It happens every year.

The annual reckoning, when family and friends descend again into their hometowns, flashing their new winter coats, whitened teeth, whitened hair, the cars they may or may not be able to afford, the newest spouses or girlfriends, along with however many pounds they lost or acquired since the last time we all feasted.

Often, we rehearse the roles we choose to play during these fetes, the positives we will accentuate, the food stamp cards we’ll keep hidden in our watch pockets.

We all strive to put our best selves forward, craft a positive narrative from the evidence that either can’t be avoided or fits our chosen tale, so that our misfortune, however minor, won’t become the subject of the family gossip mill we’ve grown up listening to, secretly enjoying even though we know it’s mostly lies.

This year, though, the farce was at least partly handicapped. Too many mortal truths had already outrun the family spin cycle.

As my mother ages, and my aunts and uncles, cousins and their kids, my in-laws, everyone stacking one heavy year upon another until the frail tower leans seaward like a drunk threading an uneven boardwalk, the less appearances matter.

The older we get, the more vitality we lose to chronic pain and sedentary lifestyles, the more cancer diagnoses and heart conditions, degenerative brain diseases and muscle loss, the less it matters who has the money. Who sips a bit too much of the happy sauce. Who had the affairs, or cheated at cards. Worked too hard and gloated about their swimming pool 13 years ago.

Instead, at least among the older set, these holidays have become medical confessionals, where family members list their ailments and describe in gross detail how those conditions are leeched each Thursday by Dr. So-and-So, who always seems to have lousy bedside manner but a thorough grasp of the medicine.

For the younger generations, though, we still play hide and seek with our misfortune, minimizing where possible those things that might embarrass the family or require an awkward explanation.

It’s unfortunate. Aren’t these people supposed to help lighten our loads? Offer support and kind advice? What if we tried a little more honesty and a lot less posturing? Everyone, after all, has problems and could occasionally use some sound advice.

Maybe most of us are missing an opportunity here. What if we tried something different?

“How’s the kids, Tom?” Aunt Jean says as she lifts another serving spoon of stuffing to her painted lips.

“Well, I suppose. Can’t say for sure, as we don’t talk much. Honestly, they hardly ever look up from their smart phones, which, by the way, cost more than the cable, Internet, and liquor bills I pay each month combined,” Tom says. “Joanie says she met someone on the Internet named Vladdy, from Bulgaria, and he really wants to meet her at the park, sometime after dark. He says he’ll make her famous.”

Tom receives the crystal bowl of brown gravy from Aunt Cecilia and tries to ignore the canyon of cleavage she lays bare.

“We’re afraid Tommy Jr. is getting a little too into his gun collection, and last week we caught him trying to sneak a clutch of grenades into gym class. We were all kids once, I get it, but grenades? Cherry bombs used to do the job just fine, but like Sue says, maybe I’m overreacting and just being too hard on the boy.”

Aunt Jean smiles vacantly and nods. “At least you and Sue still have each other.”

Tom nods.

“Did I mention we’re opening our marriage?”

Tom pauses here to dab his cracked lips with his napkin, desperately avoiding his wife’s pointed stare.

“Sue mentioned the other day that she’s never had an orgasm, at least not one I helped her with,” he says. “She says I’m not really a ‘good sex’ kind of husband, but otherwise I make a great partner and a damn good friend. Apparently, I’m a whiz with the kids and she can obviously talk to me about anything.”

Grandpa Frank grunts noncommittally and shakes his head.

“I say focus on your work and the rest will goddamn well take care of itself,” the old man says. “Worked for us, until my shitter gave out. Hard to work a forty-hour week hauling this bag everywhere.”

“That’s what I keep telling myself,” Tom says. “I’ve given WalMart-Target-HomeDepot-Costco-Staples-Etc the best years of my life, and just about everything my graduate degrees in molecular biology and journalism can offer. There’s finally an opening in Electronics, basically helping people turn their phones on and set up voicemail accounts? I really think I’m ready, though my last review said I can sometimes be condescending to the customers, and that I’m not much of a team player.”

Aunt Cecilia raises her hand at this point and waggles her fingers to gain their attention. “Well, I’ve been your partner plenty and have to say you’re a stud on the badminton court. You can be on my team anytime.”

“Thanks, Cecilia,” Tom says, gazing around the crowded table, haggard faces slack as their jaws grind their bites into brown cud. “It’s nice to know you guys have my back.”

Actually, on second thought, maybe there’s a reason we don’t tell our families when things get bad.

Who wants an array of bad ideas from people you have to love but most of the time can’t stand talking to? Better to keep the conversation limited to football and turkey, dirty jokes and skin conditions. Things we all have in common.


James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at