Looking at the grocery store ads this week with their many offerings for Super bowl fare, it occurs to me all American holidays and special events are celebrated by eating junk and/or overeating. There are no days traditionally commemorated en masse by consuming salad. Or fresh fruits and vegetables.
We’d been seeing each other about 2 months. Previously in conversation, I’d told him that for holidays I needed one of two things: to be with people I cared about OR an activity I’d enjoy.
HIM (informing): “My sister has invited us for Christmas with my family. I told her we would come.” (I had not met them.)
ME: “You can’t answer for me. ….And how is that one of the two things I said I needed for a holiday?”
HIM: (no response)
My former brother-in-law was the first good man I knew. He was also the first person to marry into our large brood, which he did when I was still a child. He left when I was a young adult. There were boyfriends and girlfriends coming and going from the family, but he was the first and only in-law for a ten year stretch, a unique, possibly not enviable position.
I wasn’t too sure of him at first. He was unknown, not from our community and not someone who glad-handed or courted his wife’s many siblings. It wasn’t clear how he’d fit into the family dynamic or what role he’d play. Unlike my loud, animated family, he was more reserved, less given to emoting and — most crucially — he was logical, a rational, thinking person. This was new. Structured, calm, reasonable approaches to thinking and relating? I hadn’t known it could be done.
I was an observant child, sensitive, and quieter-spoken than much of my family. My brother-in-law’s sensibility appealed to me. I liked listening to what he had to say. He did, it turned out, have a strong sense of humor but unlike the slapstick and bravado that was central to the typical family wit, his was dry and understated. He’d crack a rare chuckle, not laugh uproariously or physically act out a joke or story. He looked a person in the eyes when he spoke and kept his mouth shut when the other person talked. The reward of that chuckle or focus became worth having because my brother-in-law wasn’t an easy audience. This was a man whose attention and respect had to be earned.
It took awhile to learn these things about my new brother-in-law and for the two of us to forge a connection. There were just too many of us in the family plus many relatives and an assortment of friends who were adjuncts; a shy-with-strangers little girl many years younger wasn’t going to be on the radar. He was a big guy, tall and stocky, somewhat physically imposing, favoring jeans, heavy belt buckles and boots. He liked his beer and cigarettes. He drove a foreign car and had a fondness for gadgets. I, on the other hand, liked playing with dolls, reading, arts and crafts, and being with my close-in-age siblings. I’m not sure exactly when we started to be closer. I can’t recall a specific moment, or our first meaningful conversation, only that there would be many.
He and my sister came to the house often. For dinner, for holidays, for cook-outs, for movie nights (he loved James Bond films, even though in the middle of the film he’d point out mistakes or why things couldn’t have gone down as they did). Sometimes the family en masse would go in the early years of their marriage to my sister and brother-in-law‘s apartment, and later, their house. We were a possessive, interdependent lot; I didn’t like it a bit the occasions my sister and brother-in-law instead went to his parents’ home for a holiday. They should be with us. (I was a child and thereby entitled to think that way; not so sure the rest of the family was but they did.) Once, maybe twice, his parents joined our family at our house for a gathering. That was a mix made in hell. His father was an accomplished, traveled man. He looked like Walt Disney, sophisticated. His mother was pretty tightly wrapped from what I saw, reserved, and not someone who was going to crack a beer, enjoy ribald humor, or get down for basement pool table or shuffleboard tournaments. Their family had even lived overseas. Class differences? Yeah, you might say that, although I didn’t know it then.
As I moved into my teens, my brother-in-law and I had more to say to one another, finding we both enjoyed challenging, in-depth conversations that wouldn’t long hold the attention of other family members. Oh, my family liked to argue – lord did they – but theirs wasn’t the stuff of rigorous, analytical discussion; it was often nonsensical and usually loud. In my brother-in-law I found someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to intellectually challenge me. He didn’t have to, but I think I can safely say he came to love me and the rest of his wife’s family (well, most of them I’d venture).
