We drove to Gem, Indiana yesterday, my husband, son Max and myself, to celebrate Christmas at my sister-in-law's house.
On the way up, as per family tradition, we listened to Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics in Cd form. As the second track played, the weirdly affecting Dead, Dead, Dead I found myself tearing up and glancing over as the lilting voices of The South Park Children's Choir joined with Juan Swartz, aka Trey Parker, in the hauntingly effective chorus, Dead, dead, dead/ Someday we'll all be dead I saw my husband brushing away tears as well.
We picked up Audrey from a small town wedged between Indianapolis and Gem from a subdivision where all the identical houses houses had outsized garages and a retention pond. I single cheaply built jungle gym with a wire bench on a treeless corner lot passed for a community park and the houses radiated out from a retention pond of the sort that attracts Canadian Geese and small, wandering, children. Audrey was going to spend the next three days with her mother so my husband helped her put her things in the trunk.
“Justin Beiber Wrapping paper!” Audrey explained, “How pretty!” She sat in the back seat and spent the rest f the trip arguing the relative merits of Justin Beiber vs. the classic rock canon.
“Justin Beiber raps,” Audrey informed him.
“When I was growing up,” Max responded, “rappers were like NWA.”
"I don't know who that is,” Audrey told him, “It sounds like some sort of sporting association. Like the National Whacking Association. Is it the National Whacking Association?”
Max ignored her request.
“Justin Beiber is a manufactured talent. Someone say his pretty boy potential and that;s how he got a career,” Max contended.
“He's a prodigy.” Audrey replied.
“Jimi Hendrix was a prodigy,” Max said.
“I don't know who that is. You need to stick to subjects that are relevant to teenagers today>” Audrey informed him; although she still has two years to go before she'll officially be a teenager.
“Come on, classic rock is classic for a reason. It's stood the test of time. People make fun of Justin Beiber's lyrics. “Baby, Baby,” what? He loves infants?”
“There's two kinds of baby,” Audrey instructed, “There's the infant baby and there's baby that means a girl.”
“Max is my baby,” my husband said.
“See,” Audrey said, “Two kinds of baby.”
“He can't even sing,” Max said, taking a different tack, “Back in my day they could at least sing; Tupac, Biggie Smalls. I will say I do prefer Pink Floyd over Led Zeppelin. I swear, by the time I was nine I was burned out on Led Zeppelin To this day I can't stand listening to them.”
“Once again,” Audrey said, “relevance check. You're old.”
Stairway to Heaven came on the radio.
“Oooh, turn this up,” Max commanded, “Audrey needs to hear this. This is a good song.”
“Hey!” I protested, “Weren't you dissing Led Zeppelin not two minutes ago and isn't this the ultimate Led Zeppelin song?”
“Anything to get out of this endless argument with Audrey,” he replied, “It's like an endless Beiber logic loop.”
“And she's running rings around you,” I said.
We were told to arrive at Pam and Ron's at 1:00 p.m. And that's when we arrived. Their son Caleb and his wife and kids were arriving from a small town up the road where he's a minister at a Church. He and his wife have three children under five, two girls and a boy, and are expecting a fourth. They got there about twenty till two and dinner was served shortly thereafter.
Aunt Barb didn't feel well and went to lay down. Her hair, which used to be styled in an elaborate bouffant, was cut short and pixieish and she sat childlike and mute the way those with dementia sometimes do.
“Her stomach is upset,” Aunt Wanda explained. Aunt Wanda is the baby of the family, now in her 70s. She hovered over Barb, caring for her, making sure she got where she was going and then got back.
“I've been calling her every morning to make sure she's taking her pill,” Jay's Dad said, “She's been taking these new memory pills. She could have gotten patches but she could have never done those. You have to put them on a different place on your body every day and you can't use the same place within so many days and you have to change it the same time every day. As it is I call and remind her to take it and then I have her call me back after she's taken it.”
“And I've been calling her to remind her to take her pill every night,” Aunt Wanda said.
“She's only supposed to take one a day,” my father-in-law said.
“Oh, dear,” replied Aunt Wanda, “I do hope they work. I know there's expensive.”
“They cost $100 a month,” my father-in-law replied, “The patches would have been about $230. Barb thinks she has money but she doesn't. I know because I pay her bills.”
At dinner conversation turned to other topics.
“Mike said he was going to be here,” Aunt Wanda said, “At least that's what he said when I saw him at the funeral home last night. He said the kids were going to Terri's mother's house this morning.”
“Well, he doesn't want to go there,” my mother-in-law said.
“No he doesn't,” Wanda agreed. Mike had been married to Wanda's daughter Laura. They had just had their second baby when she was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer usually only contracted by Jewish men over the age of 65 who had smoked tobacco for more than forty years and died. Go figure.
“Beth's kids are with her. That's why she isn't here,” Wanda said. “Did you know she and Jeff filed for Bankruptcy?”
“No I didn't” my mother-in-law said.
“They really didn't have any choice,” Wanda said sheepishly, “Jeff was out of work for so long they lost everything except the house.”
Mike arrived and that conversation ended.
“Dean's fully retired now,” my father-in-law chimed in.
“Who's Dean?” Caleb's wife asked.
“Dean's Bill's son,” Wanda said, “Bill was our brother.”
Bill died of a stroke about 15 or so years ago. It was his second stroke. He came back from the first one and died from a massive attack a couple of years later while out playing golf. The family always say, 'He died doing something he loved,” but Bill was a man of many passions and the same could truthfully have been said if he had died flying airplanes or doing crossword puzzles.
