The four high holy days always find me back at Mom & Dad's in California's Central Valley. It's the ingrained behavior of a dutiful son. Besides, I don't want to miss the nice dinners that occur at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (even if the religious aspects may get a big cloying). I can visit with family members and catch up on the latest developments—and latest additions (six of them in the last six years). Name tags might help.
I did say four, but I mentioned only three. Were you keeping count?
The fourth high holy day is a slightly movable feast that occurs between the end of summer school and the beginning of the fall term. It's associated with the birthdays of my mother and my goddaughter. A joint birthday party is held on some convenient weekend (bundling in some other, less significant, fall birthdays). The combination of both Mom and Becky reaches critical mass for me, so it's practically a command appearance. And there's usually a nice picnic, cookout, or barbecue, so it doesn't fall too far short of a holiday feast.
Timing is everything. This year I rashly headed south on a Friday. My usual pattern is an overnight Saturday-Sunday visit, but the birthday celebration was being held at my youngest brother's home on Saturday. It was easier to travel down on a Friday, stay at Mom & Dad's, and then head north for home after the Saturday event.
That meant, of course, that I was at my parents' on Friday evening, which for them involves a standing dinner date with a coterie of friends. The Four-Wheelers have scarcely a four-wheel vehicle left among them, advancing years underscoring the imprudence of gadding about in Jeeps and muscle trucks, but the label has stuck. Having devolved into a kind of once-a-week supper club, the Four-Wheelers assemble religiously on Friday evening to break bread and bust the chops of the great Communist-Democrat conspiracy to destroy America.
Naturally Mom & Dad insisted I join them as their guest at the Four-Wheelers gathering. Oh, goodie.
On the road again
Fortunately, Dad has preserved an unblemished driving record and is still fairly trustworthy on the road (except when he wants to show off how much horsepower he has under the hood, but then he has to listen to Mom grumbling like Marge Simpson from the back seat, so he usually refrains). On this particular occasion, Dad waxed eloquent about the many improvements being made to long-neglected county roads. Miles of old macadam were being built up, repaved, and restriped. The smooth, dark surface flew past beneath the car's tires as Dad nattered away.
Then he abruptly shut up, pressed his lips grimly together, and squeezed his hands like vises on the steering wheel. A bright green sign had come into view. The road projects Dad so dearly loved were being funded by President Obama's stimulus package. Apparently he had forgotten about the sign that said, “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” He waited tensely for his radical-communist-socialist son to make some mocking quip and he did an unusually good job of keeping his eyes on the road—a good way to avoid seeing the small smile on my lips.
I let a few seconds trickle by. They were long seconds. Then I let him have it:
“The curves are nicely banked, too. You won't have to worry about standing water during the rainy season.”
No, the tension didn't suddenly drain out of my sire, but he did ease up just a fraction and began to tell us of the days when the roads were all dirt or gravel and how he could date the period because he remembered riding through the area with his uncle, who returned to the Azores when Dad was still a young child.
But de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Her late husband had achieved a posthumous canonization in her mind and become the exemplar of Azorean pluck and diligence. Dying in a nasty farm accident can do that to one. We all spoke glowingly of his accomplishments during our short visit and admired the memorial display of photographs in the living room, many months since he shuffled off the mortal coil. There is no nice, neat “closure” after such an unforeseen end to a six-decade marriage, so Dad's cousin is certain to mourn for however many years are left to her.
We made small-talk and she got distracted, which I'm sure was at least part of the reason my parents wanted to visit her. My rare appearance could also be counted upon to cause some gushing from Dad's cousin, because my professorial rank (even in the modest station of a community college) apparently evokes prideful recollections of our mutual family heritage. The label faz tudo is applied to someone who “does everything” (the literal translation of the phrase). My father and his cousin share a faz tudo great-grandfather who sported the island nickname of “mestre Francisco.” (Nicknames are important in the Azores, where it seems that ninety percent of the men share the names António, Francisco, João, José, and Manuel.) The most mundane translation of mestre is “teacher,” but to American ears that lacks the weight of the Portuguese connotations, which are better matched by “master” or even maestro.
