Let’s face it: the classic movie Christmas Vacation doesn’t really hit high gear until Cousin Eddie shows up.
Every family has someone like this. Those “characters” that add spice to your life and often leave outsiders scratching their heads. They aren’t necessarily black sheep, just the ones who have strayed from the flock and marched to their own drummer.
In my family, that would be my late Aunts, Lena and Mary.
My father’s two sisters couldn’t be more different. Lena, the oldest, would be described as “eccentric” since that’s the term used for wealthy people who have a few odd quirks. After my Uncle Sonny (her husband) passed away, my Dad would ask me to drop by from time to time and watch a baseball game with her. I’d grab a spot on the leather couch that had a piece of tape covering a hole. Lena didn’t drive, so I’d offer to take her furniture shopping. But she’d insist there was nothing wrong with the couch and change the subject. “Go get yourself a snack in the dishwasher.”
This might sound strange, but Lena was a serious sugarholic who lived on cookies and chocolate. Since she didn’t want the little kids in the family stealing her snacks, she hid them in the dishwasher. Which was never used to wash dishes. All the older nieces and nephews knew the location of Lena’s stash.
Mary, on the other hand, was simply this sweet little thing about five feet tall who was always smiling and would give me the traditional Italian pinch on the cheek when she saw me. She had this innocence about her that you rarely see in adults. While this did not constitute a quirk, the fact that Mary went back to her maiden name meant there were now two Mary Tatanos in town, since my mother was also named Mary. This caused a lot of confusion when Aunt Mary passed away, the obituary ran, and people thought my mother had died. Interesting phone calls for Mom that week.
Let’s flash forward about thirty years when I brought my wife to my cousin’s wedding. By this point, she’d gotten used to the fact that my family was a typical loud bunch of Italians who talked with our hands and were obsessed with food. But she hadn’t really been exposed long term to Mary and Lena.
It started out like a typical wedding reception. Lots of food and wine, with the “Venetian Hour” to follow. (That’s code for “a ton of pastries from Sal’s Bakery that will send you into a sugar coma.”) We’re at the “kids table” with my cousins, all of whom were now over thirty. Mary and Lena were sitting nearby, with Lena in her usual wispy cape which I have determined comes from the Stevie Nicks fall collection. People are in a good mood, telling funny stories about family members and trying to guess real names. Lena’s real name was Natalie, Sonny was Santillo, Gig was Nick, Dolly was Valentina.
Someone. Changed. The. Subject.
The conversation turned to television shows, and at this moment in time, NBC and CBS had dueling medical dramas. CBS offered Chicago Hope, which featured veteran surgeons, while NBC aired ER, which had a bunch of young doctors in an emergency room setting and starred a kid you may have heard of named Clooney. Both shows were set in Chicago, which is important to this story. If they were in different cities, this incredible conversation would not have been possible. But the weird stars which always seem to align in a surreal way for my family were perfectly set up to create an unforgettable moment. Personally, I think those stars are from an alternate universe because there’s no other way to explain stuff like this.
Anyway, back to the topic of conversation. ER had aired a terrific episode in which the emergency room’s young doctors tried in vain to save a pregnant woman. Thus leading to the following classic Tatano family argument. It should be noted that all Italian disputes while lacking in profanity (if you swear during a wedding or on a holiday, “You’ll go straight to hell!”), are not short of hand gestures, the most popular of which is the “shooing the fly” hand wave accompanied by “Pffft” said in disgust. You can see this in the movie Moonstruck.
Some people like Chicago Hope while others prefer ER. So the discussion about which show is better is going along at a normal clip until someone brings up the episode about the pregnant woman. This launches Mary and Lena, both around seventy at the time, into an unforgettable debate. As the saying goes for writers, you can’t make this stuff up.
Mary: “Those doctors on ER are a bunch of kids.”
Lena: “They’re good doctors or they wouldn’t be working there.”
Mary: “They don’t know what they’re doing. I wouldn’t let them work on me. God knows what they could do to you.”
Lena: “They’re just young. I wouldn’t have a problem going there.”
At this point, we’re all biting our lips trying not to laugh. My wife leans over and whispers, “Do they realize they’re arguing about fictional hospitals?”
“Just let it go,” says one cousin. “This is gonna be good.”
The argument continues, with comments flying across the tables.
Mary: “Those doctors on ER couldn’t save that poor pregnant woman! If an ambulance had brought her to Chicago Hope she would have lived!”
Lena: “Eh, they couldn’t have saved her there either.”
Mary: “The doctors at Chicago Hope are better than the doctors at that ER.”
Lena: “Pffft.” Hand wave.
The issue continued unresolved for the entire day. Every time Lena and Mary passed one another you got this:
Mary: “ER. Pffft.” Hand wave.
Lena: “Chicago Hope. Pffft.” Hand wave.
Sadly, both aunts are no longer with us though they thankfully hung around into their nineties. One can only assume the discussion rages on in a heavenly setting, probably giving the angels as good a laugh as the one we had.
Which brings me to my point: when you look back at your family and the members who are no longer there to share your Christmas, the characters are the ones you miss the most.
Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].