Thomm Quackenbush, author

How I Met Your Mother | 2009 | This First Night

08.21.09 12:52 p.m.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  

-T. S. Eliot

 


Same River Twice

Melanie  
Alyssah is cute in glasses

The entirety of last year's Lake George entry went no further than Melanie's eyes. It seemed too dull for public consumption - focusing largely on my rediscovering this tourist resort on my own for the first time in eight years - but just right to serve as fair warning for what she would encounter when she joined my family on their annual pilgrimage. And, indeed, it would be criminal not to at least make an effort toward warning.

Though she has ridden a horse outside the Pyramids of Giza, been proposed to by a man in Morocco, climbed mountains in Japan, and has translated death notices in Paris, this is Melanie's first exposure to Lake George. For those of you in need of a refresher, Lake George is a glacial lake in upstate New York, serene and almost pastoral were it not for the hourly cannon blasts from the reconstructed Revolutionary War fort. The town built on the lake's banks relies heavily - possibly exclusively - on tourist dollars for its survival. As such, the quirky diversity of kitsch and folk art has long since given way to three or four people playing a large scale game of Monopoly, buying up and homogenizing 95% of the storefronts. While once bitter about this gradual conversion of the welcomed familiarity, I've come to accept that the only true constant is change.

I have done my best not to build up this vacation in Melanie's mind. It is best that she discover it on her own. But, even when the overall experience of this vacation is disappointing, it is crucial to my psychological health. This is the week I think of all year, a sort of milestone. Lake George marks the delineation between the year that has passed and the one that is coming (you'll have to realize that I have spent most of my life in the world of academia and that September represents a new year far better than January ever could). This is the very end of summer. At best, anything after we return from vacation is merely a hot autumn day that makes me miss what has come before.
Melanie  
Melanie is pretty cute too.

More personally, Lake George is a trial by fire, an initiation ritual into the family proper. If you can't swing five days in close quarters with my family - and despite splitting the family into two and a half rooms, the quarters will indeed be close - that underlying weakness to the relationship will present itself. When my family is grumbling about the newest addition even before we've left the driveway - which I have come to understand has been the fate of most - the fault lines will only spread as group activities and meals are flogged.

A decade ago, I went on vacation with my then-girlfriend Kate's parents to Nova Scotia, Canada to camp for two weeks. They, being a good Catholic family, expected that I understood that I would not be sharing my tent with their daughter. They did not, necessarily, expect that I would be sleeping in their camper more often than not to stave off literally frozen Canadian nights and a hurricane on the Bay of Fundy. In all, we very likely spent days in the car and witnessed the near destruction of one of their vehicles. I was not always a courteous passenger, being a hormonal teenage at the time. When we finally arrived home, Kate's mother assured me that I was now a member of the family to her. Furthermore, I felt closest with my ex Emily when we were in Lake George because it was the one week a year that she wasn't overflowing her schedule to keep from sitting still for even a moment.
Dan  
Dan, chilling.

The first year my sister-in-law Becky was an added to our vacation, she left her daughters with her mother. We had to come to approve of her as a discrete individual and decide whether or not she annoyed us so much that we would feel the need to badmouth her to Dan. To the best of my reckoning, we did not and it was the first time I considered that she might be a permanent fixture in my brother's life. The addition the following year of my nieces Ayannah and Alieyah radically and rather inexorably changed the adult dynamic, but it was understood that there was nothing that could be done. They were children and, though annoying by their very needy natures, it's hard not to love them even when one's threats to drop them in the deep end of the swimming pool bear a bit more sadism than avuncularity.

The car ride up was partially concerned with gossiping about those who came before. This briefly worried me - was my family merely giving Melanie fair warning as to her fate? - but it quickly faded to the hope this gossip inoculated her from scorn. They wouldn't tell her all of these things if they truly believed she would be the next target for the familial dartboard.

