The yearly family gathering of relatives all knowing the outcome will be disastrous.
By Dwight DeLarge
“David, Dwight, get out of that tub, this makes the third time I’ve asked you two to do this.” “OK, Mom, we’re getting out now.” However, of course we did not. You see it’s only mom. Most kids know that you can ignore the first two warnings of whatever mom is asking.
My brother and I were taking our bath; no, it’s not Saturday night, nor our birthday. We are getting ready for Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner to most people means roasted turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, and biscuits. However, for me, Christmas holds a far deeper meaning. You see, this is that time of year when I will learn more of the family secrets. This was bigger to me than who shot J.R.
Just then, we heard our mother yell downstairs, “Daddy, the boys won’t come out of the tub.” Our father yelled back up, “Throw a damn bar of soap in the tub. As soon as they realize they’re taking a bath, they’ll get out.”
Now that we are out of the tub, Mom has given us towels and said, “Now, you two dry off and don’t forget to dry your wickers.” “Wicker.” “That is my mother’s word for that particular body part. Why can’t parents just tell children the correct name for body parts? From the time I was three until age nine, mine had multiple names, “Wee-wee,” “Wicker,” and “God’s little pencil.” Our job now is to get dressed and help set up the dining-room table. The dining room table is very old and very heavy, with slats in it. It’s longer than a ’66 Lincoln Continental, and about the same weight.
My sisters help my mother in the kitchen, while the boys set the table. We set the place settings for all the children only. Why? because all the kids ate on Tupperware only. Yes, Tupperware plates, bowls, and cups. I did not know they made glass plates and bowls until I was seven. We had more plastic in our house than Mattel’s toy factory.
My father is trying to find the quart of eggnog in the refrigerator, yelling that he still can’t see a thing in there. My father needs to wear glasses, but refuses to do so. Complaining that it was too dark in the refrigerator, Dad about a year before replaced the 60-watt appliance bulb with a GE 250-watt three-way lamp bulb. Kids in the neighborhood teased us about the glow our downstairs windows made whenever someone opened the refrigerator door. But this bulb did solve the problem of holding the refrigerator door open too long. If you stared into the bright light emitting from the refrigerator for more than 30 seconds, you could go snow blind. With the door opened, it looked like Carol-Anne’s closet from the movie Poltergeist.
Now, the table’s set and my father is making the special eggnog, using the special water hidden under the kitchen sink. Years later, I found out it was corn liquor, also the secret ingredient in my father’s self-named “Big Bob’s Barbeque sauce,” “Triple B” for short. No wonder everyone loved my father’s cookouts. They say the proof’s in the pudding. In my father’s case it was in his sauce. I would say … about 100 proof.
With the house ready to receive guests, my father’s last preparation was to turn up the heat. My father never turned the heat up past 55. At 9:30 every night, he would turn it off completely until six o’clock the next morning. We had (my brother David and I) turned the heat up once when my father was called into work because of a snowstorm that happened earlier in the day. (My father worked for the city as an automotive electrician. When he left around eight o’clock that night, my brother and I waited until we heard his Chrysler pull out, with its snow chains clinking off into the distance. When we no longer heard the chains, we sprang out of bed, and on our stomachs and elbows slid down the hallway. Turning feet first toward the stairs, we descended like a frog on all fours. Reaching the bottom, we crept into the dimly lit dining room. Standing right under the heat thermostat, gazing up at it, my brother blowing hot breath into his cupped cold hands said, “Well … here goes!” He then grabbed that thermostat dial and turned it like he was a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
About a half hour later, the steam radiators were whistling like my mother’s tea kettle. My brother and I looked at each other and blew our breath at one another—once, twice—with our lips extended like two kissing gourami fish. We no longer could see our breath, and I said “Heat!” My brother twirled around twice, with his arms extended and his head leaning back, pulling off two of the three sweaters he had on and yelling, “Heat … heat!”, his gyrations resembling Julie Andrews on top of the mountain in The Sound of Music.
And all was right with the world until we heard that telltale “click.” We both looked at each other, of course recognizing that familiar sound of the front door’s first of two locks being unlocked. Then, “clunk,” the second lock, and finally, “clack,” the turning of the door knob freeing the big wooden door. As it opened, a gust of cold air ran into the room past my brother and me. There we were, facing the door, standing next to one another frozen to the spot, but not by the cold wintry air. Unable to get to work because of the snow, our father was forced to come back home. With the snow covering most of his body, and the street light illuminating him from the back, he resembled Gort the robot from the picture The Day the Earth Stood Still. As he pulled up the safety glasses he had on, I thought to myself, Oh my God, he’s going to vaporize us. “Gort, Klaatu, Barada, Nikto.” I’m not sure if I said this out loud, or just in my mind, but I was praying that it worked. Just then Gort spoke, “What in the world is going on here?”
