Toxic Birthday

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Visiting my parents has increasingly turned into a toxic experience.  It destroys my peace of mind, brings back dozens of bad memories and is even dangerous to my marriage.  All this goes double when my sister is in attendance.

The photo above doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter.

Last weekend, we headed south to California’s Central Valley to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday.  On Saturday, my sister and her two adult children came for the day.  I particular looked forward to visiting with my niece, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years even though she lives only two hours away.  When I first arrived in California in 1995, she was five years old.  It’s hard to believe that she’s now in her twenties, an accomplished artist and hardworking Starbucks barista who is struggling to finish college.  Her parents divorced just as she was preparing to start high school, which turned her life upside down.  She has always had a tight bond with her brother, and the two spent years living with their father and his second family.  Recently, however, my nephew, a Silicon Valley engineer, moved out of the parental home in the face of constant arguing and bickering over visits by his mother and his grandparents.  This has been particularly hard on my niece, who has an extreme (probably unhealthy) emotional attachment to her brother.

The issue of where to go out for dinner should have been settled by the birthday girl.  My mother, however, seemed to be completely shut out of this decision making process.  My sister started carrying on about how Outback Steakhouse, which she knew is a favorite of my parents and my wife, is the most unhealthful choice possible and out of the question.  My niece ended up deciding on dinner because she counts every calorie and is therefore somewhat limited.  I thought every place served salad and fish, but what do I know.  As to the vegan in the family, well, let’s just say that I know enough to bring my own food when I visit my parents.

We ended up at Red Lobster, my niece’s choice and my father’s favorite.  My parents dine there once a week anyway.  I was able to get by with steamed broccoli, a baked potato and a salad without dressing or croutons.  My mother ordered her favorite fried filet of sole, even though she keeps kosher and I have reminded her on several occasions that RL fries with lard.  I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy.  After all, she’s 81.  Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that, once you get to that age, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want without anyone hassling you.

On the phone with my mother the week before, I had asked her for ideas for a birthday present.  My father’s birthday is always easy:  The man likes beer.  But my mother doesn’t drink, likes to make her own clothes and doesn’t appreciate wasting money on frills and nonsense.  So I was surprised when she asked for chocolate.  Milk chocolate, she informed me, she doesn’t like.  (This was news to me, as it was her secret vice throughout my childhood.)  “Dark chocolate,” she told me, “but not the bitter kind that you eat.”  My mother is aware that, although I am a Type 2 diabetic, I have a proclivity for indulging in low sugar, nondairy chocolate that is mostly pure cocoa.  It is very bitter indeed, and I enjoy it a little too much.

The very fact that my mother would ask for sweets is amazing to me.  In years gone by, she would claim to have no interest in candy or other junk food, although we all knew that this was far from the case.

Still, I thought we could do far better than merely buying a box of chocolates.  To me, that sounds like something you bring to a sick person who is in the hospital.  I had a better idea (or so I thought).  My mother has gotten into baking in the last few years.  She whips up wonderful apple pies, has tried her hand at challahs (although not to her satisfaction) and even baked cookies recently.  I thought I’d capitalize on this interest by finding a baking cookbook.  After all, she recently told me that she’d borrowed some books in this vein from the library and that they didn’t seem to have what she was looking for.  We headed for Barnes & Noble, where I found cake books, cookie books, French baking books, dessert cookbooks and just about everything in between.  (And, by the way, I was amazed at the number of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I found on the shelves.  Too bad I don’t cook.)  The only problem is that most of the prices ranged from $40 to $90, which we found to be rather steep.  I suppose I am severely out of touch with what these things cost.  So, chocolate it is.  We found four or five different types of dark chocolate, from solid chocolate bars to chocolate-covered blueberries.  This turned out to be a win-win situation.  We actually got my mother what she wanted without blowing our budget.

I was delighted to have an extended conversation with my niece during dinner.  I expressed an interest in her work and was regaled with stories of the life of a barista.  It saddened me somewhat when I realized that, in the course of an hour, we talked more than we have in a decade or more.  If I email my nephew, I know he’ll email me back.  My niece, however, doesn’t operate that way.  She has neither the time nor the patience to bother with email.  It would be nice if I could take advantage of this opportunity to expand the dialogue and develop more of a relationship with my niece.  However, I doubt that this is a reasonable expectation.

