Friday, February 18, 2005


The three day weekend to celebrate the President's birthdays has always been one of my favorite holidays. Not because I'm a huge fan of Washington and Lincoln although it was always fun to do the George and Abe related art projects when I was in school, but because when I was a kid this was the weekend that our family would go up to the mountains with the Saari's, the Witter's and the Kelsh's. Donna, Vi and Liz all taught school with my mom when they were newly married, new moms. My parents and the other three couples got together once a month to have dinner and play bridge, although in the later years I think they discarded the cards and just ate and drank.

I was 6 or 7 the first year that the four families rented a cabin up at Lake Arrowhead for the three day President's weekend. I have a picture from one of those early weekends and Greg who was the youngest was still a babe in arms. Jim, Karen and Matt were all about 18 months younger than me and all born a week apart throughout the month of December. After them were the two little girls K.A. and Andrea who were 4 or 5 years younger than me.

We continued the Bridge group mountain trip for probably about 10 years. I no longer wanted to go when I was 17, preferring to stay home and have illicit parties while my parents were gone. And then not so long after that the grown ups started to want to take nicer trips without their truculent teenagers and would take off for Aspen or Vail. But the ten years that we made our annual trek to the mountains are full of wonderful memories for me.

We would always depart on Friday night when my dad got home from work and arrive in the mountains in the dark. This was normally fine when there was no weather but about every third or fourth year there would be storms, much like the one we're having right now, which would require chains on the tires to get up the mountain. When we were young my brother and I were thrilled to bits to see snow. We would peer out the windows into the dark looking for the first piles on the side of the road. "Snow! There's snow!" This was a good sign because snow meant there would be sledding and tobagganing on the hill just adjacent to the cabin that we always rented.

On Saturday morning we would all get up and the moms would make breakfast and the dads would drink bloody marys and George and Bilo would light their cigars and the first card games would begin. There was a sign up sheet for clean up and after that was accomplished we would all go out and drag the assorted stuff to slide on over to the hill. At this point the dads were pretty lit, now that I think about it. In their early to mid-30s they were still able to have just as much fun careening down hill on a metal snow disk as any of the kids. Plus, they were buzzed.

The moms would go for a walk or go into town or read their books or play their own card games and talk. They were probably just relishing the quiet except for the crack of wood in the fire. The fire was lit the entire time we were there because the A-frame cabin was probably built in the 40s and had floor to ceiling glass windows so it could be cold without fire.

In the late afternoon,after playing outside all day, the dads would take naps and the kids would hang out and play cards or board games or watch the little 19" black and white television in the living room. Every four years the winter olympics would be on and everyone would huddle around and watch. The sign up sheet was up for dinner preparation because it consisted mainly of heating up the pan of lasagna that one of the moms brought and making a salad - a task easily accomplished by an adult with two helper children. The little kids, K.A. who was allergic to milk, Andrea and Greg were usually fed first because they had to go to bed early. When the 12 of us sat down for dinner there was lots of adult conversation, and I remember enjoying the company of these grown ups who although they were the same age as my parents, weren't my parents.

Because I got to know them by interacting with them they all had very distinct personalities that I remember to this day. Donna was very sweet and nurturing and patient, she was sooo patient. Tall with dark hair, that was frosted for a while in the 70s, she had almond shaped eyes and a slender, willowy figure. Bilo, her husband was also tall and very athletic. He always seemed very stoic, maybe even stern, with his crew cut and angular northern European features. He had a sense of humor though because I remember his smile and his laugh which was like a controlled chortle as he sat there smoking his cigar. He really liked cigars.

I always considered Liz to be very glamorous, she was the perfect picture of femininity in the 60s, like a woman you'd see in a Breck shampoo ad, or a pretty mom on a TV show. She was a very pious Catholic and every Sunday morning, even though we were in the mountains, on vacation, she and George got up and took their kids to 7am mass! George had black hair and a husky, sandy voice. He got very red in the face when he laughed really hard, and I remember him laughing a lot.

Vi was tiny and elfin, she was Greek and her real name was Vasiliki, which I have always thought is like, the coolest name. Ever. She was warm and funny and she had a slight accent because I believe she grew up in the midwest. While she was small in stature I always had the impression of her as a powerful woman. This may be because she was married to Bob who was a character. Bitingly sarcastic, tall and rangy with very blue eyes, Bob had a sense of humor that is rare to find and often hard to take. He could really hurt your feelings and sometimes it felt like he meant to. But still I felt the closest to him, probably because I felt free to give him back that which he was dishing out. You know he wasn't my father so there wasn't any serious wounding going on - I didn't have to live with him.

My impressions of these people were formed when I was quite young and those impressions remained with me throughout my adult life although I saw them less and less. They are very much like extended family, aunts and uncles, adults who were the boss of me when I was under their supervision. I remember when my father re-married, they were all there at the ceremony, even though my parents divorce and dad's subsequent remarriage was most likely difficult for them. At the time it was horrible for me - I found out at the "ceremony" that my father and his new wife had actually gotten married two months before their February 14th celebration (way to make Valentine's Day really suck), and when I realized that my brother and I had sat through Christmas Eve dinner with dad and the new wife and that they didn't tell us, it felt creepy and wrong. And the whole event was already feeling pretty creepy and wrong, but that's another story for another time.

In any case, I started sobbing. Because the whole thing was just so sad and I felt like my dad wasn't my dad at all, but rather some stranger who was now sporting a pierced ear and was dressed like an aging hipster. Bob walked over and sat down next to me and just put his arm around me so that I could muffle my sobs in his shoulder. I felt like he knew exactly what I was feeling without me having to say a word. He didn't make a sarcastic remark although God knows the opportunity was definitely ripe for multiple salvos. It meant so much to me to have those people there at that time. As my father was trying to pretend that everything in his 32 year marriage to my mother had never happened - my extended family was there to validate all the good times that I remembered from my life in our family.

This weekend I will probably be hunkered down at home because the rain looks like it's going to hang out and unlike my intrepid forebears I am not willing to risk life and limb on the highways to travel. But I am so glad I have the memory of those President's weekends with bridge group, the eating and drinking and laughing. The playing in the snow and going to Santa's Village to buy candy. The constant fire in the fireplace and the smell of cigars and the card games.

I think those kinds of friendships and extended family fun are rarer these days. My friends seem to be more isolated in their experience of parenting and socializing. When I think about my friends and their husbands though there aren't many that I would want to spend a weekend in a cabin with - which is kind of sad. Even though all those adults were very different they all coexisted really well in what was, when I think about it, a pretty small cabin with seven small children.

That could've been why they drank so much, but I think it was more because they were having fun.

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