It took no effort on our part to get Dad's cousin to recount once more the legend of mestre Francisco, who bundled up his family in the 1860s (or thereabouts) and sailed to Brazil. “Sailed” is not quite right. Francisco and his family booked passage on a paddle-steamer, which unfortunately broke down before making port in Rio de Janeiro. The ship remained becalmed in the Atlantic for two weeks while the crew unsuccessfully sought to repair the damaged drive train for its paddles. Eventually my great-great-grandfather presented himself to the captain and offered his services. In desperation, the captain let him try his hand at repairs. The mestre then spent two long days working on the ship's warped and broken gears—wooden gears—while his son fetched tools and supplies for him. When the mestre succeeded and the ship steamed into Rio, the captain gave him letters of introduction that set him up in business as a highly recommended craftsman in Brazil. Mestre Francisco prospered in Rio and eventually took his family back to the Azores with a tidy nest egg.
This was the first time I had heard the story from Dad's cousin, although it was familiar to me from tellings by my paternal grandparents. It was a good story, foreshadowing as it did my own grandfather's decision to gather up his family and seek his fortune in the New World—except that the mestre returned to the Azores after his Brazilian sojourn while my grandfather's family put down American roots too deep to transplant back to the islands. I had included it in my unpublished novel, taking advantage of the parallelism between the lives of my grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. To my surprise, the version told by Dad's cousin included details that I thought I had made up in fleshing out the tale in my manuscript. Perhaps I had heard them before and had forgotten. In any case, I was smiling at the end of the story. Our cousin showed us a photograph of her grandfather, who as a boy had helped his faz tudo father repair a paddle-steamer.
The theme of man-versus-machine runs through the manuscript of my novel, which should not surprise anyone familiar with farm life. While my great-great-grandfather experienced it in a different context, farmers spend daily life among potentially lethal devices. This my father's cousin knows all too well, but she was cheered by our visit and I kept to myself my thoughts about the travails of mestre Francisco amidst the gearworks of a paddle-steamer and the fate of our cousin's husband amidst heavy farm equipment.
She waved happily at our car as we left and turned back onto the communist-funded county roads.
Dinner among the ruins
I was surprised to see no condemnation notice posted in the window.
The real proof of a restaurant, of course, lies in its meals. Therefore, in fairness, I have to report that my cheeseburger earned a passing grade. In the tradition of old-fashioned family restaurants, the portions were generous, too. My parents and their friends—at least, those not under doctor's orders—ate hearty.
By happenstance (I think), I was seated near one end of the table, sitting next to Chuck and opposite his wife Darla. Chuck's name is familiar to me, since it appears on most of the execrable, crazy-ass, wingnut spam that my father sometimes forwards to me. (It's the kind of dreck immortalized at MyRightWingDad.net.) No doubt Dad has complained to Chuck and the other Four-Wheelers that I do not belong to their coterie of conservative conspiracists, so Chuck looked just a little uncomfortable at my presence.
I was, of course, as sunny and cheerful as ever. Darla seemed rather taken with me. Chuck eventually relaxed a bit, perhaps surprised that I had not insisted on singing the Internationale before dining or interrupting all conversations with pithy quotes from Chairman Mao. Nope. I just hunkered down and endured the occasion, munching on my burger and refraining from any action more overt than declining to guffaw with everyone else when a quip was made about the obvious hoax that is global warming. Hilarious. (They are, of course, also concerned about the completely unrelated gradual decline in average rainfall in California as average temperatures tick upward and both plant and animal species adjust their preferred ecological niches northward.)
Chuck and Darla are exactly the sort of people that Mom & Dad would have once avoided with a disdainful sniff and backward tilt of the head. I forget exactly who has what, but Chuck and Darla have seven marriages between them. The family values clique is overloaded with people who apparently value marriage over and over again. To quote Candide's Doctor Pangloss:
Why, marriage, boy,A brilliant exposition, even if I do say so myself.
Is such a joy,
So lovely a condition,
That many ask no better than
To wed as often as they can,
In happy repetition.
The dozen or so people in attendance at the Four-Wheelers' dinner had a good time and no one appeared to glance askance at me too often. Even so, I expect the conversation was much more mild-mannered than usual and I would love to have an audio recording of the next week's event. No doubt Dad hung his head and confessed he did not know where he had gone wrong.
“I see where Obama has endorsed the Ground Zero mosque!”
I was having breakfast in the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table with me. Dad was yelling from the adjacent dining room, where the computer is set up.
“Indeed?” I said. “I hadn't heard.”
I turned back to the Fresno Bee, not intending to say more. There was no point in mentioning that it wasn't really a mosque and wasn't really at Ground Zero. But now it was Mom's turn.
