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Friday, December 3, 2010

An Evening With the Shitorers

My mother turned 61 yesterday. I know, it's so tacky to divulge a woman's age-- but she's not like that. She already knows that I'm tacky.

And she loves me anyway.

Being as yesterday was the second night of Hanukkah, my father invited my wife and me over to their house to celebrate my mother's birthday and the Festival of Lights, too. Two birds, one stone. That's how my family rolls. We don't just trade in one car-- we do three at a time, giving untold numbers of car salesmen concurrent erections and aneurysms.

My mother received dozens of cards and her traditional mocha cake from the downtown bakery she has enjoyed for decades. The rest of us got an assortment from the supermarket. We've never been very fancypants. Even though my father drives a BMW, it has vinyl seats. Vanity is definitely skin-deep where we're concerned and, usually, we're not.

A long time ago, my wife asked me to make a family tree to pair up with the one she made for her family-- laminated-- when she was in fourth grade.

"Um, I don't think I can make you a family tree," I said, "what about a family shrub?"

Geneology never particularly interested me. In that respect, I am just like my father, I thought. I didn't realize how right I was about that until we were all sitting around the dinner table last night and my wife finally asked my eldest sister, the one who really cares about this stuff, for help with the family tree. My wife turned to my father.

"What are the names of your grandparents?"

My father looked at her as if she had just asked him to measure his own penis.

"What are you talking about? Who fuckin' cares about that? I don't know what their names are. My mother's mother used to sit on the bed, like this, and she had long hair that went all the way down to there. All I know is who was a bitch, and who was a bastard."

Bitches and bastards. Welcome to my family tree.

There was more success on my mother's side, with the help of my eldest sister's copious record-keeping and geneology research done in 2003, at the zenith of her interest in this particular subject, we were able to go back several generations. Ellis Island. Name changes. People sent back to the old country because they had glaucoma. Very short people. Bakers. Hosiery people. Schmatamakers. Yiddish. People who look like peasants. I looked down my nose at these black and white ghosts.

Some dickhead back in the forties was a movie extra in California.

"Oh, so that's where you get it from," said my wife. He died, insane, at a V.A. hospital. Hopefully I didn't get that, too.

Apparently, relatives on my maternal side bore the last name "Shitorer," which was wisely changed upon immigration.

Yes, your favorite infantile blogger could not help but laugh at that, but it was my sister's 2003 handwritten notations on our own nuclear family that had us in absolute hysterics. She referred to our middle sister as "insightful, with a lot of common sense." Even my mother was laughing so hard she was in tears. My sister even wrote about herself, in the third person, reporting, for all future generations to read, that she "likes to color." (She was 36 when she wrote this. It's still true today, at age 43.) We were practically peeing ourselves. At one point, in fact, my mother actually shrieked, "That's it! I have to make!" and she immediately left the dining room. I was on the linoleum floor at one point.

Of course, there isn't much about geneological research that is especially funny. In my family-- in yours-- in anybody's, I guess. This one had two retarded children. This one pushed her demented brother off a cliff. That one was hanged in the town square. This one had his throat slit while his wife was in the other room preparing his lunch. That one was short and fat. My grandmother was dying of lymphoma, my grandfather prematurely practicing for a marathon series of heart attacks and angiographies. Deformities. Death. Hebrew names. Nicknames. Maiden names. Birthdates with just a year and a month. Shoddy recordkeeping by apathetic, underpaid Ellis Island guards who just wanted to clock in and clock out without getting TB or conjunctivitis.

It's amazing that anybody knows anything about their family. Or wants to.

I didn't want to, I admit. I'm terrible with things that require attention and making connections, and so the idea of plodding through an endless maze of hazy recollections from old gray heads and grayer beards, facsimiles and photostats of documents and certificates really didn't seem like it would be my cup of tea. But, as I looked around the table last night, at my family in hysterics over names like Fayge, Bootsie, and Yiddle, I realized that looking backward isn't always a hassle, if you have the right lenses on. The right mixture of respect and irreverance.

In the priceless Woody Allen film, "Crimes & Misdemeanors," the annoying filmmaker character played by Alan Alda says, "Comedy is tragedy + time." He must have been talking about my family-- and yours. My mother, apparently, agreed. She only got a card from me, but she got something infinitely more valuable on her birthday: laughter. As my sister just texted me after we got home, "That was awesome. Mommy said she didn't have a good b-day until dinner time :-)"

Forget the Fokkers. If you want a good laugh, come coffee and mocha cake with the Shitorers.

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