Posts Tagged ‘family’

Winter break is here and everyone makes excited plans to go home and open gifts and drink cocoa and go sledding and sing jingle bells. Well ho ho ho, I never did that growing up so I am feeling strangely separate from everyone. We went to a big end of the term party. There’s some catchy theme to it, but essentially they are all just variations in which girls get to dress as provocatively as possible and the boys wear whatever will get the most laughs. Kat finally hooked up with Jake and I have a million bad pictures of me online with lazy eyes looking sloppy. Classic. Life goes on.  I think briefly about taking up one of several invites to go home with friends for the holidays, but cringe at the thought of being some family’s poor temporary adopted sibling. So, after a few days of lounging around, I muster some pity for my family and call them. Mamá answers the phone in Spanish and immediately starts an endless stream of chattering and yelling and cooing and scolding. Cuando vas a regresar a la casa, mi’ja? I wince, knowing that she wouldn’t accept just a Feliz Navidad phone call. I make loose plans to come home for just two days, okay? It’s only a two hour drive but I exaggerate the distance and my need to do work. I can hear her smiling through the phone.

I spend the next day at a coffee shop, trying to soak up my urban life as much as possible, reminding myself that I have escaped my past and am just going back to check in and refresh the fact that I am absolutely not a part of that life anymore. Driving down the main avenue in Flores is like seeing two worlds superimposed. Half the stores have words in English, the other half in Spanish. Actually, depending on the cross streets it’s mostly Spanish. Tiny carnecierias with huge animal body parts hanging in windows- their marbled muscles looking stiff and imposing. A man leans in the doorway of his tienda de verduras– noted by a hand painted sign with the letters getting smaller from left to right. Lopsided oranges, browning bananas, flat and de-spined cactus fruit all sit stagnantly in soft-sided boxes gathering tiny fruit flies. And several stores have so much lettering painted on them you can’t even see through the window. Screaming in neon orange and a blinding green: Cartas! Tarjetas! Envios de moneda a Mexico, Columbia, Nicaragua! I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me I had accidentally driven too far and crossed the border into Mexico already; except for the fact that I knew where I was. I was home. That word feels very distant from me. That word conjures up images of smiling families with blonde hair and fireplaces and turkeys, even though home was something very different for me growing up. It’s as if the word home and the image of home don’t connect for me: an unbalanced math equation, a lopsided teeter-totter.

As I pull up to my parent’s house, I am at first flooded with memory and emotion, happy to see mom, dad, brothers, a familiar place.  But it quickly fades to irritation at their habits, their disapproval of me and my lifetsyle, my disapproval of them. After a strained dinner, we sit and watch a bad tv show not saying much.  I curl up on the couch (my upstairs bedroom has been given to my brother!), feeling displaced, uncomfortable on the scratchy couch, embarrassed by my slight disgust with the blankets that have dog hair on them.  I don’t sleep well.  In the morning, I help mom cook breakfast. She asks me to help with laundry too (What is this, the 1950s?) but instead I go for a run. I think it will be good to get out of the house, and a little exercise always makes me feel better.  But this run is not like on campus.  Not all the roads are paved.  There are few of the tall, dazzling palms I love.  No well-kept creek.  As I run, I am met with barking dogs, stares from everyone, and a few low whistles from older men on patios.  I cut the run short and head back.   That afternoon we all go to the park.  Kids swim, music blares, people laugh and drink gallons of coca cola. Is it always summer here?  (Yes, is the answer)  The next day we go to church (Dios primero siempre, m’ija.) I sit through it, mind blanks and numb and, frankly, bored. I am about to run away and never come back.  On the walk home,  dad whispers something about how important it is to connect with siblings. I look over at Manuel and Juanito and can hardly imagine they are related to me. Manuel looks a little tired, maybe I will chat with him for a bit about what he is up to. Wasn’t he starting a new business? Maybe he’s working long hours to get it off the ground. But, as soon as we all get back to the house, irritated by another request of mama’s to participate in household chores, I forgo conversation with mi hermanos to head back on the road early. She thinks she notices a shared glance between her brother and father, but ignores this as she closes the car door and waves out the window. Goodbye, she thinks, isn’t always so sad.


