We’re Havink a-Heat Vave

You know how a simple phrase can trigger a complete memory? I just read “We’re having a heat wave – a tropical heat wave” on a friend’s page and it brought me back 40 years with a giggle.

In 1978 I was at Skitch Henderson’s monthly talent show that was held in the ballroom at the Sunset Blvd Hilton, back when it was still really seedy. I was there to support my brother’s swing band, a group of talented teens dressed in period suits who always won the crowd over.

In the course of waiting to hear them play we were subjected to all manner of tap dancing tots and unintentionally hilarious performers.

One of whom was a 50-something Russian woman with bad teeth who imagined herself to be Marilyn Monroe in ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. She wore this dog-eared, outrageous outfit that might have at one time looked something like Marilyn’s – if you squinted – with an enormous hat that was tattered and wilted.

The BEST part of her outfit was the black netting that went between the bikini top and the culotte/skirt: It was there to hide the voluminous stretch marks and rolls of cellulite. The netting herded the rolls instead of hiding them.

 

Marilyn Monroe Heat Wave

 

She was accompanied by a large tape recorder that sat on the floor (the phrase boom box had not filtered its way to the suburbs yet) and warbled out a distorted tune she had clearly taped from the television.

She spent the first minute and a half of the song pretending to dance with (invisible) hot, young Hispanic men, as if she were in the movie. She shimmied her rolls and swished the tired slit-skirt around in a way she thought provocative, while I pressed my lips together to keep from chuckling.

The tape had an admirable amount of flutter and wow, and without an ounce of rhythm and – remarkably – both flat and sharp simultaneously, she began to sing along with Marilyn.

In a heavy Russian accent she caterwauled: “Vee’re havink a-Heat Vave. A trop-i-kel Heat Vave… The temp-a-cher’s risink, it eezen’t soop-riz-ink she cert-ten-ly ken Ken-Ken.”

You know the look on the audience’s face during Spring Time For Hitler in the movie The Producers? By the end of the number that’s what the entire crowd looked like.

She was so spectacularly awful that four decades later the scene in that smokey ballroom is indelibly seared into my brain: She was SO confident and SO blissfully unaware of how comically bad she was.

Yes, we laughed at her. Not there while she was on stage – that’s not done. Sure, there was a mad scramble for the door from a few people, so as not to laugh in her face. But later that night oh how we laughed. We did our best impressions of her and we laughed until tears ran down our faces and our sides hurt.

In the years to come she would be the hallmark for all wretched performances everywhere. “Yes, that was *bad*. But, was it Heat Vave bad?”
.
Oh, Hollywood and your hopefulness – don’t you ever change.

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Duck and Cover, kids!!

Part of the soundtrack of my youth was the eerie blaring of air raid sirens being tested at precisely 10 am on the last Friday of every month. I was 4 when I first asked my mother what the disturbing noise was. “They’re sirens to warn us when Russian airplanes attack,” she answered vaguely, hustling me along the sidewalk to the commercial interview she was taking me to. At my wide-eyed look she assured me, “It’s just a test.”

A month later the same sound sent me outside the house in shivers of fear, scanning the skies for planes (always the reporter), and any bombs they might be dropping. It was only then that my mother thought to explain that the tests happened every month at the same time. Young Reporter Claudia demanded clarification of Exactly When they went off every month, and never forgot it.

I distinctly remember the sounds of the unsynchronized sirens whirring to life – each just a fraction of a second off from the other – and their high-pitched oscillating tones warning of danger. When the test was over and the sirens finally stopped, their wailing echoed for a few lingering moments over the San Fernando Valley. Thinking about the keening, undulating sound long enough begins to put a clench in my jaw and stomach.

Part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was repeating the Duck and Cover drills we learned in kindergarten from cheerful films featuring catchy jingles, Bert the cartoon turtle, and calm, well-dressed white children. The films spoke confidently and repeatedly of WHEN The Bomb would drop – not if. 9 months a year for 13 years every child attending school in Los Angeles was vigilant for the inevitable, inescapable flash of our doom, and as air raid sirens howled above us we learned to cower under the magical safety of a laminated Formica desk.  (Link to Duck and Cover propaganda film)

As the sirens warned of impending doom the teachers turned off the lights and closed the blinds, and we students would kneel under our desks on the linoleum floor, our fingers laced behind our necks, forearms over our ears, and elbows shielding our faces. We were told to keep our eyes shut, and our faces hidden in our clothes.

While we crouched with hidden faces, the siren’s mournful monthly tune ended and became nothing but a discordant echo over cheaply built post-war housing. We waited until we heard a long bell being wrung by Mrs. Hale, our Principal, signifying the ‘All Clear’. It was during one of those drills that I first felt the suffocating quicksand of claustrophobia.

The exercise ended with the entire school huddled under our desks, pretending a bomb would explode near us. The bell would ring – and Scene! We would return to our studies, the subtext of the ritual was that we had all just died.

Here’s the unvarnished truth about Duck and Cover: Nobody ever gave us instructions on what we should do *after* the bomb dropped. There was never any talk of what to do when we were done ducking and covering, no warnings about food or water or radiation poisoning. We didn’t even have instructions to wait for instructions.

The inference was that if we ever heard the Russian planes overhead everything was over. ‘Kiss your ass goodbye’ was a phrase commonly used, and most people figured ‘They’ll never try it, and if they do? We’re all dead, but they are, too.’

The drill went on year after year – long past the point of being of any use to the children repeating it – until it became normalized and just more Cold War theater

Whether or not the adults around us would acknowledge it, their unconscious behavior affected how we reacted – we took our cues from them. They knew there was no surviving a direct hit & we picked up their signals.

We were told to kneel and patiently await our fate when we heard the sounds of air raid sirens. Deep inside all of us knew that if the missiles actually flew the lights and the shades and the command to Duck and Cover were nothing more than busy work to fill the time until we were incinerated in a flash.

***

At 6 am on February 9, 1971, the Russians finally attacked. I awoke to the sound of air raid sirens and explosions that were so big it moved the ground beneath me. I heard shouting, and the ground shook even harder – the earth itself was making a grinding noise as books and games flew off of my shelves, raining down on me. Instinctively I hid my face as I sat up in bed. Abruptly the shaking stopped, but the sirens went on. I was in shock as my father hollered “EARTHQUAKE!!! Get out of the house!!” I had no idea what he was shouting to me.

In all their preparations for nuclear war it had never occurred to any of the adults to mention earthquakes to the California kids living on the San Andreas fault. No one thought to tell us the sirens could be used for emergencies other than nuclear war. I mistook a 6.6 quake for World War 3, and awoke certain I was dying in a mushroom cloud. The heaving ground and exploding transformers only served to underline that mistaken notion that the world was coming to an end. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.

It puzzled me as I grew older how so many of my classmates relegated the jolly propaganda films that promised a terrifying death via radiation to the farthest corners of their minds. By the 1980s the drills had ceased, and most folks seemed to forget what the sirens were – they became just another background noise people ignored. Almost no-one noticed when the Los Angeles Civil Air Defense sirens were permanently silenced in 1986.

 

Duck and Cover 1

 

 

I don’t envy anyone with young children right now, because they’re going to be freaked out by what happened in Hawaii – how can they not? It’s utterly fucked up, and in the days to come they’ll be exposed to over-stressed adults and videos of panic and terror. Hopefully they’ll also see clips of parents trying to protect their children, (the video of the father putting his crying children into the storm drain in which he cannot fit is heartbreaking – but also a moment of the purest love and sacrifice) and there will be adults around them who are calm and reassuring.

