Posts Tagged ‘Dysfunctional Families’

Camping with The Halpins

March 20, 2010

Camping with The Halpins

As Bonnie and I wrap up two weeks in Cabo San Lucas enjoying the waves and the whales from our patio, I got pensive thinking about how far the quality of my vacations has come.

Family vacations, even in the best of families, can be trying experiences. If the parents were well equipped to have children, and if they had a reasonable number of children, like 2 or 3, and if they tended to be pretty well-organized and adult-like, then their family vacations would most likely go off without unnecessary stress, chaos or problems.

We had some friends as children, the Levys. Their dad was a college professor in Connecticut and they came to Vicksburg for the entire summer and two weeks at Christmas every year. We spent a lot of time with them at their Grandmother’s big Victorian mansion with a cook, 2 parents, a grandmother and a great Aunt Rose to supervise us. Their dad spent the entire summer measuring their luggage and configuring the best approach to getting all of their luggage, there were 5 of them total, into the trunk of their 4-door sedan that they drove back and forth from Connecticut to Mississippi.

My dad did not put that much thought into our vacations that’s for sure. He loved to travel because he got to meet new people who had never heard his stories. He liked being in nature, as long as he didn’t have to cut the grass or trim the shrubs. He was also very cheap and once he realized that the 7 of us were too many to fit into one Holiday Inn room, he decided that the thing to do was to buy a camper. Of course, because he was so cheap, he didn’t buy a normal travel trailer. No…he bought a pop-up camper that theoretically slept 8 people. If these campers do in fact sleep 8 people, you better make sure that 2 of them are small children or dwarfs.

I was in about the 7th grade. I had a best friend and since my older sister, Harley, did not have just one best friend, I got to invite my friend, Kelly Ivey, to travel with us sometimes. She made several trips with us. We went to various State Parks around Mississippi and once our Mutha was comfortable driving our station wagon and pulling this pop up camper, we trekked off as for as Panama City and Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Our trips were highly irregular and unique, to say the least. First of all, my Mutha could not back up the station wagon with the trailer attached. Therefore, at every KOA Campground, she’d have to first find a place to park where she didn’t have to back up then go in and have a lengthy conversation with the Manager about securing a space where she could literally ‘pull through’ into the camp ground space, detach the trailer and then move the Station Wagon. There was no way she felt comfortable any other way. Sometimes, we’d arrive late in the evening (due to our lack of planning and general dis-organization) so there would not be an available space at a tip of a triangular shaped Campground. At those times, the Manager of the Campground would have to leave his dinner and family time and back our camper into the only available rental space.

Once we parked the camper, there were a number of mechanical and technical issues to deal with in order to ensure that the camper didn’t lean in one direction or the other or become unsteady once all 7or 8 of us were tucked in for the night. These issues included lowering 4 legs from the corners in order to ‘level’ the camper and unhitching the top, popping it up and securing the corners of the tent structure so that no one was crushed inside the camper inadvertently.

You can imagine that these were important tasks and should be done by someone with a high degree of mechanical ability and a sense of the importance of doing complete and thorough work.

The only one in our family who had this ability was Willie, my baby brother. If I was in the 7th grade, Willie was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. He’d been in charge of all mechanical functions at home for some time. It’s just that he was such a little fellow at this time, really just a runt of a kid. It was so amusing for the other camp ground occupants to be watching as 3 older kids and 2 parents took their directions and orders from Willie as he orchestrated the entire operation.

It really is misleading to think that there were 2 parents involved in this operation. As soon as the car stopped at the front desk, Jack was out of the car, lighting his pipe and sauntering around the entire campground introducing himself to the other campers. We might not see him again for hours; he’d be so busy entertaining folks from all over the US with his stories about Vicksburg and all the characters that lived there.

One story that was one of his favorites was about an Italian woman who’s family owned a prominent restaurant and dress shop. This woman, a spinster sister, never did anything but cut the grass on her riding lawn more at their ‘place’ on Eagle Lake. She went to Europe one time and when she returned to Vicksburg, someone asked her if she’d seen the Pope. What they meant was had she been able to secure access to an audience with thousands of other people or had she been in the Square when he came out on his balcony once or twice a week to greet the tourists. What this woman reported, in her broken English, was that she and the Pope had actually met privately and he asked her where she was from by saying, “Girl, where you from?” Jack loved to tell this story and no matter how many times in one day he would tell this same story, he would laugh and laugh as if this was the very first time he had ever told the story.

He had lots of other stories about Crazy Bonelli, a woman in Vicksburg who sent her dog to the Grocery Store with a basket, a note and the cash to buy her groceries and left, as a tip for her paper boy, a banana peel.

