Family Etiquette by Shanna Roberts-Salée

The doorbell rang.

As a result of this sound, my father gave a noticeable start, as though something invisible, large and unyielding had taken his breath away.  My mother, busy rolling dough balls in the kitchen to prepare some elaborate hors d’oeuvre everyone would later rave about, yelped with unprocessed delight—but a slightly dishonest one, the kind of guilty delight people feel when they furtively read tabloid magazines in line at the grocery store, gorging on the misery of others.

They were here.

My brother Jacob panicked, reviewing their names and counting them off on his fingers.

“Claudia, Cassandra, Julia, Tyler? And… What’s her name again?”

He grabbed my arm in a frenzy and said in a stage whisper, “What’s her name? What’s her name?”

My mother shook him with her messy hands. 

“Calm down.  It is not Claudia, it is Claudee, d-e-e, and her name—may I remind you that she is your aunt after all—her name is Barbara.”

“Right”, he said, “Barbara.  Can I call her Barbie?”

“No”.

My sister and I were giving each other meaningful glances, giddily jumping around in anticipation of the night.  It was bound to be entertaining, abundant with gossip and stories my mother would surely regal the neighbourhood with in the upcoming weeks, even months.

My father rolled his eyes at the lot of us, and mumbled something about why do we even have to do this, before putting on his brave smile and opening the door.  We all followed him expectantly to the front entrance.

“Hello, hello”, he said, “come on in.” 

He rubbed his hands together regally, which made him seem like a predator rather than the genial host, while my mother wiped her hands on her apron, putting on her hostess-with-the-mostest smile, and she welcomed them warmly.

I was surprised at how normal they looked, considering Barbara’s legendary persona.  Then again, how would I know what normal was—I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen my infamous aunt and cousins over the years.  Twice of which had been at my grandparents’ respective funerals.  That was the last time I had seen any of them, because Barbara had been miffed that she did not have a substantial part in the will and that she had not been invited to choose the font on the engraved box for my grandfather’s ashes.  She wanted Old English, my mother wanted French Script.  It would never have worked. 

We always joked that we would never see them again because everyone was already dead.  Knock on wood, though.

Uncle Don, my mother’s brother, had had the good sense to divorce Barbara a few years ago. She was the estranged sort-of aunt we never saw. And she came, of course, with the emotional baggage of a scorned housewife who had not planned a life beyond the well outdated use of her uterus.

As we were kissing hello and exchanging falsities I marvelled at how nice and balanced my cousins seemed to be, especially now that they didn’t even have a father figure to counter the Barbarian oppression.

“So nice to see all of you”, Barbara said, “and that you finally invite us into your home”.  She was smiling like a politician. 

My mother suppressed a snort. 

“Oh Barb, you know you are always welcome here, whenever you want”.

“Oh, how kind of you”, Barbara said.  “But, you know, I just didn’t know where we stood.  It has been a few difficult years since Donald and I got divorced, and I thought maybe you would take Donald’s side and wouldn’t want anything to do with us anymore”.

We stood silently while my mother’s four nieces and nephew looked at her with wounded cocker spaniel eyes, dreading some sort of confirmation.

She smiled tightly.  “Of course not, Barb, what would give you that idea? I guess my multiple invitations and letters got lost in the mail”.

My father laughed. “That’s funny, that’s funny”, he said.  “Mi casa es su casa.” 

It fell flat.

“Well, shall we go to the living room?  I’ve got some great hors d’oeuvres we can munch on before supper”, my mother said.

I noticed that Barbara had gained a considerable amount of weight since the last funeral, which was no small feat. 

“Oh, yes, it smells so good in here.  You know, I wish I had time to cook and host lavish parties, Clara, but with four kids to take care of, I just have different priorities.  They’re really the most important thing to me.” 

My brother stabbed the air behind her back with an invisible knife, going ‘eeee. eeee. eeeeeee’.

My mother whipped him with her washcloth before disappearing in the kitchen, under the guise of having to check on the cheese puffs.  We all sat down and looked at the walls.

“Well, that seems like a two-person job”, my dad muttered, “I think I will go help Clara.  She’s got quite a lot going on in the kitchen”. 

He disappeared swiftly, fully ignoring our pleading looks.  Thanks.

So.

We all smiled politely. 

“Well,” Tyler said, “d’ya got beer or somethin’?”

Barbara glanced at him tenderly.  “Oh, Tyler!”

