The side of the family with whom we're spending this week is the side I don’t know well. I'll be seeing for the first time in fifteen or more years certain cousins whom I used, as I child, to regard in fascinated horror.
I’m accompanying my mom on a family visit as a pinch-hitter for my dad, who couldn’t go because he’s taking my brother to the upper end of the country for a conference.
Relations with my mom have historically been along the lines of a pair of jeggings—meant to be tight, but sometimes uncomfortably so, and often revealing of unflattering truths.
Against all reason, I’ve been looking forward to it. Because I expect the trip to offer good practice in being a grown-up. And possibly results should be worthy of telling. And because it's Florida, which I know even less well than this side of the family.
Specifically, a suburb of Tampa. (It seems to me that Florida is a land of suburbs, punctuated by an occasional city.) In August. With no transportation beyond what is made available by oligarchical consent.
I do some internet research on the state, in anticipation. It yields a few choice nostalgic images, along with a choice phrase: "Able Danger."
In case you thought I was hating, please consider that my grandparents live in a trailer, in a Florida trailer park.
Also, consider that Tampa was named from a Calusa Indian word meaning “place to gather sticks” or, alternatively, “sticks of fire”—a reference to the high concentration of lightning strikes that the area receives every year during the hot, wet summer months. In the midst of which, I’ll be making my visit.
Able Danger, indeed.
The first day we were all here together, talk swung to the neighborhood where my mom and her sisters grew up.
It started with marveling at how physical their family fights used to be—biting, hair pulling, rolling babies off couches in hopes of their demise. One time my mom pulled a knife on their brother, who had chased her into the kitchen. The same brother hacked through the bathroom door with the same knife to get after the oldest sister—straight out of The Shining, no?
But hell was not raised only in their two-room house on Carmanwood. As they discussed the hijinks they got up to—sneaking out after midnight to roam the streets, playing in abandoned barns, getting stuck in the freshly dug basements of construction sites, my Papa meanwhile lamenting how times have changed for the worse that kids can’t do such things anymore because of the demographical rise in perverts)—they naturally veered into a recital of the many deaths that took place on the two blocks of their street.
There was the kid who hung himself, the man who executed his entire family in the basement before turning the gun on himself, the various women who popped pills, the guy who fell off a roof, another gunshot they all heard while eating dinner. (Nanny saw to it that everyone finished and cleaned up, before venturing out to see what the crowd was gathering for).
Then there's my personal favorite: the one about the kid who was electrocuted when the antenna of the TV he had just stolen got caught in a power line as he was carrying it away. My mom suggested that there might have been a curse on the town of Flint; that’s been my privately held opinion since I was a child. Aunt Connie speculates that the town was built on an Indian burial ground. After all, why not? The Indians would probably be happy to take credit for the problems of white capitalists.
Aunt Joyce and Uncle Lou are quite frank, these days, about the infidelity that brought them together. They just celebrated their 27th anniversary—“not bad for a couple of retreads,” said Uncle Lou. “It’s really more like a 34th anniversary, if you count the years you were married to other people,” said my mom, which I thought was magnanimous of her.
The Self siblings are a motley crew of virtue and vice. Joyce was a typecast oldest daughter, gratingly perfect in behavior and education, until the guy she thought was going to marry lost interest. She took the milksop Rich on a rebound, knowing from the day the engagement ring was put on her finger that she was making a mistake. She went through with it to keep from hurting him; then she met my Uncle Lou, who was married to an entitled, rage-prone woman, who fell prey to blindness at the age of 21 and added clinginess to her list of attractions. Lou was the principle of a Christian private school; Joyce was his secretary; the two couples spent lots of time together, enjoying the camaraderie of suburban middle-class morality, while Joyce and Lou held hands under the table. (Reportedly, that’s all they did.) Three years after Joyce’s youngest son was born, they opted for the trade-in.
I haven’t overcome my delicacy to ask Uncle Lou about what his ex-wife was like at the time of their divorce. But Aunt Joyce has been diuretically open about the guilt and the relief she experiences, in equal measure, when her sons report on the living condition her ex-husband tolerates. She wonders if she had stayed with Rich, if he would not be so bad.
