So here’s the thing, kids:
Despite having a personality that has been described as “mercurial,” and “madcap,” and (on at least one occasion) “borderline,” I am, shall we say, rigid with regard to certain aspects of life. My reputation for zaniness belies a deep and abiding love of routine, advanced notice and permanence. It’s not that I don’t enjoy surprises, per se; it’s just that I’d like to receive written notice and a confirmation call before you, say, jump out at me from behind the bushes or entrap me with a birthday party.
(This is for your own safety, I assure you. The “CLAIRE SMASH!” reflex seems to be the default response to ALL surprises, good or bad.)
All this being said, you may understand the consternation and trepidation with which I greeted the news that we would NOT be baking cookies and enduring my paternal Grandmother’s 9,000-degree house on Christmas Eve, or wearing ridiculous pajamas while blearily opening a nigh-limitless bounty on Christmas morn, but instead packing our luggage and ourselves into Ma’s Blue Monster (a 12-passenger van slightly older than God and boasting all the comforts of a Conestoga wagon that has recently fallen off a cliff) for a meandering voyage into the hinterlands of Virginia to visit Ma’s sisters.
Readers, I was not amused.
This might seem like the premise of a horrible ABC Family Christmas movie where everyone Learns A Very Special Lesson (I would be played by either Rosie O’Donnell or an angry bear in a bad wig), but I know things you do not. To wit:
1) Placing more than two Jacksons (or one, if it’s the wrong combination of Jacksons) into a confined space for ANY length of time will automatically cue the Kirk vs. Spock fight scene from “Amok Time.” We were going to be in a van together for seven hours minimum (actual travel time: eleven hours EACH WAY). DAH-DA-DAHDAHDAH-DAHDAH-DAH!
2) My lungs are shot. This is not due to, say, 50 years of smoking (or insisting on smoking after, say, watching the effects of doing so on one’s father), but because I contracted a serious and damaging lung infection from airborne poison ivy in my misspent youth, and it nearly killed me. As a result, if the air is too hot/cold/wet/dry/air-like, I will have problems and most likely get sick. I was not looking forward to four days in the dense, Lysol-and-Cigarette Smoke atmosphere of my Aunt Irene’s house (22 hours of van travel with the Tribe of Big Chief Smokealot and his three little Indians did not improve things; their kind gesture of smoking outside the van was effectively negated by both the clinginess of cigarette stench and the sort of impish winds one normally associates with campfire smoke; as the Romans said, “Animadvertistine, ubicumque stes, fumum recta in faciem ferri?“). The deep, bone-rattling cough and taste of blood I’m currently enjoying have made sure my New Year’s Eve will involve people asking me if I have tuberculosis, or if I just really liked Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday in Tombstone.
3) Complex intrafamilial conflicts and poorly-scabbed (and frequently-picked) wounds of the psyche and soul means any extended familial gathering of the Guarneros and the Jacksons will result in either a tearful Real World-style reconciliation scene or, well, DAH-DA-DAHDAHDAH-DAHDAH-DA! (To be fair, this is true of all families, from what I hear.)
“So why bother?” I hear you asking. “Why go through this madness and subject yourself to physical and mental trauma that would make a Medici say, “DAAAMN, Jacksons – you scary!”
Why does anyone do anything? Because of love.
It’s been almost 40 years since my mother had a Christmas with her sisters. She grew up in a tight-knit family that faced adversity I never even dreamed of as a kid. Ma had a childhood where she was told she “didn’t like” white meat on the turkey because there wasn’t enough to go around. She wore hand-me-downs and scuffed shoes and battled for the affection of a distant and exhausted mother who dispensed vitriol and steely discipline like vitamins. She and her sisters (her wonderful, crazy, Dolby-Digital-versions-of-my-mother sisters) scrabbled along, raising themselves most of the time because my abuela, their mother, had to work like a dog to raise five kids on a single, working-mom’s budget in the 1960s. They still talk with wonder and awe about the time they discovered a mysterious box of Spudnuts (doughnuts made with potato flour – apparently quite popular out West) left unattended on a busy El Paso sidewalk, and the feast that followed. That’s right, kids – unattended sidewalk doughnuts – doughnuts I would assume were either dripping with poison or attached to some sort of hidden camera show – were instead a cornucopia of deliciousness for Ma and her sisters. Different times, I know – but I like to imagine some angel of pastries (probably portrayed by Rowan Atkinson) leaving them in their path to bring a little happiness to their hardscrabble lives.