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I am graduating from high school soon. The spring time fever. Everyone is excited for the summer, for their travels onward. The animals perform rites of migration and mating. I watch the sanderlings toddling about getting ready to breed, the soft budding of elk antlers. Soon the trees will fill with nests of loud, hungry babies. This fever is paralleled by hormonal teenagers in pairs; they walk holding hands with ripped jeans and find quiet basements to push their tongues and hips into eachother. Inevitably several girls will get pregnant because the conception roulette was not on their side and they will bring the drama of abortion or teenage motherhood to the hallways. The way I see it, you either pair up like mating birds, group up like herding deer, or end up a loner, like me.

The plants push out bright healthy green shoots, stretching upward and outward. I wonder if I myself will grow at all this year. I stand and look at my reflection with no shirt on. Pretty worthless. Thin arms and a ribcage that expands noticably when I breathe. My hair is dark and messy, sideswept bangs over my forehead. My jeans are black and my converse shoes are scuffed to the point the white is a mottled brown. I picture the several tattoos I plan on getting once I turn 18. Several of them based on artwork I created, some of them based on native art. I imagine the needle dipping in and out of my thin stretched skin around my ribs, taut like a hide drum. Dark ink spreading like an oil spill into the deeper layers of my dermis. I turn away and back to my canvas.

I paint the springtime colors in bold, sure strokes. A cloud temporarily covers the sun, dampening the light coming in through the window. My mother opens the door. “What are you doing?” She asks with a bored inflection. I put my shirt back on. “I’m self-injecting a massive dose of opium into my veins and coordinating an international violent uprising. What are you doing?” She sighs and tells me I have to come help her do some yard work. “Why?” She doesn’t answer me but walks away with the door open. “Shut the door, Janine! The cops could arrest me for all this illegal activity!” I dump the paintbrushes into water and follow after her.

Our yard is ugly. No, wait. The whole neighborhood is ugly. The rain has left muddy puddles all over. The grass in most yards is patchy at best and non-existent at worst. Trash blows in alleys and gathers in huddles around fence corners like gang members on the prowl. A large, shiny black raven sits on a roof gutter and eyes us suspiciously. They act and move like bodyguards, staring from the corners of their eyes, stalking with exaggerated movements, loudly announcing their indignations. I grab a rake and poke at the soggy leaves. I look over at my mother.

She has given up on herself. The man she fell in love with in high school got her pregnant and left her. She found someone else, and he did the same thing. She tried on men like bad sweaters at a thrift store, endlessly trying to find someone to help raise us boys into strapping young men and to keep her company. What she found was a tattered string of abusive relationships. See, a lot of the men here either drink, hit their family, or both. Some academics refer to is as “group cultural trauma.” The oppression of an entire culture, much like the white oppression of native alaskans, will create a ripple effect of oppression in a community. The men have lost their power, so they in turn enforce their power over their wives and children. Or over their livers with a dose of whiskey or twenty. I ponder this as I watch my mom tuck her hair behind her ear and pull the dead iris leaves, jerking them in a backward thrust. “Janine. What are you looking for in a man?” She hates it when I call her by her first name; a sign of disrespect for an elder. Why is it so irresistible for me to do this to her? I of all people know the value of a respectful name. If I was smart, I would look at myself in the mirror, and open the door of my ribcage and look inside. I would find the age-old inherited wounds and poke at them until they bleed. Then I would be able to recognize my own need to assert power and control, cut it out of me, stitch up that hole and start healing. But instead, I poke and prod at anyone and everyone else.