Aunt Connie, the second daughter and the third-born, never did anything terribly bad or terribly good. She snuck out but she didn’t do drugs. She was weedy and skinny (which has changed) and has crooked teeth and glasses (which has not changed), so boys weren’t much of a problem. And then she married outside the fold, to Dave, a non-Christian. But he held good to the promise extracted of him by my grandparents, that he accompany his family to church for the rest of his life. When Aunt Connie had a cancer scare, about ten years ago, he became a believer and gave his life to Jesus while mowing the lawn.
My mom, pretty and mostly neglected by her working parents, started smoking weed at 14, drinking at 15, and launched an affair with a married man when she was 16. She gave her life to Jesus at 17, started Bible college at 18, met my dad at 19, got engaged to him, broke the engagement and got married to him by 20, dropped out of school at 21 and had me at 22.
And my uncle, who spent his life on both sides of a kitchen knife, has been a missionary in South America for more than 20 years.
My Papa has always been a deeply religious man, maybe the only man at that level whose religion seems entirely backed by real conviction and not response to the expectation of others. His abrasiveness in speech is matched only by his gentleness in action. He starts every prayer with “Our heavenly Father, we do thank Thee.”
He has no use for shallow theology or any music that stems from rhythm-and-blues. Just last night he asked me, “What’s the name of that singer you like, that sings those popular songs?” I was trying to think if I’d ever talked to him about Ray LaMontagne; then he remembered. “Oh, Frank! Frank Sinatra.”
Up until a few years ago, my Nanny frustrated me with her unobjectionable blandness of personality. She never asserted herself negatively or positively, never had an opinion, and always capped any hint of conflict with “It’s a good thing we can all get along, despite our differences.” But since she contracted multiple myeloma, I’ve seen her differently. Or maybe I’m just paying more attention. Or maybe she just doesn’t give a fuck, anymore. Because in the last few years—and on this trip, in particular—she has revealed herself to be a rather loveable bully. (Loveable, I suppose, mostly because she poses no real threat to anyone’s freedom.) She badgers people to move quickly when it’s time for dinner, waves her hands to claim her place in the not-easy-to-come-by airspace in family conversation, and comments unapologetically on whatever she finds questionable. She’s not really a grumpy old lady, but it’s fun to see her leaning that way.
My mom has always felt herself an outsider with her sisters, transitioning from the one who got away with everything to the position of best homemaker and parent (none of her kids have smoked dope or left the church, so far), and retaining her childhood status as the healthiest and prettiest. But now Joyce and Connie have found their own groove, and are happier, and the three of them suddenly seem to share a wonderful lot in common.
Yesterday my dad’s father, Tippy, contracted a blood infection and might die at any moment. My dad, brother and sister (and her husband) just happened to be visiting him, at the time.
Family is a strange institution.
Last time I visited the family in Florida, about ten years ago, my aunt and uncle were living in a late 1970s model, quasi-ranch and quasi cottage. All I remember about it was that it was dark, with a behemoth TV in the den (a room that truly merited the name), and a ghoulishly lit kitchen in which the cupboards overflowed with Super Value potato crisps and pretzels, packets of powdered lemonade, and economy-size packages of Chips Ahoy! The healthiest thing we ate during that trip was a salad made of Hidden Valley ranch dressing studded with chunks of iceberg lettuce.
That was where I was expecting to come back to. But times have changed, their business has taken off (thanks, government spending!), and my aunt in particular seems much happier now. She lives in a pre-fab palace outiftted with a home gym and a “hot box” sauna, and the only sugar in her silky-veneered cupboards is the kind that Splenda claims to be an extract of.
So it was a great leap we made this morning, when my grandparents decided to take my cousin and me to the Cracker Barrel for breakfast.
I fondly remember the Cracker Barrel from cross-country road trips that we used to take, back when my family was lower-middle-class. I loved prowling around the “dry goods store” front of the restaurant. Back then they used to carry a lot more old-looking merchandise, things that could be referred to as “gimcracks” if you felt folksy. Things with a rust patina, things with handles you could crank, things that might hurt your foot if you dropped them on it.
