Stumbling with Knitting Needles

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Electric Samovar from Russia

I am listening to a recording of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and I am delighted and appalled by the book. I am working on a memoir right now, and I appreciate the skill of Burroughs’ writing and his ability to make the sickest childhood sound zany and irresistible. In short, after his parents’ volatile divorce, his narcissistic mother believes she needs her privacy to become the next Anne Sexton, so she signs her son over to her psychiatrist, and Augusten becomes a member of the most insane family I have ever heard of. They are so mired in craziness that anything goes. There are no rules and are they encouraged to release their anger by arguing with each other. They look for messages from God in the most unlikely places. For example the doctor examines his turds each morning for symbolic messages. One morning he calls the whole family into the bathroom to admire his substantial BM. He instructs them to celebrate the turd which loops around the toilet and protrudes from the water. He explains that God is sending the family a whimsical message that their financial situation is “looking up.” He tells his wife to go to the kitchen and get a spatula, and then instructs his daughter to scoop out the turd and place it outside on the picnic table to dry. 

I can’t help but cringe and then laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but mainly I am in thrall with Burroughs’ ability to tell the story without a hint of self-pity. His skill in using visceral details and realistic dialogue makes every event he chronicles seem as if it were happening right in front of the reader in real time. 

As I am working on my own recollection of events in my own childhood, I want to capture some of Burroughs’ talent for making even shocking, dangerous, and appalling events sound entertaining. I don’t want the stories of my father’s bad behavior to make me seem pitiful. Clearly, I am not weighed down with the memory of his insanity, nor am I influenced in any way to be like him, so I want the reader to laugh or at the most, just shrug. 

Today I am going to work on a story about when my sister and I flew with our kids to California for my dad’s eightieth birthday. We hadn’t seen him in at least a decade, and his step-daughter threw a party to which we had been summoned. Meri and I brought our youngest two children each, and for my kids, at least, Harry was a complete stranger. He was a sociopath and while he was capable of bad stuff, he knew how to be charming, and that weekend he was a charming stranger, at least, to my kids. 

I had been the dutiful daughter over the years and had sent photos of the kids frequently. Even though he never got to see his grandchildren, I thought he would want pictures of them.  When we arrived at his house in Laguna Beach, he proudly showed off the large rooms. As we toured, I scanned for the pictures of my children in the house. While I noticed that in every room there were many framed pictures of Wesley, the child of his step-daughter., there were none of my or my sister’s kids.  I asked him what he had done with all the pictures of my kids, and he dismissed the question with a shrug. 

One afternoon we were all sitting around the dining room table having some coffee, when out of the blue Harry asked us if we wanted to see the gift he had bought for his step-daughter’s birthday. My sister and I exchanged looks, and she said, “Sure. Why not?” 

He left the room and came back grinning with a jewelry box in both hands. He set it on the table and looked at us with a twinkle in his eye. “Take a look at this!” he exclaimed. He opened the package and pulled out a gold and diamond Rolex.

Our eyes must have bulged out of their sockets, but we said nothing. “Pretty nice, huh?” he asked.

“I guess, if you like that sort of thing,” i said.

“Is it real?” my niece asked.

“You bet!” he answered. “I got a sweet deal on it.” 

“Grandpa,” my other niece began. “That’s a nice gift, but how come you never send us anything for our birthdays?”

He looked surprised by that question, and he stared at all of us a minute, as if trying to remember who we were and how we were acquainted with him. “Why would I?” he asked.

“We are your grandchildren!” Jenny  reminded him. 

“But I don’t know when your birthdays are.” He pointed to me, his oldest, and told the kids, “I don’t even know when her birthday is.”

“I guess that explains why I never hear from you on my birthday,” I said sarcastically.

“I guess it does,” he answered matter-of-factly and without remorse.

Then he tucked the velvet jewelry box back into the carved breakfront it  had been stored in. 

So does it make you laugh, smile wryly , or feel sorry for us?