So this is totally predictable and cliché (half the hellishness of BigLaw is that there are never any surprises), but this past week I got to take an actual vacation for the first time since I passed the bar—to go to my Nonna’s funeral. On my outbound flight, I nursed a whiskey and diet coke and repeated lines straight from the cynical associate script. I half-sketched a bitter rant about the pathetic state of life at my firm, which is so suffocating that it takes death for a litigation associate to be permitted to take some freaking time off, and the twisted irony of being permitted a much-needed vacation only because a loved one died.
That, however, was before I spent the entire weekend with my family.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve been treated to such a thorough, which is to say utterly terrifying, glimpse into my gene pool. By the time I was safely en route back to Chicago, my posture had completely changed to one of gratitude. Because, if it weren’t for the BigLaw demands that dominate my life, I would have to spend time with those people more than once every three years.
Depending on your beliefs, either the laws of karma or simple serendipity allowed my sister and me to be born to the most normal member of my dad’s family. Not that the bar is set that high. By “most normal” I just mean that my dad’s normal enough to know he’s crazy. Whereas the rest of the family falls into that special category inhabited by the truly, dangerously insane, i.e. they’re too crazy to realize they’re crazy and they think everybody else is crazy and jealous of them.
I have a hunch that there was some weird gypsy inbreeding that might have occurred in Sicily before my great-grandparents immigrated. To better illustrate what I’m getting at, I’ll cite to Real Housewives of NJ. This season, they introduced Teresa’s brother Joe as a new character, which made everyone realize that Teresa looks like her brother with a wig and makeup on. That’s part of it. If an outsider walked into a room full of my extended family members and glanced around, he or she would immediately get the vaguely unsettling impression that the room was full of a bunch of sets of male twins, half of which were in dressed in drag.
And then there’s my Nonno, who had the decency to refrain from unbuttoning his shirt to the navel (thereby unleashing his tanning-bed-tanned chest with its tangled web of gold chains, medallions, crosses, horns, chest hair, and the overpowering scent of his trademark musk, Kouros) until after the formal funeral services had ended. His pleasure at being the mourner-in-chief was palpable, since he’s the sort of grown man who sulks unless he is the center of attention. At the post-service dinner gathering, my cousin’s three year-old—Nonno’s great-grandson—made everyone at the table laugh when he looked around and asked, “Is this my party?” to which Nonno shouted, “No, it’s MY party, NOT your party!”
That’s not to say that the three year-old wasn’t intentionally egging Nonno on, since they’re both cut from the same cloth. In fact, the three year-old is a near-homicidal attention whore. At the same post-service gathering, my sister and I amused ourselves by tying a dinner napkin on his baby brother’s head like a nun’s habit, which triggered loud laughter and some clapping. When the three year-old noticed that his baby brother was the cause of the noise and attention, he jumped across the table with a demonic glint in his eye and tried to tear the napkin off of the baby’s head, nearly decapitating him.
Anyway, back to Nonno. I actually made the mistake of thinking his grief act was sincere for a few minutes at the viewing, when I saw him sitting alone on the couch nearest my Nonna’s coffin, so I sat down next to him and put my arm around him. He immediately grinned (pleased someone suitable had taken the bait so quickly) and whispered conspiratorially, “Doesn’t my hair look thicker?” before making me admire the effect of his new bald spot concealing powder.
And then there’s my Uncle Gino. I think it’s pretty typical for there to be a disowned, developmentally disabled and semi-sociopathic son in every Sicilian family with four or more kids. In my dad’s family, that would be Uncle Gino. He was banished out-of-state 25 years ago when he married a deranged woman, whose charming behavior at the post-service gathering included, but was not limited to: (i) speaking aloud to the voices in her head; (ii) dragging a chair to the front corner of the room and then sitting in said chair, staring at everyone and silently weeping; (iii) storming out of the room every so often, only to return laughing maniacally; and (iv) randomly inserting herself into conversations to exclaim things like, “If I never see you again after today, have a wonderful life!”
My most entertaining conversation of the day occurred when Uncle Gino cornered me and started a discussion by announcing, “You know, in my trials, I always make the mistake of starting out by hiring a lawyer. But then I realize what a waste of money lawyers are, and I fire them and just do it myself, you know? Because I’m smart, I’m smart! I don’t need to pay them.” (By way of background, Uncle Gino has never won any of his so-called trials, nor do they ever actually make it to trial, since the fact patterns tend to involve him defaulting on loans he takes out in expectation of large and illogical windfalls, such as the time he borrowed $1,500 to send to the deposed king of Nigeria for a promised return of $5,000). I suggested that paying a lawyer might actually make more sense, since he loses the money he saves on legal fees in the judgments, fines, and penalties entered against him in his trials. “No way! I guess I woulda lost those trials anyway, you know? I’m smart, and even I couldn’t win, so a lawyer couldn’t win either. So I still saved that money that I woulda had to pay him to lose the trial!” And with that, he shuffled away with his head cocked to one side, mumbling to himself in a satisfied tone.
Later, my sister and I re-capped the highlights of the day’s events with my parents over several bottles of wine. Near the end of our storytelling session, my mom stared off into space for a while, and we asked her what she was thinking about. “It’s amazing to me,” she said, “how toxic the energy was today. I mean, some of those people are so insane it’s unbelievable. Not to mention their total lack of self-awareness, and their explosiveness, histrionics and co-dependency, and their egotistical need to be worshiped and doted on. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt that off-balance and disturbed by the collective behavior of a room full of people! And the worst part is, half of the stuff wouldn’t even make sense to a person who wasn’t there to experience it.”
My dad and sister nodded in agreement, but I stayed silent because something was nagging at me. I was getting a little déjà vu about the way my mom described the effect the entire family had on her, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, a few minutes later, it hit me. Often, when I describe the atmosphere of my law firm to outsiders, those are pretty much the precise words that I use. Which raises an awful question—did I seek out my firm intentionally (albeit subconsciously) because the toxicity felt familiar to me? In the same way that a girl ends up attracting and marrying a man who’s just like her dad, did I respond to some imperceptible but magnetic signals when I interviewed and ultimately accepted my firm’s offer a few years ago? In the end, then, I guess I’m still on the topic of bitter irony after all. The big firm which allows me to escape from the toxicity of my family also evokes the toxicity of my family. I’ve succeeded in attracting what I tried to escape. So much for good karma and simple serendipity.