 She looked at us. “He likes to have a beer before dinner, and I think he’s mature enough to understand the consequences of his actions.  After all, he’ll be legal next year.”

She looked at him again.  “Love before addiction, Tyler, right?”

He grunted. 

“No, sorry,” I said, “we’ve got wine though, I think.  Red or white?”

“Wine?” He basically spat out the word.  “I hate wine.  Never mind.”

“Now, now, Tyler.”  Barbara was using her sticky sweet voice. “I told my children they had to behave tonight because at first they really didn’t want to come and I told them we had a duty to visit, you know, because you people are family and well, you’re the only tie I have left to my ex-husband’s family.”

Hmm.  Sure?

Of course, she was referring to my other aunt, Adele, a hardened feminist, who had long ago decided that Barbara was a large human-shaped joke or perhaps an example to counter-argue anti-feminist rhetoric.

I looked over at my younger cousins, Cassandra and Claudee.  They were already having a fabulous time with my brother, popping cheese puffs and scoring goals by throwing them in my dog’s mouth.  Seemed to me that the only problem here tonight had an aura the colour of ol’ Barb.

“Passive-aggressive much,” my sister whispered.  We laughed.

My parents came back out with a new tray of puffs, and I shot them a wide-eyed death look.  

Tyler started gorging on hors d’oeuvres and warmed up to us considerably after my father fetched him an old Sleeman’s from the basement fridge.  It was probably stale, but I think Tyler was happy as long as he got his daily pre-meal beer fix.

We dodged resentful landmines planted by Barbara in casual conversation, smiling fixedly and nervously eating our puffs faster than good etiquette dictated.  She regaled us with tales of her heroic divorce battle and the dramas of being a single mother, her whole monologue almost worthy of an Oprah segment left to die in the editing room.  Of course, we would hear about these important moments of her life in her yearly Christmas family newsletter, a painfully overt detailed account of her bitter failures peppered with holiday cheers and much love to all.

My cousins were pleasant and amusing, but my feelings towards Tyler remained ambiguous after he told me a highly nauseating joke involving abortion and the oral consumption of unborn foetuses.

“So,” I asked Tyler as we sat around the table for dinner, “what are you doing these days?”

“You know, taking a year off.  Mopping floors at McDonalds, it’s a pretty lame job.”

“Oh.  That sounds… well.”  I turned to Cassandra.  “So, Cassie, what grade are you in?”

“Oh, tut-tut.  No, no.”

I turned to Barbara.  “Sorry?”

“No, no.”  She smiled politely. “We do not call Cassandra ‘Cassie’.  No, no.  She doesn’t like that.  You can say ‘Cassa’ or ‘Azza’ for short, but not ‘Cassie’.” 

She frowned almost apologetically, but not quite.

“I’m sorry Barbara,” I said, “I didn’t realize Cassandra felt so strongly about her nickname.”

Barbara smiled.  “It’s quite alright.”

The tinkering of plates and utensils was painfully loud.

My brother whispered “can I call her Caca?”  and I snorted in my glass.

“Okay, everyone, serve yourselves,” my mother said loudly.  She shot me a look, because I was older and I should have known better than to encourage him.  I rather thought Barbara encouraged everyone with her wide gerth and absolutely inane comments.

Tyler forked the better part of an entire pork roast onto his plate, and we all tried really hard not to stare.

Barbara paused, seemingly deep in thought.

“Is anything wrong, Barbara?”

“Oh, sorry?”  She jumped slightly, as though pulled from some deep contemplation.  “Oh no, everything is quite alright.  I was just wondering…”

“Yes?”

“Well,” she said.  She seemed bothered by something. 

“I was just wondering, you know, since the divorce, can I still technically be considered Jacob’s aunt?”

My jaw dropped. “Well, Barb, I said pointedly, if Jacob’s not your nephew anymore I really wonder what that makes us. 

My sister and I are adopted, so Barbara was obviously playing the traditional family angle.  We weren’t blood, so we weren’t family or something like that.  A little rich coming from her, I thought, since she’d just divorced her adulterous husband.

I gave her a furtive ‘don’t fuck with me’ look, which I hoped no one caught.

“Of course”, Barbara continued, “we don’t need traditional family bonds to love each other.”

My dad choked on his spit and rolled his eyes at the ceiling.

I knew we were all silently hoping Barbara would command one of her ridiculous hand-holding, ‘loooooove yoouuuuu’ chanting prayers before the meal, but sadly she did not.

