In the autumn of 1988, mom decided we needed a vacation. A REAL vacation. Two weeks, packed suitcases, plane tickets, etc. From Northern California, we would make the eight hour flight to Philadelphia, there to visit her estranged family: her 70something father, her older brother Andy, Andy's wife and three boys, her younger brother Francis, Francis's wife, and quite a few 2nd cousins, great uncles, family friends and so forth. Neither one of us had seen any of them since the winter of 1977, when my grandmother had died. The funeral had not been pleasant; I mean, funerals never are, but since my grandfather had decided to blame his wife's fatal heart attack on my mother and her selfish decision to move to California - well, relationships had soured considerably. My grandfather had been a successful and popular businessman in his time, and his bitter opinions had been taken as fact by the rest of the family and their extended circle of friends in the small town they and their parents had lived in for nearly a century. But hey, eleven years had gone by and my mom was hopeful that relationships could be mended and perhaps salvaged.
We flew into Philly in the middle of a thunderstorm, but sadly, no gremlins were spotted on the wing of the plane.
We were picked up by Francis and his uptight, snooty-ass Republican wife, with whom we would be staying. They owned a townhouse in an exclusive suburb, polished their copper bottom frypans every night and had two spare rooms on the second floor, one of which had been furnished with a flouncy bed covered with lacy sham pillows and Cabbage Patch Dolls. Barf-o-rama. Thankfully, I was given the smaller room across the hall which was free of both dolls and flounces.
We met up with Andy and his wife, who were the Dan and Roseanne of the family: working class, living in a house that hadn't been redecorated since 1973. Mom and Andy's wife spent a day shopping and lunching together while I hung out with my cousin Matt, one year my senior, with whom I'd once eaten frozen chocolate covered bananas on the cellar steps after Grandma's funeral. Matt had become a tall, plaid flannel clad, baseball cap wearing redneck, but at least he liked metal music. We drove around the forest hills in his shitty pickup truck, talking about how fucked up our family was. Later that night, we drove out to a trailer in the woods where his best friend Larry lived. Larry was also his first cousin on his mother's side, and therefore no relation to me. Larry lived in the trailer with his girlfriend, whose name I've forgotten, and their infant son, whose name I've also forgotten. Larry's girlfriend worked as a stripper: she was pretty, painfully thin and overly made up. She was nice to me and envied my hair, which back then was a carefully feathered and stiffly sprayed helmet. When we all decided to run out to the grocery store for a few snacks, she slipped into a lacy, off-the-shoulder blouse, skintight jeans and high heeled boots. I was in jeans, sneakers and some old piece of shit T-shirt. She reminded me of Mary Ann.
A family dinner was planned a few days later at the Moose Lodge, which seemed to specialize in giant platefuls of totally bland food, mostly of the meat and potatoes variety. The waitresses all looked like cocktail waitresses from the 60s. My grandfather, short and stout in a terribly out-of-fashion suit which was shiny at the knees and elbows, sat at the head of the table like King Pork Chop. His Pennsylvania accent was thick: hiyas and whatshisface and jeet-yets and howaya young lady? His voice sounded like he had a kazoo permanently wedged in his throat. Francis and his wife sat at the other end, smug and arrogant, looking down their noses at everyone else. My other cousin Mike sat across from us with his young wife Lucy, who seemed in awe of him. Mike seemed determined to emulate Francis, right down to the arrogant tilt of his head and the disdainful smile. Oldest cousin Chris was...weird. He spoke perhaps two words to me, and seemed reluctant to admit he was part of this mismatched family. If he'd been any more distant, he would have been invisible.
We drove out into Bumblefuck Country and visited some family friends who lived in an old schoolhouse and had a vast collection of Hummel figurines. I wish they'd been blood relations because they were the nicest, most normal people I met during the entire two weeks. Totally unpretentious, down-to-earth retired couple who weren't interested in keeping up with the Jones's or anyone else. We took tea in their kitchen and walked through their garden and looked at old photographs. It was a nice afternoon.
We spent an extremely awkward evening having dinner with Francis and his wife and an old friend of Francis's whose name slips my mind. Francis and his pinch-faced bitch queen had an argument at the dinner table, in front of us all, and I spent a colossally uncomfortable twenty minutes exchanging embarrassed looks with the friend before I finally stood up and started clearing the table. Friend Guy pitched in, mom started washing the dishes and Francis and wifey went on arguing, ignoring the rest of us. I don't even remember what the fuck the argument was about. Once the table was cleared, Friend Guy left and mom and I slipped upstairs and went to bed, ignoring what had happened. It was obvious that the marriage was not a happy one. Francis's wife was an ambitious, spoiled woman who had come from money and planned to stay in money, to the point where she'd badgered Francis into giving up being a fireman - a job he'd truly loved - and into an executive corporate position. It was clear she wore the pants in the family - it was she who argued and he who avoided eye contact and mumbled his responses. Not that he deserved any sympathy. He too had been spoiled, having been born a midlife child, fawned and fussed over and given every liberty and advantage that had been denied my mother and older Uncle. Francis had been sent to college. My mother had been told that girls get married, there was no reason for college. Francis had been allowed to run wild, to defy his parents and be outright rude and insulting to them, whereas mom and Andy had been beaten for any impertinence. What Francis didn't know was that his parents, who had coddled and spoiled him, hadn't raised him at all. Mom and Andy had, getting up for 2am feedings and diaper changes because Grandma couldn't be bothered and Grandpa was out screwing around and drinking. Yet he'd grown into a narcissistic jackass who considered his expensive education and inflated income as an obvious sign of his superiority.
We flew back to California on Halloween Day. It was a relief.