Auntie Marj’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

Well readers, can you believe it’s time for the holidays already? How did this possibly happen, what did we, enter a time warp or something? Here at HQ we haven’t even put away slip & slide! Of course, we still haven’t cleared up last year’s Thanksgiving paraphernalia either and there’s a stack of Dukakis yard signs behind the front door still pending a decision- time sure flies, doesn’t it? I know most of you are planning to spend a peaceful Thanksgiving laughing and feasting with family and friends, all of you gathered in joy and love in the spirit of the season. For the rest of us, all those families out there made up of sundry and various weirdos, the hillbilly cousin who farts at the dinner table and the aunt who says grace and says it so long you quietly put the devilled eggs back in the fridge, a great-grand something who pulls quarters out of the kids’ ears and smells like Old Crow, all the the skeletons in the closet who like to come out and mingle with the guests- all the funky, flaky tribes who put the FUN in dysFUNctional! This little guide is for you.

(Disclaimer: This is a work of gibberish and dubious quality. Incidents happened somewhat as they are depicted and are products of the author’s sketchy memory, and a may include a few outright lies because I’m past deadline and the editor is getting pushy about it. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is poorly executed but fully intended, unless it makes somebody mad in which case I don’t know what you’re talking about and I meant someone else, not you.)

In those halcyon days of our youth, spending the High Holy Days with our extended clan was one of the things to which we looked forward all year, along with the last day of school and Christmas, which in those days took a lot longer to get here. For us kids the family holidays were like Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Want’ played out in real life, motes like gold dust afloat in a shaft of playful sunlight peeking through the lace curtains, fine china and sparkling crystal and everyone in their Sunday go-to-meetin’ clothes, Uncle Edgar leering into the camera with that look on his face that made people nervous and was apparently a deterrent to long-term employment, except for one brief stint when he traveled the deep south with a tent revival band, playing the triangle. Little could we imagine back then all the planning that had gone into that picture-perfect day, all the baking and basting, broiling and blanching and Apple Brown Bettying that’d been devoted to the creation of the bounteous feast! Little did we suspect that a mere few hours before the turkey hit the table Auntie Gladys smashed Nana’s best gravy boat on the kitchen floor and accused Aunt Jeanie of making out with her boyfriend under the grandstands at a football game in 1942. The point of this first hint is, always keep any hint of family disunity a dark, shameful secret from the children no matter how fervently you long to sink the carving knife into your neighbor’s thigh under the table as you all take turns saying what you’re thankful for. In fact, modern psychological testing has recently confirmed that witnessing one’s beloved grandmother tearing out clumps of her own hair while screaming, “O grave where is thy victory?!” has a detrimental effect on a child’s psyche, at least until they start serving the pie.

Speaking of pie, this next section is for those on both ends of the spatula: At least TRY to be respectful of other people’s whiny, annoying food requirements, as well as all the unappetizing slop your host or hostess forces on you. This can be a tricky business during the holiday season and we can all use a few pointers to navigate safely.

A good rule of thumb is to just mind your own business about other people’s dietary preferences, unless they insist on describing, at the dinner table, the exact nature of the intestinal tsunami that would surely ensue and send them screaming into the john should they be so rash as to eat even a SMIDGE of that green bean casserole, at which point you’re legally justified in shoving them out of their chair and smearing them with cranberry sauce.

There are some boorish creatures who enjoy taunting vegans with pornographic depictions of bacon and steak; sometimes they form a pack and go after a herbivore like a bunch of spotted hyenas on a sickly gnu. If you feel tempted to engage in anti-veganism, the best advice I can give you is to go sit in the kitchen by yourself for a while until you stop acting like an ass. What happens, in many cases, is that the besieged vegan will lash out with the only weapons at hand; they may plunk down beside you and gawp in horror at your giblet gravy and ask in incredulous horror if you actually eat organs, or stifle a cry when the spiral-cut ham is handed around, bite a knuckle and gasp “Babe?” in a broken whisper- is that what you want?

