I keep trying to write some elaborately lyric blog post about the last week I've spent here in Baltimore, but, at this rate, I'll never get it done, so, here's my stream-of-consciousness beat sheet for the week:
1. My Uncle Will turned 70 on Saturday, so we threw a surprise party for him back at my family's traditional home: the small rural town of Cambridge, MD, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Hence and therefore, the primary reason for the Baltimore leg of this trip.
2. My uncle lives in Milwaukee, as do all 8 of his children (Ernie, James, Don, Al, David, Veronica, Fred Jr., & Wayne), ranging in age from ~49 to 37, as well as the majority of his 17 grandchildren. And, of his 8, #6 is the only girl. Of his 7 sons, 4 are ex-Marines, one is ex-Air Force, two are currently cops, and one is in and out of jail a lot. Point being, there's a lot of beef over there.
3. So, if you're trying to throw a surprise party, where the guest of honor and most of the attendees are all coming from out of town, maybe you shouldn't book everybody in the same hotel. Just a thought. My cousins demonstrated their quick wits by inventing increasingly elaborate explanations for why they just happen to be in Maryland, in the SAME FREAKIN' HOTEL, when my uncle would run into them in, say, the elevator, or the front lobby, or in the hallway because THEY GOT THE ROOM RIGHT NEXT DOOR.
4. In the end, he was still surprised. Go figure.
5. I considered having a bit of mercy on my brother for forgetting my birthday. After all, since his return from Iraq, he's had to get bifocals because of the strain on his eyes from looking through the sight on a 50-caliber machine gun turret for the better part of a year. He says he fell down the stairs once because he misjudged the distance to his feet. His new car is a stick shift, and he hasn't driven stick in years. My sister-in-law says she doesn't want to ride shotgun with him anymore because she's afraid she'll get a concussion from all the gear stripping. As I said, I considered mercy.... but thought better of it. :-) His response to me was, "just wait - you'll be old some day." My response? "Yes, but I will never, EVER be as old a you." Life does have it's little pleasures.
6. After all the DAY Day festivities, I thought I'd take it easy on the food while I'm home. Not like I can just run to Trader Joes and get something healthy and/or organic here in Baltimore. That was, of course, before I had my first piece of authentic Eastern Shore fried chicken at the surprise party. And some homemade iced tea that literally made me do a double take.
7. Said party was the first time in nearly 30 years that all 12 of my grandmother's grandchildren (Uncle Will's 8, me and my brother, and my aunt's two daughters) were in the same room together. We got pictures.
My cousin Wayne made the point of reminding me that I'd never been to Milwaukee on my own, just to visit. Commence shame. This is, after all, practically half of my family, from a pure numbers perspective. Point being, I'm going next spring.
8. Whenever he comes to Maryland, my cousin David buys at least one box of TastyKakes to take back to Milwaukee, since apparently they, much like Utz Potato Chips, are strictly a mid-Atlantic thing. I'm going to have to introduce that brother to www.tastykake.com. I didn't even remember what TastyKakes looked like. Since Saturday, I've had two. They're big. I'm ordering when I get home. :-)
9. The Milwaukee entourage followed us to church the following Sunday. To put it bluntly, me & God are Kool and the Gang, but me and church? Eh, not so much. However, whatever issues I may have with the institution, that particular church is just an extension of my home and my family. And, after finally getting rid of the former moon-bat-crazy pastor (i.e. the one my mother basically had to perform an exorcism on in the middle of Sunday service to calm down after she had a hysteria attack - I kid you not. Favorite quote - "Jessica, go get the oil!!!"), I wanted to lay eyes on the new guy. Newsflash - he's not moon-bat-crazy. He's actually kind of fun.
