Sunday, June 13, 1999
The Ride of the Valkyries is nothing compared to the arrival of my relatives. They all come in shouting gleefully, bearing cakes. Some aren’t even real relations. But they’ve been with the family so long who remembers.
First came my brother Mike, his wife Grace, and their granddaughter Alexis. Alexis Victoria, technically, her young parents being romantics. Then, before anyone else arrived, my mother decided to redecorate.
Actually, she just wanted to hang one little picture. “I’ve been meaning to put it up since you last were here,” she told me. Which was at least a year earlier.
Now you’d think that wouldn’t take long, or be very complicated. But my mother’s house is a museum. Not the Addams Family‘s, with bats. And not the Guggenheim. But she has quite a collection. Which moves around a lot, though never goes away. So when she asked to hang one little picture, my brother Mike innocently added, “Mom, you’re not gonna hang it there?”
It’s not like it was Judith, dripping the head of Holfernes right over the dinner table. It was just something small, and odd, that probably would have looked fine. But Mike remembered something he liked there better, then I mentioned something, and Grace put in her bid.
Tom had no suggestions, having never viewed the collection. Still, before I hung the little picture, I went down the basement. I got the watercolor Mike mentioned. The print I liked. And the still life Grace favored. And while I was down there I brought up a few other things.
How could I ever think they’d be gone? When we moved into the house, forty years earlier, there was a piano in the basement. No one ever played it, no one even tried to learn, and over the years it largely served as a hiding place—notably for my Playboy magazines which Mom once tried to purge. More recently, when Mike asked if a couple of his friends could finally haul it away, because their daughter wanted to take lessons, you’d think my mother would have been pleased. Instead, she balked. “You never know,” she insisted. “I may use it.”
So the one little picture became two hours of furniture shifting. Carpets were rolled. Tables had legs reconnected that hadn’t even been stored in the same room for twenty years. Only the tree stayed put.
It’s not like it’s a live tree. And not like it’s a chain-sawed carving. It’s an upside-down, six-foot tripod, bark still intact. My mother bought it at an art fair, and for years it embellished our summer place, a former ice house, where it kind of fit. When Mom sold that house, she astonished us all by keeping the tree.
“You’re not bringing that home,” I remember my youngest brother David saying. Mike, my sister, and I were doing variations on that, though my father—muted by strokes—was mainly smirking. Still, somehow, my mother talked the tree onto the truck, got it squeezed through our narrow front door, and up a short flight of stairs. It landed just inside the living room. And while, more than once, my mother’s suggested trying it somewhere else, and though the floor is just polished enough for her to slide the tree by herself, inside the door is where it’s stayed.
But everything else moved around. A many-pieced, wrought iron kitchen hanging, that hadn’t been over the couch since I’d gone to college, went back there. Dark ceremonial masks my cousin Larry shipped from Africa were hung in the dining room. One Asian dragon-puppet my mother discovered while visiting my sister in Cincinnati, was suspended from the ceiling, while its Indian counterpart curled on the floor.
“I like it,” my mother finally decided.
Mike, Grace, and I absorbed the latest arrangement, then agreed. Tom had been busy amusing Alexis with a little wooden puzzle, and fortunately the dining table had stayed in place for them to play. (There were two others to choose from, in the basement.) Of course, when my brother David arrived, the first thing he said was, “What’s that doing there?” It didn’t matter what that was. It just wasn’t where it had been when he’d last visited, so would take some getting used to. Still, my mother’s living room always manages to go together because—including the tree—she mainly buys interesting things.
With David and his wife Eileen, came their kids, Andrew and Nicole. Following quickly, were Estelle and Alan—Estelle being a friend my mother had made years before in a ladies room; Alan being the replacement for Estelle’s late husband Lenny. Finally, Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Sy arrived. That made four cakes, plus the three my mother had bought.
“Who wants what?” was not the question. “Who’ll sit where?” was. This dining table, with its leaf in, seats eight. Earlier versions, expanded, allowed ten or a cramped twelve. We were presently fourteen, with only five-year-old Alexis counting as undersized. But Mike, Grace, and Alexis were soon on their way, having already overstayed, and Dave, Eileen, Andrew and Nicky were actually still headed somewhere else. So we snacked, and visited, in shifts, the biggest excitement coming when David’s dog, who’d also made the trip, and Tom’s competed to see which could make the bigger mess in the living room.
“Time to go,” David announced, and his family was instantly out the door. As quickly, Tom’s dog was banished to the yard, and the carpet hastily sponged.
“It’s going back anyway,” my mother calmly reassured us. “UPS damaged it, in delivery.”
Later, after most of the cakes were eaten, and Tom had patiently listened to all the jokes Uncle Sy had been telling our family for years, and Estelle and Alan had explained their Internet book-buying business, and Evelyn caught me up on the lives of her five grown kids, I noticed Tom sitting quietly at the dining table, once again assembling the wooden puzzle I guess Alexis forgot.
My family will do that to you.