Your own particular cross to bear might be Great Uncle Horace, a perennial dinner guest who’s begun to resemble a jack-o’-lantern three or four days after Hallowe’en, who’s been showing up at every holiday meal for so long that nobody has the nerve to ask him who exactly he’s related to; there’s a strong suspicion that he’s not kin at all but that he just wandered into the house once back during the Depression and kept coming back when nobody called the police. This old man has been hating on youngsters since the term ‘whippersnapper’ was coined and nothing perks him up like some JD eating hippie food. One tactic to be avoided at all costs is to counter attack the old geezer with the food follies with which he himself dabbled back in his salad days, such as: “Oh yeah? Well at least I don’t eat Miracle Whip Spam loaf with green olive gelatin!” (which only becomes more awkward when you realize that’s exactly the covered dish he brought this year.) When during a lull in the dinner conversation Great Uncle Horace suddenly comes to and shouts, “Moses and them other Jews, you don’t see none of THEM askin’ God if the manna’s gluten-free!”, the family may be sore tempted to strangle en masse, but the most humane method for dealing with the old fart is to wait until he’s truly asleep, unconscious but not quite dead (which you should ascertain via a small mirror held under his nose), and then have a couple of the teenagers haul him to the closet under the back stairs, and when he emerges a day or so later, hand him back his teeth and a cup of mud to go, and gently but firmly shoo him off the porch.
♦ As to the food available at the feast, there’s not much you can do about that NOW, but you can offer to host next year and thereby take charge of the menu, but you take charge of all the other stuff too, like ironing the tablecloths and getting in extra chairs from the funeral home and anesthetizing your poodle whose instinctive reaction to the slightest external stimulus is to lose control of his bladder which, by the way, really does have a impressive capacity for a toy breed. Another idea is to plump for the covered dish option, although a fixture at every potluck has long been cousin Susan’s “famous” carrot-and-raisin salad, over which Susan hovers watchfully, making intense direct eye contact while spooning up heapin’ helpin’s onto every plate whether you want it or not. And since the dawn of mankind only seven people have ever actually WANTED carrot-and-raisin salad, and one of them didn’t so much want it as that it was one of only four foods his gastroenterologist would allow him to eat.

By the way, I used to worry about hurting people’s feelings if I were to recoil from some loathsome dish in revulsion, with a visibly painful visceral reaction based on a primal sense of hatred and loathing, so I felt I had to accept everything that was thunked onto my plate. I’d then proceed to push it around, grinning vacuously whenever it’s creator appeared to glance in my general direction, showing every one of my teeth in the style popularized by chimpanzee birthday card models, and bobbing my head up and down in a manic pantomime of delight, but the danger of that method is that the pity-grub may accidentally come into contact with the food you actually want to eat. Now that I’m older and wiser and have taken charge of my own life, I no longer resort to subterfuge, but instead whenever the offending dish is handed my way, I bravely fake a coughing attack until the danger has passed.

Do NOT force kids to eat weird stuff! Now I’ve done my share of threatening, bribing, pleading, sobbing, and begging preschoolers into absorbing SOME nourishment other than Sour Patch Kids, but that’s not the point. THIS is what I mean:

We’ll begin with this plain fact: I hate pumpkin pie. I always have, and dammit, I still do! I do not like it Sam I Am!

Anyway, there exists a certain species of adult who seem to really like children, whose intentions are the best and kindest in the world- but who just don’t get it. These are the cheek-pinchers of the world, the dudes who do that shadow-boxing thing where they bob and weave and throw air punches, and sometimes they suddenly appear in your face and go, “I got your nose!” and show it to you to prove it, and there it is in their hand, all little and pink and pathetic. That freaked the me out, I mean, I was like two years old and I thought Winnie the Pooh was a real guy who lived down the street from my grandfather, what did I know? And was this kinda thing just OKAY with my parents? Seriously, they were just standing by smiling politely while this old bastard pulled parts off my FACE?? There were others too, those who coo, “Can I take you home? Can you come home with me and be my little girl?” Or, “Ooh I could just eat you up, yes I could, you just look good enough to eat!”- what the hell?? My entire worldview up to that point had been shaped by Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood and all those other adorable children’s stories about kidnapping and cannibalism, so the possibility- nay the probability- that someone might whisk me away and then proceed to actually EAT me was a very real fear!