Keep in mind that children already have their own version of Duck and Cover when they practice mass casualty shooting drills every month. There are seniors graduating in June of 2018 who have been practicing this horror-show drill their whole lives, just like I practiced waiting for the bomb to drop. The heartbreaking thing is that some of these students, and a few of their teachers, won’t get to see graduation day because their lives will be cut short in a flash from the muzzle of a gun. The added burden of the threat of global thermonuclear war between two madmen seems especially cruel.

None of it’s fair, or particularly sane, but it’s where we are as a country right now. This is who we are.

For the moment we are at the mercy of an aggressive, ignorant, rageaholic narcissist who suffers delusions of grandeur, likely has dementia, and is itching to use nuclear weapons. For the moment.

On the bright side: After a few years in this pressure cooker of lunacy and danger we’re bound to have some really good art and music come out of it –  if we can pull together and #Resist long enough to outlast the bastard.

 

99 Red Balloons

Bullshit Positive Affirmations

Oh bullshit. I’m so tired of that trope and the whole notion that any of us is wholly responsible for our success. It’s classist and ignores the collective knowledge that mankind has gained off of the backs of others. It rejects the notion of role models, mentors and teachers and utterly fails to consider the opportunities afforded to those who are economically and racially privileged.

Yes, it’s that time of year. The New Year seems to encourage an avalanche of Bullshit Positive Affirmations shared on Facebook. BPAs are the annoying things people post and say that are supposed to encourage you to be the best person you can be. The illogicality of them frustrates me. I’m not sure if people actually believe this magical thinking, or they just think they should believe it.

 

BPA 3

 

No. No, it’s not.

That is embracing the ridiculous notion that everything is within our control.

That’s saying that people born into poverty choose to stay that way if they are unable to break the cycle. That’s saying children in marginal schools could have a better education if only they tried harder. It’s saying that the children of privilege don’t have 2 legs up on everyone else when it comes to college and student loans.

Then there are the things that happen when we’re adults. Sometimes unexpected shitty things happen to us out of the blue. Sometimes a spouse leaves and takes all the money. Sometimes the stock market crashes because people you have no control over sold unsound financial investments and it wipes out your 401K. Sometimes you find yourself unemployed and unemployable when your job has been outsourced. Sometimes you get sick.

Life is not a static arrangement of events that can be planned. Life is messy and often catches you unaware.

 

BPA 17

 

I swear I am not making this up.

Someone actually posted this piece of cruelty to their timeline on New Year’s Day. I suppose they thought it was inspiring. Instead, it just sounds like they’ve been lucky enough not to have had something really bad happen to them.

Let’s see how his proclamation holds up, shall we?

“No more whiners. If you have cancer it’s because you let it get that way.”

“No more whiners. If you’re depressed it’s because you let it get that way.”

“No more whiners. If your company eliminates your department it’s because you let it get that way.”

“No more whiners. If you were hit by a drunk driver it’s because you let it get that way.

Oh, I could do this all day, but you get the idea.

 

BPA 2

 

Really? So I can be an astronaut? What about run a 4 minute mile or be the President? I can conceive being a trillionaire, are you saying that’s possible? It’d be nice to be a supermodel. I’d sure like to win a gold medal in swimming.

The problem is, no matter how much I can conceive or believe, those things aren’t going to happen. I could do everything possible to achieve any of those goals – everything possible – but none of them will happen.

That’s because there are things we can’t do. I know it’s hard for the snowflake generation (I’m looking at YOU boomers) to hear that, but it’s true. Not all of us are exceptional and there are limits to what we can do and it’s time we accepted that fact.

 

BPA 1

 

I hate this one most of all.

It’s especially galling to those of us with depression. Oh – I could just wish myself better? I can choose whether I have this disease or not? Why didn’t you say so! That really would have saved me a lot of trouble had somebody told me sooner. I feel just like Dorothy with her magical ruby slippers – the power was in me the whole time!

People think they’re being helpful when they post BPAs, but they’re not. Those of us who have had life intrude on our well planned path understand that these clichés are not helpful, and only serve to make the reader feel negative when they read it. The notion that you can think your way to success is foolish and doesn’t benefit anyone.

It seems like people who share BPAs are looking for an easy answer to the tangled reality of life. The problem is that hoary bromides don’t straighten out tangles or cure diseases.

It’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to be positive nor have happy thoughts. But, I’d prefer my positive affirmations to be less filled with bullshit and a little more realistic. I prefer my affirmations to be things we can all actually do.

 

BPA 7

 

Manners – it could become a cause of the day and go viral like the ice bucket challenge. People would be posting videos of themselves waiting patiently in line to say please and thank you to supermarket workers and food servers or being polite to random strangers on the street. The cool thing is that you wouldn’t have to pledge a damn dime, and it would bring a wealth of benefits for society. Although it would involve a greater effort than hitting the share button for a useless platitude, it could work.

How about:

 

BPA 11

 

Or:

 

BPA 13

 

Or, even simply:

 

BPA 15

 

It could happen.

All I’m saying is that if we’re going to encourage ourselves to do better lets aim for things we can actually do that make our little corner of the world a better place.

Let’s avoid the BPAs. They’re worthless and may serve to just make someone feel worse.

I have to admit there is one positive thing I don’t mind sharing. It’s something I really believe in, a cause close to my heart, and it’s something that I would really encourage everyone to do.

It doesn’t cost a penny, and doesn’t ask you to do anything unethical or immoral. It’s something that can be practiced without show in both public and the privacy of your own home.

It is, in fact the antithesis of a Bullshit Positive Affirmation:

 

BPA 9

 

Now, that’s something I can really get behind.

 

**Originally published Jan 5, 2015 – Republished Jan 3, 2018, with minor edits**

Holidays In Hell, Part 3: Moving Past Tippy The Tree

Staggered between burning countless sheets of cookies and the innumerable show business interviews of my youth, my mother would focus on burnishing the Image of the Season with hours of meticulous decorating.

Christmas was Margaret Lamb’s time to shine, and prove what unparalleled taste she had.

I have to give the Devil her due: For someone with no formal training she had an excellent eye for both color and proportion. Her tastes ran to the dramatic, but her affinity to pull a room together could not be denied.

She had an EXACT idea of how the Christmas decorations should be presented, and there were to be no deviations from the plan. She was uncompromising in how each bow MUST be tied and each bough must be hung: Our house at Christmas was a tableaux of her fantasy life.

There’s nothing quite like trying to put up Christmas decorations with a manic, compulsive person. You end up as agitated as they are, and nothing you do will please them. It’s a sucker’s game, and one we were forced to play every year with a silly-assed grin plastered to our faces.

Before we could begin decorating, though, one of my brothers would bring the ladder in from the garage, open the small square opening in the ceiling outside of my bedroom door, and climb into the attic to retrieve the many boxes of decorations and Tippy The Tree. (Cue the sound of a chainsaw)

Every year one box or another would have gotten damaged in the attic, somehow. This would trigger my mother’s unreasonable rage and legitimate sadness at losing a sentimental item, coupled with the certainty that it must be someone’s fault. Sometimes it was the way things were packed, sometimes it was carelessness on the part of whichever brother was asked to put the boxes back in the attic or take them down. More often, though, the culprit was water damage from our perpetually leaky roof. Somehow, it always seemed to be my mother’s art projects that were destroyed

Art Projects.

Margaret Lamb did Art Projects – because crafts were just so unsophisticated and provincial.

I cannot describe her sorrow at losing the Three Wise Men.

I was there the tragic afternoon when she opened the box to find them water stained and moldy. I can still see what they looked like whole: Their monochrome faces (one bearded), with flowing robes and gifts – and their ruin in a box that reeked of mildew.

