My Aunt Joan married young and was the first person I ever knew to get divorced. I don't remember much about husband #1, Uncle Bill, except that he was tall (a rarity on both sides of my family), and he gave me my first beer when I was eight or nine. To this day I can't stand the smell of beer, much less the taste. They had one son together.
I do have vivid memories of husband #2, Uncle John, a career Navy man. He brought two sons of his own to their doomed marriage, and together they had a daughter around the same time my youngest sister Lisa was born.
Joan, her seaman and their blended brood relocated numerous times along the eastern seaboard over the years, moving north from Maryland to Maine. Once I visited her on a Naval base whose commissary used brown paper grocery bags bearing the slogan, "Navy Wife: Toughest Job in the Navy." I had to agree that being married to Uncle John and taking care of their children was a lot tougher than whatever he did all day.
Anyway, by 1977 the family was living in Camden, Maine, the same year my mother (Joan's sister) had moved from the suburbs of New York to a newly built highrise on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan's East River. It wasn't enough that she worked full-time and had two kids at home, my mother also had to start a small newspaper, The Island View, to serve her new neighborhood. I was her typesetter, since I had a part-time job tied to my Journalism studies at NYU. I fit in her stories and ads between typing up coverage of the Armenian community for my part-time employer, The Armenian Post.
At Christmas my mother was too busy to celebrate because she was working on The Island View. She felt she'd done enough cooking, cleaning and Christmas for her lifetime, but if we didn't feel that way we were free to make other plans. She suggested I take my sisters Lisa, 9 and Helen, 15, to Maine to stay with Aunt Joan and her family. We'd have a traditional family Christmas, albeit with a nontraditional family group. There would probably even be snow! (Oh, there was, plenty of it.)
It's hard for me to remember why this plan was acceptable to me on any level, but I guess I hadn't yet learned I could say no to my mother. So off we went, in the big red Ford station wagon left over from our time in suburbia that I was the only one old enough to drive. It was 400 miles each way.
It felt wrong to be in someone else's house at Christmastime--but especially in this one. I liked Joan a lot and the kids were OK, but Uncle John was a beast. He was the type of screamer for whom anger management was invented. He huffed and puffed, he berated and insulted, he yelled and bellowed. He may have been low on the Naval totem pole, but in his own house he was Admiral and commanded respect, not caring that what he was actually fostering was despair.
If we'd stayed longer than the allotted four days, I'm sure I would have developed a tic, or maybe even homicidal tendencies. It was so hard to see my aunt, cousins and step-cousins trying to cope with abuse. It was hard not to haul off and slap a man who felt it appropriate to throw a salt shaker at a teenager when he didn't think the gravy was being passed quickly enough. It's 30 years later and I can still relive the horrors of that dinner table.
I called my mother once to complain but she was on an Island View high, enjoying her independence. "Oh, he's a little Napoleon," she told me. "Just ignore him." Even though his rancor wasn't directed at me or my sisters, it was impossible not to feel its impact. The 400 miles of dense traffic home were a breeze compared to four days in that house.
None of them escaped unscathed. One of my step-cousins, whom I remember fondly as a kind boy with a great sense of humor, took to calling himself Santini after the abused son in Pat Conroy's The Great Santini. Rage, like physical attributes, can be handed down intact and efficiently from parent to child, a gift that keeps on giving, but not in a good way.
Joan finally got out, a decade after this hellish Christmas. Her life is calm now, and the holidays very different for her now.