Pulling of his coat and hat, he never once broke eye contact with us. Long before I read a Superman comic book I knew what x-ray vision was. My father had a way of looking into you, through you, as if he could see what you were thinking. With his deep baritone voice, he barked out at my brother, “David what’s the heat doing on?” David, looking down at the floor, then back up at my father said, “We … we were cold.” Leaning forward to within inches from our faces, he asked with a low and satanic voice, “And what do you have the thermostat dial set on … HELL?” Now comes the part at Stalag 17 (nickname for our house) that we children have come to dread.
My father paced back and forth, never losing eye contact. He pointed his finger at us as he spoke, “You damn kids have it too easy. Where do you think that oil comes from that you’re burning up? I’ll tell you where, it comes from me going to work every day to earn the money to pay for it. Because the last time I looked, my money tree out in the backyard was a little low.”
From the day I was old enough to ask my father for money, his response was always the same. I would ask, “Dad can I have a dime?” and he would always answer the question with a question, “Can you have a dime?” Then the lecture would begin. “You kids have it too easy, sitting home all day watching that one-eyed monster (television). Do I have PSFS written across my forehead? Think you can place a Mac card in my mouth and money will fall out my behind?” I would just turn and walk away. Later, all 10 children are dressed and waiting in the vestibule for our relatives to arrive. My mother has one hand up against her face, almost covering her mouth, and in a whispering voice says, “You know they found your Uncle Smitty sleeping on the church steps this time a year ago.” Then she turned around and nodded her head twice at us with a wide-eyed stare. “And you know what that means?” No, I don’t, I thought to myself. Why does Mom always seem to have the inside story on someone that no one else has? Also, why is Mom whispering? The person she’s gossiping about can’t hear her.
The relatives have all arrived and are being seated at the dining room table. My father is at the head of the table, my mother and grandmother at the other. All 10 children are on the left side of the table, with a one-big-child-to-one-small-child seating arrangement, and all rules as to the older children caring for the younger children are in effect. My uncle Jollyboy Smith (his real name) and my aunt Omega, along with their daughter (my cousin) Alnesa, as well as Uncle Romeo and Aunt Lucille and their children, are on the right side. On special occasions such as this, all the lights as well as lamps are turned on in every room. My father has a stack of jazz albums playing in the background on the RCA Victorola that only he is allowed to touch. My Aunt Lucille, who worked for Tastykake for many years, always claimed she baked better-tasting cakes than the company. On every occasion the families got together, she would have her personal baked cake, and a sample cake from the Tastykake Company. She would give us all a slice of the Tastykake first, and then her own. Afterwards, she would ask, “Doesn’t Auntie’s cake taste better than that old Tastykake?” With synchronized head movement, all 10 of us would nod up and down saying, “Yes, Auntie,” but as she walked away, we’d all look at each other shaking our heads side to side, whispering, “No it don’t.”
Aunt Lucille has placed this famous pound cake on the buffet table. She could cut a cake slice so thin that we used to call them “windowpane slices,” since they were almost translucent. A Ginsu knife had nothing on Aunt Lucille.
With all heads bowed, my grandmother prepares to say grace. She opens the family Bible, grabbing a hold of the front cover of this behemoth edition of the Good Book. Having carried it downstairs in one arm, with her personal Bible in the other, her silver hair in a brushed-back style, and wearing her shawl she reminded me of Charlton Heston bringing down the stone tablets in the Ten Commandments.
When the cover was halfway opened, she released it, and it continued to fall open of its own weight, hitting the table with a loud thud. A low swirl of air raced down the table, sending paper napkins airborne and steam rising off the food in all directions. My grandmother pulled out her holy oil and began to say grace. “Dear Lord, we are gathered here today to give thanks and to say thank you for your blessings. Bless this food, this house, and these heathens that sit at this table.” Tossing holy oil in a sweeping motion as if to hit everyone, she continued, “Lord, I have been your faithful servant for all these many years. Why I was cast to live in a wicked and non-God- fearing family escapes me. I guess maybe somebody up there doesn’t like me.”
My father, only raising his eyes, but not his bowed head, said in a sarcastic whisper, “Yeah … and there’s a few down here that don’t care for you either.” I guess by now you guess that Grandma Metra is from my mother’s side of the family. My mother looked up at my father and he lowered his eyes and remained silent for the rest of the blessing. A mere 15 minutes later, the blessing’s over and dinner has officially begun.
