The atmosphere at The Grandmother’s is vastly different from Papa’s. It’s like leaving a school assembly that only had one or two mouthy students, then walking into a circus tent chock full of clowns. Paper plates replace china, swear words multiply like Mormons, and there are running, screaming germ breeders everywhere.
The two families couldn’t be more different – a fact thrown into glaring affect as soon as I arrived at Papa’s. Stepping out of my car, I waved at a group of laughing cousins seated at a patio table. The tallest one waved back and came toward me, grinning and blowing smoke out his nose.
“Hey Al”, Tim said, wrapping me in a bear hug. He carried the crock-pot full of dip toward the house and I followed with the bastard ass Italian crème cake. I was already planning to force every single one of them to taste it, whether they wanted to or not.
“Hey whore”, shouted Tim’s wife Ellie as I passed the smoking section. “Menstrual chunk”, I deadpanned back, wrestling with my purse and the cake holder. The others laughed.
Pushing open the heavy, sectioned glass door I walked into a wall of barking dogs. There are seven – Gucci, Sonny, Dixie, Mimi, Gracie, Scooby, and Bud. For as long as I can remember Papa has been surrounded by dogs. They climb on top of him while he lounges in the recliner, sit in the front seat and get their own ice cream at the Sonic drive through, go on boat rides and trips to the city. They’re his babies. And just like any other member of our neurotic family, we’ve learned to accept them and deal with the ruckus they cause...if a little grudgingly.
And, just like every other time I’ve walked in that door, the chocolate brown cocker spaniel, Bud, charged me like a bull and nipped the backs of my calves. He’s so fat that he looks like a barrel, giving the impression that if you tipped him over he’d just roll away. Unfortunately, it’s just an impression. I’ve tried rolling him, shoving him, running from him, shouting at him...everything. I finally developed a routine that semi-works: I hang my purse low and angle it between the two of us as I walk in, screaming at him, “SHUT THE FUCK UP BUD, I FUCKING HATE YOU, YOU BASTARD!” (or something close), giving Tess (Papa’s girlfriend) time to whack him away with the newspaper. It’s the best I’ve been able to come up with. Once I’ve been in the house for a few minutes, though, he’s fine.
“Hey Pop,” I shouted at a corner table. “Hey darlin’”, he boomed back, getting up and following me to the kitchen. My Papa is a big, big man with wispy grayish brown hair, a jowly face creased with laugh lines, and simply enormous earlobes. With blue eyes full of mischief and a contagious laugh, he’s always reminded me a bit of Santa Claus without the beard. His plodding walk – feet turned slightly out, head held at a high angle and arms crossed behind his back – never fails to make my smile.
Reaching my side he rocked back and forth on his heels, arms still behind his back, and looked into the crock-pot. “Mm, The Dip! You’re early! I’m proud!” Nearly everything he says has an exclamation mark on the end and there’s no doubt about where I got my powers of vocal projection. I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, then left him and a few others digging around for tortilla chips.
As I was rounding a corner of the island, waving and saying hello to various aunts, uncles, and neighbors, I was slammed into from behind. “OOF! Gggrrroff!” My cousin Christine had, as usual, launched herself at my back and hung there – arms tight around my neck, sending me staggering about the kitchen, trying to shake her off. She knows I hate it and she does it, I’ve gathered, to draw attention to our physical differences. She’s a rail (though she certainly feels heavy clinging to my back) and I have not, nor will I ever be, that tiny. She’s always been the pretty, petite one; I’ve always been the smart, curvy one. I often speak to her using words I know she doesn’t understand – she’s got her bullets, I have mine.
“You love me”, she screeched in my ear. I finally managed to shrug her off and with a long suffering sigh, answered, “Yes, unfortunately I do.”
