Emily Articulated: Family (Dis)Functions

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Let me introduce you to some characters. Now these characters, although not all real people in my life, are certainly real members of someone’s family — well, somewhere.

First, there’s Aunt Judy. Aunt Judy is approaching the end of middle-aged, with fiery reddish-purple hair and large rings on all of her fingers. She just got back from a soul-searching trip to Bali and has a wine stain on her knitted, alpaca-wool shawl. Judy never married because, frankly, she finds the constructs of monogamy too limiting.

Then there’s Uncle Jim, who is married to Judy’s sister, Sandy, and is rarely seen without his bright MAGA trucker hat and classic NRA T-shirt. He can be heard sputtering Fox News quotes and stock market statistics between grunts about the liberal media. Jim enjoys reflecting on the “good ol’ days” when Skynyrd played on more than just the oldies station. 

Emily Erickson.

Next is Cousin Nate. Nate now goes by Nathaniel after finishing his first semester at Portland State University. He’s not sure what he’s going to major in yet, but he really enjoyed his class Intro to Medieval Bread Making and is thinking of opening a vintage unicycle shop someday. Nathaniel doesn’t know the difference between unsubsidized and subsidized student loans.

Then of course, there’s Grandma Gertie. Gertie wears a button-up sweater with an oversized screen print of a poinsettia across the chest. She loves the newfound freedom of being a widow and has a seat with her name on it at the local Presbyterian church. Gertie is often heard complaining about all the “youths” in the neighborhood with their rampant “necking and petting,” and about last week’s sermon being a bit too “well, friendly to the idea of gay marriage.”

And finally, there’s Cousin Jane, who does stand up comedy on Thursday nights after her day shift at Planned Parenthood. She spends her favorite weekends hiking with her girlfriend, Rosie, and is active in the local conservation league. Jane and Rosie have been dating for three years now, and unbeknownst to Jane, Rosie is contemplating proposing soon.

So now that you’re properly introduced to all of the characters, I’ll go ahead and set the scene. 

It’s Christmastime, and Grandma Gertie elaborately decorated both the dining and living rooms with big, maroon bows and gold garland. Jim and Sandy showed up early so Jim could stoke the fire in the old wood stove and so Sandy could help Gertie preheat her ovens. Their kids sit in the living room taking selfies with Gertie’s cat Ginger. 

Nathaniel arrives next, parking his Subaru on the street outside Gertie’s house. He makes his way up the walkway to the front door, carefully avoiding the edges of the shoveled concrete, as to not dampen the faux leather of his Pendleton-brand moccasin slippers. He clutches his lentil meat(less) loaf in one hand and pushes the door open with the other.

Soon after Nathaniel, Jane and Rosie pull up. Jane gives Rosie a quick kiss on the lips before they duck into the warmth of the house. Rosie is carrying a bag of presents, with a pistachio colored, cardinal-adorned sweater for Grandma Gertie in tow. 

Last to arrive, to no one’s surprise, is Aunt Judy with two bottles of French Pinot and an assortment of artisan cheeses. She breezes through the door carrying a large, woven bag with a shaggy-haired terrier named Santiago poking his head out from under large silk scarves.

The oven timers buzz in a chorus of anticipation, and the hot food is transferred from cooking tins to elaborate serving dishes. Judy fills the glasses on the table with water and wine, doubling back to pour the extra wine at the end of the bottle into her own glass.

The family mosies over to the large, beautifully set table at Gertie’s command, wrapping up their remarks about how good the food smells and the tidbits of smalltalk that are inevitable when catching up with relatives. 

Judy sits next to Jim, with the long, knitted frays of her scarf accidentally brushing the worn sleeve of his NRA T-shirt. Jim doesn’t notice because he is suspiciously eying the lentil loaf in front of Nathaniel, seated in the chair next to him. At the head of the table sits Gertie, proudly wearing her gold cross earrings for the occasion, and immediately to her right are Rosie and Jane, giving each other hand squeezes underneath the table.

And guess what?

The family digs in to their meal, avoiding contentious conversations and topics, and spends the evening laughing at memories of times passed, playfully arguing about the Green Bay Packers head coaching changes, eating too much food and feeling genuinely grateful that they have family, food, and the opportunity to gather at all. 

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