He treated me with respect and valued what I had to say, even if, I can well imagine, he couldn’t fathom some of my teenage girl pastimes (he did have an adopted sister of his own, but all these years later I remember clearly there was NO love lost there). Nobody had ever singled me out from the rest of the family that way and appreciated my mind before he did (my family thought all my question-asking and deep pondering was just weird).
Lest you think by now I have an idealized, child’s view of the man, I’ll assure you I don’t. My brother-in-law did not suffer fools gladly. One of his oft-used phrases when driving, said within the confines of the car about another driver’s poor technique was,
“You bought that piece of shit, now drive it.”
To breezily insult someone, even one of his sisters-in-law, he’d say, “Cute but not too bright.” He’d refer to anyone he took a dim view of as a “clown.” Once, on a long car trip to a family reunion in a neighboring state, one of my sisters was in a snit about fixing her hair with curlers in the backseat of the car. She was dissatisfied and complaining a lot, working everyone’s nerves. I guess my brother-in-law, at the wheel, had enough, because he said words to the effect of how my sister was going to look dropped off on the side of the highway with a bag of curlers shoved up her ass. Um, no, he would never really do that or harm us, but by then he knew us well. He was family.
When the marriage between my sister and brother-in-law ended, my family reacted poorly. How quick they were to turn on my brother-in-law and bad mouth him behind his back! I didn’t know the details beyond what my sister told us – and they weren’t exactly clarifying with statements like, “He’s gone crazy” – and knew there was more to the story. I had enough respect for my brother-in-law and his history as a member of our family to want to hear his side. I never did, not up to and including now.
My married sister and I weren’t especially close – there was a big age gap – and each of us was closer to other sisters. Yet, maybe because I’d reserved judgment, or maybe because she knew the connection I shared with her husband, it was me she asked to join her the day the divorce was final. Not as a celebration, more to commemorate the moment, I think. I was surprised she wanted to spend the evening with me, but pleased. We went to dinner in a nearby waterside community and afterward hired a bicycle-drawn carriage, powered by the hugely muscled legs of a buff young guy. (He must not have been too taken with us because I remember the ride as not being very long.)
I saw my former brother-in-law one more time when our family was dealing with an enormous crisis. It was awkward. I think he wanted to chat and catch up, but the timing was wrong. He disappointed me in that time period in that I felt he didn’t come through for our family. I could not tell you what he thought. Did he no longer have any reserves of love for us? Not feel any obligation? Too involved in his new life? Again, don’t know.
I can tell you this. I loved him mightily. With every passing year of my life, I’ve appreciated more and more what he did for me. He gave me a template for many relationships to come. He saw and valued what I had to offer. He loved me. He was first good man I knew.
When you get older, things aren’t as exciting as they once were. That’s generally accepted as common knowledge. Even as someone who can still get pretty excited over a variety of things other adults might find commonplace – from finding a quarter on the ground to glimpsing the ocean after a long time away to the prospect of a big bowl of pasta for dinner – I have to say it feels true. I’ve been trying to parse out why exactly, though. Is it because all is so fresh and new when a person is young, unsullied by repetition or knowledge of prior disappointments? Or is it because younger people have limited control over their lives and are dependent on others to introduce exciting events or circumstances, and the randomness and surprise generate excitement? (A big, special event or gift or vacation successfuly planned and executed by someone else IS more exciting, I reckon, than one you do for yourself, whether you are 5 or 50.)
Is it instead because life deals out so many frustrations, disappointments, and painful losses along its path that 1) older people are too wounded to get excited, too muted or distracted by the weight of assorted difficulties that sap their attention and energy? or 2) essentially a lot of things that were supposed to be exciting, which came with lots of advance press turned out to be a big, fat bust, or short of that, were merely blah, humdrum, or flat when they occurred?
When I was a child, still in gradeschool, my father’s work took him briefly to Florida and it was decided to combine that obligation with a family trip to Disney World. I have to tell you the “magic kingdom” was all I could have hoped for and more. I was besotted with the place and told myself when I grew up, I’d come back and work there. (I did no such thing and my naiveté over how fun I thought it would be to work at Disney World or any amusement park both bemuses and sort of touches me now.)
