Unless you’re an Osbourne, the quirks of your family life don’t get marketed as a sitcom to television audiences nationwide. Your father might indeed be a living reminder to never, ever down barbiturates with Jack Daniels, but your drunken rampages are not written up in the gossip pages of the New York Post every week. Generally, you can trust your mother won’t be sharing your toilet habits with Barbara Walters in a very special edition of 20/20. Members of my family have up till this point enjoyed the same security. But no longer.
Thanksgiving break is the natural habitat of the family meltdown. Combine a weeklong break and a foolish belief you will actually spend it completing the massive pile of school work with the sudden re-introduction to domestic chaos and hilarious hijinks most definitely ensue. This is especially true of my most recent Thanksgiving at the home of my father’s younger sister, where the multi-generational fun-a-thon leapt to a new level. Small children, neurotic parentals and handicapped grandparents made for a rude awakening to what I’d been “missing” while in the deranged Yale world of 18-to-22 year-olds. And that is the special dysfunction that only the family can provide.
Many a bitter story of neglect and recrimination is predictably rehashed each holiday season and inevitably resentments are marched out. But I’m just going to leave that out. (My mom reads this online.)
The scene: movie theater, my grandmother, aunts, uncle, cousin plus girlfriend and I have gone to see the new James Bond flick — which, by the way, sucked donkey. My practically deaf grandmother is trying out the headphones provided by the theatre for the hearing impaired. She is no little old lady, my Tata (Arabic for “grandma”), but she has seemingly blissfully bid adieu to her hearing and now lives in the world of the hysterically misheard quote, wherein “don’t eat a turkey sandwich before taking a test” becomes “don’t eat a turkey sandwich before sex.” That’s an actual quote from the holiday dinner table; a brief moment of silent disbelief and then laughter followed.
Anyway, back to the movie house.
On screen the camera pans over a typical London cityscape, preparing the audience for a change in setting in the “film.” Completely unaware of the volume of her own voice, my grandmother shouts out to the otherwise noiseless audience, “Oh, so we’re in London now?” Again, embarrassed silence and snickering.
Afterward, I asked her if she liked the movie. Sadly, she replied that yes, indeed she had, adding to the sense of horror I felt by revealing her (momentary) truly poor taste.
In that instant outside the theater, I reflected on the particular family quirk that had been exemplified during the movie. Is mine a family of snobbish cultural elitists, intolerant of our matriarch’s disabilities when it leads to public embarrassment? Are we shallow egomaniacs incapable of accepting mediocre ordinariness? Most definitely on the first part, and probably the latter is true as well. However, there’s a special pride that comes from being, or at least suspecting that you are, weird. That’s probably why the James Bond (Pierce Brosnan, ugh) movie story was retold and relived several times over the course of break, and why I’m telling you about it now.
Tata is not looney toons. My cousin and I weren’t really mortified as we casually ignored my grandmother’s periodic outbursts, as if we were in no way related to the megaphone-voiced senior citizen in our midst. Every time my aunt peppered post-dinner conversation with unwanted entreaties for a family-wide discussion of my (nonexistent) love life, I (bitterly) laughed it off. Even the collection of under-6 rugrats poking at toes from under the table were gracefully ignored. My family even excused my obnoxiously cool convo with my uncle’s record-producer brother about how well Justin Timberlake has pulled off a Michael Jackson (pre-freak-in-every-way stage of late) imitation. When we consequently moved on to John Mayer’s sad obsession with Jennifer Love Hewitt (gag me with a turkey leg) and then a name game of indie bands only intensely groovy people like myself have heard of, I was likewise forgiven.
In between stuffing my face and stuffing my face, I sat back and appreciated, for a brief, painfully bloated moment, my ridiculous family. Few environments allow you to regress to the maturity level of a 10-year-old and yet mature in the process. That might not make any sense, but if you relate to any of the above, you know what I mean.
Catherine Halaby is really excited about the George Clooney-Julianna Margulies “ER” reunion on the Tonight Show scheduled for Monday.