We are 40 minutes into dinner and the eggnog that has been distributed is pickling brains like Vlassic Kosher Dills. My grandmother and Uncle Smitty are volleying words back and forth. Now we’re getting somewhere, I think. The stories from last year have resurfaced and the saga continues. I’m salivating with every sordid detail that oozes out of my grandmother’s mouth.
I would join in just to get the story moving along, but my father has a strict rule about children not talking when grown folks are talking. Believe me; Jimmy Connors has nothing on my father’s backhand.
“So … I hear that you’re having trouble with Alnesa. Boy trouble, is it?” My grandmother was giving it to Uncle Smitty, lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. “You think you can hide something like this? “Maybe from us … the family, but not from the Lord. You put her on a train and sent her to an all- girl’s school that Saturday, and then you went out drinking all night and wound up on the church steps the next morning. Tried to tell people you were waiting for the church to open … ha … eyes were so red you could stop traffic. And when that morning light hit you, it hurt didn’t it? Not just your eyes, but deep down into your soul. Yes, to you sinners … that bright morning sunlight is God’s flashlight, casting you out of the shadows so thy sins may be seen more clearly.”
Uncle Smitty was on the ropes, verbally unable to defend himself. In one motion, my cousin Alnesa grabbed her water glass and said as she left the table, “May I be excused? I need to get more water.” Then, she hurried off to the kitchen.
Aunt Omega was holding her forehead with her fingertips, her head tilted slightly downward. “Please mother … you and Jollyboy please stop this senseless bickering, you know how it gets my pressure up.” Blood pressure is what she’s referring to. “Whew,” she continued, “Now I’m feeling flush … and full of pressure.” My grandmother, with her eyes slightly squinted, and in a low, slow, and carefully measured tone uttered, “You’re full of something … but it isn’t pressure.”
Please, I thought, could we just get back to the story? My grandmother turned her attention back to my Uncle Smitty. “You are the tree, the foundation of the family, Smitty, and your children the ripe fruit that grows from your branches, and one day falls off and goes into the world with what you’ve taught them. However, you two … rotten … from the root to the fruit … you sent her away because—
Just then, my father’s voice filled the room. “You wash what?” Oh boy, I thought, just when Grandma was about to give us the epilogue.
My father and Uncle Romeo have gotten into a heated discussion about bathing and how many washcloths Romeo uses. My father is looking to his right at Uncle. He has stopped cutting his meat, his knife and fork in his hands, both arms suspended and frozen as he asks another question. “You mean to tell me that you use only one washcloth in the bathtub?”
“That’s right!” Uncle Romeo replies, with a forward head-jerking motion to show assurance. Putting down his knife and fork and leaning closer to Uncle Romeo, my father continues. “You wash the upper parts of your body with the same wash rag that you wash your lower parts with?” There’s a sickened look on my father’s face. Last time I saw that look was when my sisters Donna and Diane cooked dinner for the very first time. (Not to digress, but the meal was terrible. I’m no chef, but I don’t think meatballs should explode when you stick a fork into them. In order not to hurt my sister’s feelings, my father made us finish that dinner, and, later, the Pepto Bismol was being poured like Hawaiian Punch.) With that sickened look on his face, my father is pointing his forefingers at Uncle Romeo in a gun-like manner asking in an “I-can’t-believe-this” tone, “You wash your face and hands with your butt rag?” That’s it … dinners over.”
My father does this every year, finds some reason to cut the dinner short and kick everyone out. As usual, he rises from the table, heads straight for the heat thermostat and turns it down to zero. That’s his signal that he’s serious.
Now the relatives are leaving, and I can hear them as they walk down the porch, “You know, he does this every year … I don’t know why we continue to come over here.” I’m sitting there thinking how close, so very close, I came to finding out about Cousin Alnesa. Just then, my brother David yells, “Ah, man, we didn’t even get to dessert this year before Dad kicked everybody out.” This causes me to look over at my Aunt Lucille’s ten-inch, five-pound pound cake which sat untouched, all 51 slices. I reply in a monotone voice, like a man who has nothing to live for, “What are you complaining about? I’ll have to wait until next year before I can find out about Cousin Alnesa.”
And, speaking of Alnesa, I thought it was a shame how my Uncle Jollyboy had to put her coat and hat on, and lead her down the porch by one arm like he was her seeing-eye dog. Remember when she left the table to get that glass of water? Someone should have warned her about our refrigerator light. I can still hear my mother yelling after them, “Just tell her to keep blinking, it’ll wear off.”
That night, with Stalag 17 officially shut down for the day, I lie on my back in my pitch-black hole of a bedroom, with my hands behind my head. Staring into the dark abyss and pondering the day’s events, I think to myself, Gee, Dorothy, you sure were right when you said, “There’s no place like home … there’s no place … like home.”