Over the weekend, the enormous blended family threw a surprise birthday party for our stepfather Tom. He joined our story in the mid-seventies and brought with him our two then-tiny stepsisters. At the time, we were up to our necks in hippies; shorthand for this is that we were commune kids. Yes, I know how to milk a goat. No, I’m not going to milk your goat. What are you doing with a goat, huh? Anyway, one night Daria, our brother Todd and I were introduced to Tom in the alley behind the mostly organic restaurant where Mom worked. We did the only thing undersized kids in an an awkward outdoor social situation could: we climbed the tall man. Soon, it was like the tide went out, the hippies moved away and we were surrounded by Quakers, Jews and Unitarians. Absolutely everyone could sing. There was a bluegrass band. We went to a lot of weddings in backyards. I was the oldest kid of a couple dozen. Fast-forward thirty years – we do a lot of fast-forwarding at Poor Impulse Control so no skimping on the Dramamine, please! – and the kids have kids. The adults get to do things like spend a month working at a clinic in Kenya with a determined teenaged granddaughter.
Here we are at the surprise party and the reunited bluegrass band – including Tom – is playing John Prine’s “Paradise” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” We hand him a beer and plug in his bass. Guests have brought lox platters and grilled chicken salads and marinated shrimp and hummus and artichoke quiche and three different kinds of brownies and cakes and fresh fruit salads and every bite is fantastic. My sisters run in circles to greet old friends, refill bread baskets, count their children and put husbands to work. I drink a lot of coffee, wash dishes and talk to about a thousand people – unless we’re talking about actual people and I’d guess about sixty. Finally, I sit down on the lawn with three of my sisters, two cousins, my niece Lois. Behind us, all the little nephews wrestle and color with crayons until periodically adult intervention is required: just about every five minutes. Hey, they’re healthy. Earlier in the day, one of the two-year-olds fell face first into a wooden chair, got up and ran after his older brother without a whimper. Unless someone holds up a bloody stump, there’s no need to get excited.
Our cousin Monday on my father’s side, who couldn’t be more marvelous if doves alighted on her shoulders during the cocktail hour, is engaged to Cory. Monday is 6′ tall, wildly attractive and beloved by smart children. Fortunately, she’s a teacher and telling children, “We don’t say ‘ass'” is her job. Her equally marvelous and entirely different sister Sandy is on a mission now.
Sandy: Tell her, Monday.
Monday: Weeelllllllll –
I sit back in my folding chair to brace myself and nearly go over backwards.
Monday: I’m getting married next year in June when his family told me I could.
Tata: They what?
Monday: I was told if the wedding was in April or May, the family would be planting. September and October were also out because of harvest time.
Tata: Okay…farmers…can’t screw around with their livelihood…got it…
Monday: Also: they don’t drink or swear.
Tata: Oh, fuck them. Have they MET YOU?
Sandy: They don’t drink or swear!
Tata: I’m bringing strippers to your wedding.
Sandy: And there’s one more thing…
Tata: Drunken strippers, about six of them. I recommend we issue one to every member of your family. Like party favors!
Sandy: Like fucking party favors.
Tata: I will truly enjoy this – what little I’ll remember of it.
Auntie InExcelsisDeo: At your age? You should be ashamed!
Tata: Well, sure. I could go in handcuffs.
The best part of the afternoon and evening comes as I make the rounds to say goodbye. Mom has dashed off after her grandsons. Tom and his friends are sitting in a circle on the lawn and everyone has a drink in hand. I take a deep breath to speak when someone tells us loudly –
She 1: If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that you should never paint naked.
She 2: Did you paint naked?
She 1: No, he did!
He bursts out laughing. He is one of Tom’s oldest friends and he was painting his kitchen naked and standing one foot on a counter and the other on a ladder when a young friend brought over his first, impressionable girlfriend to meet him. They walked in and found his various parts dangling, as he says now, “like mistletoe.”
She 1: Remember those parties where – when the kids got up in the morning – they’d step over the bodies sprawled everywhere?
Daria, who’s holding a sleeping baby, has sidled up next to me from nowhere. She raises her hand now and says, “Hey! Hey!” We were those kids. The people sitting in the circle were some of the sprawled bodies. It’s still funny. One thing I like about these people is they’re not rewriting and sanitizing their histories.
I thank them for a front-row seat on their glorious antics. Then I drive over to St. Peter’s Hospital to visit a friend recovering from his. Daria says it’s from our parents’ friends that we learned to function as part of a small, responsive group: if you need a car, you call somebody and they lend you a car. If someone needs you to take care of their kids, you go pick up the kids. Give and take. From these same people we learned the – as we know now – rather natural idea that men and women can be friends and friends with their Exes. Maybe your parents’ friends didn’t walk around naked. Trust me, it would’ve been funnier if they had.