My parents have been alive for 60-some years and married for nearly 40. They exasperate each other as much as they love each other and are my model for marriage. Their squabbles are frequent, but insignificant—usually prompted by something like…
Mom has settled into her evening burrow: on the basement couch, under a blanket, with the dog by her feet and a glass of Chardonnay by her hand. She is watching Dancing with the Stars and ignoring the squawks from upstairs.
Dad: “Peg! Can you come up here?”
She doesn’t move, but finally yells, “What is it?”
Dad: “I can’t get the T.V. to work and the Pens game is on!”
Mom stomps upstairs, mumbling, “Honest to god. I’m going to kill him. Honest to god.”
My dad loves being a grump. It’s one of his favorite things along with Pittsburgh sports, classic literature, and IPAs. He is a tax attorney who just wants to make progress on an infinite workload, but his productivity is always thwarted by chitchat and razzmatazz. He’s the Byzantine Catholic, Pittsburgh lawyer version of Larry David, but I’m probably the only person who gets this description.
I call him a few times a week.
Me: “Hi Dad. How’s it going?”
Dad: “You know, it’s always something. I have a stack of contracts to finish but one of my biggest clients is in Spain and I can’t move anything ahead without his signature. And your mother wants me to come home early today for some baptism razzmatazz out in Cranberry. I just can’t get anything done. It’s unbelievable.”
Phone calls to Mom are more like:
Mom, a little breathless because she’s walking the dog: “Honey! Hello! You’ll never guess who I ran into today.”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Mom: “I was at Giant Eagle picking up snacks for your father’s book club and someone taps my shoulder and it’s Karen Okerbaker’s mother.”
Me: “Who’s Karen Okerbaker?”
Mom: “You know, whatsherface who you went to swim lessons with. With the blond hair. Lived on Woodview.”
Me: “You mean Kirsten Osterberger from Woodhaven.”
Mom: “Yes, yes. You I always mix up the K-girls, Kirsten, Kristen, Kylie. Well anyway, Karen just moved to Minneapolis. Doesn’t your college roommate live there? You should hook them up.”
Me: “Well I don’t know.”
Mom: “Just get on the internet and see if you can hook them up on the computer. Or send a Tex Message… Oh! Did I tell you the Fenners are getting another addition?”
Mom is a cheery, chatty retired art teacher. She is renowned for her oblivious befuddlements and malapropisms. In one incredible sentence she referred to September 11th and Columbine and 7-11 and Concubine. Mom is busy with luncheons, coffee dates, garden club, book club, and Town Hall meetings. As she floats from the grocery store to the dry cleaners to the bank, she hums peppy, indistinguishable melodies. But beneath her la-de-dah disposition is snarky and astute wit. She is a great gossip partner and commiserater.
It’s Christmas Eve and we are going to Aunt Gloria’s house. It’s a 1.2-mile drive, but like everything with my parents, it is an ordeal.
Mom stands in the kitchen, bundled in a coat from an Amish craft fair and hand-knit Steelers scarf.
Mom: “Howie! Let’s go!”
Dad is in the next room, editing trusts with a number 2 pencil.
Mom: “Howie! We’re leaving!”
This holler penetrates his consciousness. He slams down the pencil. Dad: “Alright. Quit your yapping. I’m coming!”
Moments later, “Peg! Have you seen my wallet?”
Mom: “It’s on your dresser. Come on, already.”
Moments later, “Peg! I can’t find my mother’s documents.”
Mom: “What documents? They’re probably on your desk.”
Dad: “My mother’s new will. I had it on my desk yesterday and now it’s gone. Mary Francis must have moved it.”
Mary Francis is our cleaning lady and scapegoat for all things missing or awry.
Mom: “Mary Francis didn’t touch it.”
Dad: “She must have. It’s gone. I told you to tell her to stay away from my desk!”
Mom returns to the bedroom and locates the will on his desk. She’s really good at finding things that are in plain sight.
We proceed to the car. I carry the presents, loaded Tetris-like in a Macy’s shopping bag. The bows are all smooshed. Dad carries a Pyrex baking dish of halupki.
On Christmas Eve we eat traditional Slovak peasant food. Peirogi, haluski, halupki, and Dominoes pizza for the bratty kids and my 33-year-old brother. Everything on the table is buttery beige, sour, and made from potatoes, cabbage, and noodles (except the Dominoes pizza).
Presently I love this grub. In 2006 when I was a nutrition nut, I deemed it all inedible and got a psychosomatic stomachache. In 1996 I couldn’t eat peirogi because they reminded me of the skin from the Emperor in Star Wars—all beige and shriveled.
Mom: “Howie do you have keys?”
Dad: “What keys?”
Mom: “The CAR keys.”
Dad: “WHICH car keys?
Mom: “The electric car.” They refer to the Prius as the electric car. “They’re in the change dish.”
Dad: “They’re not in the change dish. Mary Francis must have moved them.”
Mom: “Mary Francis wouldn’t touch the keys. They must be in your pocket.”
Dad finds them in his pocket. We enter the vehicle.
Mom: “Don’t put the food in the back. Put the food on my lap! Put the presents in the back.”
Dad drives because he’s too much of a back seat driver to do anything but drive. Mom sits in back to relinquish herself of any navigation or climate/audio control responsibilities. I take shotgun because that is all that is left.
I realize that I drove the car last and left the volume above the permissible level. I try to slyly turn it down before the car starts, but electronics don’t work this way, so Lady Gaga bursts from the speakers at ignition.
Dad, horrified: “That is WAY too loud!”
Mom: “What is that rap? Boom, boom, boom!”
Dad: “Turn it off!”
Mom: “Turn on Christmas carols!”
I reduce the volume from 12 to 4 and scan the Pittsburgh wavelengths for something with chimes and cheeriness.
wonderful Christmas time.
Mom sings along in the back. Dad starts orating.
Dad: “You know they were talking on NPR today about three musicians.” He’s yelling louder than I am permitted to play the radio. “One was that boy all the kids like.”
Mom: “Justin Beeboo?”
Dad: “No, no.”
Mom: “Yes, that’s it. Justin Beeboo. Bober.”
Me: “Bieber. Justin Bieber”
Dad: “No, no. The one all your cousins saw.”
Mom: “That’s a girl.”
Dad: “No, no. Taylor Something.”
Mom: “Turn left.”
Dad is going the wrong way, despite the fact that he’s lived in this suburb since birth.
Mom: “LEFT Howie!”
We’re butting far into the intersection, stopping traffic as we veer from right to left.
Dad: “The musician that all the kids like.”
Mom: “Taylor Swift.”
Dad: “Yes that’s it. Apparently he’s very popular.”
Mom: “Taylor Swift a girl.”
A new born King to see
Pa rum pa pa pum.
Dad: “Okay, well I thought her music was terrible, but what impressed me is that she’s her own manager.”
Me: “Can you stop shouting?”
Dad: “I could if this music wasn’t blasting.” His pointer finger dumbly jabs at the dashboard.
Me: “Stop. This is her house.”
Mom: “Howie stop. Park behind that SUV.”
Dad: “Whose car is that? I don’t want to park near any SUV.”
Mom: “That’s your sister Nancy’s car. Just pull behind it.”