|not my dad's Christmas card letter|
My parents, for better or for worse, were active parents who took their roles as parents seriously. They weren't just movable pieces of home decor who also brought home paychecks and and prepared meals on most evenings. They had very definite thoughts about what children and adolescents should or should not do, and for the most part, they saw to it that we went along with their ideas about what it was we should be doing. They agreed in terms of most of their parental ideology, or at least they mostly reached consensus as far as we could see. Television was restricted both in terms of viewing time and programming. There was the rare occasion when my dad would involve us in something more hazardous than anything my mom would ever have allowed, and she might have gone so far as to call my dad a moron or something similar in front of us.
My brother and I watched as rare disagreements played out between Mom and Dad. Our family life was not anything like a first-marriage-two-biological-sibling version of The Brady Bunch, where the parents were even- tempered 24/7 and never were any issues significantly more serious than whether the girls and the boys had to share the clubhouse or which gender of kids got to spend the S&H Green Stamps or Blue Chip Stamps or whatever they were. I don't know of any family whose life was anything like what was shown on The Brady Bunch, or even the slightly-though-not-much-more-life-like The Cosby Show. The Cosby Show tried to portray the Huxtables as being very much a real-world family with real-life problems, though the producers never pulled it off very convincingly. Shows along the lines of Family Ties and that one with Allen Thicke and Kirk Cameron -- whatever it was called -- tried, again not all that sucessfully, to use a "movie of the week" format, with a timely issue introduced and typically resolved in the half-hour-minus-commercial-time sitcom time allotment.
Even with Full House, which built its foundation on a premise of tragedy, with a man suddenly becoming a single father through the untimely death of his young wife, ludicrosity prevailed. Despite Full House's rather mournful introductory backdrop and its occasional plot diversion from the typical stupidity of the format of attempting to disguise nonsense as humor [though only successfully doing that for anyone under the age of seven and then probably only if the child were not terribly bright] with its hackneyed approach of dragging in the proverbial issue of the week (i.e. eating disorders, bullying, friends being abused by parents) all were, once again, by the end of the half-hour-minus-commercial-time, seamlessly stitched together into an end product that appeared at least as perfect as whatever the fabric had looked like before it had been jaggedly torn. Full House was maybe the most saccharine of all the "family" TV viewing available.
Probably the most "real" family to be found on TV was one I didn't see until my teens, and even then only rarely. I'm pretty sure it would have been reruns I was watching on this one. The Conners from Roseanne
were a family that in odd ways actually bore some resemblance to my own. The Conners weren't "real" in the sense of having a highly similar lifestyle to those of the families around whom I grew up. From birth until the age of nine, I lived in upper-middle-class towns following the San Francisco Bay down the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. My hometown from shortly after I turned nine until high school graduation was a moderately small and highly educated university town, while Roseanne's family was a decidedly blue collar family living in a clearly blue collar neighborhood. (We didn't have a homeowner's association in my neighborhood, but I suspect that any family who left their Christmas lights up year-round would have been shunned.) Still, family issues tend to transcend class at least within the ranks of middle class. Lower middle class and upper middle class families seem largely to share the same concerns, albeit with slight variations. Even in middle school and high school I didn't see episodes of the show all that often because my parents, while they couldn't help themselves from laughing at much of what what said by the characters on the program, didn't consider those characters to be anyone Matthew or I should be emulating. As funny as the show was, it jumped the shark in more ways than I could count without using a pen and paper to keep track, and as funny as my parents were and are, even they couldn't have come up with one-liners for every situation as regularly as the Conners all did with the help of their screenwriters. If my my parents were provided with screenwriters to supplement their ordinary dialogue, I'm convinced they'd be among the funniest people on Earth.
Real life in our home was often funny, even if it was a bit unsettling at the same time. I recall sitting at the top of the stairs with my brother until sometime after midnight on one of the nights between Christmas and New Year's. We were ten that year. We had been asleep in our beds when we both woke up to the sound of our parents shouting at one another about the making of Chex Party Mix. My mom was making the Chex Party Mix because we were leaving the next day to visit relatives in Utah, and my grandma really likes my mom's Chex Party Mix. You might be thinking, "Why not just buy the damned Chex Party Mix? The finished product probably isn't much if at all more expensive than purchasing the separate ingredients, and it's not as though these people are one bounced check away from foreclosure, anyway."
