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First Person: We Are Family

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When my sister went to college in California, she promptly became a vegetarian and wrote me long letters expounding the evils of meat. Everybody assumed she'd grow out of this phase much the way she grew out of Rick Springfield and 90210. Instead she progressed from no red meat to no meat of any kind to no seafood and, finally, to no dairy products. To top it off, during her senior year Kiki fell in love with a butcher at the local grocery store. Within weeks they'd shacked up.

"How does it work?" I asked her one day as we talked long-distance.

"It's no biggie. Mike eats the snouts of pig and I eat tofu."

"No, I mean your relationship. How can you get along when you're such a devout vegan?"

"Oh, come on, we have a lot in common."

"Like what?"

"Well, music. We both like Motley Crue, Guns 'N' Roses, and Black Sabbath. And we both love hockey."

I left it at that. In my family we never ask too many questions. My mother was brought up Greek Orthodox but recently decided she believes in spiritual healing, reincarnation, and angels. According to my grandmother, this means she's a witch. In 1965 my mom married a Catholic from a hick town in Minnesota (my dad). At the height of Saturday Night Fever they got divorced. In the 80s my dad married a Chinese military official 22 years his junior, and my mother married a Jewish atheist from Boston 12 years her senior.

Last year my mom, my stepfather, my grandmother, and I flew to Santa Cruz, where the family was gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving at the place my sister shared with her boyfriend the butcher. There, surrounded by rolling hills and acid-dropping hippies (referred to as "trolls" by the locals), we got reacquainted.

Mike the butcher brought home a tremendous turkey. My mom prepared all sorts of scrumptious appetizers, but for some reason they all contained meat so my sister couldn't eat them. My grandmother (who insists we call her "Nona," which means godmother in Greek) sat on the couch going on about various terminal illnesses.

"Did you know that Angie Prokapakis had a tumor the size of a cantaloupe on her ovary?" Nona asks. "When it burst, toxins flowed through her entire body. She almost died of blood poisoning."

My stepbrother Mark, a 30ish businessman from New York, nods at my grandmother and tries to change the subject.

"And Dimitris Mauvros dropped dead of an aneurism while watching Dance Fever," Nona continues.

Mark's wife Alice, who's two months pregnant, seems very uncomfortable. I can't tell if it's because of my grandmother, or because of the Jewish tradition that says she has to name her baby after a dead relative. Both the baby's grandmas--Fanny and Zelda--are dead.

My other stepbrother, Brad, a tequila guzzler in a sharkskin suit who runs a business in Mexico City, just chuckles at Nona. But my struggling-actress friend Melissa takes the bait. She's never even met my family, but drove up from Los Angeles because life in LA is "full of unicycle riders."

"It's impossible for a tumor to be as big as a cantaloupe, especially on an ovary. I mean, how could it fit?"

Nona, who decided within the first five minutes of meeting Melissa that she didn't like her, rolls her eyes, turns to Brad, and yells, "That friend of Marya is a nut case!"

Also present today is Carol, my mom's old friend from elementary school, who has lived in California for 20 years and owns a pottery and macrame shop in Marin County. Carol recently married Richard, who's 11 years younger than she is. Richard, who calls himself a triathlete, awakens every morning at dawn and swims in San Francisco Bay. According to my stepfather, Stan (the Boston atheist), "The only reason Richard swims in the bay is because he's not getting enough sex from Carol!"

The butcher's brother Curtis, who lives just down the street, also shows up. A college graduate who finds office jobs demeaning, he works in a Super-Spud fast-food potato restaurant.

When I first meet him, Curtis informs me that a whole society of Druids live in the forest down the road and plan on taking over the world.

"After they succeed in taking over the world, they will perform a mass suicide."

"When is this supposed to happen?" I ask.

"Next year. Unless the Masons try to stop them."

"The Masons--as in Jackie Mason?"

"No, the guys who wear funny hats, like Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days. They're like a cult and they're planning a war against the Druids."

"Why?" I ask, wondering if any of us are safe with this kid in the house.

"The Masons hate the Druids. Besides, they're a violent group. They're affiliated with the Nation of Islam."

"Mister Cunningham--"

"And Louis Farrakhan," said Curtis, as if his train of thought were completely logical.

While the rest of us are eating appetizers and listening to Nona talk about tumors, seizures, and cancer, Curtis, who wants to be a musician, breaks out his guitar and starts singing a song called "Prozac Popsicles." After his routine, his sister Katie arrives with her new boyfriend Don, a chef with a pierced tongue.

