Pacific Northwest | December 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 14, home
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Special Arts Issue

Identity Crisis
The family holiday party looms with unknowns
IT'S THAT TIME of year when the fun-filled holidays start sneaking up on us like a shadowy figure in a horror movie, only without the creepy music. And we all know what that means.

No, it doesn't mean a teenager in a deserted house is going to be chopped up by a guy in a hockey mask. It means something even worse.

It means you are going to find yourself at a relative's house, shaking hands with people you are related to but hardly recognize, kissing the powdery cheeks of women who identify themselves as your mother's second cousin twice removed, and exchanging stories with a very old man who has got you confused with a childhood friend from World War II.

The Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston and myself had a practice run for the family holiday reunion at the end of summer when we attended a mega family reunion at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Everett. The hall was an appropriate place for a gang of Catholics to meet because pictures of people we didn't know, like long-dead popes and priests, lined the walls.

It was like being back in Catholic school, only without the nuns slapping your knuckles with rulers when you made a mistake.

The reason this family reunion was good for me was because I was able to train for the upcoming holiday parties where I am related to several hundred people who are attending. But for the life of me, I cannot remember the connection or their names.

I'm usually put at a disadvantage by out-of-town relatives. At a normal family gathering, I know that 95 percent of the people will have the same last name as me (hint: Johnston). The advantage of having a lot of brothers is that their wives and children all have the same last name (hint: Johnston).

The exception is my sister. She married a guy who is named after a famous restaurant: McDonald. Sometimes we make the mistake of calling them "the Hamburgers," but most of the time we get their names right.

Unfortunately, the people attending the late-summer family reunion did things a little differently, making it hard to keep everyone straight.

For starters, the people at the party didn't name themselves Johnston. Apparently, my mother's name has not always been Johnston. She was once named Foley, and a bunch of them are living in Port Angeles.

If these Foleys had elected to keep that one name, it would have been easy to keep track of them. But the Foley girls married guys with different names, so growing up I had to learn the names of cousins who aren't Johnstons or Foleys. That took a generation or so to figure out.

Just when I'd gotten it figured out, and I could see someone and remember they are related because their mother is married to your mother's brother, something sinister happened.

Cue the creepy music: All the people you used to know on sight got old. That kid with the dark curly hair had not only lost most of the hair but what was left had turned white! The female cousin who was cute now looks more like the aunt you grew up seeing — and she was never cute.

Not only did all these people you used to know on sight get old, but also they had children, and some of those children had children. What is this world coming to?

There are two more scary things about these holiday reunions. When you were younger, you didn't notice that the children of your aunts and uncles looked anything like their parents. But when you see the children of your cousins, you notice that those children look like their grandparents. Haunting genes.

The last scary thing is that you start telling one of these young people he looks like some old guy who now has white hair and the complexion of a prune. If you have your wits about you, you notice that the young person you are telling this to gets a look on his face that says, "Oh no, Uncle Steve is going to start talking about the old days."

That's when the creepy music should build to a climax and the youngster should run off screaming.

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.

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