon. Our teens temporarily mourned the passing of our trip the way one might lament the death of a distant relative. After five minutes of self-reflection, they shifted their attention to the living and began rapidly pinging their friends for sleepovers, parties and any other forms of nocturnal activity.

My wife would require more time to recover from our vacation’s sudden cardiac arrest.  She was facing the grim reality of an entire week with a thoughtless quartet of the undead – creatures of the night who would conspire to overrun her best efforts to keep a clean house, avoid endless meal preparation and hourly carpools.

As a stay at home vacation Dad, I am at best,  a weak surrogate and at my worst, a human sinkhole of mixed messages undermining my family’s carefully negotiated routines and boundaries regarding curfews, chores and accountability. I am like wildlife in the garden – a novelty that is glimpsed at dawn and at twilight but rarely during day. It seems only mad dogs, Englishman and the unemployd venture into the noonday sun.

Instead of pushing everyone to bed at an early hour for a December 27th 5am departure, we stayed up until 2am playing poker and watching old movies. Our cancelled flight allowed us to dive into a week of freshly fallen snow and a clear calendar.  I quickly took the cue from my teenagers and began a slow transformation into a vampire.

My first mistake was suggesting the XBox 360 be moved upstairs from the basement into the family room so we could enjoy a big screen version of FIFA 2011 soccer, NCAA football, Tony Hawk Underground and of course, the culturally enriching Call of Duty – Black Ops.

Most of my “black ops” activities are confined to eating unhealthy food late at night and frivolous purchases on eBay. However, I was now being recruited into an adolescent band of brothers whose motto was “leave no man behind – alive.” Aside from their annoying habit of shooting me in the back for sport,  my boys drew me into hours of  constant violence in some of the poorest nations around the globe. Other than learning how to operate an automatic Famas gun, throw a ballistic knife and engage cross-bow explosives, I was beginning to show signs of PTSD and was not improving domestic policy at home.

Later that evening, my wife realized the open week was not trending in her favor. As she laid down the holiday rules and regulations ( she had just discovered that the dog had urinated by the door because none of us had noticed his whimpering ),  I stood by her side with genuine disdain for my teens. “Look guys, mom is right. You need to pull your weight around here.” She turned and looked at me incredulously. “Really?”

Falling in with these slacker vampires had been so easy. It was reminiscent of college — late nights,  sleeping in until noon, occasionally venturing out to a movie, ordering take out, and groaning with exaggerated inconvenience when asked to do anything where there was nothing in it for me. It was an amazingly rapid metamorphosis from parent to parasite.

Two days into my Twilight regression, I had my moment of clarity.  I glanced up to survey a hoarder’s landscape of squalor – – Cheez-It and Goldfish boxes, empty bottles of diet coke and empty Nutri-Grain wrappers. The evening before, I had stayed up until 3am to finally defeat my eldest son in a barn burner football game that went into double overtime.  The dog was asleep on the couch while two teens sat in a digital stupor on separate computers watching reruns of Modern Family on Hulu. To the shock of my fellow primates, I pushed the “save” button on my latest game of NCAA Football.  I was now into my third season of the Dynasty segment of NCAA Football 2011.  I was no longer a contributing member of society but I was virtual head coach of the USC Trojans. I had also developed an almost stenographer type dexterity with my fingers – using what felt like 12 digits to work every A – Z button on the controller.

My son glanced up, “Dad, where are you going? You just unlocked a new level in your game” A new level?, I thought.  I was suddenly very afraid that if I descended deeper into this artificial gridiron matrix, I might never return.  I had to escape from the underworld of the undead and return to the surface of the living – and I had to leave right now.

I showered and shaved, glancing at the unimpressive image of a pale, blood shot-eyed baby boomer. I emerged into the crisp air and sunshine of a gorgeous winter afternoon.  I had to get away from my home and drive – – anywhere.  My car seemed to guide me into town where the sidewalks were likely to be alive with adults and responsible people – presumably others who had missed their flights or did not live in a sarcophagus of teens.

Suddenly, I spied my wife’s car and spotted her moving slowly down the street – presumably window shopping for post holiday bargains or a family practice attorney. “Hey” I said breathlessly as I caught up to her. She was pleased to see that I had escaped the iron grip of the Lost Boys.   We lingered over a latte fueled lunch and made plans for the new year.