After making sure the kid was safely ripping the children’s play area to shreds with the others, I made my way back out to the patio. My cousin Dooby and his wife Marie had driven down from Virginia for the weekend and I was excited to see them. “I missed my lesbian life partner”, Marie said as we hugged. We laughed, then relayed the story behind her greeting to the rest of the group. We’d both gotten wildly trashed at the Halloween party and there was a lot of lap dancing and suggestive picture taking.
For an hour we all sat, taking it in turns to make the others laugh with one story or another. When it wasn’t my turn, I found myself observing more than listening. I’d heard most of it before anyway.
Tim leaned against the brick wall, towering over everyone even while slumped. At 22, one of the youngest in our group, he managed to beat us all in The Game of Life. Recently married to a single mom with a five year old son, he’d secured a great job and bought his first house - a long way from the child of a mother in and out of rehab and the teenager caught cashing stolen checks. He’d met Ellie and her son and quickly became a family man.
Dooby paced restlessly, playing with his cell phone, while Marie sat with her legs crossed, calmly puffing on a cigarette. They’d been together for a very long time and had finally taken the plunge into marriage just a year ago. They argue often, but not in a way that causes concern. Somehow their personalities complement each other – Marie almost always appears bored and unconcerned with everything (except when she’s drinking) and Dooby gives passionate speeches about whatever strikes his fancy.
Having nursed him through his younger brother’s death and an addiction to pills, and staying with him after more than one affair early in their relationship, I’ve come to think of Marie as a bit of a hero. In the beginning I thought her foolish, but somehow she managed to pull Dooby back from the brink of destruction and piece him back together. Every now and then he’d glance up from his phone and look at her, the adoration on his face clear as day.
Soon after Christine and I had horrified the other men with a frank discussion about sex toys, it was time to go inside for dinner.
The huge kitchen quickly clogged up with traffic while everyone attempted to fix their plates. Being a veteran of the bob and weave technique, I was soon settled at the dining room table and tucking in to a plate across from Pop. “Mm, this looks good”, he shouted. I nodded, turning my lips up in a grin, mouth stuffed full of macaroni. He always says that, no matter what kind of food is in front of him.
By the time we’d made it to dessert and I’d forced them all to have a slice of my cake, (“Mmm! That’s good”, Pop said immediately.) we were in the midst of a discussion on what college my sister was going to attend.
“Where have you applied”, my Uncle asked her. He’s one of those bible thumping sorts now, but I remember when he was a drunk, getting into fist fights with my dad on the front lawn. I often find myself missing the drunk, as I’m much better at handling them than I am the “shove the bible down your throat” religious fanatics.
“I think I’m going to go to a small college close to home for a year, to get used to things. Then I’ll transfer to Charleston”, she replied.
“Charleston has one of the highest STD ratings of any college”, mom chimed in.
Puffing up, deep frown pulling his mustache down in a highly comical way, my Uncle glared at Leigha. “You know how to fight that, don’t you?!”
Leigha looked around the table, searching for help. So I gave it to her.
“Yeah”, I said, pumping my fist in the air, “wrap it uuuuuup!”
“NO”, he shouted. “Abstinence...”
“does not make the heart grow fonder”, I finished.
While he harrumphed and sputtered, everyone else laughed. Except for Papa, who ignored the whole exchange, rolling his dessert around in his mouth like a cow and staring past our heads at a western on the big screen.
Packed full of food and moaning miserably, the sexes separated. Tess and the older women attacked the kitchen, fixing up leftover plates for people to take home and washing dishes. The older men crashed in the living room and watched sports through slowly closing eyelids, while the younger ones congregated outside on the patio. Us younger women moved to the table in the sunroom and discussed mom and Ray’s coming nuptials and the possibility of another Charleston bachelorette weekend.
Then Papa summoned me from across the house, bellowing my name and sending the dogs into a barking fit. Lounging in his recliner, he informed me that I was in charge of the name drawing for Christmas again this year. “You got it, Pop”, I said happily. Nothing like being able to ensure your name goes to the person with the biggest spending problem.