You have not tasted my mom's Chex Party Mix if that's what you are thinking. I'm not a gargantuan fan of food in general, but even I could be motivated to commit a minor crime or to do something I otherwise really would not want to do if my mom's Chex Party Mix were the incentive. I could share her recipe here some day, as my mom isn't the sort of cook to hoard her recipes. I can tell you off the top of my head that the secret ingredient is butter, and lots of it. My mom doesn't have much in common with TV chef Paula Deen, who uses butter in most of her recipes as though life were some sort of gigantic version of the Titanic, and butter would provide the lifeboats that would save all the passengers of the world. When making Chex Party Mix, my mother spares no butter. My mom's Chex Party Mix is basically a coronary waiting to happen, but she only makes it at Christmas time. Something you eat one time a year, unless it's a delicacy heavily laced with a substance like arsenic, is not likely to be what will kill you.
The reason my parents were shouting was not because they were angry with one another, though an element of frustration may have been present. They were raising their voices because my mom was downstairs in the kitchen trying to prepare Chex Party Mix, while my dad was upstairs in the library working on our annual Christmas card letter. I'll get into the significance of the Christmas card letter being composed after Christmas momentarily. My point here is that my parents were raising their voices at each other because Dad was upstairs and Mom was downstairs, and they could not have heard each other had they been speaking at a normal indoor volume.
Termites had been discovered in our house. We had both the subterranean variety and the above-ground species of the dastardly little critters, which are only maybe a half-step above head lice in terms of my estimation of their worthiness to occupy space on this planet. The subterranean termites had been treated, but the house would have to be tented for the above-ground species to be eradicated. The mere thought that insects were gnawing away at the foundations and framework of the house in which I was trying to sleep was almost enough to keep me awake by itself even without the racket my parents were making.
Our house was scheduled to be tented the following morning, which, by the time the evening's events wrapped up, was technically that day, as midnight had long since come and gone. A ginormous tent would be placed over our house and left in place for several days. Some gas (probably sulfuryl fluoride, though possibly methyl bromide instead) lethal enough to kill any living thing unfortunate enough to have found itself remaining in our house would then be released. The only food that could be safely consumed after having been left in the home during the fumigation process was anything that had been double-wrapped and sealed in plastic and left in the refrigerator or freezer, both of which also had been wrapped. Only so much food can fit in a refrigerator and freezer, which meant some food was tossed out, but the bulk of it was stored away in boxes in the homes of each of our neighbors in the cul de sac.
When my mom started to make the party mix, she discovered the ingredients she had left on the kitchen island for the purpose of making the Chex Party Mix were no longer there. She asked my dad if he knew anything about where the various boxes of Chex cereal, the butter, the pecans, the bagel chips, the pretzels, the various seasonings, and the Worcestershire sauce were. He told her he had stuffed them all in the boxes which had been delivered to neighborhood homes for storage.
My mom said he seemed quite proud of himself for having taken the initiative to have put the items in boxes without having been asked or told to do so. One of my mom's most persistent complaints to him was that a household chore could be staring right in his face, practically begging to be done, and he wouldn't notice, or at least he wouldn't do the job, whatever the reason might have been. My mom said she felt as though she could hardly be angry with him for having taken it upon himself to have tried to be helpful. She asked Dad if he remembered to which neighbor's home the Chex party mix ingredients had been taken, hoping it hadn't been to the home of one of the families that were early-
to-bed types. He answered, my mom said, "There wasn't enough room in any one box, so I put a few items in each box. The stuff is all over the neighborhood."
My mom said felt like pulling all the hair out of her head, but she didn't. She asked my dad to quickly check the boxes in the houses of each of the three houses in which the lights were still on, hoping that the key ingredients could be found in the boxes in those houses, and what wasn't there could perhaps be borrowed. At this point it was probably only 11:00. My mom watched through the kitchen window as my dad crossed the street, knocked on the door, and went into the first house.
She went into the living room and played the piano as she was waiting. About ten minutes later, my dad still wasn't home, and the lights of the two remaining houses my dad presumably had not yet reached were off.
Just a few moments later, my dad emerged with two one-pound cartons of butter and a box of Rice Chex. "Our stuff wasn't there, but the Creightons said we could have this," he told my mom, proudly handing her the butter and opened box of Rice Chex. "Just make the party mix with this," he told her, "It'll be fine."