Also these poor people, their breath was far more likely to smell like coffee and mothballs than people who just said Hi kid and ruffled your hair absentmindedly and then went back to ignoring you.

Aunt Olivia, we’ll call her (that was her name after all, but in this case I’ve cleverly disguised her relation to me, to shake things up.) Anyway, “Aunt” Olivia (wink wink nudge nudge) was one of those people who unwittingly frightened children, and one of the ways this malady manifested itself in her was in forcing kids to do and eat and wear things they loathed. If she tumbled to the fact that you were terrified of swimming, say, she was likely to kind of jocularly bully you down to the deep end and try to jolly you into taking the plunge, and after a while she’d just shove you in anyway, accidentally on purpose, and after some fireman scraped you off the bottom of the pool and got your lungs started back up again (just before you walked into the beckoning glow at the end of the tunnel), Aunt Olivia would stand over you and call you silly and declare that the best thing to do was just to get back on that horse.

So one year she ferreted out my aversion to pumpkin pie and it became her Thanksgiving Day project-slash-fixation to make me eat some, and mine to avoid her, but she had the hawk-eyed instinct of the natural-born busybody on her side. She really WAS like Sam I Am, following me around on a boat and with a goat and with a…stoat, was it? At any rate I got through dinner safely, out of sight and out of mind at the card table in the den with the other urchins while the grown-ups yakked it up in the dining room, but afterwards, my senses dulled by tryptophan, I let my guard down for a moment and there she was like a duck on a June bug. “Aha!” she skrieked- she actually said AHA- and went off into cackles of evil delight. She hauled me bodily into the kitchen and shoved me into a chair in the manner of a hard-boiled detective manhandling the sick son of a bleep he’s been chasing ever since he first walked a beat, when he’s finally got him in the interrogation room. She could’ve produced a pillowcase full of bars of soap with which she planned to pummel me and I wouldn’t have felt more doomed, and I believe I would’ve preferred the beating.

There was no help for me, as the adults of the Hagy dynasty were draped over furniture all over the house like Dali’s watches only fatter, dozing in their post-gorge stupors, and no kid would voluntarily place themself within snatching range of this madwoman. Nobody was prowling the kitchen for dessert yet as they were all resting up for Round 2, the pie phase, and Olivia had me for herself, and proceeded to serve up a plateful of that accursed pie and slid it over to me, eyeing me with much the same expression the crone wore when Hansel et al were bingeing on the gingerbread siding of her house.

The pie was unspeakable. It was WAY more horrible than I’d ever expected and my expectations had been pretty low. But I kept at it, plowing my way through my ordeal, glancing up occasionally to smile weakly, until the Clean Plate Club would have no need to be ashamed of me.

People began filtering into the kitchen, kicking off the pie-eating portion of the competition, Hagys being a clan of prodigious overeaters who never waste too much of our time NOT eating something- and in the flurry of renewed activity I managed to ooze unnoticed out of my chair and under the door, and reassembled myself into human form once outside of the kitchen. It was then a piercing shriek rose from the kitchen, followed by the sounds of people gagging and spitting and howling for water. And above it all keened a high-pitched lament: “OLIVIA!! You musta used salt in the pie instead of sugar!”

Which of course is exactly what had gone down. I’d had no clue what pumpkin pie was supposed to taste like, I just knew it’d be bad and it WAS bad. And that gentle reader was the first and last time I ever ate pumpkin pie. I’m just about recovered these days but occasionally when I see a jack-o’lantern unexpectedly I get a twitch in my eye that goes away only when I hold my breath for several minutes. The lessons to be gleaned from this shameful episode are, I believe: A- don’t make kids- or anyone- eat gross stuff they actually hate. Many people have gone on to live full and productive lives after surviving a childhood deprived of lima beans and pumpkin pie. Secondly: Even if every instinct within you cries out to get right in a kid’s face with your weird breath and sweetly threaten to abduct and/or cannibalize them, RESIST THE URGE. C- Who in the hell keeps salt on their kitchen counter in a canister??