Mom had constructed the Magi out of Papier-mâché laid over frames of upright cardboard paper towel tubes, and they stood a little over a foot high. Their perfectly proportioned outstretched hands and arms were made of modelling clay supported by toothpicks and Popsicle sticks. Painstakingly laid pieces of muslin and leftover trim gave them the sweeping garments of Kings. She used a tiny Chiclets box for the chest of gold, an old dangly earring for the frankincense censer, and a large bead for the vessel of myrrh. All three Men and their Gifts had been covered with countless whisper thin layers of deep cream spray paint, then sparingly touched with the faintest  of antiquing. Finally, they were finished with a seal of matte lacquer.

She spent dozens upon dozens of hours making them the summer of 1971. It was the rainy season of 1978 that did them in: More than 3 feet of water fell from the sky in our polluted end of the San Fernando Valley, and apparently most of it percolated through our attic and the 30-year-old roof my parents hadn’t bothered to replace during the salad days when I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and making the equivalent of $3,500 a week.

The Wise Men were pretty good – really. I have no reason to lie about Margaret’s talents.

The problem was she thought the Wise Guys were gallery quality. She displayed them in a prominent way on an end table. We knew better than to move them, she would know if we had. Just like she knew when we moved cans in the pantry (you think I kid). She would obsessively know exactly where she placed them. God forgive the unlucky soul who disturbed their position. Now here they were: ruined.

Her rage was positively epic, which forced the ‘Merry Fucking Christmas’ blowup to come early, and we got two that year.

“Oh no! No, no, no!!” it began low and began to grow. “They’re ruined! Goddammit, they’re all ruined!” she shrieked.

I began to step backwards, eyes darting, trying to find anywhere to escape.

“They’re all fucking ruined! How in FUCK’s name did this happen?!!!” her voice spiked in fury. “Everything I ever do turns to shit! Why do I bother?” her fury hit a sharp crescendo.

“Why. Do. I. Bother?” her voice a study in staccato fury.

“Oh, oh, oh!!” he uncontrollable sobbing begins.

Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior were laid to rest in an ocean of tears and savage vulgarities. Even then I understood her guttural lamentations were about her suffocated dreams, and not about her ruined Art Projects.

I feel genuinely bad to this day how much losing them hurt her.

The problem was that Weepy Mom always preceded angry, hitting, Destructive Mom.

Silly me, I was always sure if I could just calm down Weepy Mom then angry, hitting, Destructive Mom wouldn’t show up. My cunning plan failed every time. At that age I was still convinced it was my fault she was so unhappy. I just knew there was something I wasn’t doing – or something I needed to do more of – that would make her happy. I credit my older brothers for introducing me to the notion that maybe – just maybe – she was the one who needed to change.

 

Lamb Christmas Tree

 

When the annual damage had been assessed, and whatever could be fixed was repaired, my mother would start to assemble The Tree. That we had an artificial tree was due to my asthma, that it was such a piece of crap was all on my folks.

The Tree stood about 6 feet tall, with a base made of 2 giant dowels which were supposed to fit together snugly, but had the stability of a teetering Jenga stack. The threadbare branches were made of plastic pine needles and twisted metal wire, which fit into little holes drilled into the dowel. The whole thing sat in a rickety tree holder, wobbling drunkenly about and often falling over without provocation. For some reason assembling The Tree would flummox my mother every year. The art of sorting the branches from largest to smallest escaped her. Every. Fucking. Year.

“Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit! Why won’t this go right? I don’t understand it.” We would melt off to our rooms, suddenly needing to do our homework.

At least an hour later, after a fist-fight with Tippy The Tree, Margaret would start on the lights – a job that took several hours to get just so. The lights had to be done to the exacting standards that only existed only in her head. This was not a one person job, of course., which meant we all got to pitch in. Lucky us!

Children of the 60s and 70s remember well the exasperation of an entire string of 60 lights not working because of ONE random bad bulb, and how long it took to find it.

You began by plugging in the strings of lights – ALL of which worked *just fine* when you carefully put them away the year before – to find that somehow three of the four strings of small white lights didn’t work. You’d unplug them, shake them hopefully, and then plug them back in again to no avail.

Then came the laborious process of finding the bad bulb by methodically pulling each one out of its plastic socket, and replacing it with a good bulb. When the string finally blinked to life you could claim victory, and move on to the next malfunctioning string.

The tiny, fickle bulbs were clear glass with two thin filaments coming out the bottom that made direct contact with the socket, and were prone to giving you a blast of current as you gently wiggled it free from its seat.

Woe be to the fool who broke a bulb. Bulbs were precious, and it was almost impossible to find spares. You’d be concentrating like a Stanford neurosurgeon as you shimmied the bulb loose, trying to avoid 110 volts, and suddenly one of the brittle wire ends would snap. The haranguing from my mother would begin anew.

Once all of the strings of lights were operational began the next challenge: Hanging four strings of lights on a tree that would fall over if a door slammed across the house. Not just hanging the lights, but making sure they were absolutely, positively, obsessively evenly distributed around that sad tree in a schematic only my mother could see. That tormented woman would hang the lights, get halfway done, rip them off, accidentally knock over the tree, curse, and start over – again and again. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to do this ten or twelve times before she was finally pleased. God knows we didn’t stop until she was pleased.

Dad would come home and tell mom just how wonderful Tippy The Tree looked as it was falling over.

Mom would hang the tinsel garland after dinner, as we were finishing our homework. The garland could be no less perfect than the lights, and we would hear cursing from the other room as she unwound and rewound the tired tinsel. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to be compelled to have every light equidistant, every loop of tinsel exactly the same size. I mean I know how exhausting it is to live with, but damn. How relentless that reality must be. She thought it was a reflection on her if the surface things didn’t look perfect. She was convinced that she was being judged by everyone because she was judging everyone else for their petty imperfections.

The sad reality? The Tree wasn’t perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination. Look at that picture of the tree, again. There is nothing remotely perfect in it – but that represents at minimum 15 hours of work. Hanging and rehanging the tinsel and lights was simply a symptom of the compulsion she refused to treat. She would perform an annual feedback loop with them until she finally exhausted herself, and moved on to her next self imposed, joyless holiday labor that compounded her resentment and was just one more step towards the Merry Fucking Christmas Meltdown.

Finally, the tinsel would be just right and Tippy The Tree would be ready to decorate. But, it would be too late that night, and the hanging of ornaments would have to wait until the following evening.

Dad ignored the building mania every year. Instead, he immersed himself in the television, doing it from the comfort of an armchair whose fabric she chose, in a room whose walls were filled with her paintings and collages. Dad may have stopped drinking the year before I was born, but he was still trying to achieve that blackout state of oblivion.

As we went to bed The Tree fell over, unbidden.

 

JPEG A 0053

 

While my brothers were at school the next day dear old mom was a busy little elf.

All of my brothers had the good fortune of escaping to school. Not so for me: In 4th, 5th and 6th grade I skipped school for the day so that I could learn the ins and outs of the whole obsessive business of Decorating Madness.Twice she worked it in with a print job – so, you know… Total Win-Win for her.

By the time I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman I was never able to escape to school , and I had her neurotic ceremony of season memorized.

There were boxes and boxes of decorations and every item not only had a predetermined place, it had to be taken out in order. Let me repeat that: decorations had to be removed from the box – box by box – in order.

You begin by dusting the tired, dog-eared wreath with the red bow, before hanging it up on the rusty nail between the two front windows. Next, a silk holly sprig would be hung on the front door, and plastic mistletoe would get taped to the doorway between the living room and the hall.

I would be rebuked if I went too fast. Each piece must be reverently unwrapped, dusted, placed just-so, and be glowingly admired before moving to the next object. I was admonished fervently: One must NEVER rush the boxes.

