Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Wet Christmas

This story is legend in my family. We must tell this story at least thirty-seven times a year because it cracks us up so much and every time we meet a new person we get excited because that means we have an excuse to tell this story again.

This story precedes THE WORST CHRISTMAS OF ALL TIME. There was nothing good about that Christmas at all. Period. The scope of the disaster was epic. 

It was the mid-90s. I lived in Atlanta with my ex-fiance. My parents had come to Atlanta to open a telemarketing room because, although they lived in Florida, telemarketing rooms had just been outlawed in the Sunshine State but were totally legal in Georgia, where there was also no shortage of really strange people who were more than willing to work in telemarketing rooms (well, that's true of Florida too, I suppose).

My mom never really liked Atlanta. She said the air pollution in the city caused her to choke and she couldn't find her way around the city streets to get anywhere and forget the traffic. Plus, her people weren't there. She wanted to be with family that Christmas, so she decided to pack up and drive down to South Florida to be with her younger sister, my Aunt Kiki. My mother's father, my Poppop June, who lived in Delaware, was also driving down and it would be the first Christmas in years that everyone would get to spend together. It was going to be wonderful.

But those are the kinds of expectations from which horror stories are made. Those are the kinds of expectations born from the well meaning, yet insidious tendency that our minds have of trying to romanticize and idealize our memories, especially our memories of family members we haven't seen in a while. Yeah, so what I'm saying is that my family is a pack of fucking nuts and since we hadn't seen them in a while, my mom and I forgot (repressed is more like it) how very fucking nuts they were.

My aunt was on the outs with her second husband. They lived in Sunrise, Florida, a town we nicknamed "Scum-rise." It's not even a town honestly, more like a cluster of town home and apartment complexes surrounded by endless strip malls. I don't think there are any trees.

My aunt's second husband Art, for reasons unknown, hated my mother, which should have been a clue that this Christmas was going to suck a big one, but again, we had repressed the unpleasant memories. Art was a loser who never did anything. He was a leech who scammed the government for disability benefits while he doctor shopped for pain pills so he could lay up in bed for days on end, wacked out of his mind on opiates, yet never quite having the decency to just fucking overdose and get it over with already. He was a truly useless human being and tragically, my aunt had two toddlers with him. She also had two daughters from her first marriage, so there were four kids in the house and since my aunt had to sell cars to support her lowlife husband, said lowlife husband was supposed to be taking care of the kids. But remember how I said all he did was lay in bed? You can imagine how that went. The two older girls went to school and the toddlers ran wild. I don't for the life of me understand how those children even stayed alive.

My Aunt Kiki is a hoarder. Luckily, so was her current mother in law, Art's mom. Every Tuesday when it was senior discount day, Aunt Kiki and Art's mom would go to the World Thrift Second Hand Emporium and buy the place out. What I'm getting at is that with unsupervised children running around all day and Aunt Kiki being a hoarder, the house was unclean. It was a mess. No, it was a downright biohazard. In fact, less than a year later, when they finally moved, the house actually had to be condemned, and that is an actual fact and not a bit of literary hyperbole. There were several pets too. Aunt Kiki hoarded animals as well.

None of this boded well for Christmas.

As soon as my mom arrived, it hit her. The smell, the barking dogs, the sticky, screaming children, the surly, slurring lowlife her sister married.

It was a few days before Christmas and nothing had been done. There were no presents. There was no tree. There was nothing but a mess which seemed to be growing exponentially by the second and there were five little girls (including my sister) to think about. My mom had to save Christmas for the kids. If she didn't, nobody else would. My aunt was already drunk and had informed my mother within five minutes of her arrival that she was having an affair with a coworker and hated her husband, which was understandable, but still.   

My mom cleaned. She scrubbed. She stuffed a ton of junk into the already stuffed garage. She wiped down and scraped up. She put away, threw out, bleached, scoured and mopped. She made the poor children something to eat. And when it was done, my mom went to the mall.

Because if you are going to save Christmas, the best place to start is at the world's largest outlet mall.

Ok, so according to Wikipedia, Sawgrass Mills is not, in fact, the world's largest outlet mall. There are like, thirty malls in Asia and two in Iran (seriously? Iran?) that are way bigger and Sawgrass Mills is actually only the sixth biggest mall in the United States, but this matters not because when you are actually at Sawgrass Mills, it feels like the world's biggest mall.   

