I anticipate these family gatherings with a mixture of dread, curiosity and fascination. My parents are both dead and my wife rarely accompanies me (she’s developed a strong “distaste” for my side of the family) so I am left to fend for myself against the wall of mirrors my relatives have become, mirrors that reflect back parts of me I don’t necessarily want to be reminded of, parts that they still cling to dearly but I’ve let go of years before. I feel like I’m inviting a series of ghosts into my life, each one representing some family aspect or trait, each phantom wearing some undeniable characteristic.
Yet here I am, stepping up to my cousin’s doorbell, pausing before I press the button. I’m filled with a powerful urge to walk away, climb into my car and spend the rest of the weekend under a tree in a park away from here. Somewhere away from the memories and the pettiness, the hostile relationships between the cousins and the continuous need to be victims, always victims. If there isn’t an obvious form of hurt available, each family member goes out of his or her way to manufacture something/anything to be hard done by. That is how they operate, their method of being in the world. Not all my family is like this but the ones who aren’t no longer attend these gatherings. They have learned their lesson and grown away from the clan.
My finger hovers in the air in front of the doorbell button. I push it and a muffled chime sounds inside the house. Welcome to the world of victims. The door opens and cousin Reggie greets me.
“Will. Great to see you. Come on in.” It’s Reggie’s usual shallow, insincere greeting that he will extend to every one of the relatives that arrives.
“Hi Reggie.” I shake my cousin’s cold calloused hand and step into the foyer. Reggie’s wife Jilleen comes toward me smiling and gives me a big hug which goes on a little too long as it usually does with all of Reggie’s male cousins.
“Williston. When was the last we had you in our house?” she says taking my arm and leading me toward the living room which is lively with conversation.
“I think it was about six years ago,” I say. “After Uncle Steppie’s funeral.
“Poor old Steppie,” says Jilleen. “Poor old Steppie.”
Occupying one of the gigantic sofas in the sumptuous living room are my cousins Laurel and Lynton, between them Lynton’s boyfriend Carl. Laurel rises with difficulty due to her arthritis and gives me a short cold embrace. Lynton and Carl both hug me, Carl longer than appropriate, runs his hand over my ass as he breaks the hug.
It’s been about five years since Lynton came out of the closet to the rest of the family. I’ve known for thirty years that Lynt is gay and dutifully kept it from everyone else in the clan. I remember vividly Lynt introducing Carl as his “lover.” Aunt Frannie fainted, Uncle Frank turned away from them both and never spoke to Lynton again though before they had been close. Lynt’s acceptance by the rest of the cousin’s was mixed; about half of them didn’t care who he slept with, the other half used it as more evidence of their victimization. When invited to family get-togethers, several ask if Lynton will be there before committing to attend.
On the other sofa sits Uncle Treat and Aunt Claudia, my last remaining aunt and uncle. Both smile warmly though neither rise to hug me. Instead, I sit between them and put my big arms around their scrawny shoulders. There’s a flash and the whirr of Reggie’s camera.
“How are you dear?” asks Claudia. Not waiting for a reply, she continues, “I’m not well, you know. The operation was only partly successful and I have pain everyday. See this.” She holds her thin arm out to reveal large bruises. “I don’t know how I get bruised so badly. Treat takes care of me as well as he can but with his bum leg and shakes, he’s not much good either. Don’t get old, dear.”
I can hear a small high-pitched beeping sound I recognize as Uncle Treat’s hearing aids. Treat holds a black and white snapshot of two people standing next to an old car. He turns to me and points at the picture.
“They are all eating spaghetti,” he says. No one in the picture is eating anything.
“Never mind him,” says Claudia. “His mind is going bananas. Some days he just sits and stares out of the window all day, never moves. That’s not healthy. Did you hear that Raywall has prostrate cancer?”
She can never pronounce that word correctly. I’m the only person in the whole family who actually says ‘prostate.’ It’s one of many idiosyncrasies that once were cute and endearing but now simply annoy me. I have to restrain myself from correcting everyone, resisting writer’s prerogative.
“I hadn’t heard that. Is it serious?” I say humouring her. Raywall died in a car accident the year before.
“Very bad. He’s not going to make it.”
The doorbell rings. More victims arrive.
It’s the first of Treat and Claudia’s three children. Croot – his real name is Virgil – and his latest girlfriend Vicki receive the same phony welcome from Reggie. Croot is the oldest and most favoured child of Claudia and Treat. He seldom visits family but keeps in touch via email. Intermittently successful Croot works with computers. He was a corpulent child. Now he is an obese man who rasps with every breath. His parents rise to hug Croot and Vicki, whom none of us have ever met before. She seems to tolerate everyone, including Croot, the rest of the visit.