I learned to carefully unwrap the 5 small Santa mugs that were purchased for my brothers by a grandmother I never met, who died before I was born. I would remove the white tissue paper from each, revealing Santa’s smiling face, and take the long pieces of cotton batting from inside the mug, taking care to replace each piece of wrapping and baffling into the box from whence it came. When the mugs were unwrapped, and sitting on the lamp table, I would take a clean tea towel of the softest cotton in hand and gently cradle each cup in the palm of my hand, brushing away any dirt or dust, taking care to never rub the paint. Now, I’d run the cloth inside the mug to make sure no offending particles are left inside a cup that no-one will ever drink from. When I’d cleaned all of my brother’s mugs I’d inspect them to make sure they gleamed. When Santa’s eyes were twinkling I’d place them in an exact semi-circle on the coffee table and look at it from the fireplace, and again from couch. All of the handles wouldn’t match up exactly – and the HAD to be precisely the same way. So, I’d gingerly move the mugs telling myself ‘For the love of god DO NOT LEAVE ANY FINGERPRINTS‘.

Good. It looks good. No – really. It’s good.

As I continued to unpack decorations I would stack the empty boxes neatly against the front door, dead soldiers awaiting their temporary return to the attic. Mechanically, I washed my hands after each box, before my mother could remind me it was filthy.

 

Lamb Christmas Dry Sink (4)

 

The candles of the carolers and the lamppost went on the top shelf of the marble dry sink, between the poor poinsettias that were desiccated from a floor heater that had no thermostat – just an on/off lever that too often got left on. The wax figures had to have the dust rinsed off of them, although they were clearly past their prime. They were of immense sentimental value to my mother, and they partially melted when I was 5 or 6. The heater was left on while we were out all day, and it got so hot inside the house that the candles began to give up the ghost. The carolers took on the shape of Jabba the Hut, and the lamppost leaned hard to starboard, but my mother refused to part with them. She considered them an integral part of the Christmas ambience.

The Christmas cards went in the copper bowl with the handle. The  brass and glass candy jar that was just for show held miniature candy canes that were packed away every year.

The 6 piece wooden angel choir, which was prone to breaking (look closely, and you’ll see an angel’s arm) had an absolute order that began with the conductor – and ended with the tuba.

Finally, we would get to the crèche. The crèche was big doings in my house. The pieces were given to my folks as a Christmas gift from Ciel – an Angel to my family before my big brother Daniel and I stated paying the bills.

The figures from the crèche were hand painted Italian plaster. The whole collection has at least 30 pieces, ranging from camel and sheep herders, to 3 angels and 3 Wise Men, cows, donkeys, camels, sheep, and lambs, and of course Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No pun intended.

Imagine the attendant ritual of unwrapping, cleaning and otherwise revering two-and-a-half-dozen chotchkes, with each piece packed so that the nativity story unfolds as you unpack it. It is so exacting that even the camel driver’s staff is a piece of straw from a particular whisk broom my mother bought for its color. The top-heavy camels may fallen so many times over the years that they all had glued legs, but these Magi would never mold.

Only when plaster Joseph and Mary were in place we were ready to take out peach colored baby Jesus. HE was always the last figure out, and the first one back into the box.  HE was to be taken out as if you are actually handling a piece of God – ignoring the fact that god is wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a dusty box in a leaky, drafty attic for 49 weeks a year. Nevertheless, delivering baby Jesus to his spot every year was a great honor for me, and I took it seriously.

Setting up the whole installation would have taken perhaps 3 hours. I could feel her sadness begin when there was no further fiddling to be done on her shadowbox of Christianity.

Over the years my mother got more and more creative with the crèche in an effort to drag the whole thing out. She moved it from the coffee table to take over the marble dry sink when I was in high school. She found a particleboard manger. She used cotton batting to make snow for the ground and to put on the roof of the manger, although no explanation was given as to why there would be snow in Bethlehem. Her pièce de résistance was the lights. She took a string of fairy lights (no trick bulbs at that point) and made the whole scene glitter. One day when I came home from school I found her cutting slits in the cotton batting to put the small lights through. The lights poked through the batting to create a field of stars, and the cord was hidden by the cotton. The last light on the string poked through the back of the manger to make baby Jesus shine in the otherworldly light of the Star of Bethlehem. She was very proud of her Art Project.

When the crèche was set up everything was almost done. Almost.

The crowning moment came when baby Jesus was taken out of the box and unwrapped. No, Silly. Not crèche baby Jesus, but Baby Jesus baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus baby Jesus was a porcelain fetish given to my family by my maternal Grandmother, Honora Bridgette, on the occasion of my eldest brother’s first Christmas. Baby Jesus was about the size of an actual infant, with blindingly white skin, blond hair, comically large and round blue eyes, blue swaddling clothes that looked like a loin cloth, and a gold metal starburst attached to the back of its skull. Aryan Baby Jesus laid atop a bed of excelsior straw in a crib made out of bent willow. My mother would unwrap Baby Jay-sus last, unwinding the sheer curtain she wrapped him in, and with disturbing care place it on the hearth.

NOW the tree could be finished.

 

 

 

 

The actual ornaments would go up after dinner. We had all done our homework (or pretended we had), the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher, and a crackling fire of newspapers rolled into logs and twisted off with hanger-wire was set in the fireplace.

Each of us would take turns knocking over the tree while putting an ornament on it.

We were allowed to pick any ornament from the box, as long as we picked the one our mother wanted us to pick. We would go to hang it on the tree, one eye mindful of setting the whole thing over and one eye on her to make sure we put it where she wanted us to. “No! It has to be even!” By the time 8 of us went through the agonizing process of putting one ornament on the tree we’d be 10 minutes into it and we were bored silly. After 15 minutes we were fidgeting, and withing 20 minutes we were pushing and arguments broke out.

“Godammit! Is it too much to ask for just one nice evening?” she barked. That brought us around quickly.

An hour later, when the tree was finally trimmed to mom’s satisfaction we were all on edge. The fragile glass ornaments would sometimes break, and Tippy The Tree was threatening bring the whole thing down and raise mom’s ire.

In 1973 Mom decided to invest in unbreakable satin ornaments. At that point Styrofoam balls covered with a fine nylon thread were the height of fashion, and she thought they’d spruce up the tree. As we took them out of the bag the nylon thread began to snag and unwind, leaving the ornaments looking fuzzy. At first she blamed it on us. But, as she took them out of the bag herself it became obvious that they were junk. She tried to trim them in vain, but they’d just keep unraveling, eventually leaving a bald spot worse than a comb-over.

They weren’t a total loss, though. The cats loved them, and would attack the tree to get one, which, unfortunately, would cause it to fall over. It became such a problem my mom refused to put them up the following year, because the cats would fling themselves at the tree, which seemed to be held together by sheer force of will.

After the tree trimming came the carols. We would each pick one, and everyone would all have to sing. The six of us kids would all want Rudolf and Frosty. Mom would insist we all pick a different tune. We would stare at her blankly waiting for her to tell us what we should sing. We would do We Wish You A Merry Christmas and The First Noel. It was with reluctance that my folks finally would sing the 12 Days of Christmas.

If I had to pick a Christmas song that reminds me most of those times it would have been the melancholy song from A Charlie Brown Christmas Christmas Time is Here. Vince Guaraldi’s whole album speaks to me – but that song can bring me back to those days in the first few bars. There’s a tightness to the back of my throat, a sting in my eyes and a deep sigh when I hear it. The beauty of the music is an explanation and a tonic.

When the Tippy The Tree had finally been trimmed and our musical selections exhausted Mom would take the tape off of a tin of cookies she had put aside for the occasion: Cookies that were too burnt for company, but still edible. We would gobble them up and wash them down with a half gallon of milk.

Every year we’d go to bed wrung out from tension and wired up with sugar, only to wake up to an entirely different tree.