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Oh ho.  Thanksgiving is the best holiday if you ask me, even better than Christmas. We do sort of a “progressive dinner” for Thanksgiving, as they call it.  Since so many of us live close to each other, we each host a different part of the feast at different houses. So, we start at my Aunt Jean’s house. Appetizers and snacks and the parade and football on tv. It’s hard not to get too carried away with all the good hot artichoke dip and cheese on crackers and the like. All the kid cousins get together and play games and put black olives on their fingers and pretend to be frogs. Then, we bundle up, get in our caravan of cars and trucks, and head over to mom’s house for the main part of the dinner. The kids and adults alike lift their noses, the turkey smells fill the house. We stomp the snow or rain off our boots and hang up a hundred wet, cold jackets and hats and mittens and scarves and they hang all crooked and dripping in the now-abandoned entry way. Everyone is talking and hugging and laughing at once, even though we already did that, but it’s like we have started over again and are all happy to do so. The kitchen is a tornado of people stirring mashed potatoes and getting more forks and pouring wine and slicing bread. Most of us have the good sense to stay out of the way and watch, or talk about nothing in particular, as we all wait for the moment that golden-brown bird comes sizzling out of the oven. Dad has to cut it up, it’s tradition. And furthermore, we all have to stand and watch. Heck, tradition is the name of the whole day. It’s funny how we all get such a kick out of the idea of doing the same exact thing on the same day every year. As if we are all tired of the ups and downs of life, so we pick a time and place and say, ‘This day will never change.’ Weeks before, we get excited just thinking about eating the same dishes, having the same conversations with the same people, feeling the same way as last year. Anyways, the kids get their own table, and the adults take turns keeping an eye on them. As forks and napkins and plates and cups all migrate to the tables, we follow close behind, knowing that the moment is near. We all hold hands. Matt says a prayer. He starts off with the ever classic grace before dinner: Blessusourlordandthesethygiftswhichweareabouttorecievefromthybounty. (Either it just rolls off the tongue like water over a dam, or everyone says it as fast as possible to get to eating.) He then says the same prayer committed to memory- a psalm about giving thanks. Some of us hardly listen because we can’t wait to take that first bite of a forkful of turkey dipped in mashed potato and covered in gravy. I look sideways at Calvin squirming and licking his little red lips. We shout amen! and the quiet calm before the storm is over, as we rush the plates of food, a chorus of oh mys and this looks greats and I’ll have some more of thats. During the dinner, we usually go around and everyone says something they’re thankful for. Steph squeezes my hand anytime someone says ‘and a roof over my head…’

And we’re not even done yet because after everyone has gotten seconds and thirds and whined about eating too much; we clean up and prepare to make one more journey. We shove into the entry way and grab for our coats and fight over mis-matched gloves and shove into those old boots and we all slowly pour outside. It’s a shock to the system- the difference between inside and outside. Grandpapa gets a little quiet to listen to the snow fall off tree branches. Adam and Molly stand holding hands, marveling at how the white covered lawns reflect the soft window glow of the neighbors’ houses. Everyone in this neighborhood is still inside their homes, absorbed by good food and traditions. It feels illegal to be walking outside- like we are the only ones who know there’s a world out here. We only have to walk about six blocks to my sister’s house. It feels great to stretch and breathe in new air. We link arms or hold hands as the kids run a little ahead. When we arrive, folk’s glasses steam up as they cross the threshold. Kate’s dogs bark and jump, excited to see us. We beeline to the kitchen, to see many shiny pies lined up. Apple, cherry, pumpkin, cheesecake, mince meat, pecan, merengue. It’s better than a bakery. We take slices of our favorites, pour strong cups of coffee, and revel in the goodness of the day, with the pie being the icing on the thanksgiving cake. The youngest ones get sleepy and end up in a big pile of blankets and pillows and arms and legs and puppies on the living room floor. Everyone I love and the best food you can imagine, all in one day. It’s the best. Even better than Christmas if you ask me. When it’s my turn to say what I am thankful for, I often feel overwhelmed because I have so much to list off. I make sure to say thanks for the cooks, the dish washers, whoever invented tryptophan because it works better on kids than cough syrup, and the seamstress who made pants that will fit all our expanding bellies! I probably couldn’t say anything too serious anyways.

