Family Matters

  • Barbarella

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.

-- George Bernard Shaw

I'd like to say that the reasons I left my work and chores to spend the day with my sister and nieces were all noble, but that would only be partially true. Jane was stuck waiting for a washer and dryer to be delivered to my mother's house, where she is living temporarily while her own home is being renovated. I wanted to come to her rescue, bring her lunch, keep her company, make goo-goo eyes at the baby, and hear the latest of Bella's amusing and surprisingly insightful three-year-old observations. As much as I wanted to do all those things, the truth is, I was so desperate to procrastinate that had anyone else called me in that moment of weakness I would have been just as eager to donate my time. I arrived shortly after noon, bearing sandwiches and a gift for Bella. A week earlier, when I had told my niece of the "surprise" present she would receive the next time she saw me, the pint-sized drama queen responded, "I will cry tears of joy." Instead, when she opened the pink lunch box filled with Hello Kitty Pez dispensers, she had just enough time to mumble, "Thank you, Aunt Bob," before running away to savor her treasure in her private sanctuary -- the Pepto-Bismol colored room that was once mine, the door of which is still covered with the remnants of unicorn and rainbow stickers.

The day was slow and relaxing. Chatting with my sister and watching my niece kept me distracted from the to-do list waiting for me at home. At 5 p.m., I decided to stay for dinner, thus prolonging my petit vacance . Mom walked in through the garage ten minutes after the pizza had been delivered. We exchanged hugs, placed slices on our paper plates, and sat at the dining room table to chow. Two bites in, Mom said, "I see how it is: you'll come down to visit Jane, but not me."

"I'm still here, aren't I?" My tone was as pointed and dry as rusted barbed wire.

"I guess I can't argue with that," Mom said, punctuating her words with a cheerless giggle.

Ever since their first children were born, my two older sisters have spent almost every weekend at "Nana's" house, the haven for our mother's grandchildren. Nana's house is a magical world where the toddlers can swim in the pool and play with an ever-growing collection of toys; it is their kingdom to rule, and Nana is their loyal, doting subject, granting their every wish.

Mine is a quiet life. In my home, the television set is not connected to the cable and is only turned on a few nights a week, after sunset, when David and I view our latest Netflix arrivals. Because we both work at home, David and I may go days without seeing another person. Aside from the sound of each other's voices and the distant tapping of computer keys emanating from the other room, we are ensconced in silence -- the street noise several floors below is shut out by double paned windows, any sound of neighbors swallowed by concrete walls. Twenty minutes and a world away, my mother's house, like any playground filled with happy, energetic children, is loud and frenetic. As much as I love and enjoy the presence of each of my family members, I prefer to visit with them in smaller, more relaxing numbers. Therefore, I am rarely found at Nana's house on weekends.

Unfortunately, my mother seems to take my absence as an indictment, as if the growing infrequency of my visits is an allegation about the way I was raised, or some kind of judgment passed unfavorably upon her. This, of course, is silly. The simple, un-dramatic truth is that rather than expose myself to the headache-inducing cacophony of a blaring TV, squealing children, and distracted siblings, I prefer to spend Saturday afternoons quietly reading alone, getting a pedicure with a girlfriend, or walking to Balboa Park with David.

We finished eating, threw away our plates, and retired to the living room. "So where are you going next?" said Mom. I laid out my travel plans for the next several months, including December. "Not for Christmas, though," Mom said. It was not a question.

"Yeah, actually, I was thinking I wouldn't do Christmas this year," I said.

"What do you mean? Are you going to be out of town?"

"Maybe. But maybe not." Mom's face fell as the meaning of my words sunk in. "I just want to try not celebrating, you know, do something quiet, away, just me and David."

"Is this David's idea?" Mom looked hopeful. It's easier to demonize an outsider, to dub David the "cult" that tore me away, rather than face the truth -- that I am moving away on my own, flexing my wings in preparation for a flight that will take me far from my mother's nest.

"No, Mom. This is my idea," I said.

"Well, then you're going to do Thanksgiving with us. You can't not do Christmas and not do Thanksgiving!"

"Actually, I was thinking of joining David again at his parents' house. You see, David only sees his family maybe twice a year. It doesn't matter if I see you on a holiday or not, I get to see you much more frequently. Anyway, with that and the trip to Europe, I should reach the next level in my frequent-flyer club."

Mom is unsure how to deal with my unapologetic frankness. Looking at her disappointed face, I wanted to explain, to give her a list of made-up and worthy-sounding excuses. I wanted to change my mind, to say I was willing to profess my belief in Santa Claus; that I was willing to pretend that we were still a God-fearing Catholic family honoring the birth of our Lord; that I'd happily impersonate a good daughter and aunt and park my ass by the tree to hand out dozens of presents, so many that no one remembers who gave what to whom. I wanted to confirm for my mother all of the things she holds dear -- family togetherness, tradition, perpetual progeny. But I couldn't. As much as I respect them, her values are not the same as mine, at least not anymore.

"Come on, Mom, get up and give me a hug," I said. Mom stood, a few inches shorter than me, and I wrapped my arms around her. "Hey," I said, kissing her cheek. "I love you. No matter where I am or what I'm doing -- I love you. I'm sure I'll see you soon." Mom smiled wistfully, as if struggling to convince herself of the truth of my words. I chased down Bella for a hug and kissed my sister on the cheek. It was getting dark outside, and I was eager to return home to David, and to the life I have made for myself.

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