Trying to Graduate from the Kids Table Without Having Kids of Your Own
Death and birth--growing up I always knew those were the only ways to graduate from the proverbial holiday kids table to sit and eat with the adults. Nothing unique there--I'm sure it's the same for many families, not just my McCabe/Fletcher and Salinas/Gomez clans. What I didn't realize until much later is that it's a purely social promotion, one that affords you the patina of adulthood but none of the intertribal rank. You have to earn that swing, and the only way you do so is by going forth, getting married, and propagating. And I'm betting many of you unmarried, childless thirtysomethings know exactly what I'm talking about.
I'm not complaining--merely observing, because it cracks me up. It tickles me that even as I inch toward 40 the members of my immediate family often think of me as if I'm still an infinitely clueless kid trying to find my proverbial way in life. Doesn't matter that for the past 12 years I have, however insignificantly, chipped away at the college debt I accrued putting myself through school. Doesn't matter that I have much less hair and much more gut than I did when I made rent riding a bicycle. Doesn't matter that I have been at this so-called career for more than a decade. Doesn't matter that I'm in a committed relationship and pay a mortgage and taxes and other such upstanding citizen things. Doesn't matter that I do such mind-numbingly dull adultisms as willingly have conversations about fucking real estate and harbor an irrationally livid disdain for young people's idiocy and have to plan dinner dates to see the friends I know and love. Until I tie the knot and start wiping my own offspring's asses, I am going to be Bretsy, the girlish affectation that the many, many, many women in my family called me while growing up, and which my sister and a handful of aunts still do.
(No, I am not entirely sure how such a square-jawed one-syllable name became the worst drag queen name ever. Could be that "Bret" is so abrupt that the only way to make an informal diminutive is to cutesify it. Perhaps it had something to do with my mother dressing me as a girl for the first few years of my life.)
I first started noticing my extended childhood status at Thanksgiving 1993, which normally would be routinely uneventful. The Big Duh's highway and strip-mall amoeba sprawl sits in a flabbergastingly featureless pocket of North Texas, where only the parks are pinpricked with trees--none of which change colors in the fall. Only the lawns fade to salted-cod yellow as the days grow shorter. You get used to the holiday's banality, even the weather typically clocking an overcast day in the 60s, jeans and T-shirt weather--basically an otherwise forgettable day.
Thanksgiving '93 stood out for the sleet storm that attacked Dallas at the time, not that I paid attention to anything outside my own thoughts. I was a college-senior prick coasting through my last courses and work-study program to graduate after taking time off to make/save money to afford the damned degree, and I was way too interested in my own distractions--hoping I'd get to go record shopping before I left, wondering who was playing in Deep Ellum that week, trying to figure out why girls weren't dropping their pants within minutes of meeting me--to be civil and pretend to pay attention to my family. I also hadn't been home for the holidays in forever--or, like, four years, long enough for nothing about home to change much but long enough for me to believe I had matured immeasurably. Another boring holiday--whatever. But my mother pulled the guilt strings and had Dad pay for the airfare, so off I went.
Like many first-generation Mexican-Americans, my mother grew up feeling more part of one world than another, and she wanted her kids to grow up doing American things. You know, regular doctor and dentist visits, speak English, applaud Team USA during the Olympics, celebrate ridiculous holidays--nothing is more entertaining than a five-foot-tall Latina woman getting giddy on St. Patrick's Day--and eat traditional dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In fact, she spent most of my life perfecting her holiday dinners--turkey in November, ham in December. Bread stuffing, for which I had to toast four loaves of buttered split-top wheat bread two slices at a time. A squash casserole that bubbled with an entire brick of Velveeta (the American Hispanic homemaker's none-too-secret food product of choice for lumpless chile con queso). Le Sueur peas swimming in butter. The gravy was chocolate-syrup thick and Saltines salty, the butter-and-cream primed mashed potatoes it went atop were hand-mixer whipped into billowy peaks. And because Bret the then-vegetarian was coming, a surprise concession: beans.