Alas, things went downhill from there, as they always do when my family gets together.  My sister, who is an unemployed sonographer, began telling horror stories of her experiences working in hospitals (the one about the woman hiding a bag of Oreos under her sagging left breast was interesting, at least).  And then she began arguing with my mother and the screaming matches began apace.  My mother and my sister have a particularly toxic relationship that has been going on for years.  Sis calls my mother nearly every night to cry on her shoulder about her woes, and the conversation invariably deteriorates into an argument.  The next night, she does it again.  My mother refuses to stop taking my sister’s calls.  Mom says I don’t understand because I don’t have children of my own.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  This is one thing that I have no desire to understand.

My niece became more and more perturbed at the verbal violence that ensued between her mother and grandmother.  She is a sensitive sort and not as steeled to this passive-aggressive crap as the rest of us are.

It is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the vitriol that went on between my sister and my mother without providing examples:

#1

Sis: [complaining about the stuffiness in my parents’ home as we were lighting the candles on Mom’s birthday cake]  I’m dying!  I can’t stand it!  I’m gonna have bronchitis!

Mom: [yelling] So go outside if you can’t stand it!

#2

Sis:  I was really concerned about your memory!  Don’t mock me!

Mom: Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I get Alzheimer’s.

Sis: You won’t know when you have Alzheimers!  You were reading to me and it sounded like bubrbubrbubbbb!

What else?  Oh, there was my mother’s description of how to choose a cucumber at the supermarket:  “It should be long.  You should squeeze it and it should be hard.  You want a stiff cucumber.”

And there was my sister’s description of her visit to Iceland.  She expressed regret that she was unable to locate the Phallus Museum in Reykjavik that she had heard so much about.  About the only species not represented, she read, was human beings.  She suggested that this should be remedied by her ex-husband offering his for a specimen, since he wasn’t using it anymore anyway.

This was in front of her children, mind you.

Ever the glutton for punishment, I texted my sister today to ask her how her new job was going.  I remembered that she was scheduled to start work at a Bay Area hospital on Wednesday.  There is no new job, she told me.  They checked her references and rescinded their offer.

Her previous job lasted all of two weeks.

It’s never her fault, mind you.  The fact that she is a loudmouth and can’t get along with anyone has nothing to do with it, either.

So I offered to show Sis how to apply for a job with state government, a solid job with great benefits and a good retirement package.  It doesn’t pay enough to meet her needs, she informed me, and anyway she’d be bored out of her skull.  She’d sooner continue being a nomad, running about the country as a traveling sonographer doing six- to eight-week stints in the Midwest.  Besides, she’s running after some guy in Santa Cruz now and doesn’t want him to get away.  If worst comes to worst, she says, she can always stay with my parents for a couple of months.  I reminded her that she didn’t last three days the last time she tried such a thing.  Inevitably, she makes my mother so upset that my father has no choice but to throw her out.

I guess you just can’t help some people and trying is an exercise in futility.

Oh, and now we’re all supposed to meet at my parents for Passover.

Do I want to subject myself to this after recent events?  Heck, no!  It’s always the same.  But here’s where the good old Jewish guilt creeps in.  How many more opportunities will I have to spend Passover with my parents?  What if this is my last chance?

But then I remember that I told my mother how grateful I was that Pastor Mom had gone out of her way to bake vegan hamantashen for me on Purim.  “Pretty soon you’ll have her converted,” was her reply, prior to making disparaging remarks about the fact that Pastor Mom used my sugar-free preserves instead of the traditional poppy seed filling.

Of course, I shared this with my wife, and no surprise that she about blew a gasket.

There is something, dear readers, called self-preservation.  So I think I’ll take a rain check on a family Passover this year.  They’ll just have to sing Khad Gadya without me.

Oh, how I look forward to breaking the news to my mother!  Maybe she’ll stop speaking to me for a few months again and we’ll all have some peace for a change.

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One thought on “Toxic Birthday

  1. Pingback: Passover Reflections | A Map of California

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