The doorbell chimes again. Paul, Treat and Claudia’s youngest, ten years Croot’s junior, arrives alone. Paul embraces his parents who both demonstrate indifference toward him. Tension begins to build.
As I survey the room that contains the better part of my living relatives, I wonder how I’ve become the exception to these people and their ways. Instead of sharing my wisdom that “there’s enough” these people dwell on lack and scarcity. They wallow in their suffering, spraying it forcefully, without qualms, at anyone within earshot, a continuous litany of smallness made even more pathetic due to my personal knowledge and experience of the true hugeness of our beings. Each family member leads a constant charge against any intrusion of positive energy into the fortress they’ve built to defend and replicate their suffering. Inside each fortress the glass is always half empty and someone else is at fault. Blame is always necessary and meted out even on the flimsiest of pretext. Maybe it is the utter refusal of any of them to take responsibility for their lives that bothers me the most. Or maybe it’s just the relentless familiarity of the people, their stunted evolutions worn with pride like medals after some pointless battle.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to bear the family whine this afternoon.
Next to arrive is Sylvia and Boxer. She’s Treat and Claudia’s second born, has been married to Boxer for fifteen years and not a speck of offspring sprung from their loins. Today Boxer has his left arm in a sling and sports a shiny purple left eye. He’s a big bruiser of a man so we are all surprised by his condition.
“Did you get hit by a truck?” I ask.
“He just found a bigger bully, is all,” says Sylvia who sneers at him. Boxer nods in resignation. “You know Indians, can’t hold their booze.”
Boxer isn’t Indian, he’s from Turkey. Is my whole family getting senile?
“How are you, dear?” Claudia asks her daughter.
“Still not pregnant, if that’s what you mean.”
“But we keep trying, Mama Claudia,” says Boxer grinning and nodding his head. Claudia and Sylvia roll their eyes in unison.
Neither Croot nor Paul greet their sister.
“Gang’s all here then?” asks Lynton.
“Kaiser and his new girlfriend Quim are coming,” says Croot. Door chimes. “That’s them.”
Kaiser isn’t as obese as his father but will be someday. Quim is a petite little thing that Kaiser could break in half bare-handed. She hangs off his fat arm like a bangle. I can’t take my eyes off her. She smiles coyly at me. Kaiser could break me in half just as easily I remind myself as does Kaiser’s glare.
I’m still sitting between Treat and Claudia who tells me to move. Off the sofa I stand by the window looking out at the enormous patch of rhubarb that covers most of the side yard.
“Jilleen and me welcome everyone to our home today,” says Reggie. “What can I get youse to drink?”
Between us we list eight different beverages we’d like, none of which is tea.
“How about a lovely pot of tea instead?” suggests Jilleen sternly. Everyone nods.
“I’d still like a beer,” says Croot.
“Me, too,” I say, just to be a dink.
“Tea all around then,” says Reggie. He gestures to Lynt and Carl to help him. The pair giggles like girls and baby step their way to the kitchen.
“Are they queers?” Quim whispers to Kaiser who nods quickly. “Ugh,” she says.
“Quim. That’s an unusual name. What nationality is it?” asks Claudia.
Though for a moment it appears as if Quim is flummoxed she musters, “Um…white.”
“I thought so,” says Claudia smiling at the girl.
“I got a letter from my brother in Australia this week,” says Treat. “Where’s that letter from Martin, Mother? I want to read it out.”
Claudia rustles in a small stack of paper on the end table and draws out an envelop, hands it to Treat. He carefully pulls the letter out and unfolds it, digging his glasses from his breast pocket.
“It’s not a long letter,” Treat says.
We all know what happens next. Treat stares at the letter for an extended moment, moving his head and the letter to find focus on the words. He clears his throat.
“Dear brother Treat, I hope this missive finds you well and happy and the same for your beloved Claudia. It’s our winter now which is good because it keeps the snakes in their dens, especially the poison ones that eat children and pets. All fine here except for the scoliosis. Brotherly love, Marty. That’s his letter so he’s doing fine down under.”
We all nod and mutter how good that is knowing that Martin has been “down under” aka dead for over ten years and that Treat has slipped beyond language where words don’t make sense anymore and that he’s making up the letter like he has every time before.
What amazes me is nobody among this batch of eternal sourpusses has ever called Treat on this. It’s our family’s one gleaming illustration of grace: tolerating Treat’s dementia. Aren’t we good people, huh? It’s just temporary anyway. Be patient.
That’s as large as we get.