"No, it would be hot buttered Rice Chex, not Chex Party Mix," my mom answered him. "And why did you go just to the Creightons' house?"
"We got started talking about football, and before I knew it, the lights went out in all the other houses," my dad explained as though his explanation was perfectly reasonable. At this point, though they were both on the same floor of the house -- in the same room, even --
their voices could be heard clearly at the top of the stairs where Matthew and I were seated.
My mom groaned. "You'll have to go to an all-night grocery store," she told my dad.
"The closest one is almost ten miles away," he complained.
"I don't care if it's two hundred miles away," my mom huffed. "You're going there now, and you will bring back every item on my list or you'll go back again." My dad was notorious for omitting at least one item from my mom's list anytime he went grocery shopping for her.
At this point, I'm not sure what Matthew was thinking, but I was beginning to wonder if my grandma would have considered the gift of Chex Party Mix to be worth the divorce between her son and daughter-in-law that seemed to be imminent as a result of it.
My mom went back to the piano. When she played earlier, she had been running through a few nice Hadyn and Mozart pieces. This time, she treated the entire neighborhood to the darkest Chopin and Rachmaninoff ever composed, and she played it with a vengeance of which I was previously unaware that she was capable. At this point, even if Matthew and I had miraculously managed to sleep through the shouting, we certainly wouldn't have slept through the impromptu piano concert. I'm not a believer in zombies, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that my mom woke up at least one dead person that night.
Maybe thirty-five minutes later my dad returned with the supplies, minus the Chex cereal. "And where's the Chex?" my mother exploded.
"Remember? The Creightons gave you the Chex," my dad defended himself, holding up the single opened and half-empty box of Rice Chex.
My mom held up her grocery list, which Dad had set down on the counter. "One full box each of Rice Chex, Corn Chex, and Wheat Chex," she read aloud.
My dad put his jacket back on. "We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you a merry Christmas," he sang in a minor key as he headed toward the garage. "It sure is a good thing I didn't accept the hot buttered rum the Creightons offered me, isn't it?" The buzz he'd initially given himself to compose the Christmas card letter had long since dissipated.
"I'm not so sure a night in the drunk tank wouldn't do you some good," my mother muttered as my dad headed out the door leading from the kitchen to the garage.
By this time, I was making serious plans for my new life following the divorce. "Who do you think we'll live with?" I asked Matthew.
"You'll probably go with Dad and I'll probably stay with Mom," he answered, apparently having thoughts similar to mine. It made sense that we would each stay with the parent who found each of us to be the less annoying of the two.
"We'll probably trade off spending holidays with each of them," I speculated. "We'll at least get to be together then." In their spat, neither parent had as much as hinted at lawyers or marriage counseling, and Matthew and I hadn't moved an inch further apart from each other on that top stair, yet I was already starting to miss Matthew.
The garage door opened, and we heard my dad re-enter the house. We heard a thud. "Rice Chex!" he muttered. We heard a second thud, as the cereal was apparently being slammed onto the counter. "Corn Chex!" he growled. A third thud was heard. "Wheat Chex!" he shouted.
"Or at least the crumbs of what used to be Wheat Chex before you smashed them on the counter," my mom clarified.
"Don't push it," he said to her with a vaguely menacing tone in his voice.
Now we were really scared. Domestic violence in our own home had never even entered my mind or probably Matthew's, either.
My Dad walked to the small refrigerator next to liquor cabinet, which we could see from where we were sitting, and took out two bottles of Guinness. He never took two drinks at once. He might drink two on occasion, but he'd at least go through the motions of walking to the liquor cabinet separately for each one. "It's going to take a major buzz to get the Christmas card letter done after this fiasco."
Not to be outdone, my mom walked to the fridge by the liquor cabinet and herself took out two Guinnesses. 'It's going to take a major buzz to get through making the Chex Party Mix after this fiasco," she declared.
