In Defense of Fruitcake

Runyan photoAt some point or another, every Christmas celebrant in America has to draw lines in the sand over the following doctrinal issues:

When is it acceptable to begin listening to Christmas music?
What are your thoughts on front yard inflatables?
Will you shop on Black Friday or boycott it and buy all the crap a couple weeks later?
To what lengths will you go to ensure that your tenth grader still believes in Santa?
What will be your game plan regarding the song “Christmas Shoes”?
How much fruitcake will you consume?

The first five questions have been known to tear families and friends asunder during this glorious time of year. But the one that unites enemies? Fruitcake. [Read more...]

Trouble Called Again Last Night

Carphone useTrouble called again last Thursday night. The number illuminated in the landline phone’s small window. Mother. She’s eighty-four now. Father’s eighty-seven. They sold their house—where we lived when I was in in high school—about twenty-five years ago. Moved into a condo. They’re still living in the condo, independently.

A few nights earlier, during one of my routine every-other-day-or-so phone calls with her, Mom told me that Dad had a cold. He’d spent most of the day sleeping.

Dad’s a big guy, height and girth, though his impressive belly has deflated considerably over the last few years: a few hospitalizations, a diminished appetite. Though he doesn’t complain about it, he suffers from painful arthritis. With a cane, which he uses reluctantly, he shuffles around the condo, and inches his way from condo to car to restaurant to cardiologist to condo to couch for TV. He hardly has the strength to push himself up from the sofa. Gravity is calling him home.

[Read more...]

Riding the Waves

Woodlief photoMy sons argue over Avengers characters. The littlest insists he’s Captain America. Another claims Hawkeye. There’s an argument over Ironman. They resolve it by awarding that honor to me, given that I’m a smartass and look a little like Robert Downey, Jr.

I argue that I’m the Hulk. I flex my muscles. They roll their eyes, but their mother would understand. She told me once, not long before our divorce, that I am the angriest man she’s ever known. A therapist once told me I’ve been angry since childhood. Another said I’ve been depressed my entire life, like my mother before me. I told him about the first diagnosis. He shrugged his shoulders. Flight or fight, does it really matter when your enemy is yourself? That’ll be 100 dollars.

I don’t remember if October was when the weight always came closest to leveling me, or if that cycle commenced after my daughter died. I suppose no matter which therapist was correct: I’ll always have something to blame my mother for, because she died in October as well.

[Read more...]

Living My Family’s Legacy

plantationThe sins of the fathers may indeed be visited upon the children, and upon the children’s children, until the third and the fourth generation, but there is more to inherit than that.

My grandmother, Irene, whom I grew up calling “Big Mama” was born 1902 on Dunbarton Plantation (or was it Stonewall?) in Holmes County, Mississippi, the eldest of eight daughters of a not-rich cotton planter—whom, I have been told by elders outside the family, was regarded as somehow not quite socially acceptable. His wife, my great-grandmother, was born into one of “good” families of the Delta, and had married, as they said back then and maybe still do, “down.”

And whatever constituted that judgment, my grandmother still bore the tender sting of it by the time I came on the scene, some seventy years later. My grandmother attended a couple of years at a Methodist college, worked at a doctor’s office, and then at twenty-one, after an earnest lunchtime courtship in downtown Jackson’s Smith Park, she married my grandfather, a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railroad who left school after the eighth grade.

The decade afterward was a haze of babies being born: all were girls. My mother Gloria was designated to be the “boy,” although my aunt Billie, the change-of-life baby born later in 1939, got my grandfather’s name. The family moved from one rented house to another—including a move from the Delta after the Great Flood of 1927—until they finally landed in Canton, Mississippi, and stayed. [Read more...]

How to End an Era

runyanWe’re supposed to shake our heads when Daisy Buchanan, considering a summer solstice celebration on her East Egg porch, turns to Nick Carraway, and asks, “‘What’ll we plan? What do people plan?’” But I get her helpless bewilderment all too well.

I grew up in a family that doesn’t mark life’s transitions with much ceremony. My mother visited a courthouse for all three marriages, no pictures to show for it. When her parents died, she and an uncle or two I’d never met threw ashes in the ocean. Funerals were silly when a person’s spirit no longer resided in the body.

As if funerals are for the dead.

Even my move to college was completed without fanfare. I packed my car, drove to campus by myself, and set up my bed and shelves in less than an hour. When I watched the other students emerge from the dorm lot flanked with camera-toting parents and siblings, I smirked. You can’t even move into a small room without your parents’ help? I thought. This is college!

It wasn’t until I talked with a therapist ten years later that I understood I was the odd one. “It’s not that they couldn’t move into a room themselves,” she explained. “The parents came to mark the event.” I stared at her. Moving into the dorm was supposed to be an event? That had never occurred to me. [Read more...]


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