For one week every summer, my Uncle Bob and Aunt Joan visited us at my father’s lakeside camp in the Adirondacks. The first thing my uncle did upon arriving was go to the kitchen to make sure that the ice machine was working. If for some reason it wasn’t, he would enter full crisis mode, asking my father and stepmother detailed questions about when it was going to get fixed and what our strategy was for making ice available for his first drink at noon. As a former military man, he was well-versed in the need for contingencies and back-up plans, which for him meant ensuring that there were at least three ice-cubes in each glass of Chardonnay and tumbler of gin.
Uncle Bob wore the same outfit every day, a white lacoste golf shirt, yellow Bermuda shorts and loafers with no socks. Aunt Joan, my father’s sister, wore polyester white shorts and a printed top. Her hair was white/grey and always the same shape, sitting atop her head like a centurion helmet. They would come down to breakfast at the same time, each slathered in buckets of sun block and yet both were perpetually tan and leathery from the 11 months of the year that they spent at their home in La Jolla, California.
Every morning, Joan would cut up peaches and place them in a bowl of yogurt while Uncle Bob read the paper with a scowl on his face, occasionally muttering aloud something about the “goddam Japanese” or, more commonly, the guy who wrote the syndicated bridge column. He was a big gamer, and renowned poker player. “Bidding two-no-trump with a hand like that?” he would say to no-one in particular, “why would he even write about this?”
Meanwhile, Joan would never be moving fast enough, no matter what she was doing and throughout the day she was consistently summoned with the phrase “Goddamit Joan…” followed by a suggestion on how she could be more accommodating. He was a small man, and spooked easily – like a cat – which made his gruff persona more comic than intimidating. He was by far the least likable of all of my relatives and yet somehow one of the most endearing.
Every year, Uncle Bob hosted a lavish lunchtime celebration for all family members and friends who were in camp at the time. The camp slept up to 18 people, so there were years when we took up an entire section of whatever upstate New York saloon we ended up patronizing. Uncle Bob would sit at the head of the table, motion for the server to come over as soon as we were seated and say, “We may need some extra help here. And I hope you have plenty of booze and mayonnaise.”
One year, my friends Daniel and Ava were visiting for a few days during our annual lunch trip. They had already heard many stories about my family, but I warned them that this particular event had an energy all its own – more Roman gladiator battle than pleasant afternoon outing. Uncle Bob immediately summoned the server and said that we were ready to order the first round of drinks.
One by one, each member of the family ordered gin on the rocks - some with olives, some with cocktail onions, some with a lemony twist. As the orders continued, I could see my friends on the other side of the table getting more and more anxious, whispering to each other, gesturing subtly, strategizing what to do. Ava had already announced to the group that she was unable to drink because she had a physical allergy, an excuse that my family accepted reluctantly as it fell into the medical exemption category. Daniel had no such protection.
When the server finally got to him, Daniel, visibly flustered and unsure of how to proceed, paused for a moment before saying “gin and tonic, please.”
Uncle Bob immediately jolted his head towards Daniel, his eyes opening wide and his head cocking quizzically to the side. The rest of the table fell silent. The collective family organism, sensing a foreign entity, went into full defensive mode as if the host body had just been infiltrated by a cancerous cell. I looked over at Daniel and shrugged helplessly. Simultaneously, the family erupted:
Brother Robin: “BOO! HISS!”
Aunt Joan: “What did Kirk’s friend just say?”
Stepsister Cindy: “Oh, that’s not going to work.”
Father: “Kirkland, where did you find these people?”
Brother Monty: “Pussy!”
Stepmother Barb: “He seemed like such a nice boy.”
Ava looked over at me with an expression of utter disbelief, a slight smile creeping across her face as she realized that it was one thing to have heard my stories over the years, it was another thing entirely to be living in one of them. She turned to Daniel and said “I don’t think that’s going to fly here, bud.”
Daniel quickly changed his order to gin on the rocks, the first of four. Almost instantly an uproarious celebration swept across the table and the family started chanting Daniel’s name. My brother, step siblings and I beat the table with our fists; Monty started doing a “churn the butter” dance and my stepmother and aunt Joan waved their hands above their heads like they were doing elder aerobics. My father stood up, raised his water glass and turned to Daniel. “Welcome to the family, darlin’” he said, “I think we’re all going to get along just fine.”