10. Of course, things broke down when my cousin Ernie passed out in the middle of service. Short version: dude had just had surgery to replace BOTH knees at the same time and apparently lost a lot of blood on the operating table. He's blacked out from the pain 6 times in the last three months. And, when my cousin from my MOTHER'S side of the family who's a doctor offered her help, he:
a) refused to get into a wheel chair, insisting on walking out of the sanctuary
b) refused Advil or any kind of pain medication, and
c) refused ice to numb his swollen knees, opting instead to roll up his pants legs and splash two cups of fountain water over his surgery scars.
And then lit up a cigarette. Go figure.
11. OK, so, Mom & Dad took us all to the Country Buffet on Friday, and then we had the surprise party/dinner on Sunday. But the REAL eating didn't begin until Sunday afternoon, when the whole lot of us (that is, those who didn't have to go back to work like Wayne, or escape to Ocean City like Al & Fred. Jr.) went to the Windsor Inn Crab House. Now, those of you who aren't from Maryland probably don't understand how much of a sacrament crabs are back here in the old Line State. We had to separate the party into the crab eaters' tables and the non-crab eaters' table. They cover the crab tables with heavy paper, and bring out a set of buckets and little wooden hammers. Oh, and plastic bibs. And then the waitress brings an entire tray stacked to the ceiling with crabs smothered in Old Bay seasoning and dumps them in a pile on the table. And then, it's just on. My brother claims that he prefers crabcakes because he's not interested in cracking open crab shells to fish out the meat. I say he's just a lazy bum who doesn't appreciate the satisfaction of the work involved. It's a singular experience. By the time I'm done, my fingers are literally tingling from the Old Bay. Oh, and the dinner is all-you-can-eat crabs, along with corn on the cob and buffalo wings (the mentioning of which made my niece squeal like she'd just seen Elvis). One of my cousins' young sons, unskilled in the crabbing ways, sounded like he was building a freakin' house the way he was beating the crab shells with the hammers. When it was all said & done, three trays of crabs later, my aunt ate the rest of us under the table. When she left the restaurant to get a snowball for her drive back to D.C., the girl at the counter remarked that she could smell crabs. It was glorious.
12. After the Milkwaukee crowd left town, we spent Labor Day at a BBQ at my mother's sister's house. If my father's family is big & loud & boisterous, my mother's family are just laid back & chatty. More food: bratwursts and deep fried chicken and potato salad and god knows what else. No wonder everybody is, shall we say, "healthier" than I remember. The food is too damn tasty and there's too damn much of it. Anyway, the conversation turns political, then existential (my territory) and goes until 1AM.
14. On Thursday, Mom starts reaching down deep to pull out all the stops in the kitchen. This time, homemade Cod Fish Cakes!!! The boy is in heaven. And there's the promise of homemade Crab Cakes for a big Sunday dinner.
I've got to say, I didn't fully appreciate the term "comfort food" until this trip. Something about being home, where it's nice and green from all the trees everywhere (unlike L.A.), surrounded with ALL of my family, and just indulging in food I haven't really had in this quantity & quality since I was a kid, it's just feeding my soul. It's fired my creativity.
I don't think I fully realized how exhausted I was from the summer and, perhaps, just life in general, until I laid in this little twin bed in what used to be our room but is now so clearly my mother's office, and consistently slept past my alarm clock every single day I've been here.
And, no, most of my family is not where I am, spiritually or emotionally. I do things and live a life that most of them don't understand. And yet, they are still my family. And, for all their faults and foibles, I love each and every one of them with all my heart.
In short, you CAN (and probably SHOULD) go home again.
15. So, my grandmother lost the lower half of her right leg to diabetes a few years ago. A grim reminder of the consequences of a life lived ONLY on down home black comfort food. My father, ostensibly retired, is her full time caretaker here in their house. But, he has a nurse come in twice a day to give him a hand, particularly for getting her into and out of bed every day. Dad, ex-Army, is a hard taskmaster of a boss, and has gone through easily half a dozen of these girls over the years. But the current one has finally met his approval and has lasted for at least the last year. She's Nigerian, and, when she heard that I wasn't married, she said to Dad, "Oh, your son can marry my sister!"
It may be just about time to go. :-)