Sawgrass Mills is a shit storm of junk and people from other countries who think they are getting massive deals when they really aren't. It's store after store after store filled with shit you don't need, unless it's Christmas and then it's filled with shit you believe someone else needs, although they actually don't need it anymore than you do. I promise you. I think most of the population of South America comes to South Florida expressly to visit Sawgrass Mills and the first thing they'll do is buy a bunch of big ass suitcases at, I guess, the suitcase outlets and they will roll them around while they shop and pack the suitcases with their purchases as they go. I find this very nightmarish on many levels.

There are no parking places. Sawgrass Mills is crowded. It is always unseasonably hot. You cannot walk two feet without being accosted by an Israeli hawking some piece of worthless, made in China crap at one of the probably, thousands of kiosks in the place.

I always wonder, who buys that stuff? Who falls for the sales pitches? Who is even remotely interested in anything these people are selling?

The answer lies not so far away really. It's my mother. Though her hair has never curled, not even in the worst tropical humidity, my mother owns three hair straighteners. Her bathroom is filled with small jars and large bottles of creams boasting ingredients mined straight from the Dead Sea promising anti-aging miracles. She's tried to stop smoking with electronic cigarettes that emit water vapor to simulate real smoke and her home is filled with countless doodads all bought on impulse at mall kiosks. Rubber garlic peeler anyone?

That's why it wasn't really a surprise to anyone that day, the day my mother tried to save Christmas at the world's 37th largest outlet mall, that my mother just had to, HAD TO, look at a vast selection of wigs formulated with spage-age, synthetic hair technology used for centuries in Europe. Because in the world of mall kiosk marketing, if you call something European that automatically makes it both totally legit and also very fancy, which is a win-win, and my mom will probably buy it and tell everyone that it's European in a hushed tone full of awe and reverence.

"This rubber garlic peeler?" she will say, "It's from Europe. This is how the Europeans peel their garlic."

And presumably everyone will whisper "Wow" because we Americans don't know shit about peeling garlic. Or space-age synthetic hair technology. 

My mom has some kind of hair issue that dates back to a childhood trauma in which my grandmother cropped her hair short, in the style of the day, and made my mother sleep in tightly wound rag curlers when all my mother really wanted, and I mean REALLY REALLY wanted, was long flowing hair like a princess. My mom grew up and grew her hair long, bleached it so blonde that my sister and I have always described it as "clear" and pretty much never did anything else to it, except during a brief dark period in the mid to late 80s that involves spiral perms, but I don't want to talk about that. The memories are very painful. But although my mother was now a grown woman who could do whatever the hell she wanted with her hair, it seemed she could never shake the feeling of being that insecure little girl who hated her hair and wanted someone else's. Her hair was never long enough. It was too thin. Her pony tail was anorexic. It didn't grow fast enough and it didn't hang right. Such was her hair anxiety, that she never ever set foot in a salon to have it properly styled. Instead she relied on me to occasionally trim it and if I snipped off more than about a half millimeter, she'd scream that I'd practically scalped her. Likewise, she extended her hair anxiety onto me and my sister, who rebelliously liked to bob our hair just to listen to our mother keen and wail that we'd cut all our hair completely off, as if we were now bald, which we found absolutely hilarious. It is a miracle, especially when we were big Sinead O'Connor fans, that we never actually shaved our heads just to see her reaction. Maybe we feared we'd put the poor woman in the hospital.

So that day, in Sawgrass Mills, my mom thought maybe a wig would do the trick. Maybe a few strategically placed European, clip in hair extensions would fill out her limp strands. Could be that she thought if only she had a perfect looking head of hair that she could save a Christmas for which it looked like there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of hope. I understand. Once, back in Atlanta, a stylist at Van Michael's salon was able to trim my bob in such a way that the left side folded itself neatly under instead of stubbornly flipping out, as was its usual habit. I felt like I could stop inner city crime and broker peace in the Middle East with that haircut.

In tow at Sawgrass Mills were my sister, then thirteen, my thirteen year old cousin and her almost twelve year old sister. Three good for nothing, smart ass, pre-teen girls are not who you want around if you ever run into trouble. But what trouble, you ask. There's no trouble in looking at a few wigs. What could possibly go wrong?

Sawgrass Mills doesn't have fountains anymore. If you walk through the mall now you will notice that what once were sparkling pools, streams, ponds mingling with palms and ferns, are now barren, drained dry craters. Mostly they are now filled with more kiosks. Once I asked a security guard what had happened to the lovely water features. He said they'd gotten rid of them to make room for more retail space. But I don't believe it. I'm pretty sure there are no more fountains at Sawgrass Mills because of my mom. 

