Traditionally Speaking

The question has always stumped me.  I have never come up with a really good answer.  My whole life, I have always been flummoxed when someone puts me to the task of explaining my family traditions or heritage-related stuff.  I guess it is because I wasn’t really raised in any kind of specific, culturally rich atmosphere.

We only spoke one language in my house.  I didn’t have a crazy grandmother always yelling things in Greek or Italian or Chinese at me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I definitely had a crazy grandmother.  It’s just that she yelled, “Dammit!  Who hid my cigarettes again?” and “Don’t be a beer counter, you little jerk!” in English.  Nobody came to America on a boat or was smuggled in a truck (or even flew here on a plane for that matter) for at least a few generations back.  We definitely didn’t celebrate any holidays that weren’t pre-marked in red or depicted in the monthly picture on the linen hand towel calendar in the kitchen.

If Snoopy wasn't drinking a margarita, how were we supposed to know to celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

If Snoopy and Woodstock were slinging back sunflowers instead of margaritas, how were we supposed to know to celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

There was always talk that my father’s side of the family was German along with some other Western European sprinkles (French, English) and my mother’s side was similar, minus the German, and somehow plus some Native American.  I think that my ancestors have lived on American soil for a really long time, but honestly I’ve never actually entered my credit card information on ancestry.com to confirm or find out otherwise.  I don’t know what is true and what is made up.  I have always just considered myself kind of a cultural mutt.  And I am okay with that.

Until Thanksgiving, that is.

‘Tis the season for unveiling your cultural relevance and family traditions.  The friends with whom we will be celebrating Thanksgiving asked how we could incorporate ours with theirs.  This year my parents and two of my sisters and their families are going on a cruise in the Carribbean.  I was just going to watch football and make stuffing from the box, so… um, just run with yours.  Most of my kids are working on homework assignments and projects that involve where they came from and how we as a family celebrate that.  I think that the kids are as frustrated about the family void when it comes to this subject as I was, so they are finally employing some creative license to get the job done.

Kid B was given the assignment by her Spanish teacher to make and explain a traditional, cultural recipe as it applies to her family.  She asked if she could instead make an old, family dessert recipe* that would represent our heritage, even though it had nothing to do with us maybe being slightly German-English-French-1/16th Cherokee.  The teacher said go for it.

So Kid B went to the grocery store and got the ingredients for cookie dough, a box of Oreos, and a brownie kit.  She mixed them individually, layered the cookie dough on the bottom, covered it with the Oreos, and then spread the brownie mix on top.  And, voila… a batch of “slutty brownies” was made.  Yes, that’s really what they are called due to the wicked threesome of ingredients.

According to family lore, you can make them even sluttier by adding a layer of dulce de lece before the brownies.

According to ancient family lore, you can make them even sluttier by adding a layer of dulce de lece before the brownies.

So now I guess, traditionally speaking, I can finally say we have a cultural identity.  And I am okay with that, although I do hope it translates to something a little nicer in Spanish.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

*Slutty brownies are not, in fact, any kind of old, family recipe.  I have never made them in my life.  As far as I know, they started going around the internet a few years ago.  They are both easy to make and sinfully delicious.  Kid B was just looking for an excuse to make them.

Pompeii Day – The Turnaround (Day Five)

…and then there were four.

My dad barely limped across the finish line yesterday, and he subsequently self-medicated with a bottle of room service vodka.  Even if we decided to do a tour on Saturday that included being pushed around in chariots all day, it was clear that he would not be participating.  He and my mom stayed on board when the ship docked in Naples.  They really needed a day off.

Kid A, Sister B, Sister C and I were also exhausted, but none of us had been put on injured reserve, so we just reminded one another that this was likely a once in a lifetime situation.  Who knew if or when we would be back to any of these places again?  We set our alarms and dragged our tourist butts out of bed early yet again.

But we decided after having experienced the public transportation systems in Florence and Rome, and relatively little else in both cities, we would try an organized tour this time around.

