Extended Family

family relationships auntsWhen I’m in a foreign country I try to stick with the local cuisine. I didn’t travel all the way to Thailand to eat pizza, although most menus offer it for the tourists who can’t hold their pad see ew. I make an effort to immerse myself in the culture and learn all about how the locals eat. However, two weeks into curry and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I lost all control in the really touristy part of Phuket. I ordered my native cuisine: tortilla chips and guacamole. (True Los Angelinos refer to it in the familiar tense: “guac.” Chips are implied because how else are you going to get 30 grams of fat into your mouth?) My delicious contraband arrived via a waitress wearing a sombrero. I opted not to mention that the symbol of the sombrero has become derogatory to Southern Californians who think they are sensitive to Mexicans, and I just said, “Gracias.” She apologized and explained that her English was not very good. My margarita (“Marg” for those in the know) was a glass of lime juice so I asked for a shot of tequila. She also did not understand this So Cal linguistic gem. Confusing Thai waitresses in Mexican restaurants is my new favorite pastime.

It turns out guac is a gateway drug. Drunk on jalapeños and cilantro, I forged ahead with fajitas and the guilt set in. This is not how I behave in other countries. I’m not that American who asks for ketchup or points out every McDonalds in excitement. For the record, I counted 43 Mickey D’s in two weeks. Thais are not immune to the “Sandwich for breakfast with pork.”

As a multi-lingual citizen of Earth (I can order red wine in nine dialects) I feel an obligation to behave differently in foreign countries. Thailand was a challenge. Showing anger is a sign of weakness in Thai culture. You can kick a puppy and spit in their green tea and they will still say “sah wah dee khrap!” (Which in my experience either means “Welcome” or “Gullible American in the house!”) You are not supposed to show your First World right to be annoyed when your shuttle to the elephant sanctuary is an hour late or your 4-star hotel room is infested with lizards, which you discover at 3 a.m. The staff will follow you around with their hands clasped in a bow that signals, “No matter how American you behave, we are going to smile and thank you.” How do you threaten to write a bad Yelp review with that going on? There is no place for entitlement in Thailand. It’s refreshing and challenging all at the same time, and I was doing my best to embrace the attitude of those around me. Absorbing myself in their culture was a good reminder to check my own mental outlook.

I was feeling guilty about sitting in a Mexican restaurant listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” playing on a loop on the jukebox. I was betraying my travel-goddess integrity when I should have been slurping up noodles in coconut milk. And then my fajitas arrived, sizzling their love to me on a hot plate. I grabbed a tortilla and created the perfect balance of salsa, sour cream and guac like an expert and took my first glorious bite. Something was not right. Further inspection revealed that the chicken was coated in peanut satay sauce. Most entertaining Mexican restaurant ever.

I have promised to take my niece and nephews travelling with me when they are teenagers. They have decided that means thirteen. I was thinking more like sixteen but I’ve lost that battle on a technicality. While my mind contemplated my opportunity as an aunt to expose them to the world in a way that won’t teach them to be entitled, an Australian blonde in a bikini loudly announced that the glass of lime juice was the best margarita she had ever had. As an Aussie myself, I can confirm that an Australian wouldn’t recognize Mexican food if they sat on it. I decided that this was enough ridiculousness for one day. We all have our limits. I stepped out into a street that bore an unfortunate resemblance to Tijuana, passed the Burger King in my hotel lobby, and fired up the wifi to make a reservation at a guest house in a remote fishing village I had never heard of . . . where I could be guaranteed curry and rice for breakfast.

Snowed UnderMy brother took his wife on a kid-free vacation for four days and left his offspring with me. I planned a sensational schedule of activities that was sure to solidify my position as the best aunt ever. One of them was a trip to the Queen Mary, an ocean liner built in the 1930s that is now a gigantic floating hotel in the Long Beach harbor. During the season that Californians refer to as winter (with no practical understanding of what that means) there is an event at the ship called Chill that features novelties such as touching snow and viewing ice sculptures.

Word spread of the amazing adventure and it is a bit of a blur, but I ended up with seven nieces and nephews signed up for the trip. I recruited my friend Priscilla because I could not handle the transportation or child wrangling on my own. I believe I billed her role in the outing appropriately but that would later become a grey area.

I could have taught the kids that during World War II the Queen Mary was painted a camouflage grey color and turned into a troopship. She was the largest and fastest ship to sail, capable of transporting as many as 16,000 troops at 30 knots, which is why she was nicknamed the “Grey Ghost.” The boys would have found that interesting. I could have shown them the gigantic propellers and explained how they transformed the boat back into a luxury cruise liner after the war. It could have been an educational and enlightening afternoon. This is what happened instead.