While we were sleeping Margaret carefully removed every ornament, and placed it just where she thought it should be. When we were younger she always denied doing it. When were teenagers she freely admitted having done so. We weren’t able, you see, to put them where they needed to be. We always had fun putting the tree up, she explained. But, then, it was her job to make it right. You see, don’t you?

She could never accept the gift of a family with whom to decorate a tree. What she wanted was perfection. She needed her illusion so much she could find no pleasure in our expression, only offense.

That’s OK. The Universe paid her back with the tip of its hat. Our many cats knocked Tippy down daily, doing so with running leaps at the ornaments and tinsel.

Although, one cat in particular just loved to climb that poor shaky tree. Cinderella was her name – Cindy we called her. She was a nimble thing, a tiny and gray and white long haired sweetheart who she would skitter three-quarters of the way up Tippy The Tree before it would start wobbling. We’d look over to see the swaying tree and a pair of slightly panicked yellow eyes peeking out from the plastic greenery. “Mew,” we would hear just before the whole thing would come crashing down.

One of my brothers summed up that tree in one word that would ever after reduce us to tears of laughter – even as adults: TIMBER!!!

 

 

My mother’s worst was yet to come – the annual episode that made the season a minefield. It was inevitable – then.

I will recount the story of her yearly break with reality. That deserves to be told.

But not before you know that what she was didn’t define who I am, or how I deal with the season.

I don’t for a moment pretend that I was a faultless mother myself.

What I DID do was allow myself to have limits, and not to punish myself for what I couldn’t accomplish.

I let Eliot put any damned ornament wherever the hell he wanted. I held him up in my arms to let his little hands hang them higher, if he his heart so desired. Or, we’d put his favorites RIGHT where his little eyes could see them, and his little hands could touch them.

Later, I blithely smiled as our doofus dog, Buster, swept the tree with his spring-loaded tail, and shed all over it and the floor. Eliot, Richard and I laughed, shook our heads and took 15 minutes one afternoon to move all of the glass ornaments out of the reach of Mr. Dorkus’ slobbery maw the day we found he’d crunched 3 or 4  of them like they were tomatoes.

I wish once – just once – my mother could have known the joy of letting go and simply enjoying the day, be it Christmas, Thanksgiving or the odd Tuesday we trimmed the tree.

How much different would Margaret Lamb have been – would we ALL have been – if she could have let go of the narcissistic notion that everyone was watching her?

How much different would her life have been if she could have loved and laughed just one person once like this?

 

 

 

**Relax, pearl clutchers – it’s water**

 

Happy Birthdays To Me

As a child my folks gave me the everlasting gobstopper of birthday gifts: They forgot what day was I was born.

I didn’t find out until I was 17, when I was getting my first driver’s license, that my birthday is actually December 3rd and not the 4th, as I grew up believing and celebrating. Why, on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman set there were several of us who had the same birthday and we all called each other December 4th, like a club. Now, I was finding out that it was all a lie?

I’d sent away to get my birth certificate, which took forever (turns out when you ask for the wrong day it takes oodles more time to get the damn thing). But, it finally arrived in the mail. I grabbed it without glancing at it (who the hell checks to see what day they’re born?) and snatched up the paperwork as well, and begged my mother to take me down to get the coveted and all-powerful driver’s license

The place was packed, and it seemed to take forever to get to the front of the line. I gave my paperwork to the overworked DMV employee and waited for him to hand me my written test. It seemed to take too long as he stared at my paperwork. Finally, he looked over his bifocals and asked, “Why do you have December 4th as your birthday on all these forms?”

“Because, that’s my birthday,” I answered, confused.

“No it’s not. Says right here it’s December 3rd.”

I stopped for a moment. Then I became was certain this was a regular joke he must play on teenagers getting their license for the first time. I laughed.

He spun my birth certificate around on the counter, with his finger on Date of Birth.

Stunned, I stared at the paper and could only say, “Mom?”

She looked over my shoulder and muttered, “What the hell?”

But, there it was in official purple ink with the raised seal: December 3, 1963.

“Mom?!” I asked again. “You got my birthday wrong?” I demanded.

There was a beat, just enough time to see the people in line breathlessly leaning in to hear the answer, like the old EF Hutton commercials. (link for those not a fossil, like me)

“Well,” she shrugged, “there were so many of you I lost track!” she said with a ‘what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it?’ chuckle and a splay of her fingers.

I was positively floored. I took the written test in a stunned fog. Somehow I managed to pass the driving portion without ploughing into a curb. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I felt like I didn’t really know who I was.

Later that night, and ever after until the day she died, my mother vehemently insisted that my birth certificate was wrong, and that what she said at the DMV was a joke, waving off any questions. I was born so close to midnight, she said, they must not have changed the date on the birth certificate stamp. The 4th, she insisted, was my birthday, and that was the day my family continued to celebrate it. My father, uncharacteristically, kept his own council. My parents washed their hands of it and that was that.

 

Claudia and Dad Birthday

 

Everybody else, though, needed my legal birthday. A fact I didn’t know. Hell, at that age I had no idea how it all worked. I was on my own in that department, and my parents pronouncement that my birth certificate was wrong was enough for them. Which meant that I over the next few years I had to change the information on file with the Social Security Administration, the IRS, Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, both schools I was attending and just about everything else that uses your birth date for registration or as an identifier. Up until last year the AFTRA retirement department (for some unknown reason) STILL hadn’t changed my birth date. It was one of dozens of such changes I’ve made over the years.

The first and hardest change to make was with Social Security. I finally got around to it after my 18th birthday, when I could put it off no longer. I waited for hours in an uncomfortable plastic chair, to find myself sitting in front of a surly clerk trying to explain my situation.

“I have to change the birth date on my Social Security card.”

“Why?”

“I got a copy of my birth certificate to get my driver’s license and it turns out that my birth certificate was wrong.” At her confused look I continued, “See, my birthday’s really the 4th , but the hospital put the wrong day on my birth certificate because they forgot to put the stamp forward. So now I have to change my birthday on my social security card, even though they made a mistake.”

After a long, expressionless look she said, “The hospital got your birthday wrong?”

“Yeah, so even though my birthday’s on the 4th I have to change everything because the stupid hospital made a mistake.”

She held her hand up to stop my inane chattering and got to work. The instant she opened my file and saw the 2 pages single spaced of jobs I had done she sputtered, “When did you get your card?”

“When I was 5”

Instantly I became a novelty. She was happy to help, and interested in my story. Now, remember that it was almost unheard of at that time to have your social security card at that age. For my part I was amazed that they knew how much money I made each year. I wanted to know if I could see how much money I had made. I clarified: I wanted to know if I could see, but my parents couldn’t find out. She raised an eyebrow, and said, “Sweetheart you have the right to see this. They don’t, anymore.” I was floored.

I knew I’d made a lot of money, in a vague sort of way. I knew I worked more than any of my immediate peers, and had done so since I was a toddler. But I was never allowed to know how much. That was strictly forbidden. I was in the dark about everything to do with the money I rightfully earned, and it was a beating offense to ask where my money was. The notion that some stranger could print this up for me was dizzying. Simply dizzying.

An hour later when the paper work was done, I stood thanking the woman. I left clutching a 2 page print-out of the work I’d done since I was a toddler – it was a list of how much money I’d earned. I sat in my car, opened the envelope and gasped. My hand was shaking so hard I could barely hold the pen as I added up the columns. The heat was monstrous, but the sweat that ran down my back was cold. I remember the sick feeling I had looking at the total. More than three-quarters-of-a-million in today’s dollars. I added the figures again, and then again. They were the same every time.

That day, in those moments, sitting there in the blistering heat staring at those 2 sheets and all those zeros changed everything. I was 18 years old, but I finally had irrefutable proof in black and white (from the government no less!) that I was being robbed by my own parents.

