We just spent the last two days with family and we will again on Christmas Day. We have a break in the middle for the purpose of driving up California’s Central Valley to maybe throw a load of laundry in and spend a night sleeping in our own bed before heading north to do it again with another part of the family.
Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. We had Shabbat dinner at their house on Friday evening, followed by an informal party on Saturday. In between, we drove down to the rural area of southern Fresno County to watch my wife’s three year old grandniece open gifts.
Both my sisters, along with two of my nephews, were present for my parents’ big day. Mom made up the hors d’oeuvres platter, my parents bought the cake at a local supermarket, and one of my sisters did most of the cooking. She and her husband are pesco-vegetarians, but they accommodated my vegan ways by preparing tofu ratatouille, broccoli, rice and potatoes along with their salmon. The carnivores in the crowd had meatballs and franks.
One of my sisters lives over in the Bay Area and commutes to her job in the Central Valley. Working 12-hour shifts in a hospital, she has a crazy schedule and was lucky to get a day off to attend our festivities. My other sister is a teacher in the suburbs of Boston, while her husband is a tech industry exec in Dallas. All three of their kids are in Boston; two work in tech, while one is still in college. After years in Dallas, Sis left her husband behind and decamped for Boston in June, mostly because their anorexic daughter was in and out of the hospital and Sis was worried sick. Before long, my niece told Sis to buzz off, which, understandably, my sister took hard. Still, she enjoys the Jewish community and liberal academic environment that Boston has to offer, a far cry from her red-state experiences in Texas. Back in Dallas, hubby takes care of the house and the cats and is overseas for his job one week each month. He visits Sis in Boston frequently. The thought is that, eventually, they’ll buy a house in Boston. None of us is getting any younger, and hubby is bound to retire sooner or later. Meanwhile, Sis rents a room in a house owned by a couple she knows. She complains that the room is drafty and is usually too cold in the New England winter. But she loves her job and being near friends and her kids.
I am reminded of my parents, who were also separated for a number of years due to their careers. My mother worked in places like Rhode Island and Utica NY while Dad stayed in the house in the suburbs of New York City, making a long drive to visit Mom once or twice each week.
What a way to live, huh? I know that, these days, you have to go wherever the job is, but I always think in terms of wife and husband moving together. Then again, I think of marriage as involving shared finances as well as a shared residence. Yet my parents have kept their finances separate for decades. I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m starting to hear that it’s not so uncommon. Blech!
The funny thing about my family, that was really brought home to me during our visit this week, is that we have next no nothing in common. From a common origin, my sisters and I have shot off in totally different directions in terms of geography, family and career. I’m glad that I don’t see my sisters very often, as I can’t imagine us getting along for more than a few hours every year or so. We simply have different worldviews, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re really from different planets. Certainly I couldn’t ever see calling one of them to ask for advice on a problem. For the most part, I prefer to have as little to do with them as possible.
The disjointedness of our lives became embarrassingly apparent as my sister from Boston attempted to encourage conversation as we all sat together in my parents’ family room on Saturday. There were long pregnant pauses, during which three or four of us would be occupied by apparently fascinating things on our phones, the rest of us absorbed in our own thoughts or staring off into space. Hospital Sis was sprawled out on the couch, nearly asleep. Boston Sis would offer conversation starters such as “Who has an interesting story about their job?” or “Who has done something interesting lately?” or “Has anyone seen any good movies or TV shows recently?” Most of these overtures fell flat after a minute or two, leaving us in physical proximity, but as emotionally distant from one another as we usually are geographically.
When it was time for dinner, we had to rustle up my wife and Hospital Sis, both of whom were fast asleep. Mom decided to wake up Sis by tickling her, which devolved into loud accusations of rudeness from both sides, along with threats never to visit again. Typical for us, I’m afraid. As Trump is so fond of saying, “Sad!” I don’t know why we bother to put on this dog and pony show, regardless of the occasion. Mom is a firm believer that “blood is thicker than water,” that families must stick together regardless of the profound differences between their members. Uh, enjoy?
Finally, when the cake and ice cream was served after dinner (no vegan desserts available, although I declined the offer of an orange), Hospital Sis resorted to web searching on her phone for a site full of courtroom jokes. Some of them were quite funny, primarily at the expense of inept attorneys, and we all laughed at them. Then Dad began to tell the same racist and dirty jokes that he’s told since I was a kid.
Soon, my wife and I drifted off to the family room to visit with my nephew, who told us stories about his life in the Bay Area. Everyone else remained in the living room, from whence I could hear my mother telling family stories about her parents’ emigration from Europe to America, the same stories she’s told dozens of times, year after year.
I’m not coldhearted enough to say no to my parents when they want all of their children present on the occasion of their 65th anniversary. Sixty-five years of fussing and fighting, yelling and cursing at each other. I know I’m not unique in this respect. As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As if to prove the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, my wife’s niece called us on FaceTime while we were at my parents’ house. She is 20 years old, has a 5 year old daughter, and can’t figure out what she wants in life. I attempted to give her advice along the lines of being true to herself, as she thinks she led a guy on, who she now wants to let down easy, or maybe not. Respect yourself and insist that he respect you was my recommendation. We had the call on speaker, and I think we put on quite a show for my own family.
As if to add a punch line to a decidedly unfunny joke, we stopped for coffee on the way home today and proceeded to drive over a nearly invisible concrete divider at the entrance to a parking lot, blowing out one of our tires. Right in front of a tire shop, I might add — a tire shop that was closed for Christmas Eve.
This makes two months in a row. Last time, it was on a desolate stretch of interstate in the middle of the Arizona desert on the way to the Grand Canyon. At least this time we had friends nearby who came to our rescue while the Triple A tow truck hauled off our vehicle to the only open tire shop in the area, about 15 minutes down the road. We had one hour until the shop closed, just enough time for them to take off the flat and install a new tire, to the tune of $165.
Uh, merry Christmas?