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Yeah, it can be hard sometimes.  But again, that’s what’s great of having so much family nearby.  Calvin spends a lot of time at his Grandmama’s house, and often with his cousins at my brothers and sister’s houses. The weekends are great.  Right now there’s a lot of yardwork, so me and Steph and Calvin spend time in the yard.  As she pulls out the dead flowers and mulches the roses, he and I rake the leaves.  That is, I use the rake and he throws the leaves everywhere, repeating why why why.  We explain why the leaves fall down and why the winter is coming and why it’s important to take care of the yard.  He stops to listen for that minute, and then goes back to making his leaf mess. We wave to the neighbors, one of ’em’s got a kid about Calvin’s age and they shyly look at each other across the street. Steph goes right over and chats for a while.  I wave, but stand my post in the yard. I turn around and watch my son humming and making some sort of costume out of his mom’s garden gloves and the trowel.  I think having a sibling will be good for him.  Shoot, good for us too!  I hope to give him the experience of growing up in a big family like I did.  The preparations for our new little one have already begun; I have started building a rocking chair, Steph is working out finances.  The fall is a good season for us- I’ve got a lot of work, Steph’s job gets busy, so we’ve got good solid income.  And the holidays are always great- Calvin wants to be a pirate for Halloween, so his mama’s putting together a really great little costume. We’ll arrange a trick-or-treat party with his cousins and some of their friends.  From growing up here, me and my brothers remember the best neighborhoods to get the most candy. Our wives give us worried looks to say ‘we don’t need the most candy in our house. Our babies teeth, and your teeth will rot out.’  That’s what holidays are for!
           On normal days, when I’m home from work I love to spend time teaching him things.  He’s only three, but you can tell he’s paying attention.  I’ll fix a shovel or fiddle with my tools in the garage, he’ll just sit on the workbench with his eyes wide open and watch.  I have similar memories of me and Mike, watching my dad.  Sometimes he points and asks why (his favorite question these days).  I’ll explain what I’m doing, and lord if it doesn’t seem like he understands every word.  Even when I say things like two-stroke engine, and fulcrum of the lever…his eyes and ears just kind of soak it up.  Shoot, maybe he’ll be a mechanical genius some day.  Like his uncle Mike for example, he spent more time in dad’s garage than even I did.  As a kid, Mikey took apart the vacuum cleaner to see how it was put together. (Mama didn’t like that one so much.) And for his fifth birthday, he had asked for a real toolset. “Not the plastic toy kind, dad,  a real one!” He got to work right away; his first project was to start sawing off the legs of the dining room table.  (Mama didn’t like that one either.) But Dad was impressed.  He said, “Look here!  I never taught the boy how to use a saw.  He figured that out darn quick!  Smart kid!”  And now Mike works on cars- he’s the best mechanic in town.  He listens to Car Talk on NPR, and when a caller asks a question, Mike will turn down the volume, proclaim the answer, and then turn it back up to hear that he was right on the money.  Smart kid. 

 (Do you hope your son will someday follow in the family business?  Become a roofer like you?)

I’d sure love to teach him everything I know.  But I’ll tell you: I’m awfully grateful to my parents for never pushing a career or anything onto us kids.  We were told we could do whatever made us happy, so long as it put food on the table and didn’t cause trouble with the law.  I will definitely say the same for mine.  Just looking at him laughing in the yard and learning about the world…I sure can’t imagine limiting him in any way.

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That’s easy.  The most important thing is family.  Maybe that’s a plain and predictable answer, but then, I guess I’m what you would call a plain man.  My name is Christopher, but most folks just call me Chris. I work as a contractor at a roofing company.  I am married to a woman named Stephanie, and we have a son named Calvin, with a baby daughter on the way.  We live in the plains, where my family and Steph’s family and our family’s families grew up.  We are excited for our family to grow because we both come from big ones ourselves. My parents and most of my relatives live here.  We all go to church on Sunday.  And we all have dinner together on Wednesday nights at my mom’s house.  I love that I still eat  dinner in the house I grew up in, with the same old warped linoleum floors and dad’s threadbare recliner and the dusty 15th edition Encyclopedia Britannica that no one ever references.  I love that my kids will grow up knowing that house.  And proud that the roof I put on it will keep everything safe in there for a lifetime.

(Is roofing something you’re passionate about, or do you find your job  to be a means to an end?)

That’s a pretty frank question.  I guess I like that.  No dilly-dallying. So I’ll shoot straight back. Roofing is a day job, sir, and I do it to support my family.  I didn’t get an expensive college degree like Steph did.  But I like what I do well enough.  I like the idea of keeping folks’ heads dry as they eat their dinners and sleep in their beds.  I’m proud to say I’ve roofed every house of the Correnson clan.  And then some.  I guess Steph has enough passion for both of us.  She works at a homeless shelter in town, some big title like Official Events and Programs Coordinator for the Municipal Low-Income Population.  A big title to go with her college diploma.  Since we’re being frank here, I’ll tell you that I don’t much like her job.  She spends all this time and energy feeding people she don’t know, people who just come off the streets, abandoning their homes and families, not even bothering to wash their clothes or sleep in a bed.  What I mean to say is, she takes care of people who don’t even take care of themselves.  It’s not like my cousin Sarah who works in an old folks home- those people can’t take care of themselves.  This is different.  I don’t see much sense in it.   Steph keeps talking about how Jesus served the poor people, so maybe she just understands better than me. She’s always elbowing me and Cal to sit up straight and pay attention in Church, but it’s mostly over my head.  Too much talk about heaven above, but the way I figure, most everything I know is down on the ground.  I like that Jesus was a carpenter though.  I picture his calloused hands working with the grain of the wood.  It’s about the closest thing I have in common with the son of God.  Working with two by fours.

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