Sitting in the shitty car my parents forced me to buy, roasting in the Southern California heat and looking at the figures my parents had forbidden me to see, I began to get angry. Really angry. A deep rage began that day that came calling for years afterward.

It was the beginning of the end of their hold on me, and a major catalyst for my quitting television and leaving Los Angeles.

In the years to come I found that even these figures were false. I had made more than a million dollars, and my parents lied not just to me, but to the IRS, Social Security, The Unions and my agents. You can read about it here if you want to know the gory details. (link)

The irrefutable facts are this: Their birthday fuck up had the unintended consequence of giving me my freedom.

And it was a fuck up, to be sure.

Although I wanted to believe that my parents hadn’t forgotten which day I was born, the evidence began to pile up.

I wasn’t born in a log cabin in the Appalachians and recorded in the family bible. I was born in one of the biggest hospitals in Los Angeles.

I wasn’t born anywhere near midnight, when there would be some plausibility of the hospital not changing the date.

In the 37 years since I found out from a public servant that my birthday wasn’t really my birthday, I’ve never met one person who had a hospital get their birth date wrong. Not one. I’ve never even met someone who knew a guy’s uncle’s cousin that it happened to. I never met a doctor who had heard of such a thing.

But, it wasn’t until after my mother died that I discovered the truth, hidden in the mountains of boxes in her home I was going through.

In a box of pictures and mementos I found a pile of paperwork and magazines from the hospital. There was a certificate of live birth from the hospital for a girl, dated December 3rd. I have an official looking piece of paper from the hospital with a gold seal and stamp, dated and signed in Sister Christine’s copperplate handwriting, welcoming said baby girl to the world on December 3rd, 1963. My mother kept these, yet never told me about them. All this paperwork she kept says I’m born on the third and she insisted to the bitter end that she was right. The hospital, the nurses, the doctors, the priests and nuns were all wrong. Everybody was wrong; everyone but her and my dad. For a guy who didn’t know when to stop talking he positively channeled Harpo Marx on this issue.

So, the truth is, I just never did enough to differentiate myself from the rest of the crowd and that my parents cared so little about me as an individual that they just lost track. No matter how many fortunes I made they couldn’t remember who I was. They really DID lose track.

My birthday and that craptastic tale was always part of the Ho-Ho-Horrible Christmas that was my youth. As a young adult it pissed me off to no end that EVERY YEAR I would have to explain this screwed up story to anyone who knew me before I turned 17.

Friends made after 1981 call me on the 3rd, to this day my brothers only ever call me on the 4th,  and childhood friends are always confused.

This afternoon I fielded my first query of the year: Is it the 3rd or the 4th?

I have one friend I’ve known since I was 11 who – without fail – EVERY year asks the same question. Every. Year.

“Now WHAT day do you celebrate your birthday?”

“ARGH!!!!!”

Then it hit me: How lucky am I that people give enough of a damn about me that they would ask – that they would care enough about me to want to wish me a happy birthday WHENEVER it may be.

The date isn’t important: I’d been carrying around this anger baggage about my parent’s lack of parenting and was missing the love sent my way.

So, I made the decision to change the whole dynamic, and grabbed that bull by the party horns, and made it my own.

My birthday? It’s December 3rd AND December 4th – and the 7th, too, if you want. It makes not a whit of a difference when I celebrate another ride around the sun. What matters is that I made it, I’m still kicking, and I have people who love me.

THESE are the Everlasting Gobstopper gifts and promises I gave myself:

To move beyond the realization that I wasn’t anything but a paycheck to them

To never treat my son as a revenue stream or inanimate object with no voice

To break the cycle of their abuse, and let it end with their death

To speak up when I see abuse – wherever I see it

And – most important –

To accept the love I am deserving of from the wonderful people in my life

 

Happy Birthday Typewriter

 

Two birthdays used to be SO grating – now it’s just great!

This weekend as I’m lounging on the beach in Mexico I will tell them it’s my birthday on Sunday and then again on Monday. Hell, yeah – I’ll admit it: I’ll start milking that cow tomorrow at the airport, and be trying to use it on Richard as we’re driving home from the airport when we get back.

I plan to be here this time next year, writing about how 365 days and nights reveal their treasures and sorrows.

I will feel all my feelings deeply and keenly – It’s my life, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste a minute of it.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more around the sun.

 

Holidays in Hell, Part 2

Isn’t every Friday Black Friday?

I’d like to say that once Thanksgiving was over we’d be free of that awful meal. But, that was never to be. My mother, being a child of the Depression, would wring every last ounce of leftovers she could out what she cooked. This is an admirable idea, and to this day I cannot abide to waste food – a trait I will attribute to her. In fact, half of a rotisserie chicken is in a seal-a-meal bag in my freezer, awaiting its transition to a rich stock. The problem (again) is that she was just such a god-awful cook. Older, staler food that was poorly cooked the first time doesn’t get more appealing as it’s reheated.

My mother would spend what we now know as Black Friday making a couple gallons of watery, greasy, salty turkey soup out of the carcasses of the poor unfortunate birds that she tried to make jerky from the day before.

For days we were expected to have steaming bowls of turkey soup with our leftover turkey sandwiches, with a side of hardening (yet, oddly melting) Pacific Slime Mold. To this day I cannot eat turkey noodle soup. I just can’t. In fact, one of my brothers got sick off of the stuff one year. In a symphony of cognitive dissonance, my mother convinced herself that he liked it so much that he made himself sick eating too much of it. (she was partially right)

While my mother was distilling her evil brew of turkey bones and rubbery carrots, minus anything remotely flavorful, my brothers and I were expected to clean. It wasn’t an order, but it was understood. Keep busy and maybe she won’t notice you. Look like you’re doing what you think she wants you to do and maybe the eagle’s eye will pass to the next trembling rabbit.

There was always a sense of knowing foreboding for the six of us on a day that would later become known as Black Friday. Hell, it felt like we invented the term.

My father would be at work in the days before I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and in the days after I was hired he would disappear to wash, wax and Simonize by hand the Camaro I paid for.

My mother would be in an ill temper about her perceived failure of the day before that would have been for most people a solid win (really), and almost anything could and would set her off. She would be looking for nonexistent trouble, and she would inevitably find it.

“What the fuck?” it would start, decades before the phrase was even cool, let alone everyday nomenclature. “What the fuck are you doing?!” her voice would get shrill with the trick question.

“Goddammit how many times do I have to tell you how to fucking do this? Are you stupid? God gave you two fucking ears so you could listen!”

Blah, blah, blah it went. Then, her verbal fusillade would turn physically destructive. She would beat us, and then break the things we liked the most. Sometimes she would beat us with the things we liked most. Every year. Yup. It hurts to read. It hurt even more to have happen. Yet – here we all are.

On it would go through the afternoon – the insults, the threats, the treasured items that were broken. She would burn herself out, and then catch a second wind. She was a force of destruction who would hurt anyone or anything within her sight.

She was a tortured soul – with pain enough to go around for 8. I cannot imagine what demons kept her company, but I am thankful with every ounce of my being that they never stopped by for a visit in my skull. No-one should feel that – no-one. Her pain was so profound that half-a-century later I can still feel it, and for her.

It chokes me up to know she had – and sought – no relief her entire life from the cyclical racing thoughts that tortured her, and nothing tortured her quite like The Holidays. They were Hell.

Mom would wind down about 10 minutes before my father would get home and we, like accessories to a crime, would keep quiet about what went on.

My father, who had to have seen our tear stained faces and had to have felt the crackling current of distress, never batted an eyelash. He didn’t want to be involved. To be involved meant the focus of my mother’s rage would fall on him. So, he pretended all was well in the world. And for him all was well with the world. He didn’t feel the lash, he wasn’t in the line of fire.