Like Dad, Ma had a hard childhood and then dedicating her life to busting her ass so her kids would never know real poverty. Things might’ve been tough when I was a kid, but damn – I never had to eat an effing sidewalk treat. The reason I’m the kind of person who has the LUXURY to be “rigid” is because of my folks. Their sacrifices made it possible for my tiny charcoal heart to have a rich, nougaty center of squishy feelings and saturated fat.
So how could I say no when she arranged this crazy trip? How do you reject a simple request from someone who has made your happiness their priority (even at the expense of their own) for your ENTIRE LIFE?
You don’t, unless you’re Satan. And I don’t have the calves for hoof booties.
So, off we went.
For the record, there were quite a few fights (some with punching). There was a tearful reconciliation and declarations of love and forgiveness. There were buñuelos and bizcochos and so many things covered and/or stuffed with cheese that my arteries rose up in rebellion to slap the crackers out of my hand. There were presents and coffee and hugs and lots and lots of laughs, because when we aren’t trying to kill each other with more traditional weapons, we’re trying to do it with yuks.
There was even a Very Special Lesson, despite my best efforts. Part of the reason I love Christmas is because it allows me to unabashedly indulge the rank sentimentality that is the flip side of my caustic and cynical nature. I mock Ma’s love for the holidays (or, more precisely, her deep love of ludicrous Christmas displays visible not only for miles around, but possibly from orbit), but I share it. Christmas carols, cookies, stockings, little kids in giant Santa hats, giant dudes in ridiculously tiny Santa hats, eggnog, Emmett Otter, fruitcake, ornaments – give me the whole ball of wax.
Yet, for many years now, I’ve been more reserved around my family than anywhere else; they had the hardest time with my transition, and despite my efforts to release resentment, I’ve found it very difficult to relax around them, because love and acceptance aren’t necessarily the same thing. There’s nowhere I feel my identity and integrity to be more fragile than when I am at home; part of the reason I prefer the company of people who have only ever known me as Claire is because I can relax, knowing the pronouns and the perceptions will align with my identity. People who know me as Claire SEE me as Claire; there’s none of the hesitancy that can characterize familial interaction (a slip of the tongue might seem relatively harmless to you, but even now, years later, it’s like a knife blade in my heart whenever one of my folks or sisters call me “he” or “him,” especially in front of others; this is not because it’s particularly awkward (although Lord knows it can be), but because it makes manifest their incomplete acceptance of who I am). Do I doubt they love me? Of course not (well, unless they’re trying to make me listen to Toby Keith or some similar yokelish rot). Is it still a struggle to open myself up to hurt from the people who know all the chinks in my armor better than anyone else?
The Very Special Lesson in all this, however, is that while amor may not vincit omnia, it does have the most wonderfully mitigating effect if one can only apply it properly. There is family with which we are born, and the family we gather as we go along; the thing they have in common is love. Time spent with the people you love is never wasted, because it’s good to remember that love requires both giving and taking. I was reminded on this trip that I cannot demand or expect acceptance without accepting my family for who they are. We’ve all got baggage, and it’s heavy enough without someone you love jumping up and down on your back yelling, “WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?” It seems vulgar to reduce love to such mercenary terms as quid pro quo, but there really is a reciprocity involved; one of intent, if not tangible exchange. One must be willing to love others despite themselves if one expects such love from others. That’s a hard lesson, especially if one is slightly melodramatic (I SAID “SLIGHTLY!” Shut up.) and inclined to feel both aggrieved and ill-used by the capriciousness of fate. I’m a slow learner, but I’ll get there eventually.
The things I will take away from this trip (other than a numb ass and a deep, abiding hatred for the song “Red Solo Cup”) will be happy ones. I will remember helping my nephew build our first pillow fort (For Pillowstone: established 2011, destroyed minutes later by Captain of the Guard Ellis’ overzealous entrance via the side gate); I will remember stealing bacon I knew would probably make me sick from a pile slightly smaller than an actual pig; I will remember my Dad and Dwayne (my sister’s “young man”) referring to the local Mexican restaurant as “El Rode-E-O” and being ruthlessly mocked with cries of “TOR-TILL-AS!” and “KAYSA-DILLUH!”; I will remember singing Christmas carols and Nikki Minaj songs with equal fervor and reverence.
Most of all, I will remember my mother – the woman who taught (and continues to teach!) this curmudgeon about love in a thousand little ways every day of my life – surrounded by her sisters, eyes full of tears and a smile on her face.
Christmas presents don’t come any better than that.