Now, as an adult my mother tried many cooking styles, but demurred from traditional Mexican dishes after having to take turns whipping it together as a teenager. Cliché Southernisms such as black-eyed peas and corn bread on New Year's Day--yes. A Mexican staple--no. So she asked her mother to make my proverbial Thanksgiving beans--apparently, "vegetarian" meant nothing but legumes--never considering what asking a woman who grew up with 11 siblings to make a pot of beans might mean. Next to my place at the table was enough pinto beans to feed the Zapatistas for that entire winter, and I could smell the lard they were refried in from across the room.
The real kicker was that my seat was in the kitchen with the kids--my preschool cousins.
What the fuck? My younger sister had a spot at the table, with Mom and Dad and both grandparents and my mother's younger brother and his wife and my grandmother's sister Rosa and others. My exile was waved off as due to my last-minute decision to come home. No big thing--let's just eat and watch the Cowboys, everybody averred. So as sippy cups banged on the table I sat there absent-mindedly forking mashed potatoes and silently plotted something, anything, to get back at all those laughing, convivial adults in the dining room.
My revenge would never come. Over the next two years, the inevitable life melodramas would hit--job transfers, house sales, cancer, graduations, arguments, divorces, death, estrangement, death, intrafamily hysteria and name calling and scheming, remarriages, and more death--splintering everybody a bit, whittling the family core down to my sister, my maternal grandparents, my uncle and his wife and kids, occasionally my father, and me. And after I moved back to Dallas in 1995 and fishtailed through my 20s we operated like a kinda/sorta family unit, Bret the eldest child helping Josie--the grandmother, who never let us call her "Grandma"--with the holiday cooking and organizing, in general acting out the motions of being an adult, or so I thought. And then, after a few years, my sister went off and usurped my alpha-offspring status: She got married and started having kids.
I quickly recognized the upside to this transfer of power--Deidré is much better at being grown-up than I ever have and probably ever will be--but at the time I felt like a leper standing too close to the onion dip. It's nothing outward, mind you, just little things you notice--the place setting at the corner of the table when you show up and the comical look around the room for a chair, the forgetting you were even coming over in the first place, the dinner chatter about honeymoons and first and second and third anniversaries, kids and what they did and are they walking and talking and the inevitable, "So, Bret . . . " pause, "What is it you do again?" Needless to say, Josie wasn't exactly picking up copies of Dallas' free weekly to read what I thought about Foxy Brown.
Now, I'll freely admit that I know I don't have it bad at all in being the last single person at the family table. For one, my mother is quite dead, and thus the exclusive source of parental prodding to Do and Be Something is nonexistent, even though my cute and sweet sister has genetically inherited a virtuoso ability to play my guilt strings. What really makes my childless singledom slide, though, is that I'm not a woman. So little is expected of the single adult male in families it's a wonder we're not taxed at a steeper rate to make up for our general ineptitude. As long as we make an effort to give a shit it's OK.
Ladies, though, I feel for you. Want to drive an otherwise sane, driven, successful, college-educated single childless adult woman to practice her 911 call in her head? Put her in an enclosed room with her female relatives and close friends. All praise the sisterhood, but within minutes the women who know and love her best are going to be asking her about who she is dating, if he is the One, and where the hands are on her biological clock.
Loved ones, do you want to know why we single thirtysomethings so often end up at the bar by 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving and Christmas eve and day? Because you drive us to it and we can. Yes, we do love to see the little monsters dressed up in their holiday best, and it is fun to get together and laugh and eat and talk about that time when 20-year-old Bret dyed his long hair black and Josie derided him by saying he looked Peruvian. But, please, don't stage whisper at the table about if we're any closer to getting married or making babies. Take it from us just this one time of the year: Although we haven't yet doesn't mean anything is wrong with us--or that we never will.
Deidré, bless her, is now the official family mastermind and has started staging Christmas at her house--learning, as many women have before her, that hosting is much less stressful than shuttling the kids from one family in the morning to another in the afternoon. And due to those other usual life melodramas--more marriages, more kids, more in-laws, more cousins and second cousins and extended families--the holiday dinner table has filled up once again.
This year I'm heading south by southwest solo for my first Dallas Christmas since 2000. I've never been to my sister and her husband's new home, so I don't know if the holidays herald a kiddie table in the kitchen or not. I seriously doubt I'll be so exiled if there is--but you never know.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions
That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
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