Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Family-intensive week

Sure enough, after two weeks of being around my whole family, they're beginning to try my patience.  I'm more chill about this stuff than I used to be, but I'm redoubling my chill-out efforts: it is increasingly clear to me that some of the things that could perhaps hack me off a little aren't just personality quirks of my relatives, but practical effects of aging.  My loved ones, for the most part, are getting old.  There aren't many of my generation, and even fewer of my hypothetical children's the succeeding one, but there are lots of people in my parents' generation, and even a few left of my grandparents'.  The latter, obviously, is pretty damn old now, and to a certain extent you have to accept that people in their eighties are going to say and do some peculiar things that you just need to let pass. 

What's surprising me more is the realization that my parents and others their age are getting close to old-person territory.  When I was a kid, sixty seemed really old to me.  It didn't compute back then that my maternal grandparents, who were always old to me, were still in their fifties when I was born.  (My paternal grandparents were way older.)  When I was just old enough to recognize and speak with my mom's parents, they were both younger than my parents are today.  Now sure, baby-boomers generally take better care of themselves than their parents did, and at least some of my baby-boomer relatives are a lot fitter at sixty than their parents were, but still: sixty is not young.  Sixty is, realistically speaking, not even middle-aged.  In some ways, my parents wear their ages lightly, but I'm beginning to mark the conversation tics, the aching-hip gait in the morning, the memory lapses. 

And, when I think about it, all of my parents — I have 2.5 or 3 of them, depending on how you count my stepmother — dye their hair.  (My father maintains that he does so strictly to please my stepmother, who doesn't want him to have white hair that reflects on her own relative age.  Apparently it doesn't bother her that he now has a ridiculous orange tint to his hair that everyone knows he never had in his life.)  I would probably jump out of my skin if I were to see my parents' hair colors as nature now produces them.  My grandmother has dyed her hair for years, but somehow that doesn't bother me: in the first place, she's very plainly an old woman now, no matter what color her hair is, and in the second place, she's been doing that for a really long time.  I'm pretty sure I haven't seen my grandmother's natural hair color in at least twenty years.

So it is that I'm trying hard to be patient with the exasperating things that my relatives do.  My grandmother in particular can be a trying character, but I recognize that her awareness of mortality is much keener than I could know personally right now.  Her brother-in-law is in the hospital right now, recovering from a difficult surgery, and no one knows how much we can even expect him to recover at all.  He's ninety years old, for heaven's sake!  Most of the people she talks about with me are dead now — she's better acquainted with the dead than with the living.  Part of me would really like to speak with her about her own thoughts on mortality and how to live when you know you're near the end of your life, but my grandmother is not an introspective sort.  Actually, she's one of those people who seems like they want to avoid conscious realization of mortality altogether until the day they drop dead.  Little wonder that she seems perpetually freaked out by the reminders of death that she must see in various friends' and relatives' health problems.

This is partly why I took on cooking duties this week for the big family meal.  It's Rosh Hashana*, and my family can be particularly depressive at such times, because they insistently — one might even say pathologically — compare the present to the mourned-for past.  When I got to Hometown, I heard that they were planning to just go to a restaurant for a completely non-ritual meal, and I was appalled.  I know they've done this once or twice in the past, and inevitably I hear my mother and grandmother sighing or sobbing on the phone afterward that "It's not like it used to be."  Well, yeah: the elderly generation is dying off, the younger generations live further apart, and my generation (read: ME) hasn't produced much in the way of offspring yet.  To my somewhat shortsighted family, this looks like the incipient death of the family.  Hell if I was going to sit through those conversations again this year.

So now we're going to uphold family tradition as much as pragmatically possible, by my own conscious efforts to keep my family from sinking into holiday-time funk.  We're having the Rosh Hashana dinner at my grandmother's house like usual, but this time, the roast chicken — traditionally my grandmother's responsibility, since it's the centerpiece dish — will be my handiwork.  My grandmother is simply too physically weak to handle cooking a whole chicken; she's been burning herself lately on the oven racks trying to wrestle much lighter items out of the oven.  My mother is herself in bad physical shape, and can't do it.  For a variety of reasons, no one else who would attend such a dinner can (or, to be really bitchy, I could say "will bother") to roast a chicken. 

Except for me, that is.  I'm usually not around for this meal, but since I'm out of school and the postdoc hasn't started yet, I'm on hand.  In a horrified gut reaction to the idea of a restaurant meal for Rosh Hashana, I actually said out loud to my grandmother, "I'll roast the chicken myself, if I have to."  I guess now I'm going to put my money where my mouth is.  I'm even doubling down: I couldn't find any kosher chickens the proper size for the gathering, so I'll actually cook two kosher broilers in my grandmother's kitchen while fending off her well-meaning but territorial instincts to take over.

I'm going to be thoroughly worn out by the end of this week.  It'll be worth it, though, if I can give my aging Hometown family the sense that we're not living in the Last Days of Koshary, and that life might go on even if they themselves won't forever.**

*A big religious holiday for us Tribespeople: the start of the new year.  In my family, spending the day in services is optional, but the meal is non-negotiable. 
**There's an even longer post in me somewhere about all the resonances of this line of thinking for young unmarried Jewish people, but I'm a little wrung-out emotionally just from writing this much.  I can't handle breaking down right here in the café.

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