I wrote down all the names, tore them into little strips of paper, folded them and dumped them in a Solo cup. Then, armed with a notepad and pen, I danced around the house and had everyone draw. I shoved Christine and Dave away from my notepad and ignored whispered pleas for cheating. There would be no cheating for anyone but me!
As I passed through the living room for the second time, finally finished with the list and very pleased with myself for getting a good name, Papa said, “And she didn’t even hear me!”
“What”, I said, turning in confusion. “What happened?”
“I paid you a compliment and you didn’t even hear me!”
“What did you say”, I asked.
“Nope...I’m not going to repeat myself”, he said, pouting.
I turned to my sister, determined to get an answer. Papa so very rarely compliments anyone on anything other than how well they cook. And when it comes to me, his loving insults are par for the course. “What’s that ugly green blob on your foot”, he asks me at least once a week, referring to my four leaf clover tattoo. Or, “Woo-wee! Where’d you get that new dress, Jackass?! Columbia Tent and Awning?”
“What did he say”, I asked her.
She smiled. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear him! He said he was proud of you, that you’ve been doing so good lately.”
“Well. I’ve been doing well”, I corrected automatically. “Well”, she repeated, rolling her eyes.
“Aww, Pop”, I said, grinning at him.
“Better keep it up”, he replied gruffly.
Feeling happy and tired, I checked on the kid then rejoined my cousins. Slowly everyone started to drift off – hauling hyper children out to their cars, toting high stacked plates, and distributing hugs. As I said goodbye to everyone, I realized that there’d been no fights at all. No arguments, no crying...not even any drinking. I wondered how much of that had to do with the absence of my father and how much of it had to do with how “well” I, the main instigator, was doing.
After making plans for Marie and Christine to pick me up, I kissed Papa goodbye and took the kid home to settle her for the night. We were going to make a beer and cigarette run into town, then meet Dooby and Dave on the dock.
It’s tradition. No matter how cold it is, the younger group always congregates on the dock or on the porch and drinks. We tell more stories, sing old songs (like a degenerate family Von Trapp), and watch the stars through puffs of smoke.
Out of all the traditions, it’s the one I look forward to the most. Not because we drink and talk about disgusting things, but because, unlike the family dinner, it’s not a requirement. No one says we have to spend that extra time together, but we always want to.
Marie, Christine and I spent the trip into town and back listening to old school rap music and dancing. Every now and then a deer would pop out of the tree lined darkness and we’d break, squealing and cursing, before going back to our dancing.
Back at Papa’s we walked, giggling through the yard and out to the dock. Huddling in deck chairs and clutching cold beers, we rolled our eyes when Dooby pointed out a streak across the night sky and started lecturing us on atoms or something. We mimicked him and argued that it was just a mark from a plane, sending him further and further into professor mode.
“How do you know all this stuff”, I asked him with exaggerated interest. “Did you study it, read it in a book somewhere?”
“I read books”, he said. “I know all kinds of things about science. I’ve...” He droned on and on, knowing I was poking fun, but too interested in hearing himself speak to let it deter him. Marie looked at me as if to say, “See? See what I have to deal with every day?”
Two hours crept by before we finally called it a night, hugged, and headed in opposite directions – Dooby, Marie, and Dave crept back into Papa’s, Christine drove back to the city, and I trudged up the steep hill back to my dark house.
I eased through the door, relishing the sudden heat on my frozen face and fingers, and went through my night time routine quickly. “One more month”, I thought as I finally crawled between the sheets, exhausted, “one more month and we’ll do it all over again.” The cooking, cleaning, decorating, shopping, working, parenting, and socializing...all repeated for both sides of the family.
I knew I should be thankful that the day went pretty smoothly, getting progressivly better and ending without any of the usual family drama. But all I could think before drifting off to sleep was, “I wasted all that money on Xanax and not one person got drunk and threw a punch. I hope Christmas kicks it up a notch.”
1 week ago