Auntie Marj, what’s the best way to talk politics with my family at Thanksgiving dinner? While this is a thorny subject, I’ve actually devised a fail-proof solution, to wit: say you’re seated at the feast table and Paw-Paw is handing around the plates of turkey, the carving of which has, over the years, shifted from a minor family ritual into an obsession with him. This sweet old guy who wears zip-up coveralls and makes wooden toys for the grandkids has become so involved in his zeal to sculpt the perfect turkey that he forgets to shave as the fourth Thursday in November approaches; Oma wakes in the night and he’s not in bed, she discovers him in the breakfast nook hunched over the laptop, drooling over salacious pictures of expensive knives and it’s escalating, he’s been dabbling in electric carvers lately. Beads of sweat stand out on his forehead now as he performs his delicate surgery, the kinfolk are digging into the potatoes and the first biscuit has been thrown over at the kid’s table and you think, ‘Ya know, that thing with the (budget/healthcare/nukes/space program/replacing the trumpet vine with honeysuckle in front of the Supreme Court building) is really bugging me, maybe my relatives with diametrically opposing political ideologies who aggressively despise everything I’ve ever believed in can help me understand just why in the name of everything holy those stupid, crooked morons they voted for could ever stoop so low?’

Yeah, I mean after all, who better to kick the ball of policy around with than your family, several members of which have referred to you, variously, as ‘satanic’, an ‘addle-pated pinhead’, and ‘that GD pinko commie with the unibrow who talks like Sylvester’, and that not forty minutes ago as they greeted you in the foyer when you first got to the party? Before your opening remarks though, in the interest of avoiding any arguments, hurt feelings, name-calling, escalating violence, shankings with weapons crudely but effectively fashioned out of plastic sporks and/or damage to the plaster in the dining room which Ruth and Virgil just had painted last Spring, try this one simple exercise: Simply excuse yourself from the gathering and walk calmly to the first bedroom on the right where they’ve put the coats and purses (Donna’s old room with the remains of her old homecoming mums still pinned to the wall next to a yellowing David Cassidy poster.) Once there, latch the door firmly, then retrieve the hammer you brought along for this exact contingency, and proceed to rap yourself on the head sharply enough that you drive the irresponsible and dangerously asinine notion of talking politics at this shindig right out of your soul like an evil spirit. If when your ears stop ringing you still think it’s a great idea, just repeat the process until you’ve forgotten who the president is anyway, at which point you may return to the dining room and slowly work your way up to a vapid, inoffensive conversation, leading with a lighthearted observation on a non-controversial topic, but please keep in mind that there’s only one non-controversial topic available right now and it’s dogs, and only if no one at the table is affiliated with PETA.

Making fun of your mom’s food isn’t cool, but sometimes it’s hilarious and can end up becoming a new family tradition. My dad’s grandfather was a man named Fenimore, but my dad knew him as Foon, and for all I know that’s what everybody called him and it was a perfectly reasonable name for a man back then, like Elmer or Kermit or Jethro. I never knew Foon but his wife was my great-grandmother Mamo, whom I loved and adored and whom I still miss, even after thirty years. Mamo was quite a grande dame, fancy and glamorous with long, scarlet-colored nails who hobnobbed with The Quality at Joske’s and Frost Bros where she used to work as a dresser, but husband Foon was a somewhat more rural model. These two were married in the 1920s but Foon’s mother Ida May hated Mamo’s guts. Whatever bad feelings that gave rise to such hard feelings are long forgotten, but one incident has been etched into the family mythos and handed down the generations: the time Ida May threw an electric fan at Mamo. Back in those days an electric fan was nothing to sneeze at, with a base and motor the approximate tonnage of the Edmund Fitzgerald when she went down, and the blades whizzing along at lethal speed right out there in front of God and everyone, no sissified cages or grills to discourage the young ‘uns from sticking their melons into the centrifuge and beheading themselves. It was an era during which couples had twenty or thirty children and the odds were that some of them were bound to get sucked into a fan as a matter of course, so parents might simply warn their brood to “Git back away from that thing and if it cuts your hand off don’t come cryin’ to me!”, and when a little while later the fan actually DID cut someone’s hand off and hurl it violently across the room the parent would stand over the victim and say “What’d I tell you? Huh?”, to make doubly sure they learned their lesson, as if witnessing one’s siblings make shadow puppets on the farmhouse wall with one’s own personal disembodied hand might not be a sufficient reminder to be more careful going forward. Then Mother would toss over the dishrag from the waistband of her apron and tell the kid to go fetch his or her hand and stick it in the icebox and we’ll see if Dr Schlaginhauffen can do anything with it when he’s out here in a day or so to look at that thing growing out of Willajean’s head.

