Monkey Business

A lesser work from my Copying Pictures from National Geographic Period.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Mom’s Lawful Neutral habit of pawning her stuff off on me. This is why I own a Ugly Don Quixote Statue (On sale now! Make me an offer!). It is also why I have a pair of Not-Ugly-Yet Equally-Worthless German Beer Steins.

I kinda like the beer steins.

Mom always knows the precise moment to start her sales pitch. She waits until I’m placid, unsuspecting, and sated after a big meal. I’ll be sitting there drinking her coffee, nibbling her cookies, and perusing her huge stacks of mail-order catalogs, chatting with her about this and that, when she says, “Oh. That reminds me of something. Let me show you something. I think you might want it.”

Before I can fully brace myself for what’s about to happen next, she hands me Something Awful.

Whatever the Something Awful is, I don’t want it. Because of course I don’t. It’s awful.

But Mom is undeterred.

She explains that my opinions about this Something Awful aren’t wrong exactly, just a bit too narrowminded. I’m failing to see The Big Picture. Actually, I do want this Something Awful, she says. In fact. I don’t just want it, I probably really want it. Then she gives me her reasons. There are many reasons. If Mom was more technically savvy, this would be the moment she’d break out the PowerPoint.

Long story short, I’m driving home with the Something Awful belted into the backseat to make sure it doesn’t get jostled.

Since my Don Quixote post, I have hardened my resolve against such gaslighting. Mom’s most recent “Take My Crap” overtures were met with a polite yet firm “No.”

But Mom is Mom. She is persistent and German. She does not drift gently into the night.

The other week Mom had to run an errand near where I lived. She told me about it, and I, being the wonderful son that I am, offered to take her out to lunch afterwards. She happily agreed.

At precisely the scheduled time (remember, German), I heard her car pull up. I peeked out the front window and there she was, trundling up my driveway weighed down with some framed artwork.

This was an egregious escalation in the “Take My Crap” battle of wills. In the past Mom would only push stuff off on me while I was visiting her. Now she was bringing stuff to me? This kinda felt like a violation of the Geneva Convention. How can I be expected to defend myself against this? Am I supposed to tell Mom to take the stuff back? Should I make her lug all that crap back to her own house? But what about her bad hip?

And even if I did tell her to take the crap back, she wouldn’t. She’d leave it with me and say, “Look, if you don’t want it, throw it away,” knowing very well that I never would.

So I was blindsided. Miffed. And a little impressed, actually.

“Is grandma here?” Alex called from his room.

“She sure is,” I replied.

I couldn’t see the artwork she was carrying to my front door, but I recognized the frames. This was my art. Mom wasn’t just bringing me crap, she was bringing me crap that only existed because of me.

Clever girl.

“Let me show you something,” Mom said as she breezed into my foyer with a spring in her step far more suited to someone without an artificial hip. “I think you might want it.”

Mom smiled as I accepted the art without argument. She handed me two pieces; a watercolor of a bicycle and a charcoal drawing of a pensive chimp.

Here’s the bike. It is perhaps the most ’80s painting ever.

“Ooh. When did you do the monkey?” Alex asked.

“Fifth grade. It was one of the first things I did when I started taking lessons.”

“Wow. It’s good.” he said. “I like it!”   

“Want to hang it in your room?” I asked.

“No.”

And so more unwanted crap from my past joins the pile of unwanted crap I’ve been unwittingly collecting. My attic is getting very full.   

Mom and I went out to lunch as planned. We had a lovely time. We enjoy each other’s company. She’s fun to talk to. She really is a good person, mostly.

She even picked up the check; Mom is nothing if not generous in victory.  

I Abhor Outdoor Décor

I do not live here. And thank God.

I’ve always loved the Christmas season. The inside of my house proves it; every table, windowsill, wall, and shelf is overflowing with 50-years-worth of accumulated decorative Christmas crap. We pull Christmas cookies out of the oven with snowman potholders and display them on Christmas plates. We read by twinkle bulbs. We dry our freshly showered tushies on holly jolly towels. We own a seizure-inducing, blazing, blinking Christmas village. We have a small mountain of Christmas-themed stuffed animals. And we have two Christmas trees (one real and one artificial) to house every one of our 72 gajillion Hallmark ornaments.

‘Tis a festive sight.

If you take a gander at the outside of my house, however, you’d be convinced I was a virulent atheist. Not a wreath, not a jingle bell, not a ding dang thing can be found.

When Ellen and I were first married, my No Outdoor Decoration Policy flummoxed her.