I can’t forgive my father for offering us up instead of himself. He was supposed to fall on the grenade of her evil, toxic rage. Instead, he watched us burn. He let us do what he hadn’t the courage himself to face.

I’m sure my father was trying to put off the inevitable crescendo of her annual Holiday Mania Meltdown, but it never helped. He knew better than any of us that every year, like the Grinch’s Christmas, it came just the same.

 

My Dear Uncle Tom

 

Dad and Uncle Tom

 

 

Dad was among the last of a generation of white men who could sweet talk and claw their way to a bottom to lower-mid-level white collar job without anything but a high school education, and pretend to wonder why POC and women wanted their place at the table.

He HATED Archie Bunker so much I almost threw the interview for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. My dad was the epitome of the guy who has a black friend and never slapped a woman on the ass, and then pretends people didn’t say nigger, that women weren’t harassed constantly, and institutional racism and sexism don’t exist.

If you want to know where Herbert Lamb came from look at the picture above again. It’s  the only picture I have with my Grandfather Lamb, my Dad and Uncle Tom. The body language couldn’t be any clearer: “That fucking nigger. I’m at a nigger’s house. My son is a nigger lover.”

Lovely family, huh? Oh – and *I* put that suede hat on the ball of hate that passed for my grandfather. It was a hippy hat that one of my brother’s Kevin’s friend’s left in Dad’s Nova that I paid for. Even then I was a TOTAL shit stirrer, and put it on his head to piss him off.

Look at the body language of that sad sack of hate: This is what unvarnished hate looks like.

“I have a black friend” could have been coined by Herbert W. Lamb. The man in the cream colored shirt in the picture above was my father’s dearest friend. I called him Uncle Tom for my whole life – and for the brief few minutes I didn’t call him Uncle Tom he quickly disabused me of the notion I was being disrespectful by calling him Uncle.

I remember him saying, “I knew it. I knew this day would come. I am and will always be your Uncle Tom.” I wish I could hug him this very moment.

Tom Swan was a wonderful and loving man who will always be my family. He will always be in my heart.

It doesn’t change all of the many things Herb Lamb took a pass on recognizing. Including my mother’s mania, especially at the Holidays.

 

Mom Thanksgiving 1976

 

Betty Crocker has nothing on me, Asshole

My mother would spend the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a self-imposed frenzy of baking and preparing for our annual Open House, as well as baking holiday ‘Thank You’ cookies for my father’s employees.

When the dust settled we would have a 15 loaves of sweet bread, a half a dozen fruitcakes, 100 assorted bars, and at least 1,000 cookies. (Really)

Half of the baking would be done in the roughly 2 weeks between what we now call Black Friday and my birthday, and the other half after her first Meltdown.

All of which we were NOT allowed to eat. It was all packed into tins and boxes and duct taped closed awaiting the open house. THAT was fun. At least we had that to look forward to. THAT was a straight up party.

The only way we could get to the baked goods was to get through Black Friday BEFORE it was called Black Friday.

Once we were drowning in turkey soup my mom could focus on the baking and kick her compulsive mania into high gear. She would come back from the store with several 5 lb. bags of flour and sugar, both white and brown. She would buy at least 15 lbs. of butter, and 6 pounds of chocolate chips and 5 dozen eggs. There would be boxes of baking soda, a large tin of baking powder, and new bottle of vanilla and a large jar of ground cinnamon. She would buy 5 pounds of walnuts that we would crack and shell. There would be dates and raisins, candied cherries and candied pineapples. She would buy 5 pounds of oatmeal, a 3 pound jar of peanut butter, 2 lbs. of powdered sugar and a small bucket of marshmallow cream.

Once she’d marshaled her resources she was ready for the assault on Mt. Baking. And step fucking back if you got in her way.

She would start with the cookies, baking them every day while we were at school.  She would bake chocolate chip cookies, butter cookies, cinnamon cookies, Russian tea balls and Snickerdoodles. There were refrigerator cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, spice cookies, peanut butter cookies and chocolate crinkles. She would make 8 or 10 dozen of each, and a double batch of the chocolate chip.

Next up was the shortbread. Then the peanut butter-chocolate bars, the raspberry bars and the date bars. She would make brownies and fudge, and sometimes divinity.

The breads were in a class by themselves because there was so much prep work. She would bake banana walnut bread, cranberry nut bread, date nut bread, and apple spice chocolate bread.

Finally – the ceremonial baking of the fruitcakes.

If Thanksgiving was a tribute to gluttony, this was an absolute ritualistic bacchanal.

She would go 8 to ten hours at a stretch, taking up every available inch of counter space. There would be cooling cookies along the long counter, and baking sheets filled with waiting dough lined up near the sink. You would come home from school to find her presiding, sweating and frantic, over a sea of cookies, predicting this batch would be a failure. (Not such a Nostradamus moment, there, considering she could bake only slightly better than she cooked.) And don’t you even THINK of grabbing one!

By the time Christmas rolled around there was no longer any room in the freezer or refrigerator for the things a family of 8 might need on a daily basis. Rather, the fridge was packed to the gills with things we would be killed for laying a finger on.

The never ending wonder that were my mother’s culinary skills meant she could burn anything. I believe she could have burned water in a cold pan. But, that didn’t stop her from trying to bake a diabetic’s delight or more items than you would find in the average bakery. This was her time to shine.

My mother’s baking failures never dissuaded her in the belief she was one cookie sheet away from perfection. But, there was one thing I learned about her lack of baking skill: When she inevitably burned the baking she would burn her hand, and then burn down the whole world with her.

“Ooh! Ooh! Ohh! I burned it!! Goddamit I burned it! Fu—aaaahhh!!” She would then begin to spout a geyser of profanities that would make a platoon of sailors and a whorehouse full of their friends blush. Then, the weeping would begin. The horrible, teeth gnashing weeping that was meant to manipulate us.

“Why? Why?! I try so hard. I try so hard every year!”

She would begin to weep and wail.

“I just want to make it the Christmas that I never had! I try so ha-a-a-a-rd!”

Next would come the ceremonial reassuring. No, mom, it’s great. No, it’s really great. You do try so hard. Would it make you feel better to smash one of the last things I have that I care about?

And so it goes, her crying, us consoling her. Finally, my father gets home and pretends he sees nothing.

The inexorable march towards her meltdown continued.

Next Up: Mom, you forgot my Birthday?!

 

 

Holidays In Hell, Part 1

Thanksgiving Table (2)

Old Fashioned Christmas Meltdown

 

Serves 8 generous helpings

 

Add to bowl and mix at high speed:

1 Manic Depressive Narcissist

1 Month of frenzied baking and decorating

 

Next, add generous portion of holiday shopping and gift wrapping for 8

 

Mix well with stress, envy and narcissism

 

Simmer slowly with resentment

 

It will come to a raging boil after several days

 

You’ll know your Christmas Meltdown is done when you smell burning insulation and hear, “MERRY FUCKING CHRISTMAS!!”

 

Garnish with liberal amounts of physical abuse.

 

Serve scorching hot.

 

Pro Tip: Clean-up is much easier if you resign yourself to it in advance.

 

Bon Appetite and Merry Fucking Christmas!!

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving

The noble season begins with the day of giving thanks for the plenty we have and the luxury of breaking bread with family and loved ones.  The day my mother would – without irony – complain that she had too much food to cook and too many people coming.

