I show my parents the photograph that I bought for my sister’s fiancé. I’m particularly proud of the idea, of having gone beyond the basic level of filial duty. The photo is one that I would have loved to receive myself – selfishly, I think to myself, that that’s the best kind of gift. It’s an action shot of Brian Leetch, who was assistant captain of the New York Rangers during the season that they won the Stanley Cup, an event that both he and I, as Rangers fans, remember quite fondly. They both look at the photo and are impressed.
But then, my mother says, It needs a frame. Why didn’t you get him a frame?
I tell her that I didn’t feel like it. He can take care of that himself, I tell her. I shelled out enough on the photo itself.
Jeff, it’s just a frame, it doesn’t cost that much.
I tell her that I know that, that I really just didn’t want to buy one. I tell her that I was too lazy.
Yeah, but Jeff, it would really help with the presentation if you put it in a frame.
I repeat myself.
I’ll buy the frame, she says.
Jesus Christ, fine, get a frame.
I have been home less than an hour.
My father swears at the ground beef. He calls it a son-of-a-bitch, addressing it directly: you son of a bitch, as opposed to a more generalized statement of frustration. Somehow, the ground beef was not cooperating. There is more huffing, and opening and closing of drawers, the refrigerator door, crinkling plastic noises, and my mother trying her best to figure out a phone that is, it appears, too smart for her. She talks to no one in particular, asking if it’s optonline dot net or dot com. I eventually tell her it’s dot net. Every time she comes across an e-mail from a sender that she does not recognize, she shares with my father and me, perhaps so that we can also question who these anonymous senders are.
Then: I never know how to hang this thing up. That’s always my problem. I don’t know how to hang it up. Hey, stop. Do you have that, where you can’t hang it up? What were you saying about Brian? Where’s he doing real estate? New York?
An orchid, one of my father’s favorites, sits in a wire cage on the top rack of the dishwasher. He curses the ground beef again, or maybe it’s the boiling water this time, into which he has just dropped in lasagna noodles. My back is to him, and I face my mother, who is looking at her computer or her phone. She calls out more names that no one recognizes.
We are driving to my Aunt’s house for Christmas Eve dinner. There is idle chatter about my cousins, what they are doing tonight; one set of them will be joining us for dinner; two of them, and their families, are not, as they will be at my Aunt’s house tomorrow.
My mother says of my Aunt: she has the best kids.
I clear my throat. My father, my sister and her fiancé laugh. My father says, Wrong thing to say!
I ask for clarification.
Take it however you want to is her reply. Then, she adds something to the effect of if you knew you treated me well, you wouldn’t be worried.
My father makes some noise. I say something that either is another request for a direct statement or a question as to how to be the best kids.
The time to start is now, she says. I ask her if she could be vaguer.
We drive toWethersfieldto see the Hartford Holiday Light Fantasia. The Fantasia is a huge display of Holiday lights, enjoyed from the comfort of your car as you drive throughGoodwinPark. Visual delights include two dimension representations, inHolidaylight formatting, of Harry Potter, of Sponge Bob Square Pants, of an alien abduction, of waving Santa Clauses, of swans, ducks and fish over the pond.
I think to myself: America.
It is the first time that the light show has been up since 2007, and my mother is particularly excited. None of us expressed any real interest in going except for her. I didn’t know that it was a fundraiser. What I do know is that I find the display tacky, although, to be fair, I likely thought that the Fantasia was the shit when I was a kid.
As we approach GoodwinPark, we are on side streets, where there are various holiday light displays in the small yard of the small houses that we pass. I begin narrating in a nasal voice, Well, here you see the first installment here, and spin out various tales at each house down this street; here, a real Christmas Classic: two Santas riding matching Harleys. My sister’s fiancé begins to participate: a typical cop car here, on the corner, poised for a drug bust. There is laughter.
Maybe they think that with the joking around, the inventive narration, that her comment has been dismissed, that I have let it go. We drive through the park, and, more than anything, my parents talk about the tree damage from the freak October snowstorm.
But it comes up again over dinner, I think from my father’s end of the table. Lor, what was it you said in the car? Something about Bev having the best kids? Most of the party laughs.
I grip the table and clench my jaw.
My parents, Aunt and Uncle, and cousin are talking about fuel prices. My mother or my father tells my cousin the story that they had already told his wife, my Aunt and Uncle already, and which they had told me earlier that day. I didn’t care the first time, and at this point, I just look at my sister’s fiancé and mouth the words, That’s four, and hold up four fingers on my right hand. He smirks; my sister is looking down at her phone.
You and I could probably recite the story verbatim, I whisper to him across the table.
Certain elements and phrases showed up in every rendition of the story: their contract with Kasden Fuel ended on December eighth or ninth (each time they told the story, it was always December eighth or ninth, one of those two days); my mother has returned every phone call and never gotten a call back; they had shown up anyway during December and my mother sent them back (in the final telling, she adds that she had to call the company to authorize the delivery service not to pump, as they were not allowed to leave a site without permission); and today, the biggest outrage, it seems, was that they sent a piece of certified mail ($5.49 – can you believe that? $5.49 for a stupid two line letter!) saying simply that my mother or father needed to call Kasden to discuss their contract.
My sister’s fiancé and I then field questions from the table about our professions; I am asked something having to do with my salary. I respond by telling the questioner that I opted for happiness instead. I don’t tell the questioner sometimes, even that is difficult enough. I don’t tell the questioner: it’s none of your goddamned business. I don’t tell the questioner: my mother and father created for me the false illusion that wealth created a happy home, when all it really does is allow you to purchase a house. I just tell the questioner that I’m out of work at five every day, and that, the work-life balance, to me, is most important.
Three times, my parents say that it’s time to go, and on the fourth, we finally rise to hug, shake hands, and put on our coats.