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Authors: Wade Rouse

It's All Relative

BOOK: It's All Relative
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ALSO BY WADE ROUSE

America's Boy: A Memoir
Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler: A Memoir
At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream

Copyright © 2011 by Wade Rouse

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers,
an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
www.crownpublishing.com

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rouse, Wade.
    It's all relative : two families, three dogs, 34 holidays, and 50 boxes of wine … a memoir / Wade Rouse.—1st ed.
        p. cm.
    1. Family life—Fiction.   2. Humorous stories.   I. Title.
    PZ7.R76218 2010
    [Fic]—dc22                                                                2010010952

eISBN: 978-0-307-71872-3

Jacket design by Kyle Kolker
Jacket photography © Radius/SuperStock

v3.1

For my mother

My holidays will never be the same

For my father

I'm still with you, buddy

For my man

You still make me believe in … Santa, the Easter Bunny, God, love, family, myself, but, mostly, us

For my fans

You make me wake up every morning, with a pounding heart, ready and excited to write. You make my dream come true.

CONTENTS
Author's Note

Readers need to know that names (besides mine, Gary's, and those of a few of our family and friends) and identifying characteristics have been changed, and, in some instances, characters were composited, locations and details recast, and time compressed. As with most family tales, I'm sure some have grown over the years, considering many were passed on to me through the generations by my parents (my mother told me many tales about my father, and vice versa), grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends over endless boxes of wine and slices of pie. And despite the fact that some of these holiday tales may have morphed, or become “lore” over the years, all evolved out of the Rouse House. And continue to do so today.

To spend a holiday with family, especially mine, I once told Gary, is a lot like self-catheterization: It's an experience that may cause extreme pain, something you may not always wish to revisit, but one that you'll never forget.

I relay these stories, truly, because I love my family, and because laughter, stories, and boxes of wine are what bonded us. And will forever.

PROLOGUE
Jingle Balls

W
hen I was very young, Santa Claus used to make an appearance at my house every
few
years.

One year he would rumble through our front door, in full belly laugh and beard, carrying a sack stuffed with presents.

And then—with very little fanfare and in the days before we could order an Amber Alert—he would simply go missing.

When I got old enough, I began to understand this wasn't the way the real Santa operated. I mean, I saw the cartoon Christmas specials. Santa was supposed to come
every
year. He wasn't a solar eclipse.

So I finally gathered the nerve to ask my father one Christmas why Santa didn't come to our house more often, fearing, perhaps, that our Ozarks home was too isolated for his reindeer to find, or, worse, that I had been naughty instead of nice.

Instead I remember my father looking directly at me—as he dribbled some blood-colored wine out of a box—and saying, “Santa's preoccupied right now. Nixon needs a little extra help.”

And then all the adults sitting in front of the fireplace laughed and said, “Ain't that the fuckin' truth.”

I was still a tiny boy who lived in the middle of nowhere, a boy who had a fondness for ascots and Robby Benson. I still believed I might receive an Easy-Bake oven or Barbie instead of a Daisy BB gun and
fishing lures. I still believed my parents might move to New York City on a whim, and I would become a Rockette.

Mostly, however, I just needed something—anything—in which to believe so I could survive another year in the Ozarks.

And if it was the fact that Santa would visit me when he wasn't busy helping the president, then so be it: I would instead laser my attention on the Easter Bunny.

Finally one Christmas, after a few no-show years, Santa came rushing through our door carrying a sack of toys and a case of Hamm's.

“Santa?” I asked.

“Damn, my jingle balls are hot!” Santa exclaimed, rather than the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I was expecting. And then he yanked down his beard to chug a beer and lifted the low-hanging pillow I thought was his bowlful of jelly to air out his chestnuts and said, “I could be winning some big money right now playing craps instead of doing this gig. I can't believe I didn't win the company bonus this year. Damn that Joe Reynolds!”

The realization that the fat man in the red suit was actually my great-uncle came to me with shocking clarity, like Moses from the mountain.

And then my great-aunt—obviously a touch tipsy and turned on by the unexpected peek at Santa's bag of goodies—proceeded to ask Kriss Kringle when he was going to fill her stocking.

“It's getting itchy, Santa,” she said, slurring slightly.

My ears were quickly covered by adult palms, but the damage had already been done.

My holidays had been obliterated forever.

That precious Christmas memory and now-famous morsel of family lore, however, led me to a number of profound conclusions:

  • There was no Santa.
  • The reason behind my aunt's itchy stocking was
    not
    that it was made of polyester.
  • Joe Reynolds was bound to have a good year after a string of bad ones.
  • Nixon indeed needed all the help he could get.
  • And no family holiday—no holiday, period—is ever as perfect as we dream it will be.

I should know.

My family always had the best of intentions with our holiday celebrations—be it Valentine's, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or New Year's—but it was the follow-through that was disastrous. We were like the Ricardo-Mertzes.

What mother would dress her son as a Ubangi tribesman—sending him out in blackface, with a 'fro, giant lip, and pillowcase—for Halloween
in the Ozarks
? Mine.

What father would bury his children's Easter eggs because—as an engineer and former military man—the fun was in the “hunt”? Mine.

What partner would dress as Oscar—his head wrapped in gold lamé—just to prove his love of the Academy Awards and of me? Mine.

Who in their right mind would dress as a leprechaun on St. Patty's Day just to get free drinks? Okay, that was me, but the point is this: Looking back today, that Santa epiphany may have been the best Christmas gift that could have ever been given to me. For I received the gift of clarity; I received the gift that kept on giving.

The Jingle Balls incident made me understand that holidays were not—and did not have to be—perfect in order to be beautiful. It made me realize that all families are dysfunctional, especially during the holidays, and that while most celebrations are well-intended, they are also usually diarrhea-inducing.

But above all else I understood that my family loved me. Why else would my great-aunt and -uncle forgo the slots and free whiskey
in Las Vegas just to spend it dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Kringle with me in the Ozarks?

I was deeply loved.

And scarred.

Which is a pretty good trade-off in my holiday book.

Growing up in rural America, my family often didn't have much more than each other. We weren't poor, exactly, but we were far from well-off. What we were was a new-age family: My parents were the first generation to graduate from college, the first to work their whole lives with their minds and not their hands.

My mother's parents worked as a laborer and a seamstress, and they toiled in mines and fields and factories. They spent their lives hunting for food to keep the family fed. And yet their Christmas tree—in photo albums and in my childhood memories—was suffocated by gifts. There was always one great present—a bike, a game, a toy—underneath the tree, but many of the ones I received were made by my grandparents themselves.

My grandfather worked leather, creating hand-tooled boots and belts, wallets and purses. My grandmother sewed me ascots and vests, pants and shirts.

I despised those handmade gifts as a kid: the hand-tooled belt that featured my nickname, “Wee-Pooh,” on the back; the change purse, with a scrawling “W,” that held my milk money; the little ascot with threaded embellishment at the end. They were an endless source of embarrassment. When I opened gifts as a kid, I would often flinch as if there were a rattlesnake hidden inside.

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