I had read that the ice sculpture room was really cold and the kids would need gloves and hats. Seven of them were packed into the cars in 80 degree weather wearing ski jackets and two pairs of pants. Clothes were discarded at various intervals during the drive and scattered all over the place. When we arrived it took quite some time to gather and separate everyone’s belongings and walk all nine of us across several parking lots and into the event. Once there, my nephew Rider announced he had left his coat in the car. We were all sweating at this point so I said he could have mine. It’s really hard to imagine being cold enough for a coat when you are getting sunburned and I was not about to go back to the car and restart this party. Then he announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I left Priscilla with five of them while I disappeared with Rider and the three-year-old, Stanley, whom I had no intention of letting out of my sight for a moment. Of all seven, he was the most likely to find adventure elsewhere.

A mere hour after our initial arrival we were back together, heads were counted, and we were finally ready to hit the ice sculpture room. It was crowded and hot as we stood in line, holding our coats and hats, for an hour and a half. The children amused themselves for the first ten minutes and then rapidly descended into whining about how long it was taking and collapsing on the floor in melodramatic exhaustion. Stanley was such a mess he had to be carried and tried to fall asleep on my shoulder crying, “I so ti-awed, Aunty Jo.” Finally we got past the first check point. The kids perked up and we confidently moved forward . . . to the back of another line. A child in front of us threw up, expressing the review of this event that so many of us were thinking. So now the children added the wretched stench to their list of grievances. “We are almost there. It won’t be long. You’re fine. We just need to be patient a little while longer.” I was starting to sound like a broken record. Priscilla found a package of car air fresheners in her purse and the kids tried to stuff them up their noses. They were a good distraction so I chose not to question the thought process behind storing sticks of air freshener in your handbag.

Finally we made it to the end of the line and all of a sudden the event staff were rushing us up to the door. A man mentioned seven degrees and something about my phone cracking while I scrambled to get the kid’s coats and hats on. We were pushed through the door and the magical adventure began! Seven degrees. The kids all looked at me like I had brought them into a torture chamber. I struggled with zippers, handed out gloves and tried to sound enthusiastic about the room full of plastic looking characters from the Nutcracker. I said, “Hey, isn’t this fun?” Seven-year-old Rose said, “You are crazy, Lady.” (She is the delicate flower of the family.) Stanley turned blue within two minutes and started crying, and Rider asked to leave. Priscilla surveyed the happy scene and said something I can’t repeat.

The crowd was blocking both exits and panic set in. The older kids wanted to stay and try the promised and long-awaited ice slide but it was another long line. Stanley added shaking to the tears coming down his blue face and I was clearly becoming unhinged. I decided to leave Priscilla with the sliders, and the hysterical children headed out the emergency exit with me before she knew what hit her. We found a spot outside with hot chocolate and cookies and settled in to wait for the others. For the next 45 minutes colorful texts and photos from Priscilla indicated that maybe this situation could have gone another way. But Stanley was back to his usual color and happily chatting with Siri on my phone.

When they finally emerged from the frozen tomb of hell the kids told me how bad the slide had been while I placated them with cookies and their guardian began defrosting and plotting her revenge. The next event we had paid for was ice tubing but we’d all had enough. We explored the ship instead and I let them take their shoes off and tear around the top deck playing tag like a bunch of hoodlums. People trying to enjoy the tourist attraction were no doubt wondering where the adults responsible for these unruly children were, and I tried to look equally disappointed in the parents of America. I sat in a heap and watched the game, happy they were finally having fun. Priscilla found the bar.

On reflection I realized that, for the first time, my plans with the kids had turned into an epic failure. It was an expensive, exhausting and stressful lesson in babysitting. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are if you get too ambitious, like thinking you can handle seven children in a chaotic tourist trap. When you are that outnumbered it is best to keep it simple. The kids would have had a much better time jumping on the trampoline in the backyard with me and we could have played tag in our bare feet at the affordable and spacious park down the street. I laughed out loud a few days later when I got a thank you note from one of the kids saying that he’d had fun and asking if we could do it again sometime. I told him I’d have to check Priscilla’s schedule.

When my husband was doing chemo and on disability from work, he would keep himself busy by visiting some of the elderly ladies we knew. They all adored him and the highlight of their week was seeing him come down the driveway with a bag of groceries and a tool kit. They would make him tea and tell him stories about their childhood while he fixed the leaky faucet and whatever it was they had done to the TV remote that week. He escorted them on walks down the street where they introduced him to all their neighbors as “my son Tony.” His adopted mothers would occasionally fight over who really owned him, and he loved the attention.

When he died, I tried to fill his shoes as best I could. I was working full time so my brief weekend visits paled in comparison, but it kept his memory alive for them and I quickly grew to love them as he did. One of those ladies was Johanna, a widow in Long Island who had lived in the same apartment for decades. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a needlepoint wall hanging or shag throw rug that had been moved since the 60s. She had become sort of a hermit in her old age and although she could talk on the phone all day, she wasn’t all that comfortable with having people in her apartment. I learned to talk quietly and not move around too much and she made an exception for me. As soon as I arrived I would slip off my shoes, lie down on the couch and tell her about my week. Johanna was my therapist for many years. I told her things about my life that I knew she wasn’t going to repeat or remember, and she told me the same stories every time, struggling to keep them fresh in her mind. The details often changed a little and I had to prompt her when a name or place would not come to her, but I never got tired of the stories. We were very good therapy for each other.