P (one of our aunts on the trip) had gotten a brochure from a company called CBM (Can’t Be Missed) when we were leaving Rome.  Their tour was only 65 euros and included the spots we wished to see.  That was to be the tour for us!

We left the port proper and walked a short distance to a bus depot.  We walked in a queue and then climbed aboard like pod people. (There is a whole lot of queueing and pod-people behavior associated with cruises.  You just get used to it.)

Guido and The Tour of Happiness

Our tour guide introduced himself as Guido.  I knew immediately that this tour was exactly what we needed.  On the heels of two days of sweating, wandering aimlessly, and pushing our way through throngs of tourists and not even getting to lay eyes on the statue of David (although I had surely seen enough naked men carved in stone in Florence alone to last me a lifetime), I was truthfully a bit negative on all things Italy.  But Guido the Tour Guide turned all of that around with his opening line.

“The sun is shining.  You are smiling.  Your spirit is smiling and shining also,” he beamed as he spoke in his very broken and incredibly endearing Italian-English.

“The sun is whispering to you, ‘Life is wonderful!’” he continued.  Then he gave us some history of the area and a little back story on Naples.  Our plan for the day was to bypass all of the morning crowds at the ruins and to drive up the Amalfi Coast first. We would stop on the way back down for lunch and some free time in the village of Sorrento.  Our last stop of the day would be to observe the destruction wrought by Mt. Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago.

We drove over 1,200 switchbacks in less than 34 miles of coastline.  Guido serenaded us with the Beatles (“…the long and winding road…”) and Chubby Checker (“…let’s twist again…”) many times throughout.  He told stories of his mother getting up early each Sunday to cook the sauce (“blub, blub, blub… for seven hours”) which was the cornerstone of family dinners.  The views were spectacular.  His commentary was priceless.

“Look what life is presenting you today!”  We smiled proper, special smiles as we ate our lemon slushies that we purchased for two euros from a cliffside stand above a breathtaking harbor.  My dad would love this spot.  I took lots of pictures.

After a delicious lunch at an authentic Italian restaurant (“…bottle of red, mmmmmmmm, bottle of white…”) we walked around the local markets until it was time to get back on the bus.  The town of Sorrento was colorful and charming and one of my favorite stops on the trip so far.

“Bene, bene, bene, belissimo!” Guido greeted us.  I could not help but smile around this man!

We had time for some Italian music on the sound system and then a short nap before we started our walking tour of the ruins.  Guido did a fantastic job recounting the story of Pompeii and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  I could almost see the mud tsunami that suddenly and unexpectedly covered the city.  He painted us spectacular pictures with his words.

I think we spent over two hours walking through the ruins.  By the end, we were tired and covered from head to toe in Vesuvian dust and grime.  I could taste it in my mouth.

Guido reminded us that Mother Nature does not care if you are man nor woman, rich nor slave.  Then he asked the women who “liked to fall down” (including one of my aunts and Sister B, but in fairness, those streets were totally dangerous and uneven) to come walk by him because they “were not good; they were not ok.”  I think he was just looking for an American girlfriend who would cook him sauce on Sundays.

At the end of the tour we were reminded to always “…have the best of today to you.”

All I can say is that I thought that Italy was fantastico after such a proper, special tour.  But I really need a Silkwood shower to clean all of the Pompeii off of me.

Ciao for now, Italia!  Torneremo!

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

The Good Life

I have a cousin named Ashley, who is almost 14 years younger than me.  She is the daughter of My Aunt P and my ex-uncle, G.  And, no, those are not blogging nicknames that I am giving out to provide anonymity.  I actually call them P and G; I always have.  Have you begun to sense my obsession with the alphabet?

