Private: Good tidings of great joy

I was just being dramatic last week when I said the summer would end the day after Labor Day. I meant, you know, a shift in mood rather than an actual seasonal change.

Do you hear that noise? It’s the sound of this weather sucking the life from my very soul. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.

I’ll never get used to these gray, drizzly New York City days strung one right after the other. In South Florida the clouds blow in from the Everglades, let loose with a thunderstorm, and then disappear.

In other news, my grandparents are calling now on a weekly basis to cajole my sister and me into visiting them in Mississippi during the month of October. They’re in their early 80’s and have forgotten that we were just there in January and, before that, in May of last year.

“You haven’t been here in a few years,” they keep saying.

Last time, Sister and I told ourselves that a stay at a local casino and a little booze might make the visit more tolerable, so we bought a package deal.

Our grandmother was crying when we got off the plane. Grandpa hugged us and said, “Nobody cares about you when you’re old.” Then he began to cry himself. “All I want is peace in the family before I die,” he added, looking directly into my eyes.

“Oh, William,” Grandma said, “they just got heah. We have all weekend.”

“I guess we should get the luggage,” I said.

Sister exhaled through her teeth and started humming “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

In the airport parking lot there was an argument about where they’d parked the car. “Isn’t that it?” Sister asked.

“Why, I just don’t know where it is,” Grandma said, ignoring Sister.

“Lois, I told you to remember where I parked it,” Grandpa said.

Sister tried again: “There it is, Grandma.”

Grandma shaded her eyes with her hand and continued to survey the parking lot. “I can’t for the life of me remember where we parked that car.”

Finally, Grandpa “found” the car and instructed me to drive. He yelled at me because I was turning too quickly, or changing lanes too slowly, and because I am still unable to remember the route from the airport to their house despite the fact that I’ve driven it at least twenty times.

Evidently Grandpa is unfamiliar with the concept of repression.

As usual we were all arguing about the Mississippi flag and Jeff Davis Boulevard, which we always pass on the way to their house, before we even pulled into the driveway.

I tried to change the subject. Seeing the neighbor in the yard, I asked about her.

My grandmother said: “Oh, her granddaughter had an illegitimate child.” She paused and smoothed her pants, revealing her perfectly manicured fingernails before doubtfully lowering her voice to add this clarification: “says she was raped.”

The days wore on like that. An argument would start. Sister or I would change the subject to something that seemed innocuous, such as the magnolia tree in the front yard or our cousins. But every topic of conversation yielded new landmines. The cousins were so close with their parents (while Sister and I are both estranged from our father). The magnolia tree reminded Grandma of a wedding, which caused her to reflect on my sister’s bewildering failure to date [men] or to finish college in the normal four years.

My failure, as the eldest grandchild, to produce offspring or marry well was alluded to but not directly mentioned. Our decision to masquerade as “Yankees” and live in the Northeast was criticized indirectly, through the grandparents’ assertion that they just know we’d be so happy in a southern city like Biloxi. And so close.

The casino wasn’t much help. The first night we sat in the bar on the top floor, looking forlornly out over the Gulf and trying to tune out an argument at the next table, apparently designed to catch our attention, about whether “Yankee girls put out more.” We tried gambling but could not rid ourselves of a portly, well-meaning young man who wanted to discuss the “New York music scene” which in his view seemed to revolve mostly around Moby.

The following night we stayed in our room and ordered pizza, which made Sister violently ill.

When we failed to appear at the house by 8 a.m. the following morning, Grandpa was angry. We arrived at 9:45 and were greeted with, “Well, nice of you to get around to visiting us on your last day here.”

“William, they’re young,” Grandma said.

Grandpa looked me up and down. “Not all that young.”

Then he made a beeline for Sister. He put his arm around her and led her over to a window overlooking the bird feeder. “Now I want you to send a letter to your father,” he said. “He really wants to change.”

Grandma moved in from the other side. “He does. Now you do what Grandpa says.”

“It’s really none of your business,” I said.

“Maud, just stay out of it,” Sister said.

“Well, it isn’t.”

“And is it yours?”

In the end, that’s the worst part of these trips: Sister and I end up fighting. We’re so consumed with the effort of being nice and trying to avoid conflict with the grandparents that once they drop us off at the airport the rage bubbles up and we snipe at each other all the way home.

“Jesus, this place doesn’t sell the Times?”

“You say that every year, Maud, like it’s a new revelation. It’s the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Why would they want to read about New York City? Do you have to be such a fucking elitist?”

“Oh, like you weren’t rolling your eyes when Grandma said the Olive Garden is ‘so exotic.'”

“Look, I’m not saying I like it here. I’m just saying you already know goddamned well that they don’t sell the New York Times in Gulfport, Mississippi. So why do you have to mention it every year?”

On and on we go. Sister and I don’t fight, normally. We need each other. We are the only people in our immediate family who might, in a pinch, pass for sane.

These trips take us back to childhood when our father demanded that we stay at his house three nights a week but was too busy to drive us home in the morning. Instead, he arranged for yellow cab service.

In the taxi Sister and I furtively pinched each other and cursed in whispers and proclaimed our undying sisterly hatred.