“That's not a surprise. He's a Muslim, after all.”
I started. This was much worse than usual. Caught by surprise, I was unusually blunt.
“No. He's not. Don't say stupid things, Mom.”
Her feathers were ruffled, but she wasn't backing down.
“He is, too! He's even admitted it himself!”
“Don't be silly. He's done no such thing.”
“I heard him myself!” she declared.
Now I was angry.
“No. You. Didn't. You can't have heard it because he never said it.”
Dad is fairly hard of hearing (especially when he wants to be), but we had raised our voices. Naturally he came to his spouse's rescue. Obama's voice came booming out of the speakers of Dad's computer:
“I know, because I am one of them,” said the president's voice.
I got up from the breakfast table and stalked into the dining room.
“Now this is just crazy! I'm supposed to take an out-of-context excerpt as proof of this idiocy? What's the antecedent of the pronoun, huh? What does ‘them’ mean, huh?”
I get like this sometimes. It's not one of my more attractive features and I am usually careful to avoid intellectual bullying, but I was white hot. It also feeds my father's martyr complex about the over-educated with their fancy degrees looking down their noses at him. When I catch myself doing it, I try to ease up, but I didn't parse my question into little one-syllable words for Dad. My father's not stupid and his vocabulary was equal to the task. Was he just a bit shamefaced when he scrolled back the video clip?
Dad had the YouTube video “Obama Admits He's a Muslim” on his computer screen. He had neglected to play the preceding six seconds of the president's address to the Turkish assembly. Now it came out of the speakers:
Many other Americans have Muslims in their families, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know because I am one of them.“Some proof!” I scoffed. “He's just saying he has Muslims in his family and has lived among them—things everyone has known for ages! Some proof!”
But Dad left the video run a bit longer. Unsurprisingly, there was the truncated clip from candidate Obama's interview with George Stephanopolous:
You're absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my “Muslim faith.”The quotes aren't visible in spoken dialog, of course. (If only he had used “air quotes”!) But the intent was obvious (even if not to poor little George) and I wasn't having any of it:
“Good grief! Obama was just saying the McCain wasn't going around claiming that Obama was a Muslim, unlike some of McCain's supporters. That's all! Damn! It's embarrassing when my parents go around saying stupid things!”
I marched off before it got any worse.
Later, of course, I wondered if Dad even bothered to read the candy-ass cover-your-ass disclaimer at the beginning of the video. I suspect he just bleeped across it:
Legal Disclaimer: The writers, producers, editors, and publishers of this video are not stating, claiming, or implying that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, or that Obama himself claimed or admitted to being a Muslim. Rather the writers, producers, editors, and publishers of this video are only examining the evidence surrounding the rumor that Barack Hussein Obama might be a secret Muslim.Yeah, right. This is about as persuasive a disclaimer as those at the beginning of half-hour paid-programming adverts for miracle cures:
The statements made in this program have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products offered here are not claimed to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Now let's learn how to cure cancer!(Naturally my mother has a copy on her shelf of a pseudoscientific cancer-cure book by renowned health expert Suzanne Somers. I'm afraid, she's a sucker for this kind of nonsense, which infuses the health-related stories on most of the right-wing news sites. It's not just the left-of-center Huffington Post.)
Fortunately, the cooling-off period took hold and the afternoon birthday party came off without a hitch (even if I had to circle a couple of identical-looking blocks in my baby brother's neighborhood before finding the home I visit an average of less than once a year). Most of the attendees were lineal descendants of my parents or spouses of those descendants, but my sister and brother-in-law brought an old friend of theirs who quickly button-holed me and quizzed me about my novel. He had read my sister's copy of the manuscript and wanted to know when it would see print. Out of my parents' earshot, I explained that it was under review and no decision would be made till later in the year.
One of my cousins was also present. I took the opportunity to inoculate him against possible future distress in the unlikely event that he ever starts reading books—in particular, mine. I mentioned that I had written down many of the family stories in fictional form. I recounted our visit the day before to Dad's cousin and her retelling of the mestre Francisco story. I explained that I covered the big family blow-up from nearly thirty years ago, when we battled over our grandmother's estate. My cousin shook his head in recollection of those dreadful days. And he seemed unperturbed at the thought that his counterpart was in the pages of my book.
“If you wrote it as fiction, then people can't assume that real people did what your characters do.”
Yeah. Do please keep that in mind. Did I mention your father is the bad guy?