Once Willie had secured the pop up part of the pop up trailer, Mutha started to prepare our supper on the campground grill. We were just not trustworthy enough to travel with our own grill; it would not have been safe. She rarely tried to clean these grills but would load them up with charcoal briquettes, douse them with the lighter fluid type material and throw a match into the fire. We’d have BBQ chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, whatever appealed to her. However, regardless of what she prepared, everything always had a thin coat of sand on it, whether we were in a State Park in MS or a KOA Campground on the beach in Florida, everything was sandy. Every piece of meat always had a nice charred taste too. And every bite involved battling a mosquito. Some of these mosqitos were the size of small birds. We would be overwhelmed by the mosquitos and dealing with our bites.

Getting 7 or 8 people into the camper, into their respective beds, and asleep was no small thing. Jack like to travel with a little travel size TV and would keep that on late at night. We’d all have to trek off into the night at various time to use the campground bathrooms. Once one person had to get up, it was a domino effect, everyone had to move over, move sideways, or stand up to let that person our of the camper.

Since there was so much of a ‘hassle factor’ in getting to a campground, getting parked, and getting the camper set up, you would think that we would have stayed put. That was not the case. Jack and Mary Lou would plan trips that did not factor in this hassel factor. We’d be 3 days in one campground, 2 days in another campground and then 1-2 nights in a final campground on the way home. It was ghastly.

Not one of us, regardless of our spouses’ interests or our love of nature, has ever been interested in camping as an adult. We shudder to think about recreating these bad memories, even in our minds.

We have a policy. We either can afford to travel well or we stay home. There is nothing in between for the 5 of us.

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Christmas Chaos at the House of Halpin

December 12, 2009

Christmas Chaos at the

House of Halpin

It’s Christmas Eve, around 3 in the afternoon.  It’s cold and rainy outside.  We are all supposed to be bathed and dressed soon in our new Christmas outfits.  New dresses for me and my older sister, Harley.  Little suits with short pants and peter pan collars on their shirts for our two younger brothers, Willie and John Francis.  Our baby sister, Lucy, will be dressed in a red velvet dress with white lacey leotards and little soft sole black patent leather mary-janes.

The only hitch with Lucy’s outfit is that Mutha has a bad feeling about the leotards.  She’s worried because she never bought new ones for Lucy and the only pair we can locate were found in the dirty clothes hamper a few minutes ago.

Our plan, if you can call it that, is to attend the 5:30 pm Children’s Mass, then visit my Daddy’s Aunt.  Aunt Katie lives with Jack’s cousin, Wilhelmina and her husband, Ralph.  They’ve all lived together since the big tornado in ’56 demolished the Halpin Family Home.  Aunt Katie was a widow in ’56 and she and her two never married sisters and Wilhelmina and Ralph living with her in that big house together.  When the home was destroyed the five of them moved into a 1,200 square foot new home in the suburb of Katyville which is now in the heart of Vicksburg, one block from the major thoroughfare, Mission 66.  But…I digress.

We go to Aunt Katie’s house every Christmas Eve after Mass. It’s a tradition.  The problem is that Ralph’s entire family of about 15 people are there at the same time celebrating their primary Christmas and gift exchange while consuming very large amounts of beer and alcohol.

To say that two free-spirited, fun-loving, story-telling Vicksburgers and their five little children can be lost in the chaos is really saying something.  But at Ralph and Wilhelmina’s on Christmas Eve it is true.  We stuff ourselves on deviled eggs and roasted pecans and just watch the revelry with wide-eyes.

Since it’s already late in the afternoon and no one has had a nap, we are all feeling a bit cranky.  I suspect there might be at least one or two other reasons that I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

I’m realizing that Mutha went to the grocery store yesterday, loading up on all the food for our Christmas Dinner for 25 people but none of the groceries were actually put away in the kitchen cabinets or refrigerator.  Mutha has spent the past 10 days doing nothing but making pepper jelly to give away as gifts.  We spent the entire morning, all 7 of us in our Volkswagen Bus, delivering these ‘gifts’ to family and friends.  She put the jelly in little baby food jars with homemade labels that say “Christmas Greetings from the House of Halpin”.

Jack and Mary Lou, our Mutha and Daddy, love to host big holiday gatherings at our home.  They ‘say’ the reason is they want to include those who might otherwise be alone on Christmas Day.  These guests are in addition to the 7 of us, two grandmothers, an aunt and an uncle, one more aunt who is a deer hunting widow every Christmas and my Dad’s brother-in-law, Uncle Joe, who is the widower of his oldest sister, our Aunt Dot.  We always include our parish priest and any number of spinsters who have been family friends for generations.  Most people buy this justification.  I do not.  I imagine there is another reason entirely.  I think they like to entertain at Christmas, for our birthday parties, cook-outs, really any time at all because they love being with other people.  They both thrive on connections with others.  The bottom line is they love to host big gatherings because they love to entertain a large crowd with their stories; one after another, each of them competing against the other for center stage.

The primary reason I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed is that there are at least 20 brown paper grocery bags, many filled with perishables, languishing around the floor in the kitchen, the breakfast room, the laundry room and even the pantry that serves as a hallway to our rumpus room in the basement.  (We always called it the den but it was clearly a rumpus room).

I’m busy transferring a load of laundry; socks, underwear and Lucy’s white leotards from the washing machine into the dryer and I find myself tripping over grocery bags in the laundry room.  I am all of 7 years old.

I ask myself, “Won’t this parsley be too wilted to be used tomorrow to garnish the turkey platter?  It’s perched here on top of this grocery bag in this hot, humid laundry room.”

I get back to my laundry duties, hoping Lucy’s leotards will be dry before we have to leave.  I can remember many many times when the entire family is loaded in the station wagon while someone stands, half-dressed, in front of the clothes dryer.  We all wait while that one person watches one lone article of clothing cycle around and around in the dryer while we pray that it gets at least dry enough to wear.  Even if it’s still damp in places like the crotch or around the waist, that person will be relieved to finally put it on and complete their ensemble.  I can remember my own damp clothes as I try diligently to get Lucy’s leotard washed and dried on Christmas Eve.

It’s now 5:25 and we should have left the house 10 minutes ago.  At this rate we will all have to trample in and make a big spectacle of ourselves marching down the center aisle of our downtown Church looking for an entire empty pew to house all 7 of us.  Our Granny will be in her space in the middle of the Church and she will be mortified to see us arrive so late.

At least Lucy is dressed and ready to go in her little baby carry-all.  I’m relieved to see that while I was managing the laundry and getting everyone else dressed, Harley was able to put away most of the perishables.  This sight gives me a tremendous sense of relief!

As we parade out to the 9-passenger Dodge station wagon for the 5 minute drive downtown I feel better but I find myself mentally noting all the chores that still need to be accomplished.  We will get to open our Christmas presents when we get home from Aunt Katie’s house, then we’ll get the little ones to bed.

Once the little ones are asleep, Mutha, Harley and I will get busy arranging all the toys from Santa Clause.  I have no idea how Harley and I came to be playing Santa and ages 7 and 8 but parts of it did create some fun memories with our Mutha. I suspect these roles at this young age influenced our inability to play with toys too.  We were always little grown-ups.

In the morning, Harley and I will race around after the Santa Clause experience and do a mad dash to clean the entire house, or at least the 1,500 square feet on the first floor. Cleaning the entire house involves a tremendous amount of clearing away stuff.  We typically accomplish this by opening the top drawer of every conceivable piece of furniture, all antique chests in the living room, the buffet in the dining room and even a small chest in a downstairs bathroom.  Some of these pieces of furniture have so much mail, report cards, homework, pacifiers and baby shoes on top that things have fallen on the floor.  A banana peel would not be unusual to find in these rat’s nests.  Harley and I run through the house, opening the top drawers of these pieces of furniture, sweeping our little arms across the tops of the furniture and pushing everything, even the banana peels, into those top drawers.  The house is looking better but we pray that no one has to open one of those drawers.  There is just now way to know how much time and effort would be required to get the drawer closed again.

Cleaning the entire house on Christmas morning also involves polishing silver platters and trays, one large enough for a 25 pound turkey, serving pieces and the flatware for 30.  We have to set the table, in accordance with Granny’s strict table-setting guidelines, with Mutha’s china and crystal while entertaining our guests and serving high-balls.

Jack will be in the living room, poised on the sofa in a half-sitting, half-lying-down position holding court and telling stories.  Mutha will be in the kitchen miraculously pulling together a phenomenal meal of a 25 pound roasted turkey, Pepperidge farm dressing, Spinach Madeline, corn pudding, rolls, green mountain congealed salad and tons of cans of congealed cranberry sauce.  She doesn’t have to make dessert.  Granny always makes Charlotte Rouse, a mousse like confection surrounded by lady-fingers.  Granny will be barking orders to me and Harley about any number of finishing touches need in the preparation for this fine meal.  The three little ones, ages 1, 2 and 3, will be crawling around on the floor, under the dining room table, unsupervised playing with their new toys, especially the ones with lots of small pieces.

Everyone in the world reports needing a nap on Christmas afternoon after the big turkey dinner.  However, no one needs that nap more than me and Harley.  We fall into our little beds, both physically and emotionally exhausted from the past 24 hours of chaos, confusion and commotion.

If you ever plan to entertain, make sure you invite me and Harley earlier that day.  We can whip together a party in an amazing way.  We are phenomenal workers who can clean, organize and decorate with little direction, no help, no resources, no sleep and no support.  We can accomplish all of this while the guests are arriving and we are mixing their high balls.

We have always been able to do this in record time and make it look like we are having fun, even when it’s not our party, it wasn’t our idea and we would have been better served learning how to play with toys.