Since that trip, I have always wanted to go back to visit but I haven’t. Not for any interesting reason. I do wonder, though, what would Disney World seem like to me now? The excitement of that first trip could surely not be matched. Moreover, I’d be much more likely to notice and mind things I hadn’t on the childhood trip. Oh…things like commercialism, white-washing of history, the conditions for employees, and whether the entirety of Disney is good for children or not. Yeah, here she is, Ms. Buzz Kill! Or more kindly to myself, maybe Ms. Knows Too Much.
I’ll tell you a story that might illustrate what I’m talking about. When I was older, living on my own, a radio station sponsored a contest to win a trip to an amusement park (not Disney) located in an adjacent state. The contest was one I was sure I had a crack at winning: coming up with as many words as possible using only the letters in the name of the park’s new roller coaster. When I put my mind to something, look out. I wanted that trip. I came up with over 600 words and won one of the trips. I could take a couple people with me and did. On the designated date, we drove several hours to our lodging, only to get a cool reception (we probably did look a little ragtag, certainly not high rollers), but worse, discovered no meals were included in the prize. Probably would have been better to have known that beforehand. [Insert unhappy face.] So, tired and hungry, we found ourselves prowling a local grocery store for provisions the first evening.
The amusement park held a special “grand opening” for a select group of which we were included. I didn’t give a flip about the roller coaster (and was more interested in the snacks & drinks tent), which was just as well as the ride malfunctioned on its maiden spin and riders were unloaded and walked down from an unpleasantly high point. My companions and I had access to the park on a subsequent day as well when it was open to the public. The grounds were theoretically separated into geographical themes, but I soon noticed not much difference among them, all with a certain homogenized vibe, down to the food, which was supposed to represent the cuisine of various countries, yet all tasted the same, mediocre at that. Should I now mention there was interpersonal friction among our little group that started early and never fully let up, making the trip even more crummy, capped off with a sullen, several-hours drive back home? Yes, well.
The youthful Disney trip and the “young adult” amusement park prize trip were so very different. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions but I can’t help but make some. I had nothing much to weigh the childhood trip against, no knowledge that might work against my excitement. The prize trip I came to with excitement and hopes, but knowledge that took away from the experience. Was I too jaded, too inclined to weigh actuality against expectations, and end up disappointed? As an adult, do I merely tote around too many notions of how things should be?
I don’t much like Official Holidays now. There’s something about the excited expectation and subsequent, typically less thrilling reality that doesn’t sit right in my being. I am MUCH better off when lovely days come along by happenstance and feel like a holiday. I throw myself into such days, excited and happy, and pleased to note, not at all jaded. Is it ultimately that my capacity for excitement isn’t diminished but that expectations are really my bane? It’s weird. I am easily pleased so long as I have minimal opportunity to generate expectations or excitement in advance. Is that it? And how true is that for other people?
As I write this, I keep coming back to a particular mental image, namely that of a typical old lady being feted on her birthday, a paper party hat incongruously strapped onto her gray-haired head, a sheet cake on the table in front of her. I think I’ve seen variations of this scene a lot, in life and onscreen. I always wonder about the elderly lady. Could she possibly be enjoying the event? Is this exciting? It doesn’t look that way. It looks like all the excitement is over for one life and that this is the end zone, stuck in a paper hat, trying to look gracious and pleased.
Think of all the senior lady must have lived through in her decades – sex and love and passion and vacations and marriage(s) and children and deaths and jobs and homes and Christmas gatherings and family reunions and delicious feasts and leaps into swimming pools and driving tours and ceremonies and funerals and parties and monopoly games and feuds and lush gardens grown and luncheons with ladies and arts made and symphonies heard and on and on with all that goes into a long life. And yet the people around her expect her to be excited over the paper hat and cake. I really can’t fault her if she isn’t.