The afternoon was dying and yielding to purple twilight. Suddenly, the streets were beginning to empty. The human beings were slowly returning home to prepare meals, read books, rest by a fire and contemplate the next days and all of its possibilities. A knot of new shadows appeared outside our café window. Six young vampires wearing cotton hooded sweat shirts, shorts and high top sneakers were moving across a frigid street on a restless roll. Two boys yelled into the cell phone of a third as he held his phone back and shoved the nearest vampire. They had all temporarily abandoned their computers and XBoxes to roam the town in search of a source of entertainment.

I felt a Call of The Wild stir as I surveyed the aimless, rudderless spill of hormones as they splashed on to the sidewalk. They would soon end up at a new safe house, retreating by the light of day, waiting for another restless night. My blackberry suddenly buzzed and a message appeared from the world of adults – – a misguided colleague choosing to work the graveyard slot between Christmas and New Years. I put away the blackberry and returned to my partner and to our  plans.

I smiled realizing that I did not make a very good vampire. Vampires did not understand the difference between living in the moment and living as if there was no tomorrow.  Vampire’s consider the past an empty bucket of ashes, the present an endless horizon line road and the future as something that happens to other people.

My wife and I were thinking about the future, about our new year and about things we needed to do to make a difference. I felt my chin, freshly cleared of a 48 hour goatee of vampire stubble. They had almost pulled me in – into their red pill world of artificial intelligence and the insatiable craving for constant distraction.

I had survived my time with the Lost Boys. As I sipped my coffee, I wondered how it was possible that I had ever survived the purgatory of my own youth. For all of its challenges and responsibilities, it was good to be above ground and among the mortals ready to take on another new year.

Christmas at Sears & Roebuck

Going to church on Christmas Eve - a 1911 vint...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

“The Sears catalog serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living. The roots of the Sears catalog trace back to the Homestead Act of 1864 and are as old as the company. By the early 19th century, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as ‘the Consumers’ Bible’. In 1933, Sears, Roebuck and Co. produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the “Sears Wish book”, a catalog featuring toys and gifts and separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. In the days of outhouses, the pages of the mass-mailed catalog were often used as toilet paper.” Wikipedia and Sears Archives

In a time before mailboxes vomited forth daily streams of mass-marketed catalogs, Sears stood mightily as the most evolved holiday mass marketer.  The Sears Christmas Catalog’s arrival heralded the first day of an Advent season teeming with material wants.  Any hope of a deeply spiritual holiday experience was defiled by the arrival of the Consumer’s Bible. One had to merely open the first page of this Domesday-sized registry and immediately fall under its mistletoe spell. Each page of the journal was jammed with adult gumdrops and candied children’s gifts – each sweeter and more contemporary than the next. It was an age of inventions, innovations and space exploration. In material America, the Sears catalog offered an adult primer on how one might improve their circumstances and with each purchase you moved more comfortably into a cocoon of creature comfort. To a kid, it was literally an inventory of every item warehoused within St Nicholas’ bag.   

Each December, my mother would award us a different colored pen with instructions to circle items in the Sears catalog that we felt might best capture Santa’s imagination. The guide pushed everything from guns to garden hoses.  Sears even sold elevated pools that one could fill up with water straight out of a garden hose.  My father dismissed the pools as “tacky.”  If tacky meant awesome, then I agreed.  I quickly circled the 10’ by 20’ plastic monstrosity replete with its heavy duty, micro-resin safety ladder and pool skimmer.  The children playing inside of the pool seemed to be having so much fun. They were not attempting to drown one another or disable the pool skimmer by tying its flickering tail into knots. They were playing with a bright, overblown beach ball – – the kind of ball we owned for perhaps a total of 12 seconds – before it was bitten by an animal or burst under the weight of an overzealous kid. Swimming pools? This was California at Christmas.  The temperature outside was stretching up to 75 degrees on Santa Ana winds.  I would be swimming by New Years.

Christmas shopping was indeed a burden on the entire family.  My parents fought over who would brave Bullocks department store or the chaotic parking lots of Sears. There were no formal Black Fridays but December still meant a tidal wave of yuletide commercialism that swept over every family.  Glowing televisions barraged children with images of toys and games. “ I want that for Christmas, I want that for Christmas…” my younger brother would repeat as a dull mantra while Mattel and Milton Bradley streamed images of toy ovens making real chocolate cakes and rockets that would fire 1000 feet into the air and float harmlessly – avoiding every tree branch – to land safely back in your postage stamp garden. The world was drunk on Christmas cheer and American materialism.  Cherry red garlands stretched across city streets while residential pines, magnolias and oaks transformed into colorful beacons that whispered,” buy, buy, buy”.