The girls were dead bored. They wanted to look in Spencer's Gifts so they could giggle and tee hee about things shaped like boobs and penises. They had no patience for my poor, beleaguered mother who was hauling a huge Marshalls bag of toys for the little ones, while she perused the wigs and hair extensions. "Feliz Navidad" piped though the crowded corridors. The greasy scent of fast food beckoned from the food court. The mistress of the wig stand barked at passers by waving in one hand a large mirror while in the other she clutched and shook a clump of synthetic auburn curls.

My mom lifted a platinum hairpiece from a styrofoam head, raked her own hair back from her forehead with her fingernails, and wiggled the cap of tumbling, golden waves down over the crown of her head. She adjusted it, furrowing her brow, squinting at herself in a mirror on the display, but being a little far sighted, she couldn't get a good look at it. She pushed the wig around on her head a bit more. It really was her dream hair, this wig, and it cost a fortune because it was practically waist length and most wigs are much shorter you know. But didn't she deserve it? She should have this wig shouldn't she? I imagine, at that moment, in my mother's head that she pictured herself with the wig on, twirling in a brightly lit, somewhat hazy meadow of wildflowers wearing a peasant dress while The Carpenters played. To get a better look in the mirror, my mother stepped back.

She was so caught up in the reverie of her perfect wig that she didn't look behind her and she didn't have time to catch herself before she landed, square on her ass, bag of Christmas toys, wig on her head and all, into a water feature.

It was barely even a foot deep, but does that matter when you're unexpectedly sitting in it? Stunned, my mother's first reaction was to try to get up but the shopping bags she carried had filled with water and when she tried to stand, the heavy bags pulled her right back down again, this time even harder than the original fall, so now she was flat on her back in the pond in the middle of the world's 37th largest outlet mall at Christmas. Again she tried to stand and again she fell back down, this time because she slipped on the soles of her wet flip flops. Water splashed everywhere. She may as well have been doing cannonballs. That's how much water there was.

This all went down in front of the then quite popular Rainforest Cafe. A crowd gathered. My mother had been wearing a white tee shirt and a pair of white stretch pants. We all know what happens to white tee shirts when they're soaked through and my mom has huge boobs, which now, everyone could see clearly though her wet shirt and wet bra.

Water features in the mall are treated with dangerous amounts of chlorine; many times the amount found in a swimming pool. My mother's skin began to tingle. Her eyes burned and the more she tried to wipe them, the more they burned and then she couldn't see, so her next several attempts to get up again ended with her landing back in the water.

"Why's that lady swimming?" asked a small child, pointing.

Foreigners stopped rolling their suitcases stuffed with bags from the Banana Republic outlet and took a look. Everyone waiting for a table at the Rainforest Cafe stood and watched the spectacle. You could no longer hear "Prospero Ano y Felicidad" over the laughter of the crowd which now circled the pond and was at least three people deep.

But no one helped my poor mom get out of the damned water!

My two useless cousins and sister had gone into such convulsions of hysterical laughter that all their arms went weak and when each of them tried in turn to pull my mother out of the pool, they'd erupt into such a fit of giggles that they'd drop their arms and stoop forward, gasping, wiping away their tears and trying not to pee their pants. They were no help at all.

Finally, a security guard arrived and helped my mother out of the water and eventually, when they saw not much else of any excitement was going to happen to top the woman falling into the fountain repeatedly, the crowds dispersed and went back to buying things that no one needs and which are not actually from Europe. And when the security guard saw that my mother wasn't hurt and wasn't inclined to sue the mall, he too went back to his post and my mother was forgotten, left standing in clammy, clinging clothes with stinging skin and red eyes with three laughing and still totally useless girls.

She looked in her bag and the things she'd bought were mostly ruined now from the water. The outfits had been bleached, the boxes of toys soaked through and no stores would return the items. Most of it ended up in the trash. The wig that had caused all of this in the first place had sunk to the bottom of the fountain where its long, curled tresses floated out from its skullcap like the tentacles of a platinum blonde octopus.

And as for my mom, she had to go to Marshalls immediately to buy a new outfit and after that, she had to start Christmas shopping all over again, because there were children who needed to believe that Santa came even to homes with drug addicted fathers and mothers who drank too much and hoarded garbage from the second hand store.

Because there was still a Christmas to save.

But sometimes Christmas can't be saved and that one couldn't. 