“Why not put just a little something outside?” she asked. “Just strand of lights. Or a sign that says ‘Santa Stops Here.’ Maybe we could hang a couple of glass balls on the red maple and call it a day?”

But I was adamant. Ellen could decorate outside if she wished, but I wouldn’t.

Not now and not ever.

I have a good reason for feeling this way; I am a longtime sufferer of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sub-arctic Decorating). As with most people’s crippling psychological ailments, the cause can be traced back to childhood. And, more specifically, Mom.

When I was a kid, my mom had a hard-earned reputation for always having her crap together. I attributed this to her German work ethic, her German planning and organizational skills, and her German no-nonsense approach to everything. This German-ness was evident during the Christmas season, too; she would have all of her shopping done before Halloween.

Yes, she was that person.

A person can’t tackle every Christmas chore in October, however. Christmas shopping in October told the world you planned ahead. Christmas decorating in October, on the other hand, told the world you were a weirdo. Mom did not want to be perceived as a weirdo. The decorating would have to wait until December.

This waiting made Mom tense and cranky.

Come to think about it, there was clearly something about the Christmas season that made Mom go a little batty. The weather had a lot to do with it. When the temperatures dipped below freezing, Mom would suddenly get a vague yet visceral feeling that Christmas had snuck up on her without warning. Despite all of Mom’s best laid plans, she was now Behind Schedule. The actual date on the calendar was irrelevant; as far as she was concerned, every Christmas thing that wasn’t yet done needed to get done RIGHT NOW!

That was her cue to bellow up the stairs.

“Michael! You need to get the outdoor decorations up RIGHT NOW!”

“Why now?” I mumbled into my pillow. (Mom liked to announce my chores early on weekend mornings, when I was sleepy and docile.) “It’ll be  warmer on Sunday. I’ll do it on Sunday.”

“No!” Mom exclaimed, “it needs to be done TODAY!”

I could’ve followed this up with another, “Why?” but there was no point. Christmas may have been four weeks away, but Mom needed decorations now and if I didn’t agree, then I would be deemed “lazy” and sometimes Mom had a habit of slapping lazy people.

So I got up, got dressed, and got to work.

The outside decorations at the Allegra house would never impress anyone. All I had to do was twist some garland around the vertical porch posts and follow it up with a string of lights. Easy peasy.

Only it wasn’t easy peasy. I may have been responsible for decorating the outdoors, but Mom was responsible for getting the supplies. She insisted on me using “live” garland–that is to say, garland made from real pine branches which, in her words, “looked better than the fake stuff.” This may have been true, but the fake stuff was designed to easily twist around porch posts. Pine branches don’t want to be twisted. They resist it. They fight you.

Also, tree branches are thicker and heavier than fake garland so I couldn’t tape or staple gun them into place. I had to use nails. It’s impossible to hold a nail in place while wearing winter gloves, so I needed to hammer barehanded in sub-freezing weather as the whipping wind slashed away at my bleeding knuckles. On a related note, a hammer hitting your finger hurts like crazy in any weather, but it hurts super crazy when your hands are borderline frostbit. And since my bare hands were trembling in the cold, I hammered my fingers a lot. And on the rare occasions when the hammer did find the nail head, the pine branches would split and fall apart and slide off the post and gush pine tar everywhere. And pine tar can only get off of your hands with Lava soap, which Dad didn’t buy because the last time he went to the grocery store, he went without the list because he was “sure he could remember everything.”

And so the 12-year old me, in my long, pointless effort to celebrate the birth of Jesus, muttered the F-word over and over while making a mental note to convert to Islam.

The job took me two hours and aged me several years. Then, as a kind of punctuation, while cleaning up I tripped over the stepstool and took a header into an adjacent snowball bush. Because of course I did.

“It looks great!” Mom declared as I trudged inside. She was trying to lift my spirits, but my spirits were unliftable. I was achy, numb, sticky, and hated everything. Soon I would feel the unbearable needle-like sting as my fingers began to defrost. It was only 11 in the morning (Dad wasn’t even out of his pajamas yet!) but I was exhausted enough to know that my Saturday was pretty much over. The rest of my day would consist of lying down, nursing my aches, and adding a Sam’s Club-sized bottle of Advil to my Christmas wish list.

“It’s over,” I told myself. And I believed it.

Until I heard Mom’s urgent voice thunder up the stars.

“Michael! We need to get the Christmas tree RIGHT NOW!”

A Seat at the Table

Festive!

