Helen Chappell - January 2010
Family - Sort Of
Let’s share a secret. I’m so glad the holidays are finally over. Like torn gift wrapping and empty wine bottles, they’ve lost their glamour and mystique long before the last hoot of New Year’s Eve. And I bet you, too, are relieved that it’s over, even if it means facing those long gray months of winter.
When you’re a kid, you don’t see the craziness when family gathers. You’re too busy playing with your cousins or getting underfoot to notice Uncle Mark has shown up half-in-the-bag already, bitter and angry because his third wife has left him and moved into an apartment over the Suds ‘N’ Duds, or that Auntie Pearl’s roots are showing.
Your Auntie Holly, who’s unclear on the boundaries, once confided to you, when you were eight, that her sister Ethel had no kids because she didn’t want to spoil her figure. You have noticed however, that having no children of her own has somehow made Auntie Ethel the self-appointed family expert on child-rearing. Because of this, you tend to stay as far away from her as possible. Well, that and the dyed hair, which back in the dark days of Eisenhower’s America was considered a one-way ticket to shame, at least in your small-town provincial family.
Family gatherings had certain rituals back then. My aunts would spend days making their covered dishes and my uncles would just show up and shut up.
Everyone dressed up in Sunday best, although I’m not sure why. Is it necessary to wear pearls in order to stand in a hot kitchen with your sisters, gossiping and whipping mashed potatoes? I know those sports jackets and ties can’t have been comfortable for the uncles as they marched in a body to the TV, had a drink and immediately started watching football. The uncles had little in common except for marrying sisters, so football and a holiday highball or two, seasoned with the sophisticated grunts used by guys everywhere to communicate, did them just fine. Men were the primary breadwinners in those days; they were not expected to participate in domestic work. If one of them carried his empty plate from the dining room to the kitchen, it was enough.
Of course, there was one uncle all the girl cousins stayed away from, and another who was secretly half-in-the-bag, but these were just facts of life.
While the girl cousins set the table and laid out the plates, the aunts had a little holiday cheer themselves, feeling quite risqué as they sipped their orange blossoms and manhattans, picking over the doings of people they’d grown up with, people they knew now, people they used to know and exactly how my grandmother used to make her macaroni and cheese casserole.
To hear them tell it, their father had been a living saint, and maybe Pop Pop was. All I could remember of him was being tossed up and down in the air as a toddler, and begging him for more, more, more as my grandmother and mother protested that he would hurt me.
While the girl cousins were chained to domestic duties, the boy cousins were outside getting into trouble that usually involved BB guns or worse. Maybe they were down in the basement experimenting with power tools. I’m not sure, but I was sure, as were my cousins, that they were up to no good.
Finally, the food was served. Whether it was 4th of July fried chicken or an Easter ham or a Christmas turkey, it was always accompanied by Aunt Mary’s Jell-O mold, Auntie Pearl’s string bean, mushroom soup and Durkee’s Onion Ring casserole, Auntie Holly’s cole slaw, mashed potatoes and by God, the staple of every WASP gathering, snowflake rolls. You were not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant if you didn’t serve soft white rolls.
All of this lovingly prepared food, which had literally taken days to create, was demolished in fifteen minutes. We were not conversationalists in my family. When you put the grass down where the goats could get it, we fell to eating like heifers at a stock feed. We were speed feeders to a blood drop, descendants of farmers, mechanics and shift workers who had just so much time and no more to eat and get back to the job. Savoring a wine with your food was sophistication way beyond us. Your choices were water, iced tea or milk. Hardly something to linger over.
The minute it was all over, the men trooped back to the game, settling down in their chairs around the glowing fire hearth like their ancestors in the caves. Gradually, one by one, they would nod off, full of bourbon and turkey and no doubt as happy as clams as ties were loosened, collars unbuttoned and belts unbuckled.
The massive job of cleaning up began, headed once again by the aunts. Because the good china and silver and crystal had to be used for tribal rituals, there was a lot of hand washing of stuff, which then had to be carefully dried with a linen towel and tucked back into the silver chest or the china cabinet to wait for the next ritual feast. Except, of course, for barbecues, when mercifully, everything was paper and plastic.
In my family, your china and your silver were sacred objects. Nice things meant you had arrived at a comfortable station in life, that you were a lady. Silver, crystal and china meant a lot to women in the ‘50s, especially if it was inherited. I sometimes wonder, if I had touched a dishrag to my mother’s precious silver, would that make the rag a second-class Protestant relic? All of those trappings had to be handled carefully, so the women never let the younger cousins touch them.
While some worked, others sat down and rested their high-heeled feet, often in shifts. Everyone smoked in those days, so the house was filled with gray, drifting clouds, and when the aunts took a load off, they lit up, leaving red lipstick marks on the filter tips they squashed out in the ashtrays.
Gossip, fashion, news and opinion drifted around the kitchen like smoke. None of them had gone to college; most women didn’t in those days. Except for my mother, none of them had travelled further than New York City, and their political and social opinions, like those of my uncles, were firmly rooted in a kind of Herbert Hoover conservatism, spiced with misinformation and small town ideas. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they’d gone to college and seen the world. My mother and my aunts were not stupid women, and in another time might have run companies or gone into politics or who knows what beyond children, house and church? I’ll never know.
Gradually, like the end of the game, which meant the end of the evening, we’d grab our coats and go. Like the lights fading into the darkness on the long drive home, family faded from my life. Aunts and uncles died, death brings out the worst in everyone, cousins moved away and lost touch, and we spread out all over the place, strangers who wouldn’t know each other if we met on the street.
Maybe it’s just as well.