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 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.
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?!