When I was young and impressionable, they were the relatives who impressed me most.  They were cool and very hip, especially because I was a teenager with nerdy parents (really, who isn’t?).  They talked to me about things like sex and drugs (same “Just Say No” and “I learned it by watching YOU!” messages, but always in a fun and funny way).  G drove (and sometimes even let me drive) a Peugeot with a Blaupunkt stereo, on which he only listened to good, classic rock.  P was an incredibly talented artist and event planner who worked at Lord & Taylor in New York City.  P was the one who took me to my very first live concert in NYC (Shaun Cassidy, circa 1978, because we are talking about coolness that knows no bounds).  We ate nothing but McDonald’s (the best remedy for an 8-year-old’s concert hangover) and slept in her teeny, tiny studio apartment and window shopped all weekend.  G got my dad into sailing and when I was 15 they let me come with them on the boys’ weekend trips up the coast to Block Island, RI.  We played Risk and drank beers and smoked cigars and they gave me all sorts of rules and advice about dating boys and those are some of my absolute favorite teenage memories.

But by the time I started college, G had left P and the kids (they also had a son, Garrett, by then) and they eventually got a divorce.  I was all teenage angst and self-centeredness and was pretty confused and angry about it all, but I never really dealt with it because I was in college being an idiot.  Things at home just kept on keeping on, except now it was only P busting it out as a single mom.  G was persona non grata in our family and it was even too much for him to stay friends with my dad, so he just stopped coming to family events because it was awkward.

Most of my mom’s extended family lived in and around South Jersey at the time.  P and my mom are sisters, so we spent time with her and the kids a lot, and even more after the divorce because they moved down to be closer to everybody.  Kettle and 3 Pops (mom and dad to my mom, P and GMP – that’s Grand Master Pud, for those of you following along with the detailed Speed family tree) were also divorced, but always around to help out as well.  We are one, big, dysfunctional family.  But isn’t everybody?

Fast forward to April of 2011.  Kettle had died the summer before, but the rest of the family was all still alive and kicking and as dysfunctional as ever.  So, when the weekend of Ashley’s wedding to her fiancé Mike came around, everybody showed up to support them and celebrate.  Even G.

I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years.  When I got to the rehearsal dinner, I realized that he was standing over in the corner by the bar (exactly where you would expect an ex who has come back into the lion’s den to walk his daughter down the aisle.  My mom especially has made no bones about how much she dislikes him, so it was undoubtedly awkward).  I went over to talk to him anyway.  We spent parts of the weekend catching up on the past two decades of each other’s lives.

Ashley and Mike’s wedding was one of the most beautiful events I have ever been to.  Remember how I said P was an incredible event planner?  Well, she totally topped herself on this one.  The day was filled with love and laughter, meaning, thoughtfulness, candles, flowers, romance, and a moving acoustic version of the Beatles’ In My Life.  And what wedding would be complete without white people rapping, Elvis, a priest, and a leprechaun?

Do yourself a favor… take 18 minutes and watch this truly joyful video of Ashley and Mike’s Wedding.  It was produced by a Philadelphia company called Lucky Productions and they did such a fantastic job conveying the vibe of that wonderful day.

After the weekend was over, I got on a plane with my sisters and flew back to Georgia.  G and I had exchanged email addresses and we said we would continue to keep in touch.  We did, but only for a little while.

I realized shortly after we started emailing that I was mad at G.  Really, really mad.  And then I called him out on his shit.  We haven’t talked again since.

I just re-read my final email to him and it was pretty harsh.  In all honesty, Sheepdog told me at the time not to send it.  But I still believe that everything in that letter needed to be said because G was a very influential person in my life and one day he was just gone.  And not only was he gone, but P was around less and much less fun when she was because she was shouldering a bunch of crap on her own.  Now, two (or twenty-two, depending on how you’re counting) years later, here’s my take on everything…

Families are always going to be dysfunctional because they are made up of dysfunctional people.  Some people grow up in broken ones and some get still-intact ones that would be best if they were broken.  And a lucky few get in-house role models who are actually happily married.  But you have to study them carefully, because that doesn’t just happen all by itself.

The truth is that anybody can grow up and make a good life for themselves, no matter what your family looked like growing up.  Ashley and Mike are a great example of that.