Once upon a time, most of my extended family lived within a few miles of each other. If your family is fun, I recommend this. My childhood holidays were, without fail, happy and lively affairs.

Different relatives divvied up hosting duties. My Auntie Susan covered Easter. Grandma Dacey covered Christmas. And Thanksgiving was hosted at our house, under the ruthless supervision of Mom. When I was a kid, Mom didn’t trust me to do anything that involved cooking—which was wise—so she did everything herself. My role was to be on call for assorted bits of unskilled labor.

“Get the big bowl. You know the one,” Mom yelled over the roar of the hand mixer.

I reached for a bowl.

“No, not that bowl. The big bowl.”

I reached for a big bowl.

No, the other big bowl. The yellow one. It’s in the lower cabinet.”

I reached for the cabinet knob.  

“The other lower cabinet. To your left. Your other left. No! Look! Look where I’m pointing. Am I pointing there? Really? You think I’m pointing there?! Then I’m going to tell Santa to get you a trip to the eye doctor because I’m not pointing anywhere ne— Oh, for God sakes! Never mind, I’ll get it!”

Then Mom ordered me out to set the dining room table.

Our dining room table was large under any circumstances, but grew to mammoth proportions after I locked the two wooden leaves into place. It still wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate all the relatives, however, so Mom sent me to fetch the card table. This I would wedge against the end of the real table to make one, super long mega-mammoth table. The seats around this hasty addition were reserved for the youngest in the family: Cousin Celeste, Cousin Jason, and me.

And oh, how I hated sitting there. Not because of Celeste or Jason; I loved talking to those two. It was the crummy table, which was shorter and wobblier than the Real Table. Sitting there made me feel like a second-class citizen.

It was a classic case of the Haves and Have-Nots. The adults, the Haves, had a nice cherry wood table from Ethan Allen with matching chairs that were both stately and comfy. They had a real tablecloth, that is to say it was actually made from some kind of cloth. They used the good China and the real silverware.

Celeste, Jason, and I , on the other hand, sat our skinny butts on folding chairs; rested our elbows on one of those crinkly, papery, plastic-y table cloths; and ate on and with the same crummy dishes and flatware that I used every ding-dang day.

So I seethed with outrage.

This was my house, too, I reasoned. Shouldn’t I have a spot at the Good Table? Heck, Mom made me polish the silverware. Shouldn’t I at least be stabbing my turkey with a classy fork?

Year after year, I took my meals in the culinary ghetto. By the time I turned nine I had had enough. I begged Mom to find me a spot at the Good Table.

“There’s no more room,” she replied.

“I could switch spots with someone!”

“Who?”

“Dad!” I announced. It seemed logical. Dad was clumsy, slow, and weirdly passive aggressive about performing household chores; he always found a way to screw them up somehow. Dad was totally a card-table guy.

But Mom was unconvinced. She was Old School; to her way of thinking, a kid could never, ever, in any way, outrank an adult—even if the adult in question just brought home yet another leaky carton of milk.

“You can get a spot at the table when you’re older.” she replied.

What Mom meant by this was, “You can get a spot at the table when somebody dies.”

So as I took my place at the card table that Thanksgiving, I sullenly surveyed the Ethan Allen Aristocracy to my immediate left.

Shameful thoughts tiptoed across my mind.

To be clear, I wasn’t wishing anyone dead. I loved these people. I was just…checking them out. Just because. Just to see.

Aunt Marion looked a little paler than usual. That was interesting. And Uncle Bill seemed to be having a little more trouble getting around. And Grandma Allegra was always saying things like, “I won’t be around much longer.” And wasn’t she like a thousand years old?

These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an unpleasant shiver firing up my spine.

What was I doing?!

Thanksgiving wasn’t a day to covet what you don’t have; it was a day to show gratitude for what you do have. And I had plenty! More than most! I had a roof over my head and a soft bed and a backyard and an awesome family and a great meal and about a zillion other things that I took for granted every day.

And I was fixated on this?! Really?!

Ugh. How spoiled. How petty. I felt the shame wash over me.

So I shoved the idea out of my head. I returned to my food. It was delicious.

I asked for someone to pass the gravy boat.

Dad reached for it. And then he dropped it. Because of course he did.

As a half dozen napkins darted toward the nasty brown stain seeping into the tablecloth, I caught Mom’s eye. Her expression was impossible to misinterpret.

And I smiled. Because I knew for a fact that this time next year Dad and I would be switching seats.

And I was thankful.