Scene: Semi-Uncomfortable Family Dinner, circa 1995
The Players: Dad, Mom, Dad's parents- Seated at 'adults table'. Three grand-girls, aged fifteen, ten and eight(ish) seated at bar that faces the adults' table, partially shielded by wall of indoor foliage. All three girls would be perfectly capable of sitting at said table, but are sequestered at bar for strategic fetch and carry purposes.
The Background: My family is nothing, if not dramatic. My mother likes to blame this on our Norwegian blood, but her, ahem, emphatic gesturing and ability to "discuss" things until throwing yourself from the nearest window/moving vehicle/bridge/tall building sounds like a good option was surely not a gift bestowed upon her by Loki after her conception of me and marriage to my dad. Actually, with regard to the emphatic gesturing: She once threw herself on the floor and rolled around on the carpet to emphasize her point. In front of people who we knew only slightly, via their daughters' marriage to a friend of ours. Scott was there, he can totally vouch for me on this one and was at least as mortified as I was. Thank the heavens they were as cool as their daughter. No, there isn't any more to this story. Seriously. I think we went eight shades of red and tugged her to her feet.
Back to my story, though - or any rate my preface to this story, lest I seem insensitive to a few touchy issues - Please note the following:
-Two of the principal players of this story have passed away, and are much missed - but not held as saintly, perfect creatures, just flawed, loveable people.
-No, I don't think alcoholism is a funny disease, in and of itself.
-My sisters and I have been re-enacting this story since it the week it happened. Every time, it makes my mother laugh so hard she gasps for oxygen like a freshly-landed bass and wipes tears out of her eyes, if she doesn't actually end up rolling around on the ground.
North-eastern Oregon, just after dusk, summertime. The six of us sat at stiff-spined attention, carefully using our napkins, best manners, and (for the adults) tougue-biting skills. My grandmother had undoubtedly labored over the dinner all afternoon with her arthritic joints and the dogs (a German Shepard and Miniature Schnauser) underfoot. She'd also undoubtedly been drinking since she started cooking, and was fairly 'well-done' herself by the time we were ready to eat. I remember my mother trying to help her without seeming like she was intruding or taking over. This was the kitchen of the woman who had in all likelihood, introduced fresh-frozen Maine lobster and the salad bar to rural Montana in the 1950's. We three girls tread carefully, setting the table and bar as quickly and quietly as possible, while trying our best not to notice when she stumbled, blaming the sleeping dog three feet away. "CheyANNe! You big galut!"
Finally we sat down, prayed, and started the age-old ritual of, "Can you please pass the...thanks.....oh! and the....yeah - MMmmmmMMMM that is goood!" with a few stilted attempts at conversation. I don't remember what we were eating, but I do remember that it tasted good - and that even if it hadn't, we would have sang the chefs' praises to high heaven. I had been feeling a tad bit miffed that I was still stuck at the kids' table, but as the meal and the attempts at conversation progressed, I said another quick prayer of thanks - this time for my seating assignment. My grandma, never the most cheerful of people, had reached the morose, snappy stage of intoxication, and my parents and grandfathers' attempts at engaging her were met with monosyllables or barked answers at best. Finally they gave up, and talked amongst themselves, my grandfather laughing too heartily at something that wasn't terribly funny, my parents' voices far more solicitous than we ever heard them.
I heard the beginning of a slight titter to my right as one of my sisters started to laugh, and shot her the Older Sister "Death Ray" glare, quieting her instantly. All of the sudden my grandma snatched her paper napkin and let out a perfectly ennunciated, monster sneeze.
"AHH-AHH-CHOOO!" (followed by copious nose-blowing, gesundheits all around) "Esscuse me, I'bm sorry," she said, and folding her napkin into a new configuration. My parents looked askance, my grandfather asked for the - "AHH-AHH-CHOOO!" (followed by copious nose-blowing, same apology, re-re-folding of said napkin). I Death-Ray'd another smirk and kept eating, eyes studiously on my plate. Two seconds later:
"AHH-AHH-CHOOO!" (napkin unfolded), "ThhhhhhHHHHPPPPPBBBBB!..I'bm sorry, I cadn't helb it." (napkin folded, tucked into sleeve) My parents tried their best to cover their plates without appearing to ... cover their plates.
"Mom, why don't you.." my dad began,
"AHH-AHH-CHOOO!" (napkin unfolded, shaken out), "ThhhhhhHHHHPPPPPBBBBB!" She tried to get up, but thuD!ded back to her seat, hampered by the thick carpet and her wheeled dining room chair. My grandfather began to silently shake with laughter. I turned to the side, holding my hand out with four fingers extended and the Death Ray in my eyes. My sisters' eyes widened, they nodded, and we started the Sneeze Countdown - Four fingers out.
"AHH-AHH-CHOOO!" (napkin unfolded, shaken out, visibly dampened and slightly shredded), "ThhhhhhHHHHPPPPPBBBBB!", I'bm sorry, I cadn't helb it." (napkin wadded into a tatty ball, tucked into sleeve). Five fingers.
"Ahh, mom, fortheluvva-" my dad began again, only to be interupted by another huge, "AHH-AHH-CHOOO! - I'bm sorry, I cadn't helb it." (napkin now a sad damp idea, untucked from sleeve and re-tucked into top of blouse) My mother, her face tight with supressed laughter, pushed herself ever soo slightly away from the table. Six fingers.
"AHH-AHHHHH-CHOOOOOO!" My mother passed another paper napkin to my grandfather. "Mom, why don't you go in the -" Seven.
"AHH-AHH-CHOOO! Eight fingers. ThhhhhhHHHHPPPPPBBBBB!, Thangks, Linda - I cadn't helb - AHH-AHH-CHOOO!", Nine. My dads' face reddened with laughter, and my grandpa let out a gasp of laughter. "Thadt's nodt funny - AaaAAAH-CHOOOOOO!" Ten fingers, or sneezes, it turns out, was the precise number of times my grandmother needed to voraciously, messily sneeze before our family completely and utterly collapsed into hysterical, eye-wiping laughter.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Scene: Semi-Uncomfortable Family Dinner, circa 1995