It occurred to me that my family, even after a year and a half of her being my partner, does not know Melanie. She is even more allergic to their house than I am and, despite being only being a five minute drive from my apartment, Melanie and I tend to spend our time elsewhere unless required by a family function. Of course, I want my family to know her, just as I wanted Melanie's parents to meet me, because I greatly enjoy harassing Melanie with the prospect of a far future marriage.

I am awkward upon arrival, since there is so much to share with her, so many traditions to touch upon in so short a time. I silently chide myself to take things slow, to let her discover her own image of Lake George. I fight the urge to make our memories on the backs of what has come before, simply for the sake of reappropriating them. Melanie's interests are different than those of Emily, who last joined me here - Melanie is not so keen on nightly ice creams and exhaustive shopping, instead favoring reading in the room beside me, and I can't induce her toward mini-golf. Her focus on vacation is genuine leisure, a level of relaxation I find a trifle unnerving as I listen to the tick of my watch counting down until I have to resume a more commonplace existence, until she returns to Ohio for another week of proper goodbyes with her parents and I just become an unemployed writer again.
Melanie  
Melanie entertaining the girls with her shirt.

Outside the boat, as we wait to board for our annual tour around the lake, my family twice calls Melanie "Emily". We both joke about this - it does not seem to faze Melanie and she simply says that they are used to talking to Emily here - and Becky half-apologizes that the names are very similar and that no one ever called her "Corinne", Dan's immediately prior girlfriend. I can't help but keep score and award Melanie silent points for her shrugging off these slips that likely would have shaken her predecessor (though the names "Kate" and "Emily" are worlds different).

Once on the boat, Melanie finds her niche almost immediately with the nieces, though I joke to Dan that he'd better start paying her for her nanny services. She entertains and cuddles with my youngest niece Alyssah and quickly draws Alieyah into pointing to the animals silhouetted on her shirt. This rapport extends to both the older nieces when, during our first dinner together, Melanie tries to distract them from torturing their beleaguered mother by teaching them a little of the origami she has recently been practicing. She does this not to make herself look good - though I feel she does - but simply because she wishes to and feels it is the least she can do. For the rest of vacation, no meal goes by where they are not asking their new and favorite aunt Melanie to help them turn their placemats into balls and frogs. Melanie gains a nickname too, Sweet Polly Purebred, owing to the straw hat she wears most everywhere to keep the sun at bay.

Meals with my brother's family are exercises in trying to ignore the all but audible contempt of strangers, other restaurant patrons and waitstaff especially. We come as a party of seven adults (one pregnant), three children, and an infant. Depending on the attitude of the waitress, our orders can be ignored for half an hour after being seated and our meals, short changed. Given that acceptable service could mean a tip larger than a day's pay, I find it baffling that they are willing to shirk this to lengthen the amount of time we will be occupying space in their sections. A few of the restaurants seem to know where their money comes from and the waitresses manage to swallow their sighs until we are out of earshot, but they are noted only because of their exceptionality.
Xen  
Me, kind of happy.

Lake George is one of the only times all year where we all can manage to be a family for more than a few hours straight, outside of holidays. Though we may break off into smaller groups for activities, there is a much tighter bond. When my father, brothers, Alieyah, Melanie, and I go to Great Escape, the local theme park, we stick together for patient hours. Alieyah, notably, is nothing but sweetness, cuddling on Melanie's lap on the way to the park and hugging Dan and calling him daddy often and in a way that makes me continually smile. (Though, for reasons of fairness, it should be stated that part of Alieyah's good mood was that she was away from her older sister Ayannah, who seems to be undergoing precocious teenage sullenness at the age of nine and who blames my brother for everything that went wrong, from no fruit with her pancakes to the fact that chlorine stings one's eyes. I prefer my nieces one at a time anyway.) While we are at Great Escape, the rest of the family goes to Storybook Village, a theme park for children and indulgent parents. I do not think they enjoy themselves as much as we do, though I'm sure Becky is grateful to have had a slightly more dilute child-to-adult ratio.