“Dean lives in Colorado near Denver, about fifty miles from a State Park. Real mountainous area,” my father-in-law said.
“He has a beautiful house, a rustic A-frame with cathedral ceilings. He has a television as big as this wall!” Wanda marveled.
“It's a beautiful house. It must have cost him a quarter of a million dollars! He build a separate, self-contained living space where he stays while he rents out the rest of the house during vacation season,” my father-in-law said approvingly,” and of course he got a nice separation package when he retired.”
“He's an engineer,” explained Wanda, “never married.”
“He's always made good money,” my father-in-law agreed.
“Didn't he grow up in Alabama?” Caleb's wife asked.
“Yes,” my father-in-law said, “Bill's second wife, Barbara, was from Alabama. She was a teacher. Knew everything about the history of Montgomery. Bill was a teacher too, after he retired from the military. She was a real southern belle. Beautiful accent. She died last summer after about with cancer.”
“Her three sons sill live there,” Wanda said, “None of them ever married, which is weird, two of them are lawyers.”
“Dean's brother Dale still lives there,” my father-in-law said, “He's the exact opposite of Dean. Married, four children.”
Pam had told us to bring a White Elephant gift for a White Elephant exchange but time drug on after dinner with no movement. Jay dropped hints that maybe things should be speeded up but was ignored as one-by-one relatives dozed off and Jesus's birthday cake remained uncut.
“Are you going to be taking things with to to Mexico or will you buy things there?” Aunt Wanda asked Caleb's wife, “If you end up going?”
“We'll probably just take a few things and buy the rest there,” Caleb's wife replied.
As five p.m. Rolled past Max complained about his stomach and I indicated we should go. There had been some break-ins in the neighborhood and we didn't feel comfortable leaving the house empty at night right now. Plus Buttons was out and we wanted to get him him.
“Don't go!” Pam said, shooting me a nasty glance.
“We really have to,” My husband replied, “Dad, are you taking Jamison and Audrey home?'
He was so Max got the keys to transfer Audrey and Jamison's Christmas presents from his car which we are borrowing to his car which he is driving.
“Now, all the presents with Justin Beiber paper is Jamison's and all the ones that are not Justin Beiber paper if your mom's.”
“No it isn't” Audrey protested.
“No! We thought it would be funny,” my husband replied before admitting she was right.
“Take your presents back then,” Pam said.
“No, no I protested,” not wanting to take the White Elephants back, “Have someone draw for us and Jay will pick them up Tuesday.”
“I'll pick for you,” my mother-in-law volunteered.
“Thanks for coming,” Pam said somewhat sarcastically to me.
“Thanks for having me,” I replied as I made my way to the car and sat as my husband said his goodbyes.”
“I really hoped they would speed things up,” my husband said as we hit the road.
“Me too,” I said, “I thought things might go quicker because of Pam and Ron leaving for England tomorrow to visit Cory and his family. It's kind of inconsiderate knowing we were driving two hours. Plus they didn't cut the Jesus cake” The birthday cake for Jesus, a Wilkerson family tradition, really is divine, the lightest of Angel Food cakes frosted with a Divinity frosting, it truly is Heavenly but to get some you have to join hands and sing Happy Birthday to Baby Jesus.
“It was a thin crowds this year,” My husband noted.
“Yes, it was,” I agreed, “I remember back when we were first married and we went to Christmas at your Aunt Wanda''s house and everyone would be in the basement and there was so many of you.”
“Things seem to be breaking down,” my husband said, “ everyone was dozing off. Dad was asleep. Barb was asleep. Wanda was asleep.”
“Your mom was asleep,” I added, “and I think Ron was asleep. He didn't say a word to anybody.”
“I think he's taking things hard,” my husband said.
“He looked terrible,” I added. “Is he working?
“He's doing something with Robin,” my spouse replied, “sales or something. You know how he was always doing Amway and things like that.”
“You always hear all these little bits and pieces at your family's get togethers,” I said.
“It's like I told Jamison,” my husband replied, “You have to keep your ears open if you want to know what's going on with my family.”
“Yeah, I said, “I heard Mike say something about being at a funeral home.”
“It was Ralph's funeral,” my husband said. Ralph was Ron's father.
“Ralph's funeral?” I said, incredulously, “didn't he die quite a while ago? Two or three weeks ago?
“Yeah,” my husband replied, “but the funeral was delayed. They were having people come from all over.”
"I didn't know about Barbara Wilkerson dying. Then here's Beth and Jeff,” I said.
“I don't know if I knew about Barbara. I think I did. Jeff's working in California now,” my spouse said, “You know how rocky that relationship is.”
“And Caleb and his family are moving to Mexico maybe? I wanted to ask them if they were a quiverfull family. But I resisted,” I said.
“What's a quiverfull?” My husband asked.
“They're people who don't believe in birth control and believe that they should have as many children as God gives them.”
“No,” my spouse said, “I asked if this was the last one and Caleb said he's already made an appointment to get cut. I told him I had made that same appointment but Max came along first so they made me wait another year.”
“Pretty sunset,” my husband noted of the pink glow hovering over the horizon, “do you see the glow of Spencer yet?”
“Not yet,” I said as I paused to remember all the people who weren't there anymore; Uncle Bill and Barbara; Uncle Wayne, Grandma and Grandpa Wilkerson, Laura Richey, Aunt Katherine, Mother, and the radio played the life-affirming rhythms of Cheap Trick, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Manfred Mann's Earth Band, carrying us home.