My mother cooked a simply gluttonous amount of food. She would have to start at 5 in the morning to get it all done for dinner at 4 pm. That was her gig: Make up some fantastically overdone menu, refuse to accept help (except me), and then freak out when it wasn’t perfect. We often had two twenty pound turkeys, ten pounds of mashed potatoes, 4 double packages of dressing, 2 quarts of giblet gravy, 5 pounds of hand-carved or stuffed vegetables for the relish trays, 5 pounds of Pacific Lime Mold, 3 pounds of candied yams, 4 dozen rolls, 2 dozen deviled eggs, and half a dozen pies. Most of it was made from scratch. She was in her glory: Overdoing it, complaining about the thankless people around her not appreciating the sacrifice her of labor, all the while resenting not getting the help she refused.

It started with the pies. 4 pumpkin and 2 pecan, begun at the ass crack of dawn after a sleepless night of obsessing. Because why do them the night before? Or, *gasp!* let someone else do it? Despite her best efforts, she always burnt them. Without fail she scorched the crust. The rare few that didn’t get overdone had a dry pastry that was often too salty. The pecan often wouldn’t set, and the pumpkin would get an odd condensation on the filling. This first crisis would set the mood for the day and the panic level at 4.

I would wake up early to the smell of burning pies, boiling eggs, and her bad temper. I’d get to watch a bit of the Macy’s parade before being hustled off to the kitchen. I would spend the day being scolded, sighed at in exasperation, and gossiped to. But worst – there was no way to avoid the melt down she would ultimately have.

I’d scrub vegetables and potatoes in ice cold water while my mother prepared the turkeys.  Right about the time she got the neck and the giblet bag out is when she would discover that at least one of the turkeys hadn’t properly defrosted. Panic level 5.

The vegetables would have to be hustled out of the sink so that the turkey could get a cold water bath. Or, there was the epic year that both of them were frozen harder than her heart and they both went into the bathtub in a screaming frenzy of panic. Eventually the turkeys would be thawed and my mother would begin to wrestle with them to get the legs and wings in place. After they were stuffed she would try to remember how to sew them shut. Every year she would forget how to do it, and then rip the skin trying to remember. Once victory was declared over the too quickly thawed and inadequately spiced birds, one would go into the oven and the other into a roaster whose sole purpose was to cook an unnecessary turkey once a year. Those poor birds never stood a chance going in so late. Panic level 6.

While my mother carved radishes into roses and green onions into confetti and her thumbs into ribbons, I scrubbed and peeled and halved a ten pound bag of potatoes. I would stuff cream cheese into celery, and she would began the Pacific Lime Mold, a vile concoction of green lime Jell-O, crushed canned pineapple, cottage cheese and mayonnaise. My brothers and I nicknamed it Pacific Slime Mold. Sure, it may look like vomit, but it tastes like it, too. My mother made this disgusting concoction for every family gathering and special occasion. Vats of it. She imagined it was quite a sophisticated dish. (Yet, she though green bean casserole was tacky!)

Right about the time we finished the deviled eggs my mom would go to baste the turkey and realize she should have done it sooner. This would begin the vicious cycle of over basting, where the basting let the heat out of the oven, which would cause her to turn the heat up, which would dry the meat out, which would cause her to over baste… Wash, rinse, repeat. Do I even need to say my mothers’ panic and mania spiked straight to 8? She would be frantically buzzing around the kitchen, direly pronouncing that things were behind schedule.

Right about here my brothers would exit stage left to go play the Turkey Bowl. It was a pick up football game at the high school field that goes on to this day. Even my brothers who didn’t like football went to play, just so they could get out of the house and away from my increasingly agitated mother. All the while my Dad would be watching the Detroit Lions getting the snot beaten out of them

Round about noon, when my mother had been up for 8 hours and probably had 3 pots of coffee, she would ratchet it up to 9 when she realized that guests would be arriving within the hour. She would tear off to the bathroom like her hair was on fire, try to shower and dress before the guests arrived.

I would take the quiet time and set the table. I would start with the dishes and the water goblets purchased a piece at a time from the local grocery store. The flatware would be next, then the serving pieces. I loved that part.

In the other room I would hear my mother screeching about how the hair she never had cut looked terrible. Or about how her outfit was too small.  OR, goddammit, SOMEthing. Always something.

My mother would come into the kitchen in a cloud of perfume, wearing some outlandish outfit, sporting too much makeup. She would be brittle with anxiety. Whatever I’ve done while she’s gone isn’t enough, or it’s too much. The giblets are overdone. The Pacific Slime Mold isn’t gelling. Why didn’t you scrub and peel the yams?! And, oh fuck!! The turkey needs to be basted!!

“Goddamitt, I burned my hand!!!”

THAR SHE BLOWS! CRISIS LEVEL 10! AHOOGAH!!! AHOOGAH!!

“Son of a fucking bitch! This isn’t worth it! Every fucking year it’s the same goddam thing! I wake up in the middle of the night to make a nice meal for you people and nobody lifts a finger to help!

Is it too much to ask to have one nice day a year? This is a joke. It’s just take, take, take. I work my fingers to the bone around here. I don’t ask for much. But, goddamit! Is it too much to ask for one nice day? What the fuck is WRONG with you people?”

I’d be frozen in fear, quietly crying and clutching a carefully peeled carrot meant for the relish tray. About this time Dad makes his grand contribution to the proceedings by filling a few bowls with nuts and cheap candy and putting them around the living room.

She would be full steam ahead in a rant about things over which I had no control, screaming at people who weren’t there, and the guests would arrive. She would see their car pull up and do a complete 180, and you’d be expected to do it, too.

“That’s another thing you cocksuckers need to learn to do!! You ne—Oh. They’re here. Now sweeten up. Because, if you want I can give you something to cry about.

Well, hello!”

Suddenly she became the hostess with the mostess, all charm and welcome. She played the doting mother, the loving wife and the concerned friend. No one could lift a finger but her and her maid Sarah (what she would call me when company was over).

As the turkey turned to leather her inward anxiety level peaked at 11, but outwardly she was jovial. But, it was just an act, and inside she was seething.

These days I feel so sorry for her. She was just such an awful cook and expected so much out herself. With her level of narcissism anything less than grand was unforgivable, ergo someone else’s fault. She made life hell for herself.

The 45 minutes before we sat down to eat was frenetic. The bird would go on a platter, with an entirely foreseeable crisis that happened every year. My mother would stain her outfit with turkey drippings as she transferred the bird to the platter. All the juices she leeched out of the turkey seemed to end up on her clothes. Every year she would refuse to wear an apron, and every year it would happen.

The roasting pan with what was left of the drippings and all the giblets would go on top of the stove to make gravy, which I would stir until my arm felt like it would fall off. Into the oven went the extra stuffing and yams and rolls. The turkey would be carved. The cranberry sauce lovingly removed from its can. My mother was a whirling dervish in all her glory, playing up the part of beleaguered chef. “No. no… I have it down to a science. You’d only get in the way.”

There would be piles and piles of food, and all of it bad. Platters of bone dry turkey. Bowls overloaded with sticky potatoes and over baked stuffing. Buckets of salty gravy. Scorched rolls. Bland yams and Jell-O salad coming to room temperature.

The meal itself would take 15 minutes to eat. Then it would be over. All her effort expended and never enough praise for her liking. She expected lavish compliments, and kept track of who she thought had slighted her.  Every year she was disappointed.

Then the cleaning would begin. At this point she had been at it for more than 12 hours straight. “No, I’m fine! Go sit down! This will just take a minute.” The guests would sit uncomfortably, not being allowed to clean up after a meal they weren’t allowed to contribute to while we helped her clean up the feast. No matter how much we would do after the meal my mother would complain to us later that we were lazy bastards that didn’t lift a finger to help her.

Eventually the guests would leave and my mother would resume her blow up right where she left off. “-ver think about anyone but yourselves. I’m your fucking slave. All I wanted was one nice day. One fucking nice day. I guess that was just too much to ask.”

Thanksgiving was my favorite part of that time of year. It was always so peaceful.