I mentioned earlier that I would get back to the significance of my dad writing our Christmas card letter after Christmas, as opposed to the more common sometime between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve timeline that more conventional people typically observe. Our Christmas cards and the accompanying letter more often than not didn't make it into the mail until well after Christmas. By the most bizarrely flukish set of circumstances, invariably some sort of disaster -- someone breaking a bone or getting appendicitis or a concussion, one of our windshields getting bashed in by someone looking for something far more exciting to steal that they were ever going to find in my mom's car, the dog having a grand mal seizure -- minor in the sense that it wasn't usually life-threatening (except for the dog's seizure and except for the events of that particular year, which I'll describe in a moment) but major in terms of inconvenience and thoroughly thrashing any plans for writing the Christmas letter or doing anything else that evening -- invariably happened on whatever night my dad had blocked out to drink himself into what he considered the perfect buzz needed to get through composing a Christmas card letter. The task of folding the letters, placing them along with the cards into the envelopes, and attaching the address labels and stamps always fell to Matthew and me, which we didn't mind all that much.
One year it was my dad who suffered The Curse, breaking the radial head and ulna of his right arm when he attempted to impress a group of student nurses with his [in]ability to hurdle a crash cart in a hospital corridor. Even a week later when Dad was finally up to the task of writing the Christmas card letter, the injury provided him with the necessity for a scribe, and since I could spell and punctuate, and my typing, though not done with standard fingering, was relatively fast for that of an eight-year-old and was accurate enough to get the job done, the stenographer/typist job was relegated to me. When the next day my mom read the letter I had typed from my dad's dictation, she nearly went into cardiac arrest, as my dad's Christmas letters are PG-13 in their very mildest form.
It's reached the point that three years ago I called my dad and asked him not to schedule the writing of the Christmas card letter for a particular evening because I had a really important recital I needed to attend to provide piano accompaniment for someone really important in the music department, and I wanted to take no chances that The Christmas Card Letter Curse might somehow throw a wrench into my ability to provide the piano accompaniment that night.
This particular year, my dad had planned to write the Christmas card letter thirteen days after Thanksgiving Day (I remember it being a Wednesday night) when my Aunt Heather's car was broadsided by someone who ran a red light. My Aunt Heather had broken ribs, a broken nose, and a concussion. My cousin John-Michael had a broken clavicle and a concussion. My cousin Caroline, only two years old, had a tibia-fibula fracture. My uncle Steve, the husband and father of the victims, was attending a conference in Anaheim, though he flew back on the first flight he could get out of there. My parents were at the hospital all night while a cousin on my mom's side of the family stayed with Matthew and me. That was the year the Christmas Card Letter Curse got more than a bit scary. More often, it was a minor injury, illness, or inconvenience.
Anyway, my mom finished the two batches of Chex Party Mix while my dad typed out the Christmas card letter. Making Chex Party Mix usually takes less time than typing out a Christmas card letter does, so my mom went into the living room to play the piano while my dad was still typing. She wasn't pounding out Rachmaninoff this time, though. I think she was playing Bach or Handel, which morphed into Christmas carols. when my dad eventually finished the Christmas card letter, he got out a guitar and joined my mom in playing and singing carols in the living room.
Eventually Dad put his guitar away, but mom still played while they sang for a few more minutes. By the time Mom closed the piano and they walked the few feet to the staircase, we didn't have time to run back to our beds. Instead, we pretended to be asleep at the top of the staircase. My mom helped Matthew up, steered him to his bed, and tucked him in. My dad carried me to bed. There had to be at least one advantage to being small for one's age.
This isn't the way things played out on the TV programs I watched. For awhile I wasn't sure whether what I saw on TV or what I saw in my own home was the way real life was supposed to be. I did get occasional glimpses into other families' lives when I visited their homes, but parents are usually on their best behavior when other people's children are present. What I observed when I visited sometimes more closely resembled the family-friendly TV sitcoms than what I experienced in my own home.
The next summer, my family and I visited Universal Studios theme park in the Los Angeles area. One of the attractions was a tram ride through an area where the facades of various TV program homes were stored. The metaphoricality (it's a real word; I checked) of the false fronts of the TV homes seemed to bridge a connection in my mind to the overall phoniness of what is seen on TV in general. It wasn't any more real than the tooth fairy, which I had pretended to believe in for as long as I lost teeth, but knew in actuality was a myth preserved for children long before I ever lost my first tooth because I heard my parents debating the appropriate tooth/cash exchange rate late on the night Matthew lost his first tooth. While it wasn't the final time I had an issue with television versus reality, or wanting television to be reality (and I may discuss this again), I developed a basic understanding that TV is TV and real life is real life and the two more often than not have very little in common.