There were no malls.  Department stores dominated the retail landscape and were the epicenters of consumer spending. Bullocks, Sears, Fedco, JC Penny, Woolworth’s and a host of ancient forgotten family run enterprises competed for the hearts and minds of America’s mothers.  These matriarchs of merriment shouldered the role of Mrs. Claus along with other thankless indignities borne in the waning days of 60’s chauvinism. Moms got the short end of the candy cane – getting to purchase the shirts, socks, sweaters, and practical items that were opened and rapidly discarded into detritus mounds of paper and boxes.  Given that fathers were rarely present during the week, mothers were responsible for consolidating the myriad irrational requests into a practical Santa list that would guarantee surprises but not sink a fledgling family into the darker waters of consumer debt. Armed with the Sears catalog, she outfitted my father with the requisite shopping list and shoved him out into the confused mayhem of Sears.

Sears was the epicenter of our retail activity.  The massive store had no windows and seemed to devour you once you entered its massive doors.  The Chicago merchants that once sold mail order buggies and horse feeders were now focused on bricks and mortar discount pricing and in a time of economic uncertainty, the store was constantly overrun with shoppers.  My father loathed shopping.   It was if God, himself, was testing him like Job.  He would make a line for an open counter only to be cut off by an ancient do-it-yourself handyman who could not understand why the nice young lady at the bedding register could not help him find a number 6 Allen wrench. As my father squirmed restlessly waiting to purchase some pink hand towels, my brothers and I were melting into clothes racks, jumping on beds, snapping towels and chasing one another with throw pillows.

Occasionally, my father would come unglued and hiss for us to stop the “grab-ass”.  Grab-ass was a highly technical term to describe any anti-social behavior worthy of punishment.  Grab-ass usually preceded the spanking of one’s ass – – which was not a pleasant experience.  In the 1960’s, you could publically whack your child.  Another father might even come over and congratulate you on your technique. However, the nuclear option of spanking also meant a howling child which invited derision from sympathetic mothers. To avoid this disapproval, a father might surreptitiously squeeze your arm until it was purple while reprimanding you with a withering, whispered scream.

The cash registers were crowded like airline counters after a flight cancellation.  My father would stand shifting in place, absentmindedly gripping the arm of my youngest brother who was squirming to get free so he might join us in our Lord of The Flies adventure.  He finally gave up, making an exaggerated sigh and whistled at us like cattle to start moving westward across a crowded appliance department.  My brother immediately opened a refrigerator and attempted to climb inside.  The appliance section was perhaps our favorite place to misbehave with its freestanding toilets where one could mimic the act of urinating – hoping to appall the little old blue haired lady that was perusing the latest innovations from General Electric.  

Inevitably, my father would attempt to purchase items for my mother. She was still hoping like a condemned prisoner that he would clue in to her interests and fashion sense.  It was a losing cause. He was an ex-soldier – pragmatic and utilitarian. He did not realize that many of his “useful” gifts were in fact, symbols of indentured servitude. The new vacuum, the mop, measuring cups and towels might as well have come with a ball and chain.  He was one of a long line of pathetic elves attempting to articulate his love and appreciation for his spouse through the act of gift giving.  It would take him decades to discover that the only thing she wanted was to be left alone with a good book and an old movie.  This was unfortunately not for sale at Sears.  It was simply not in his DNA to understand that women hailed from a different galaxy and tended to attach equal value to the smallest of gestures and the grandest of gifts. They did not shiver with excitement at the sight of a new rolling pin.  

Christmas morning would arrive with a thump like the tumbling of snow off a gabled eave. We descended to a warm living room, crackling fire and Santa gifts that had been artfully hidden from our prying eyes.  We would begin opening presents with civility with the most emotionally mature child agreeing to distribute presents.  Within minutes, protocol was abandoned and fighting would break out as the all powerful gift distributor had morphed into Mussolini and was now refusing to distribute to his siblings because of their attitudes.

My mother would open her gifts last – appliances, towels, night gowns, kitchenware and perhaps an Ann Taylor blouse that was now two sizes too small.  Each boy would watch her with earnest eyes as she would feign wonder at our self-serving offerings – – boxes of See’s Candy (she was dieting), $2 perfume (it was French), Harlequin paperbacks or perhaps a handy item like a penknife or hardboiled egg cup. She would smile and profusely thank us, winking at my father as he proudly displayed yet another hideous tie. She would rise and begin to gather up the paper and clothes cast into selfish heaps as her progeny consumed themselves with toys that would be broken, swapped or disregarded within the week.