By way of introduction my stepfather yells, "How the hell can you taste any of the meals you prepare with a goddamn earring in your tongue?"

"I somehow manage," Don answers with a heavy lisp.

Since there's a little time before dinner, Curtis leads into a song called "Why I Have Sex With Aardvarks."

The fun begins when stepbrother Mark tells stepbrother Brad that he's good-for-nothing.

"Why are you always picking on your brother?" my mother asks Mark.

"Don't interrupt them! It's rude!" Nona yells.

"It's Thanksgiving! Can we stop already?" Kiki whines.

The butcher looks nervous and leaves the house (presumably to do something with knives).

Only Curtis doesn't mind that we're fighting. He launches into a song about a family from the midwest who come to Santa Cruz and drive him insane.

"Curtis, could you put that worthless instrument down for a minute?" I ask.

My mother bursts into tears and points at me. "You're ruining Thanksgiving!"

"Me?" I ask, glancing around the room, expecting people to jump to my defense. Instead everyone seems to be nodding. "I hate you!" I yell.

Alice whispers, "I'm gonna vomit," and leaves the room.

Mark spills his glass of wine on the white carpet, causing my mom to clutch her chest, heart-attack style, and yell, "Oh my God, I am going to have a nervous breakdown on Thanksgiving of all times!"

"Did you know how many people actually die of heart attacks during holidays?" Nona asks. Nobody pays any attention to her or to the butcher, who has reentered the house dragging a Foosball table.

Brad, the source of the comment that led us down this ugly road, goes into the kitchen to make himself another drink. On his return he mutters, "This family is sick!"

"Neanderthal!" I scream at him and then, for no obvious reason, call my mother a fascist.

My sister, who's carving the turkey, glares at me. "You're a beast!" she says.

My actress friend Melissa agrees. "You know, I think Marya is the cause of the tension in this room!"

"What?" I gasp.

"Well, you are the Antichrist!" my mother says.

"Marya's not evil," my stepfather chimes in. "She's brilliant. My own sons are the problem here."

Mark throws his hands up. "You see? You favor Marya over your own children!"

The butcher's sister Katie, who up to this point has been quietly sticking by her boyfriend, stands up suddenly and says, "Oh come on. Let's all play Foosball or something!"

Her boyfriend laughs heartily, and everyone in the room stops fighting to look at his tongue.

When my sister calls us to dinner, Mark is the first to get up and head for the dining room. His spandex jogging pants accentuate certain bulges and curves we have no business looking at.

"You know, while everyone bickers, I have to worry about my business back home and my pregnant wife. I came here to relax, not to get more stressed out."

"Oh break out the violins for Mark," I laugh. Brad laughs too.

"Why the hell are we always fighting?" my mom asks. "Why? When I was a kid we didn't fight like this. What is wrong with you people?"

"She's right. We never fought. We got along. We were respectful of each other. You kids are a bunch of no-good wildebeests," Nona says.

"And Marya is the worst. She's the child of Satan!" my sister says while Melissa the actress laughs along with her.

"You know, Melissa, if you think this is all so fucking funny, why don't you take a Greyhound bus back to LA and find some friends?" I ask.

Melissa stops laughing.

"I don't know why I bother. Maybe I should just throw myself off a bridge," my mother whines. "Every year Marya ruins Christmas. But Thanksgiving--well, she usually lets us enjoy it."

Richard, the guy who swims in the bay because he's sexually frustrated, says, "Yes, yes"--even though he's never met me until this afternoon.

At 9 PM, with the festivities over, I apologize to my sister even though I'm still not sure how ruining Thanksgiving is my fault.

The butcher turns on a sports channel and Curtis starts singing a song called "Alcoholic Trolls." Surprisingly, it has a halfway decent chorus--except for the one line he keeps repeating, "All good trolls can go to heaven, except for ones whose names are Devin."

Mark and Alice are cuddling on the couch, talking about names for the baby.

"How about Elvis?" I offer.

"Or Jesse?" my mother asks.

"What about Woody? Is Woody a Jewish name?" Nona asks.

"Woody is a pedophile!" Alice replies. Brad, who's on his fourth J & B, sits down next to his brother and asks, "So, didja hear the joke about the lawyer who got a blow job from his secretary?"

My stepfather rolls his eyes. "This is the son I raised?" he asks.

By the time the news comes on, we've settled into a comfortable monotony and start to wonder if maybe we shouldn't get together more often.

"We always have fun, eh?" my mother asks.

"Yeah, even with meat," my sister answers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steven Gillig.

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