Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 31, 2004. Family life, Upstate New York.

My nephew Jesse interned this summer with someone who teaches filmmaking. His final project was a short video on a subject of his choice. He was stumped as to what to film. By the time Sunday evening was over, we realized that he should have filmed all of us – my sister Caroline and her husband George, their children, and me and my mother, from late afternoon through mid-evening. With the right editing it would have made a hilarious documentary of family life.

I’m not sure I can convey it in words, though.

Early in the afternoon my sister, my mother and I drove to the Shur Save – the local supermarket – to pick up my older nephew Avi, who is working there part time, and to pick up food for dinner. Some of George’s friends were coming over and Caroline wanted to be sure there would be enough for them to eat if they decided to stay. Cashiering at the Shur Save is Avi’s first “real” job, and he raced around picking up groceries with me and the cart in tow, assuring me that he knows the store like the back of his hand. Candy bars were on sale, and he grabbed a pile, telling Caroline that they were for him, not the family, and he was going to pay for them himself. At the check-out he chatted with two other cashiers, Jennie in his grade at the high school and Rosmita a year behind. Caroline clearly thought Rosmita was something special, and when Rosmita asked for one of Avi’s candy bars Caroline encouraged him to share them. Avi didn’t quite get it, but Caroline was sure Rosmita liked him. Or I should say, Liked him. And Caroline liked Rosmita.

Back at the house, we piled into the pond to cool off, Caroline muttering about how she should start prep for dinner just in case, my niece Corina and me splashing around the pond with inner tubes and noodles. Then the trouble started. George emerged from the house to summon Caroline to the phone, and she headed out of the pond, hair dripping. Turned out there was a mini-crisis in her office. A key piece of software wasn’t running properly, and on this first weekend of Cornell’s fall semester, the faculty trying to set their courses up on the web were getting hysterical. Caroline spent a while on line, made some phone calls, and we all gathered in the living room to hang out with George’s friends when they came by.

They left at seven to head to a dinner engagement and we all began to consider our own plans. Dinner was supposed to be do-it-yourself burritos, with a special recipe that only Caroline knew. George cooks dinner during the week, so on Sundays it’s Caroline’s turn. But she was upset that it was already 7:00, nothing was started, and the software crisis at work was looming over her head.

I don’t know who suggested that we all to out to eat instead, but the idea was electric.

Avi and Jesse were delighted, instantly planning what they would order.

George thought it was a great plan, and looked forward to the fried fish special.

My mother and I were fine with going out.

Caroline pointed out that we’d have to take two cars, with seven of us, but Avi liked that idea since he could drive one of them.

Corina, who is ten, didn’t want to eat out. There was nothing on the menu of the suggested restaurant that she wanted, she was sick of everything they served, and she wanted burritos.

Caroline said she had two hours of work to do on the software crisis, and if we went out she couldn’t start till 9:00.

Okay, we said, we’ll stay here.

Avi and Jesse were crestfallen.

But no one had started dinner, and now it was 7:20. Caroline began pulling things out of the fridge.

But, Avi pointed out, what good does it do to stay here, if you’re going to spend an hour cooking dinner? You still won’t get to work till 9:00. We might as well go out.

I’ll cook, I said. We’ll all cook, so Caroline can deal with the crisis while we make dinner.

Why does she have to deal with the crisis, Avi asked, it’s Sunday.

Because she’s a professional, I said, she doesn’t clock hours. When there’s something to do, she does it. Avi seemed dubious about being a professional if that was the deal, until he realized that professional jobs were generally more interesting than cashiering at the Shur Save, so the tradeoff might be okay.

No, George said, it’s because she’s too soft and she lets them take advantage of her. Fixing this software isn’t her job, she shouldn’t have to deal with it – on Sunday or any other day.

Well, Caroline said, I’m not trying to solve it, I’m just trying to move it along and alert the people who can solve it. Right now I’m the only one who can get the solution going, and I don’t want to leave all those professors in the lurch. But I feel really bad that George would have to prepare dinner, it’s my turn.

My mother, who lives in Manhattan, suggested that we just send out for something instead of making burritos.

George laughed. This isn’t Manhattan, there’s no place to send out from. There’s just Paradise Pizza in Trumansburg.

Pizza is good, various people said.