She would hesitate, listening to Mel Torme croon of ski hills, snow and romance in far off alpine chalets. She recalled that last December trip to Lake Tahoe with friends – – before she broke her leg skiing, before her husband, before her four boys – a distant star when she was eighteen years of pure anticipation. So long ago, like the echoes of carolers as they turn the corner to serenade another street.

Yes, it was another Christmas.  In the corner by her chair was a tired and torn Sears catalog. It had seen more action than a tree house Playboy magazine and was now merely an artifact of yesterday’s dreams – wishes that would lay dormant for another year.  She secretly made an early new year’s resolution. Perhaps this year, she might get her own colored pen.

Meet The Parents

Meet The Parents

Home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. ~Author Unknown

Thanksgiving is the front end of a month long holiday banquet of expectations. When children are young, we work to create traditions that will serve as important family touchstones. As children get older, Thanksgiving is a time of transition with sentimental hope yielding to the inevitable realities of change. Often a mother’s only desire is for one more year as a family unit. That dreaded Thanksgiving finally arrives on a cold wind where someone is absent – lost to new in-laws or competing priorities.

For the mother of four boys, the holidays were a losing battle fought with an unseen enemy – – the mother of the new “serious” girlfriend. My mom had always accepted us as wayward Tomcats yet we always seemed to find our way back home slipping in through the backdoor with massive appetites, dirty laundry and an unspoken need to be wrapped in holiday affection.

The girls that seemed to come and go like purple jacaranda blossoms, suddenly made repeat appearances. Her boys were transforming under the relentless company of these “serious “ girlfriends – dressing well, arriving on time and bathing regularly. She was actual excited to be rescued from this male planet so completely devoid of estrogen. Yet, the changes left her melancholy. Somewhere along the way, the holidays had changed. She was now slowly opening her family to new people, new traditions and at times, coming up second as the place to be.

It had been this way for a while with her teens. Those that were still living at home could not wait to move out. They disappeared like spooks into the night but they always appeared the next morning. One morning a bed was empty – then, another. With three empty chairs this Thanksgiving, there would be too much food and too many memories.

She grudgingly accepted that she must now share her sons with the “competition”. Love and the approval of potential future in-laws were too powerful a force to overcome. She loathed the emasculated October phone call that tiptoed toward the inevitable excuse – – a stuttering son dropping that he would not be coming home this year but instead be spending it with Carole in Princeton or Brooke in Colorado.

My father was delighted with the absence of competition for food, the family room TV or shower hot water. Like a prisoner marking hard time, he had been awaiting liberation for years. There were no more missing shirts, fugitive pairs of underwear or car left with a mere 1/12 of a tank of gas. The idea of a full turkey dinner with only three mouths to feed (my younger brother was still at home but he had perfected the art of total invisibility) was as appetizing as pecan pie. On the other hand, the idea of his castle being filled with young women – – suppressing his ability to swear, forcing him to go last through the food line and dress up for dinner, was annoying to him. He worked hard and finally the holidays meant hardly working. As he hugged my mother and reassured her that it would be a “ just like old times ”, she rolled her eyes longing for the chaos of a full house.

While the family matriarch was navigating the martyred stages of an empty nester, my brothers and I were being blown to the four corners of the state to “meet the parents.” I had heard from my brothers of strange customs and odd in-laws. These stories were usually pried from them over threat of death as they were now walking on the slippery slope toward permanent domestication. My future spouse was born in Britain to a highly intelligent, engaged Scot/Brit mother and a kind, cerebral English father. Being a provincial West Coast American, I assumed a trip to their home would be the equivalent of visiting one’s grandmother – a more mature but familiar culture where colorful people spoke like Charles Dickens characters and the holidays were one grand protracted celebration of life. Being a Brit, my future spouse gave me no advance cultural training other than her penchant to drink copious cups of tea and to spread butter on top of butter.

The introductions were difficult as I realized that she had not informed them that her new “friend” was indeed a serious replacement for an old boyfriend with whom her parents had been quite fond. This disappointment was poorly disguised by my future mother-in-law but completely lost on her dad. The small talk was painful with minutes like dog years. The matriarch was not happy with this changeling boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father was still trying to understand why someone my size had never played rugby.

A phone call from her sister thankfully broke the social stalemate.

As we walked to the garden, I conceded that her parents despised me. “I might as well be French.” I shared with desperation. She looked surprised. “ Oh, no. They really like you.”