My grandfather arrived and on Christmas Eve he suffered a massive heart attack which left him on life support and hovering near death, so there was no turkey and dressing that Christmas day even though my mom made sure the little ones still got their toys from Santa in the morning. 

My family spent that Christmas day in a hospital waiting room outside of the ICU. We were bored and worried, devastated and hungry and then guilty about being hungry but every so often one of my cousins would say very quietly: "Aunt Sis fell in the fountain at Sawgrass Mills."  And we would all smile and kind of snicker because sometimes laughter is all a family has to hang on to.

My mother's effort at saving Christmas that year was heroic, but in the end she couldn't pull it off because sometimes there are just things beyond our control and sick hearts can't wait until the 26th to give out. But what she did that year for us all was bigger than making a big dinner or wrapping up a bunch of pretty presents. She taught us that when you find a mess you clean it up. When you fall down in the pool in the middle of the mall, repeatedly, you keep trying and trying to get out of the water. You walk through that mall with your boobs shining through your wet tee shirt and you go to Marshalls and buy yourself a dry outfit so you can keep on Christmas shopping because there are children that can't be let down. You don't let the humiliation and disappointment pull you down like a bag of drenched toys and you don't sink to the bottom like that stupid wig. You do what you got to do and while you're getting it done, it doesn't hurt to provide a little comic relief.

17 comments:

Melanie said...

Wide Lawns, your mother is simply amazing, which helps explain why you are so amazing yourself.

I lol'd at the way you turned several phrases, for example, saying that you forgot how nuts your family was, and then in parentheses, "repressed is more like it." Boy howdy, I can relate!!!

Thanks for sharing your family's misfortunes with us. It makes us feel better knowing that we aren't the only ones with families who are f*cking nuts! :)

Melanie said...

Suggestions for later (when you publish this story in a hardbound collection of other hilarious escapades):

I think the number in paragraph 2 should be changed, for the simple reason that the number 37 is used several other times in the story to describe the mall's place in worldwide mall-bigness.

Also, I think the story ends rather abruptly. I know you can make a better ending than that. I mean, it's pretty good as is, but you can make it perfect with a tiny bit more work.

While offering these small criticisms, I would also like to offer this praise: The visuals you provide are the best -- bar none. By doing so you make the story stick in our minds and consequently wanting more of your written stylings. This is why I know that you are going to be a sensation one of these days, just as soon as people have a chance to discover you.

I can't wait!

P.S. You don't necessarily have to post this since I'm writing it expressly for your consideration.

Melanie said...

I meant to say sentence 2, not paragraph 2. Sorry.

Angie said...

Yes, you do have an amazing mom!

And I just love your stories of your family, and this one happens to be a real doozy ... :)

Anonymous said...


Again, you amaze me beyond words. Someone publish this girl!

Wonderful story. I laughed, then at the end ...I nodded in agreement. Lovely story actually.

L. in CA

kerry said...

The lesson in stubbornness and getting done what you need to do made me cry.

But yes, sometimes the disasters are the best memories.

Anonymous said...

I love these stories about your family. These warm hearted wonderful women. You describe everything so vividly I can almost see this happening.

Tricia said...

OMG! I laughed so hard at this! Wonderful memories ; o )

J.J. said...

Awesome! Thanks WL and Merry Christmas especially to you and your Mom. I hope you have many truly good ones ahead.

LegalMist said...

That was a beautiful story. Thank you.

JoeinVegas said...

You left yourself out - weren't there and this is all hearsay? Very good story whatever.
How is your Christmas coming?

Vic said...

Did your mother have to pay for the wig? Please say no.
She is unconventional and sometimes impractical, but has a wonderful soul.
Thanks for sharing this one.

mcgrimus said...

This needs to be animated, preferably in claymation. Funny, touching stuff. Thanks.

spookyrach said...

This beats the holy hell out of that "IT's A Wonderful Life" type of dreck. You bring whole new depth to my coping phrase "well,could be worse!"

Kim Proctor-Day said...

I love your Mom ... shes awesome! Merry Christmas WL , I hope you have a reasonably sane time this year with your mini you :)

Dawn said...

I am so glad I finally took the time to read this post. It really is the perfect Christmas story.

Anonymous said...

"You walk through that mall with your boobs shining through your wet tee shirt and you go to Marshalls and buy yourself a dry outfit so you can keep on Christmas shopping because there are children that can't be let down. You don't let the humiliation and disappointment pull you down". Best laugh I've had in ages. What an amazing woman.

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