Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 10

For my entire childhood and most of my teenage years I did the same thing with my parents every Thanksgiving: the three of us climbed into a wide bodied tan or burgundy station wagon or Thunderbird and drove to my best friend George's house with his two parents Olly and Betty and his sullen and shy sister Val.

As I have repeated all too often, since I am a perceptual and sensual creature, this experience at George's was rife with a plethora of memorable sights, moods, and sensations.

George himself had the greatest sense of humor and we fancied ourselves a comedy team, always trying to write our own material and pretend were on Saturday Night Live. I remember little of what we concocted because our comedy, such as it was, was overshadowed by the decor of the house and the character of his family. More literally, nobody was interested in our acts since all attention was focused on Olly and then his daughter, and lastly, my own parents and their pontificating about current events. Of course his father Olly had that droopy, elaborate handlebar mustache that so reminds me of the character Nigel, as played by Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap.

If Olly's mustache weren't enough we were treated to the spectacle of him preaching and hectoring his daughter and giving hour long disquisitions on the superior virtues of Progressive Rock, particularly less known bands like Renaissance. But Olly's stache stole the show, so distracted I was by it that I remember little of content in what he had to say.

Less pleasantly, since Olly fancied himself an amateur anthropologist, he would insist upon lecturing his daughter on the habits of tribes in other cultures. Sometimes his lectures were to be held in secret, sometimes we were invited. He felt she was the one of the two with the superior intelligence and had essentially given up on his son, who was a slow learner, however gifted with wit, leaving the two of us to explore their insane 1970s house and backyard.

George and I tried to be serious about comedy. We would listen to records of Bob And Ray and Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor and George Carlin and try and figure out how they worked. What we loved about Bob and Ray was that they were a team and most droll and absurdist in outlook. (Though we would not have known to describe it as such). I remember one bit called "write if you can get work" and we really appreciated tracing comedy back to its earlier roots - before SNL. One summer my father taught us a Shakespeare class, an early variant of home schooling you might say, and I remember my disappointment that it was mostly plays like Macbeth and Hamlet on the "syllabus" since I had hoped for some comedies too, especially As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

George and I rebelled against his father's taste in music and I was always attempting to go to George's room as a musical oasis where I would insist on listening to Sonny Rollins records and whatever "fusion" records George had bought. But we had little time alone to listen to jazz or finish our budding comedy act as Olly would always make sure to enter the room unannounced, to reprimand his son in front of us for not being as bright as his sister, and to talk about the bands Genesis and Renaissance as what was really "cutting edge" and ahead in music.

I had never known so many clashing and vibrant shades of pastels to coalesce in one environment. Not only was the deep shag in chocolate brown covering every inch of wall space, but there were this bright pastel fuzz - I know not what else to call it - covering appliances, especially the entire bathroom, in apple green, and powder blue, orange, canary yellow, and many others. This is to say nothing of all of the artwork - all of those heavy velvet and oil paintings of historical figures and, so we were told, obscure family members from previous centuries, the paintings that literally gave me nightmares the few times I had to endure sleeping over. (The decor and the general atmosphere there was rather unpleasant for me. I wanted to visit but not sleep, let alone ever live there).

These colors bring to mind George's mother because she always made her specialty which was a grasshopper pie and we loved that dish so much. The recipe was a secret and when we were most young we had believed there were real grasshoppers in it taken from the backyard and cooked. I was not to worry because "they tasted just like Oreo cookies". I remember that Betty wore much louder clothing than my mother. Both women loved these ugly dacron things, these shapeless tops and bottoms that you sort of just pulled on, stuff with lots of elastic. But Betty loved to be inspired by, I guess, Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and would wear the loudest pastel checks and plaids in the largest scales.

George's mom, Betty met Olly while they were coworkers. They happened to be both postal employees, the mail carriers who rode rounds in the suburbs. Almost no mention was made of the U.S. mail nor any practical work matters at the yearly Thanksgiving. But much mention was made of how great it was that both the parents worked (!) and had good jobs they were proud of. Its equality was seen as the virtue, so in a sense, in this one respect, and in spite of some personal unhappiness that resided there, George's family was ahead of it's time.

All of this Thanksgiving celebrating was to end abruptly. Firstly, when my own parents divorced in my middle twenties, and my mother actually left "home" to move to another state in the south. Secondly George's parents divorced, a few years later. Both my family and his had been married for a good twenty or thirty years. It was rumored that George's father had a penchant for streetwalkers and other activities of the kind. Last I heard he gave up his interest in anthropology and progressive rock for Bible Study, and became a serious Christian. (Presumably the streetwalkers were also given up, considering his newer religious interests as well).

Both Olly and Betty remarried. (Olly remarried twice, his wives becoming younger I believe). So did my father. My mother never remarried. Betty married a rather handsome wealthy businessman with whom she appears happy. Valerie, her daughter, also married a businessman, albeit one with progressive interests. To this day George and I remain unmarried.

My mother attempted to hold a Thanksgiving meeting/reunion over there many years later, after both families' divorces. Both my mother and Betty invited other women over and all husbands were out of the house, (having been expelled from the marriages), leaving in essence an all female Thanksgiving, with the notable exceptions of George and I, having to overhear the turkey conversation of that table. The spectacle of that day, especially the frank, brutal and graphic conversation of these obese, middle aged (and senior) women sitting around a table and discussing the sins of the male sex was truly of of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Gone too was the decor of that earlier period. Everything was light, airy, streamlined and tastefully bland.

I was most shocked that they would carry on like this with me and George present, as if we were not people who would be disturbed by being privy to their authentic sentiments. Even well into adulthood, I had no way to make sense of divorce, and who was to blame, and above all, I felt such a sense of loss, and our dependency as children on the vagaries and convictions of adults; and as adults, our dependency on the wills and often conflicting beliefs of other peers.

George's sister had grown into a beautiful woman with a career in accounting. I remember her telling me on that final Thanksgiving day that I had to make decisions in my life about which parent with whom to side and that she felt my father and her father were villains.

"Why would you ever want to have anything to do with your dad?" was what she bluntly asked me. She was most unhappy that I could not assent: I mistakenly insisted that it was their business and that we could never fully understand. She has never forgiven me, I think, for that statement, though on the face of it, it seemed at the time a sensible one. For Valerie was happy because she was free from her father and leading an accountant's life, and I was a confused man living as a musician in Boston and coming down to a very changed Florida and all I could remember was all of the fun George and I had as children in that crazy seventies house.

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