I’m never going home for the holidays again.
Three weeks ago, my mother tells me about this party she’s been invited to the day after I’m coming into town. It’s a charity event for local orphans or something. Everyone brings a gift and gets in free. A lot of cool people will be there. I should bring something nice to wear. My ears perk up and I go on the defensive. “Mom, I’m fine with going to this party, and I can bring something nice to wear (are khakis OK?), but this is my vacation, and I don’t want this to become one of those painful gatherings where you’re constantly telling me to ‘look happy’ (like I know what that means), and that I’m ruining your relationships with your friends, alright?”. This sets her off. I should give her an f’ing break. She’s trying to enjoy her holidays. She’s a cancer survivor. She just wants to do something nice for me. Can’t I do this one thing? I back off. Maybe I did jump the gun.
A couple weeks later, I’m staying in her new place. She’s renting out a condo because the mortgage plus condo fees at her old place got too expensive. But the buyer for her old place backed out at the last minute, and now she has one foot in each pot, an even tougher financial situation. Things are stressful. The new building is a quiet place with lots of older residents. They’re old in the sense that they act old, not just older in the sense of being more than twice as old as I am. They like their lifestyle, and I guess the landlord left quite an impression on my mom about being quiet in the hallways. I am to remain absolutely silent within fifty feet of her door.
The party night comes, we get ready and leave her apartment. I’m wearing my finest khakis. We get on the elevator, and my mom just can’t resist – “Try to look like you’re having a good time, OK?”, she says. Part of me wants to hold back, and give her a break, and just say “sure thing, Mom.” The rest of me is pissed. This is how I look. I saw this coming weeks ago, and I don’t want to spend my vacation being told I’m somehow unhappy, you know, on the surface. I can’t hold it back. “Mom, I asked you not to do this. I’m fine, this is how I look. Please don’t spend all night trying to get me to be something I’m not.”
She digs deeper. “Well, you could have at least tried to look nice, combed your hair,” as if I chose a ratty outfit and messed up my hair just to make her friends say nasty things about her behind her back. All of a sudden, I’m twelve again, and what my Mom says matters a lot for some reason. The exchange heats up. Eventually I can’t stand it and get off on the thirteenth floor. From there I ignore my mother’s pleas to come back and duck into the stairway. Within three minutes I’ve made my way to the bottom of the stairs and found a rear exit that brings me to the loading dock, which I jump off of before beginning my walk towards the main drag downtown.
My cell phone starts to rumble, and without looking I know it’s her. I reluctantly answer, and she’s already yelling, something about how she’s going to be kicked out of the building if I’m running around the fire escapes, and that there’s cameras everywhere, and why can’t I just be “man enough” to come with her to the party. That last one is enough for me to hang up, so I do. She calls back in a couple minutes. This time I tell her that I can go to the party if she can hold back on telling me how to act. She yells something about how she already has a cab waiting and I should just tell her if I’m going to go or not, like I’m the one jerking her around here. But it’s Christmastime, so I accept her dodge of my terms as an implicit agreement, and make my way to the front of her building, where she is waiting with a cab. We don’t speak much on the way over.
Later that week, things cool off a bit, and we decide to go check out the indoor pool in Mom’s new building. As we are waiting for the elevator, she realizes she has a styrofoam box full of leftover deep-dish pizza in her purse, because that’s where the ‘za belongs, in her purse, on the way to the pool. She asks me to bring it back to the apartment and give it to my brother to put in the fridge – “but don’t knock too loud.” I carry it back down the hall, and barely tap on the door three times with the big joint of my middle knuckle. My brother approaches the door from the inside, and plays this game he likes where he asks “who is it?”, and won’t open the door until I answer, even though it’s obvious, and he can see me clearly through the peep-hole. Since I’m not supposed to make noise, I just knock again, the same barely perceptible one-knuckled knock, three soft taps.
I turn back down the hall towards the elevator to see my mother, shoulders slanted from the weight of her ridiculous purse, running down the hall with her arms up in the air. She pushes me out of the way, and my brother is suddenly inclined to open the door once he sees her. As the door opens, she looks at me, and in a voice that’s part whisper, part enraged shout, but all venom, spits out “forget it I won’t go!”. She tries to close the door on me (slowly, so as to not make a noise when it shuts), and I stop it with my shoe, totally bewildered, but not surprised. She asks, in the same voice, “why do you try to ruin everything that is important to me?”. She looks like she might cry, or start throwing things. I ignore her, and tell her that I need her keys to get into the pool. She shoves them into my hands, the whole network of key-rings and 30-odd keys, and I start to remove the pool key from the tangled web. The jingle of the keys in the hall re-infuriates her, and she grabs the keys back from me, removing the one I need from the ring and forcing it into my hand. I move my foot and she (quietly) slams the door in my face. I go to the pool.
I’ve done this before, just walking away from my family when I can’t take it anymore. My peers usually chastise me for this behavior. “They’re your family,” they say, “you should go easy on them.” Even as I type this out, I can hear voices saying “was that really so bad?” It’s hard to explain, because there are decades of history that lead to these confrontations, more than I can summarize at a backyard barbecue, or in a single blog post. So I write this story not with the attitude that I did the right thing (I don’t know whether I did), but rather just to say ‘this is what happened’. I suppose it’s hard to stay objective on the one topic that still ticks me off to the point where I feel I’m being irrational. I don’t want to antagonize her. She is old. She is a cancer survivor. She really does have a lot on her plate. The holidays are probably extra stressful. But why should I be so patient with someone who I only know through the accident of birth? When is our familial debt paid off enough that we can start asking for respect? More importantly, will this behavior repeat itself with me and my children?