We ate without too many attacks from enemy camp, almost enjoying their company, but the whole event felt a little too much like a TV show pilot—contrived and thoroughly rehearsed—for it to be entirely enjoyable.

“So next year, you know,” Cassandra said, “I’m gonna be home schooled because Mommy says that the people at my school are stupid and don’t understand that I’m ahead of the others, and so Mommy’s gonna take matters in her own hands so I don’t waste my time.”

Barbara nodded. “That’s right Azza,” she said, “because you’re much too smart to be left with those slow students.”

Cassandra looked up at me with great conviction and said “Mommy says I’m gifted, you know.”

Barbara laughed before proclaiming, “I’m so proud of my children, and I’m so lucky that they’re all so talented.”

Yes, I thought, it takes outstanding skills to mop floors and drink beer.  But I didn’t say it.

Barbara glanced at the clock. “Tyler, it’s time.”

We all looked at Tyler, puzzled, as he pulled a little box from his back pocket.  I was actually biting into a large chunk of meat when I realized he was shooting up his intravenous diabetes medicine at the dinner table.

?!?

“Wow”, my dad said, “so you can do this at the table?”

Barbara looked at our disconcerted, appalled and horrified faces with a patronizing smile.  “Well, John,” she said, “we’re trying to teach Tyler that his ‘problem’”—she actually did the air quote—“is not anything to be scared or ashamed of.”

“Doesn’t it hurt,” asked my brother.

“Nah, you get used to it.”

“Really, my sister said incredulously, I’m not sure my appetite would.”

Tyler wiped the trickle of blood from his artery with my mother’s embroidered tablecloth.

And that was it for our meal.

The rest of the night unfolded in a predictable manner.

Barbara secured her position as the poster child for solipsism, talking about overcoming personal challenges, finding joy and life beyond a husband.  My mother was the most polite: she pretended to listen. 

The rest of us found comfort in the arms of John McLain and international terrorists.  Of course, we couldn’t tell Barbara which movie we were watching because she has a strict no-violence policy in her household.

Right, but she let Tyler paint his whole bedroom—walls, window, ceiling, floor—black. 

Even my untrained psychological eye told me that was probably not normal. Maybe, even, perhaps, indicative of a violent psyche?  At the door, before they left, we exchanged the customary kiss, kiss. 

“Oh, Clara, we have to do this again.  Kids, did you have a good time?”

“Yes! Yes!” They jumped with unabashed enthusiasm, except Tyler, of course.  He was working on his image.

“Great!  Kids, in the car,” Barbara said.

She closed the door behind them and looked at each of us with what could be misconstrued as a meaningful, sentimental gaze.

“You guys”, she said, syrupy voice all thick and gooey.  “Before I came tonight, I have to admit I was a little…”

Hypocritical?  Two-faced?  Unbearably passive-aggressive?  But I didn’t say it.

“… Apprehensive.”

Really, Barbara?  But you were so clever at hiding your reticence.  We all nodded sympathetically.  My dad even did a tentative ‘awww’.

“But now”, she continued as she randomly grabbed my hand because it was within reach of her pudgy fingers, “I feel that we truly are bonded by the love of a united family.”

My mother nodded vaguely, “hmm, yes.”

“Thank you, thank you a million times again.  We should get together for Christmas, Clara.”

“Well, actually”, I said, “I think Uncle Don is coming for Christmas”.

Barbara stared in shock.

“But I guess it’s okay, right, since we all love each other and we’re united?”  I smiled sweetly.  I was really getting good at this.  Frightening.

I could almost see the inner struggle behind Barbara’s eyes—the agitated pools of her mind didn’t run very deep. 

“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure that would be lovely”. 

I almost screamed out in pain from the pinch my mother was giving me.  But, my poker face remained intact. 

Barbara left without another word.

We all started laughing, a little bashful at first, keeping up the facade, and full-on when their car was out of sight.

We knew it was, in all probability, the last we saw of her in a long time.

“Okay,” my brother said, “who dies next?”

Knock on wood, though.

Shanna Roberts Salée is 24 years old and at a loss for describing herself. She graduated from the Communication Studies program at Concordia University in 2009 and spent a large portion of the following years travelling all over. She enjoys off-colour jokes, Douglas Coupland and all things Bob Dylan. Her eternal struggle between travelling and pursuing a career in the movie industry has not been put to rest. In the meantime, she is trying to get her first novel published, The Juilliards, the tale of a morally questionable suburban family. She currently lives in Montreal and has no pets.

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