So yeah, Ida May threw that kind of fan at Mamo WHILE it was plugged into the wall so that it must’ve hurtled toward Mamo like a rabid helicopter. Nobody alive can describe the physical fallout of the assault, but it was hell on Mamo and Foon’s marriage, in fact Mamo divorced him and they didn’t get married again until Ida May dropped dead.

Foon reportedly customized his rattletrap car by removing the seats and replacing them with lawn chairs, possibly because the original interior had been eaten by goats or possibly it was a matter of preference. Ten to twelve people would pile into that thing and roar off down the highway, everyone over the age of eight smoking unfiltered Camels, and of course the youngsters would all swarm out of the vehicle when they caught up to the DDT truck, and run to join their schoolfellows frolicking behind in the cool, refreshing mist of poison.

Anyway one holiday a thousand years ago when a mixed bag of assorted kinfolk sat around the dinner table together, my grandmother, for whom I was named, passed a dish to Foon with the polite query: “Would you like some aspic Foon?” And according to legend, Foon replied, “No thank you, I just picked mine yesterday.”

Well, my great-grandmother and my grandmother were scandalized of course, not so much by the language because they threw around much worse than that on the daily, but because he’d said it in ‘mixed company’, meaning within the earshot of collateral relatives who were sure to return to their homes and report to everyone else that the San Antonio branch was crude and uncouth and sat around the holiday table talking about picking their asses, and some of them would throw in other juicy tidbits they’d picked up here and there, like how they had lawn chairs instead of seats in the car and how Foon had been spotted on more than one occasion blowing his nose with his fingers in a style that would eventually become known as a “gym teacher’s hankie”.

The years rolled on, and the people around the table died, one by one: the people who made the aspic and handed it around the table, the people who picked their assand the ones who told sordid tales about the San Antonio branch, and the kids became the grown-ups and then the grandparents, and every year they’d repeat the story of Foon’s aspicking and laugh and laugh.

So when our mom busted out a new recipe twenty or twenty-five years ago (my GOD, is that really how long it’s been?!), in the form of a fire engine red-colored gelatin mold, my sister and I, neither of us having ever clapped eyes on an authentic aspic whether domesticated or feral, at once instinctively recognized this as one of the species. It wasn’t one, but during the meal at which it made its debut, one of us offered the plate to the other, that first time, and posed the appropriate question: Would you like aspic? To which the other solemnly made reply: No thanks, I just picked mine yesterday. It was magic! This ritual has been repeated every year since, and has been handed down to the next generation, as all traditions should.

I haven’t sat down to the holiday table with my sister in a couple of years. I miss that aspic.

So maybe go ahead and make fun of your mom’s food, because sometimes it can turn into something more than an inside joke, sometimes things can spread out and grow over the years and whenever you hear some dumb word that reminds you, you’ll think of your people and smile. But you should test the waters before you try this at home. Maybe read this story to your mom in order to gauge her feelings, and if she draws herself up stiffly and gasps, Those disrespectful hussies! scrap the project immediately, but if she laughs and says What a great idea! then tells you the story about one of her own family weirdos – hang onto that. Mend your fences if you can, and hold your people close, and if you can’t hold them right now for whatever reason, keep them in your heart, and keep on working your way back to a place of love. I miss those weirdos, and I long for the next time I can look my sister in the eye and say: No thanks, I just picked mine yesterday. That’s the good stuff- not the aspic so much (that’s actually pretty gross), but the love and the laughter and the particular brand of dysfunction you’ve built within your own weird tribe. Be grateful. BE the love. And may your aspic be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by.

And a happy, joyous Thanksgiving to you and your crazy family.


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