Johanna’s tales about growing up in an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn were eye opening for me. During the Great Depression, she and her mother walked every morning down to a food bank. If they got in the ration line early enough they would receive a head of cabbage, some bread and maybe a few eggs. That was all the food they had for the day for their family of six. I often think about her mother, trying to feed four children with a cabbage. I am sure I will never know that kind of stress and pain.

In high school she had a stroke and was left with a permanent heart condition. She had a pacemaker for the rest of her life and endured many surgeries. She received a scholarship to go to school which was a big deal to a poor family, but her father would not allow her to leave home. He wanted his frail and only daughter to stay close to the family. Sometimes that story was told with a hint of pain; sometimes with understanding. Her dreams of a real education were not going to happen, so she fell in love with the boy next door instead. The two would sit on the floor in his family’s living room listening to records; often clearing the furniture so they could jitterbug. It was the end of WWII and with a new sense of hope the teenagers spent hours dreaming of their future together. Although the war was ending, he had just turned 18 and joined the armed forces. He was sent to Panama and died there. Her memory of what happened to him changed depending on the day, but listening to her talk about him, I don’t believe she ever fully recovered.

Years later Johanna met a man named George who she described as very kind. His mother did not approve of the Brooklyn Italian girl and he had been married before, so the two Catholics snuck off to a Greek Orthodox Church and were secretly married. Soon after their elopement, Johanna discovered that she could not have children and in his mid-30s, George began to have mental health problems. He was committed to a psychiatric institution that Johanna described as something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, complete with the villainous head nurse. After a long day working as a clerk on Wall Street, she spent an hour on the train every evening, hoping to get a few minutes with George before visiting hours were over. If Nurse Rached was in a bad mood, Johanna would get turned away without seeing George at all. Month after month she visited him and then went back to her little apartment alone. When he was well enough to live at home, he developed Parkinson’s disease. For years she took care of him and operated a hospital in her living room. She needed a new pacemaker but refused to leave George or let him worry. She selflessly kept her heart problems to herself until George died in his sleep at the age of 66. Johanna spent the next 20 years in her apartment, reading her Bible with a magnifying glass and writing letters to anyone she thought could use some encouragement.

As I waved goodbye after every visit and the creaky old elevator doors closed, I often felt like I had just had a glimpse into my own future through a crystal ball. I don’t think any childless widow as young as I am could stop themselves from making the comparison, no matter how unreasonable. I was sick as a teenager and went through a few surgeries. I had to accept in my 30s that having children was not in the cards for me. I had a hospital in my living room where I spent hours reading to my husband. Johanna’s story is very personal to me. She had outlived her family and, without children, had to depend on friends and kind neighbors. She had a friend who took her grocery shopping once a month when her social security check arrived. By the end of the month the fridge was empty, but someone always seemed to drop by with fresh vegetables and bread. Her heater broke during the snowy winter and she woke up one morning with her eyelids frozen shut. It only took one person to hear that story for a new heater to arrive. Her difficult life could have made her hard and bitter, but she was sweet, gentle and loving. Anyone who met her would have helped her in any way. It is comforting to know that there are kind and generous people in the world who recognize the value of an elderly lady on her own, and take it upon themselves to take care of her. But I don’t think I should count on my sparkling personality as a retirement plan.

I do have another strategy. Once in a while when I am playing with the three caregivers that my brother has provided, I throw in subtle messages like, “When I’m old and you are driving me to get fitted for dentures . . .” and, “When I am old and you are making me tea and toast and bringing it to me in bed every morning . . .” You’ve got to work on them young, you know. That was my mother’s mistake. Instead of training her children to look after her with subliminal messages, she told us stories about growing up on a cattle ranch where you shoot the sick and the old. We’ve had a running joke for years about what we are going to do when she starts to become a problem.

Johanna died peacefully, and despite her apparent solitude, her life was a testament to the idea of adopted family. Every time I visited her in hospital, the nurse gave me an update on my grandmother and I never corrected anyone. She taught me that if you give of yourself to others, it will come back to you when you most need it. And none of us can be sure who we are going to need when we get old.  I am lucky to have extended and adopted family who will no doubt look after me.  My niece and nephew may crinkle up their noses at the idea of bringing me breakfast in bed now, but their time is coming. I just hope that when I am in my 80s I will have developed the same selfless, positive attitude and grace that brought Johanna’s neighbors by to ask if she needed anything.  It’s not looking good so far. It is a good thing I have a backup plan.