Video by Lucky Productions Cinematography

Video by Lucky Productions Cinematography

You just have to work hard at fixing the things that are broken simply because they are not going to fix themselves.  New things break every day, so just get to work on fixing them.  Don’t let people in your life make excuses, and don’t you make excuses either.  It is not about money or stuff or any of the superficial things.  It is all about maintaining healthy relationships with all of the dysfunctional people (including you).  Fight hard for your good life.  Everyone deserves one.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Say It! Say It! Say It!

I have said this before, but it bears repeating…

Sometimes I just can’t control my own ornery.

I try (some days I try harder than others) to act civilized and “normal,” but there are times when I just let it all hang out simply because it feels good.  Plus, it makes me feel closer to (Ma) Kettle.  That’s my mom’s mom who died from cancer two years ago.  She was the Queen of Letting Your Freak Run Around Unchecked and Unfiltered.  Admittedly, she could be totally embarrassing in public but that woman was fun and funny as hell.  And I sure do miss her.

“If you don’t like it, you can go shit in your hat!”

Anyway, I was at my home away from home the grocery store last week stocking up on items I buy in bulk that don’t fit in the cart during regular orders (10 or so cases of flavored seltzer water, a mega-pack of toilet paper and paper towels, 2-for-1 bottles of vitamins, multiple giant bottles of wine… essentials for the apocalypse).  I packed my cart to the brim and I headed to the checkout.  Being the frequent flyer that I am at this store (back in college a dive bar called Cavanaugh’s was my Cheers, now-a-days the ghetto Kroger is where everybody knows my name… sigh), someone scrambled to open a lane just for me.

I actually did not recognize the clerk who was giving me the red carpet treatment.  He was definitely new.  But he ran his lane with mad skill and had me through in a jiffy.  As I was whipping out my credit card and preparing to swipe it he told me to hold up, as his register was spitting stuff out like it was a married Jewish girl.

“Ooooh!  You got a lot of coupons today,” said the newbie.

“Oh yeah?  Anything I can use right now?”  I asked, unimpressed unless there was.

He examined the paper strip with feigned intensity.  “Mmmmm… I don’t really know you (as he looks back at all the wine and TP) but you seem like you would probably buy Lunchables.  And you’re a girl, so you can definitely use this last one for… you know.”

Insulted by his insinuation yet intrigued by his phrasing, I push back.  “I know what?”

I look at the coupon that I now presume is covered in anthrax because this guy won’t even touch it with his bare hands.  It is a coupon for tampons.  Harmless, little cotton tampons.  And just the thought of them is freaking this guy out.  My ornery is just begging to come out and play.

“Tampons,”  I say boldly.  “Can’t you even say the word?  Tampons, tampons, tampons.”  My voice is getting louder.  Several nearby heads turn in the direction of our lane.  “It is 2012.  You are a grown-ass man.  You have got to be kidding me,” I whisper-yell.

“Shhhhhhhhhhh!  You don’t have to say it!” he whisper-whispers back at me as his face turns the color of a baboon’s butt.  “Stop saying that word!”

I figure that I have embarrassed him just enough to retaliate for the pre-packaged-kids’-lunch-box-product comment, but I insist on adding one more thing.  “So you’re single, right?  (He glares back at me but I see from his reaction that I am correct)  Well, you will never get a real, live girlfriend if you can’t even say the word ‘tampon’ out loud.  So here’s your homework for today… when you get done your shift you’re gonna get in your car and drive home.  I want you to say the word ‘tampon’ over and over and over for the entire trip.  Tampon, tampon, tampon, tampon.  It will be good for you.”

I then go out into the parking lot and unload my cart full of goodies.  During my own car ride home I proceed to chant not only “tampon, tampon, tampon” but also “penis, penis, penis” and “vagina, vagina, vagina” for good measure.  I like to keep my reflexes sharp, you know.

When I got home I unloaded the car and went upstairs to take a shower before I started making dinner.  Ironically enough, it was then that I realized that Aunt Flo had come for her annoying monthly visit.  And guess what was missing from my bathroom cabinet?

I wish this post was in color so I could end it with a big red period.  More than that, I wish I had used that stupid coupon.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…