My mother is occasionally concerned with the son growing inside Becky, as is the prerogative of mothers-in-laws. Becky spends most of her time in our presence tending to the needs of one sniffling, whining, fidgeting, crying child or three. (Melanie's origami distractions only work so long.) There is a new grandchild waiting in Becky and my mother wants to make sure it comes to no prenatal harm while Becky exhausts herself on vacation, apparently one of the least relaxing experiences when one is the mother of four.

Becky certainly has my sympathies, as the nieces affect all of us. The nieces come in early whenever they can and, very quickly, their abject adoration for Melanie - barely a stranger to them before - renders them her alarm clocks. I warn her that it would be prudent to wear pajamas of some sort, but she is content with the modesty of hotel bedsheets. The chronic sleep deprivation degrades my emotional status until, at one point, I am moping that I don't write as floridly as Tom Robbins and that Melanie likes American Gods better than We Shadows (Never mind that I do, too).

Tuesday evening is a wash, unfortunately literally. Melanie cultivates her cabin fever, teaching the nieces more origami. I watch the lighting splay in a purple maze in the sky. Lovely, but I want it temporary so that we can continue to make our memories in town. By the time the storm ebbs, Melanie is confirmed to staying in, playing card games with dark chocolate M&M's and losing herself to silliness, forming different but no less lovely of memories.

The next day, Bryan gets lost geocaching with his two GPSs, something that seems difficult to achieve, causing my mother to call off traveling to a nearby town to see if we can find lodgings for next year to accommodate our expanding family. My father, bluntly, reminds my mother that she is fretting over a twenty-six-year-old with a cell phone and two GPSs, but the point is made for her when he sends her a photo of his leg, a fresh gash trailing blood down his calf. The wound ends up being superficial - he has enough medical training from various nursing programs to take care of basic injuries and had the presence of mind to send the picture - but it is enough that we wait at the hotel until he gets his bearings and toddles back to the cabin. It wouldn't be a proper vacation without some bloodshed.
Alieyah  
Alieyah, looking gruff

Vacation gives us the chance to see facets of one another that distance or courtesy otherwise hide. I have always felt that when I eventually write a book about my family, it will take place here. My parents experience Melanie as a nurturing caregiver, doting girlfriend, and, on our final night there, a bubbly drunk blithering giddily to me and practicing yoga positions while I shoot marshmallows at her with the slingshots we won at the arcade.

The final night is personally significant to me and delightful to Melanie, as well: fireworks. Every Thursday at twilight, a steamboat company hosts a half-hour show over the lake. Melanie is startled when she hears the initial booms as we descend the hill to our cabin and rushes to the docks, which she had been avoiding for fear she would slip into the water filled with microscopic nasties she knew too well from microbiology classes. We cling to one another through the explosions overhead, the light glittering off the ripples in the lake until they blend into one. It is as though the pier juts out into space as galaxies collide.

The final night is also devoted to getting ridiculously drunk to facilitate the loss of boundaries. No one is quite sure when this custom began, but my mother has petitioned for years for it to be moved to the night before using the reasoning that she would prefer my father and brother not drive home with a hangover perched atop their sleep deprivation. They refuse because moving it would require them to sacrifice most of a vacation day to nursing their mild alcohol poisoning, and that is too much to ask. In prior years, before succumbing to very natural sleep, I've learned more about my father and his past within the course of a single beer than I do in the whole rest of the year. With time enough and social lubrication, we can finally begin to be known (though I politely demur in drinking, no matter how many times they teasingly ask how I'd like my vodka). However, this doesn't happen this year. Dan and my father are fighting off low-grade versions of the flu that is claiming the nieces and nephew and turn in for sleep early, as do I to tend to Melanie (with, as noted, a slingshot and marshmallows).

Soon in Xenology: Melissa. Relationships.

last watched: Where the Buffalo Roam
reading: Skinny Legs and All
listening: Peggy Lee

How I Met Your Mother | 2009 | This First Night

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

The Night's Dream Series

We Shadows by Thomm Quackenbush

Danse Macabre by Thomm Quackenbush

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush