“You’d better be real glad you don’t make more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.”
This was what my uncle, Richard, bellowed to me last December as he walked through the front door to my parents’ house. I hadn’t seen him in a year.
It was his way of saying, Merry Christmas. Welcome home. I don’t like your president.
We were a full month past the holiday of thankfulness, but while his thematic timing was off, I paused to meditate—with gratitude—on my unremarkable annual earnings.
I expect this year’s sub-textual-seasonal-greeting will have something to do with healthcare reform. Frankly, it doesn’t faze me in the least. Any day that I don’t have to knead a stranger’s shoulders is a day I feel merry and blessed.
The great majority of my family still resides in Texas and, accordingly, leans politically to the right. They tend to be low key about it. Generally speaking, theirs is a quiet conservatism governed by certain moral convictions and feelings about overbearing government. My own rally sign is painted blue, but I’ve long since abandoned demonstrating against their position.
You can’t phone my mom in the month of December without catching her in the middle of buying presents for poor kids or stocking up on prepaid calling cards to send to “our boys” stationed overseas. My parents’ church orchestrates numerous benevolent missions and my mom signs up for every one. For two people who don’t theoretically believe in handouts, my folks spend far more money on strangers than any of the urban lefties I run with. My friends and I like to offer the underdog our wine-stained philosophical musings. My mom and dad tend toward more practical endowments, like food and shelter.
When I was young, everything my mother bought me and my sister was slightly off-market. During the height of the Guess Jeans frenzy—the brand of denim identified by the question-mark (?) logo on the back pocket—the Vannoy girls wore the generic version, running around town with an exclamation-point (!) stamped on our rears. When “Keds” sneakers were all the rage, our heels read “Kidz.” She’d ignore the tearful protests and brush us off with the assertion that a child doesn’t need fifty-dollar pants and no one would know the difference anyway. I’d sulk off to my room alarmed by how little she understood about the discerning eye of pre-teens, feeling not at all safe in her care.
The children of the downtrodden get only the best. When she discontinues our telephone conversation by explaining that she needs to drive across town to another store where they sell the “real” Nikes, I always say, “That’s nice, Mom,” but I’m usually thinking “Who are you?”
My uncle Richard’s political persuasions are much more pronounced. I’m not sure he’s even a Republican anymore, its evolved into something scarier than that. I’m relatively certain he’s being monitored on an F.B.I watch-list somewhere. His days are filled with incendiary websites and alarmist email blasts. My mom’s sister considered electronically blocking his correspondence, but because his health is poor we don’t want to miss something that might actually be important. (He would argue that what he sends is important. We’d, collectively, disagree.)
In some ways his hysteria has brought the rest of us closer together. It no longer matters whether we’re elephants or donkeys, we’re not Richard and that alone allows us to stand as one, irrelevant of our feelings about border patrol or war.
Holidays are my uncle’s campaign trail; isolated events wherein an audience is implied. When I was in college and mired in the self-congratulatory pride of caring about the little guy (as if I’d personally discovered him myself, shivering behind a dumpster) my uncle and I would stage Lincoln Douglas style debates over every plate of turkey, every side of yams. He’d holler about the absurdity of people expecting to get paid to do nothing. I would blubber about how capitalism steamrolled the weak. Being smarter than I am, Richard would serve up obscure memorized statistics. I’d respond with feather-light platitudes and gross generalizations. These discussions quickly escalated into verbal combat; walls shaking, spit flying. My aunts would tense up and beg us to stop. My grandmother would try in vain to talk over us. My father—a quiet and considered man—just stared at me bemused and gently shook his head.
As the official agency subsidizing my existence during those years, it must have been all he could do not to laugh out loud at my impassioned cries about the fortunate being obliged to pay for the less so; a very convenient argument coming from someone for whom money appeared in her back account—as if by magic—on the first of each month.
My dad has long since avenged my pretensions. He’s a C.P.A. and prepares my annual tax return. A man of unwavering ethics, he claims and reports all of my untraceable cash income from private clients. For which I have the honor of rendering unto Caesar that which is his in the form of a large check made payable to the U.S. government each spring.
He likes to remind me of all my big-talk about social welfare.
I like to remind him that he might need costly round-the-clock care someday, and I won’t be in a position to help after so many years of being offered as a human sacrifice to the I.R.S.
