Each member of my family has quirks and foibles. I stomp my foot like a cartoon furious person when I lose my temper, and I once humiliated myself the one time I attempted the road test by waiting ten minutes to turn at an intersection, panicking, and nearly hitting an oncoming car. My brother pulls a weird, unconscious face whenever he passes a mirror; he will never live down the years he spent, as late as the first grade, refusing to wear clothing. My dad is mocked regularly for getting ketchup all over his face and for insisting on down jackets in seventy-degree weather. And then there’s my mom’s thing. It’s probably very unwise of me to write what I am about to write while I am staying with my parents. But I am, like pope emeritus Benedict XVI, a Servant of the Truth.
Although she’s an excellent cook and great company, my mom is a nervous hostess. She finds the demands of guests and meal-planning onerous—terrifying, even. By the time dinner is served, she has generally worked herself into an anxious frenzy. I’m sure most people at the table can’t tell; to her family, the signs are unmistakable.
At some point in the meal, a wild look will come into her eyes. Her hands will clench. It is as though she is possessed. A conversation may be in progress; someone may be mid-anecdote. It matters not. As though powerless to prevent the words, she will suddenly declaim:
“DON’T HOLD BACK. THERE’S MORE OF EVERYTHING!”
Conversation will cease; guests will thank her politely; things will resume. Having gotten that off her chest, she subsides into more or less normal behavior. Ideally, on these occasions, my brother, Charlie, will be at the table and I can meet his eye.
At a recent barbecue, Charlie ended up seated next to her. And at a certain point in the meal, her hands began to tense spasmodically. We saw The Look overtake her. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it,” my brother muttered to her, but it was too late. And this was one of those occasions when, in fact, there was not enough steak, so it was particularly awkward. Because that’s the really weird part: she’ll say it whether it’s true or not.
When it’s just the family, Charlie or I will usually shout my mother’s line before she has a chance to deliver it herself. Ideally, we try to do it at the least opportune moment—when someone is telling a story or confessing something personal. In fact, one or the other of us shouts the line whenever we eat together.
My mom will get really sad when we do this. In fact, she’ll do what we call “the sad face,” which combines the dolor of the Pièta Madonna with what my dad calls “a sense of profound disillusionment.” I am not proud to reveal that this only serves to increase our glee.
But this isn’t about cruelty; there is the pleasure of insularity, of complicity, of shared history. There is the reassuring sense that nothing ever changes. At least nothing truly important. There is, indeed, always more of everything.