Today, the “dry goods” were mostly local sports memorabilia and china that boasted elegant lines and country heft. Lots of things with apples as decorative accents. Lots of emblazoned mottoes that were both poignant and humorous. Nearly everything geared toward the housewife who wants assert her innate refinement while retaining the comfort of her down-home origins. Alas for the Cracker Barrel, joining the ranks of corporations aiming for the manufactured tastes of the side-glancing nouveau riche. Papa said he heard that they are going to remove their signature rocking chairs from the front porches, to replace them with charging stations for electric cars.
Papa ordered off the menu, as only a man of his age and background can—the Southern accent implies the unspoken “please” and “if you don’t mind” that we of newer generations have to add, if we don’t want our coffee spit into. Nanny tucked into her pancakes, as only she can. She has two inimitable qualities of eating—one is being always the last one finished, and the other is conveying utter gluttony in the midst of pushing and dividing her food into the mincingest little bites possible. She loves to eat, and the Depression trained her to make the experience last.
I haven’t eaten pancakes in a long time; hell, I haven’t eaten breakfast in a long time. But when so thoroughly in Rome, you’re really shortchanging the experience not to do as the Romans do.
(I saw a waitress walk by with a plate of fried chicken and what I think are called “steak fries”, and set it down in front of a fifteen-year-old girl with flat-ironed hair and precocious eyeliner. Bear in mind, this was breakfast. How I wanted to pull up a chair and watch how she went about it!)
The pancakes were food magazine perfect, fanned across the plate with a cabbage head of butter melting very slowly into their porous surfaces, and rimmed by the remainder batter that, if you’re lucky, drips into a crackly halo as the rest of the pancake rises on the griddle. It is the best part, and I ate it first. It tasted like melted shortening.
It’s fun to see my grandparents live it up. They do it in such homely style, with so much relish. For them, pancakes at the Cracker Barrel are a treat, and not a wilfully guilt-inducing treat, of the “oh I really shouldn’t, this will go straight to my hips” variety. They’re like children with a new red wagon; you can see the “oh boy oh boy oh boy” in their eyes as the waitress comes around with her Pyrex coffee pot.
It reminds me of going to restaurants as a kid, back when we had to ask whether the drink refills were free, when there was no fear of gastric discomfort because there was no money to eat yourself into that condition, when you only got dessert if it was included in the price of the meal. I don’t know if my sisters experienced the same excitement I did, of eating among a great lot of strangers, of having my preferences catered to by a strange adult, of having dishes served to me and taken away without my cooperation. I have always preferred busy restaurants to quiet ones; I still remember that feeling of being in a giant conspiracy with everyone there, like the atmosphere of Weedpatch Camp in The Grapes of Wrath.
I secretly sigh for those days of sneaking food into the amusement park and the movie theater, of reusing cottage cheese containers for future food storage, of having to ask whether the drink refills were free. Maybe it’s significant of a slightly simpler era when pleasures meant more. Or maybe it’s only nostalgia.
The rain comes down at least once a day, like a tantrum, dramatic and inconvenient and quick. Everyone waits on the porch, in the car, tapping their feet impatiently; and then it’s over, and they move about their business with a sigh, as if having narrowly averted a car crash. It only slows them down functionally, not intrinsically. I begin to wonder if cultures of mood are not formed by the weather. It would be interesting to study the modes of chronic depression here, against those in the Pacific Northwest.
I love writing in rain like this—tempestuous, aggressive rain that makes a waterfall against the window. Drizzling makes me want to either sleep or run. But the frenetic staccato of raindrops with an agenda incites my fingers to make the same noise against the keyboard. Florida rain, I thank you.
Thanks to the rain, I’ve tried out a treadmill for the first time. It was odd. It induced in me a heavy introspection that seemed not to match the music I was listening to or the pace I was keeping. It was not a spirit lifter, like running outside is. But it wasn’t a downer, either. It was, I guess, an intensifier.
Two more days here. I wonder instinctively if it will be enough. Enough for what? I don’t know. It feels instinctively like something should be changed when I get home.