Well, we could order pizza.

So what kind of pizza?

My mother wanted sausage, and she can’t eat most vegetables. So half a pie of sausage.

Jesse and Avi wanted sausage and mushroom. Half a pie there.

Caroline wanted pepper and mushroom. Another half a pie.

Jesse and Avi wanted white cheese and garlic on the fourth half of our two pizzas.

But then Caroline could only eat the pepper and mushroom, as she’s lactose intolerant and not keen on sausage. And my mother could only eat the sausage, since the veggies give her trouble.

Let’s get three pizzas, said George.

Three? That’s crazy, we never even finish two, and no one ever eats the left-over pizza, claimed Caroline.

I’ll pack some for lunch, I said, I like left-over pizza.

I’ll eat the left-overs, Avi said. Okay, then what kind should we get?

I like mushroom and black olive, I said.

How about the last half plain, my mother said.

Plain, what a waste of pizza space! Avi exclaimed.

Three pizzas, my mother said, that’s crazy!

Just let it be, I said, any decision is fine so long as we make a decision here.

Corina hadn’t voiced her pizza preferences and wouldn’t reply when Caroline asked with increasing impatience. Finally she admitted that she wouldn’t eat any pizza and she wanted burritos.

Fine, Corina has burritos and the rest of us have pizza.

But three pizzas for six people is absurd!

George wondered if Paradise Pizza was even open, sometimes they lose power and close in thunderstorms. We’d had thunderstorms for hours.

Well, then call them.

So how many pizzas are we getting?

Three, just call.

George called Paradise Pizza. They were closed. Now it was 7:45.

Great, Avi said, we’ll have to go out.

But the restaurant might have lost power as well.

I don’t want to go out, it will be even later when we get back and I have to work.

I want burritos.

Okay, okay.

Jesse put the meat on a frying pan – so much for the special recipe only Caroline knew. George started slicing vegetables, shoving me out of the way with a wave of his knife and a remark about the kitchen being small.

Avi went upstairs to read a book for school.

Caroline got on the cordless phone in the kitchen to call the software company, but the phone went out and wouldn’t work. The rotary phone was okay, but she needed to enter codes to get through the voicemail system.

I borrowed a raincoat and ran through another thunderstorm to get my cellphone from my van so she could use that.

My mother and Corina settled down to read on the couch.

George and Jesse and I chopped veggies, grated cheese, and made guacamole.

Caroline frantically made phone calls.

Dinner was ready at half past eight. We wolfed it down as if we were starving, except for my mother, who told us over and over that this was a very strange way to eat. She’s rather a meat and vegetables person – food in other shapes doesn’t seem like a meal to her. The hundreds of glorious ethnic restaurants within a ten minute walk of her Manhattan apartment are quite wasted on her.

The phone rang all through dinner, and Caroline was up and down talking to one person after another about software.

After dinner I retired to the porch with a dish of ice cream, Corina joined me on the swinging couch.

Caroline finally reached the right person and turned the software problem over to him.

Then began the discussion of who was going where in the morning at what time, who would drive whom where and when, which child would go to the noon dentist appointment and which children would go at 4:00. That was almost as bad as the dinner plans. Corina had to be at camp at 9:00. My mother had to be at the bus by 9:30. Jesse was supposed to work on his video, but since he hadn’t done any filming there was no point. Avi had to be at the Shur Save at 4:30 so if he went to the dentist at 4:00 he’d be late. And he’d have to take the bus to work from Ithaca because no one would be there to drive him. Caroline thought her office would be hectic and didn’t want to have to take anyone to the dentist at noon. Round and round it went.

Before we all went to bed Caroline played Jesse’s first video on the computer. He’s no rival for Steven Spielberg, but we were all in hysterics at close-ups of a sleepy cat lumbering across the living room, Avi playing computer games, Caroline’s voice saying “are you still taping this?” in a tone of disbelief, and Corinna banging out “when Johnny comes marching homes” on the piano.

Why is it so funny? When Caroline and my mother and I find ourselves at my mom’s together, we sometimes get that way, simply hysterical about nothing at all. Maybe you have to be there, or be part of the family, to find it funny? I wish Jesse had filmed that evening. We would have died laughing if we’d seen it later. But maybe no one else would have found it even slightly amusing.

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