I tried to help in the kitchen but was ushered out to the foyer where an ancient television sat silent and neglected. “What games are on?” I yelled across an open family room. “Oh, we don’t watch much television except PBS – you know “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Avengers” and “Rumpole of the Bailey” – – we do like the Dallas Cowboys !”. At the mention of the Cowboys I perked up. There was hope.

An ancient animal resembling a flea market mink suddenly leapt up onto the sofa and proceeded to wrap her tail around my head. The rhythmic purring could not perfume the smell. It was the odor of recently deceased road-kill. Yet, this escapee from the “Pet Sematary” was quite alive. Within moments, I descended into a wheezing fit of sneezes as the zombie cat followed me and would jump into my lap whenever I would sit. I loathed cats but I did not want to reveal this ugly parochial side of my personality. “ Oh, looook. Molly likes you.” my girlfriend smiled as she happily set the dinner table and winked.

An appetizer of cheese and crackers appeared with what looked like a dark dollop of animal feces and cloudy tangerine orange jam with paprika adorning the middle of the tray. I was starving – but the dark, chunky mass had already started to spread and had touched several of the cheese wedges and crackers. My expression betrayed my ignorance. “It’s Branston Pickle and Major Grey’s chutney’” she said urging me to the inedible offering. “ We put it on everything. It’s great. Here taste this.” She shoved the wheat biscuit with dark chunky jelly and cheddar cheese into my mouth before I could create an excuse. I gagged.

It was like this all afternoon. Since Thanksgiving is hardly a British tradition – the holiday gave them the opportunity to combine the best parts of old and new culinary traditions. I was confronted with my lifetime nemesis – brussel sprouts – as well as a bizarre concoction of white onions, milk, flour and garlic known as “white sauce.” In this sea of alien side dishes, the traditional entrees appeared – all originally accentuated with the spices of a foreign cook’s cultured hand. All eyes were on me as I devoured everything put in front of me.

The salad presented innocently enough with onions, tomato and sliced cucumber. However, I soon bit into a massive clove of garlic. I hesitated, smiling with my mouth closed. No one noticed my discomfort as I slowly chewed. I assumed this “Eating Of The Giant Raw Garlic Clove” was a Dunn family tradition. I was honored and ill. My eyes were beginning to water and my throat began to burn. I tried to speak for a moment but was unable to utter a sound. Chasing the clove with tons of water, I was relieved temporarily– only to turn a salad leaf and find another even more monstrous clove lurking below.

I closed my eyes and bit into it. Tears flowing down my face.

“ Oh, my,” my future mother in law blurted. “ I am so embarrassed. I usually rub the bowl with cloves of garlic before putting in the salad but I thought I had removed them. You poor boy, don’t have to eat those…”

Gratefully, I put the massive white herb down and became the object of modest admiration for taking on the monster garlic. Even my future brother in law, the tough outdoorsman, was impressed. Later that evening, as I was helping clean the dishes, my future mother in law was more relaxed and it was clear that we had crossed the Rubicon together.

As I related the story later that evening to my parents – wishing them Happy Thanksgiving, my mom laughed a deep chuckle and there was a small pause on the phone.

“You’re still coming for Christmas Eve right? “

“Yes, mom and I am bringing Caroline if that is ok.”

“Oh, yes. We’d love it! Won’t we Miles?”

I could not hear my father’s response but I could just see him wincing and thinking. “Damn, there go my leftovers.”

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Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

Before the ice is in the pools
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

— Emily Dickinson

The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.

Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”

Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.

“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.

The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.

My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”

The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.

The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.

Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” 

Turkey Bowl

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a tur...
Image via Wikipedia

Turkey Bowl

Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.

Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.

Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?

Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.

Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!

[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]

Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]

Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away?   – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures.  On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run.  The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia.  It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA.  As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud.  But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.

In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools.  Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.”  The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey.  A football suddenly bounced off the den window.  Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats.  There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.

The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport.  Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection.  There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter.  As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers.  There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team.  It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.”  It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg.  Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God.  Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.

“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”

As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll.  “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk.  Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49.  I had not touched the ball.

Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled.  Another shouted,” One more set of downs!”  I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I screamed and waved my hands.  The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense.  The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity.  It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body.  I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection.  My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt.  I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee.  But I held on.  Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball.  With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.

As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”.  I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it.  Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels   That night, turkey never tasted so good.  The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.

On this day, I had much to be thankful for.  I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown.  Me, the single cell amoeba.  Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble.  Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving.  Only 364 days to go.

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. .