In the china shop of my family, Richard is our bull. Most of the group is reserved and starched, prone to saying, “fudge!” and “heck!” when compelled to use bad language. My uncle is far less contained. He’ll almost surely offend someone or break something, even in brief visits. He’s the one you’d most want to take to a cool party, but also the one most likely to screw up your remote control or knock your mailbox over with his car. His capacity for love is tremendous and his sincerity is never in question, but those virtues tend to get muddied by his utter lack of restraint. During my grandfather’s funeral, my sister had the bad luck of being seated directly next to Richard in the family pew. He all but terrorized her that day; nearly breaking her in half, heaving his epic weight against her small frame like a human wrecking ball, sobbing and shaking from the grief of losing his dad. That’s pretty much Richard in a nutshell; a hurricane with an epidermis, a delicate heart always being undone by his big awkward bones.
When I was a kid, my uncle insisted on putting together a baby stroller that Santa had brought me for my dolls. He assembled it atop a lit stove and set the entire thing on fire. The legend goes that as a young man he was always striking up half-baked ventures, only to flounder and be bailed out by my grandparents. He had a lot of false starts and—if memory serves—one arrest warrant. He voted for Kennedy back then and did a lot of drugs.
It has occurred to me more than once that much of his over-the-top zeal for conservative ideals might just be an act of penance. It was rather late in the day that he fully recognized the scale of his own parents’ goodness, the extent to which he’d never exhausted their devotion, never alienated their support—when they rightfully could have given up on him had they been different kinds of people. My grandparents lived long enough to witness Richard get his act together, but I suspect that wasn’t enough for him. As an ongoing plea for absolution he’s trying to be what they wanted him to be all along, but he’s confusing Christ-like with Limbaugh-like. Two things not even remotely related.
One Thanksgiving a number of years back, Richard and I were temporarily unwelcome at my aunt’s house after a boisterous round of discussing Bush the second. He needed to drive over to his place to get something or other anyway, so he dragged me along for the errand. After showing me his wife’s new dining room chairs, we went into a room that housed a large armoire full of guns. The door to it was unlocked and hanging wide open—like a chilling invitation to unfixable mistakes—and he had two teenaged sons still living at home. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I moaned. He responded with a big slap on my back and a word for word recitation of what the constitution has to say in respect to a man’s right to bare arms. My uncle is the perfect storm of questionable sanity and photographic memory.
Ideological differences aside, Richard and I are decidedly similar in one fundamental way. Neither of us turned out as expected. We were both indentified early on as highly creative types, real thinkers. In each of our respective adolescences, it was assumed that we’d make good use of our talents, professionally soar, become something. Instead, we’ve both flailed and bounced around; me settling into massaging people, him landing in the sales department of the family business. Neither of us making anywhere near a quarter of a million dollars a year, neither of us in any imminent danger of being unduly punished by Barack Obama for our success.
Who knows where we each went off course. I suspect the practical responsibilities of having a wife and kids derailed Richard along the way. Insecurity and fear were major de-motivators for me. To some degree, I suspect my underachieving was a second round of disappointment for him. No one would have vicariously enjoyed my pursuit of an intellectual life more than Richard, even if the fruits of that intellect went against the grain of everything he thinks he stands for.
With Richard’s health deteriorating, my other uncle, Bobby—Richard’s brother and boss in the family business—has reduced his hours significantly while keeping him at the same salary. Were he to be unable to work at all, the paychecks would likely continue to come. Which is to say that he would get paid to do nothing. Anything less would defy our sensibilities or, rather, break our hearts. He’d do the exact same for any of us, he’d just call it taking-care-of-family instead of charity.
I’ve lost much of my passion for our annual showdowns. First of all, they make unwitting casualties of everyone else in the room. More importantly, I’m far less certain of things than I was during my glory days of moral authority in college. Once I realized that my declaring something right or wrong doesn’t make it so, I mostly stopped doing it. But he enjoys the sparring, and I enjoy him. So I do my best to keep the debate alive. Richard getting to argue is like me getting to write this column; a roadside respite from our realities, a gentle nod back to a time when we nurtured simple dreams and sweet notions that we might just be something special. Which at this stage of the game feels as long off as when we believed deer-like creatures pulled sleighs across the sky.
Richard’s kidneys are functioning at about 14% capacity and he’ll be put on dialysis soon. A preemptive port has already been sewn into his forearm, gotten infected, taken out and sewn in again. At some point he may well end up eating lukewarm turkey off a hospital tray, vines of tubes swirling up from his arms—like sad strings of medicinal Christmas lights—on future December 25th’s. But for now he’s still barreling through the front door, espousing the politics of extremity, and tenderly admiring his stockpile of unlocked artillery. And for that I am appalled, I am merry, I am blessed.