For those who managed to escape the oppression of small-town living in favor of life in the big city, the challenge of packing for a weekend with relatives can be more stressful than shopping for an outfit to wear to the Black and White Ball. Every year, my husband and I dive into our closets, hoping to unearth just the right thing to wear when we venture northward to Walkerton, my hometown. Boasting one traffic light, a dozen churches and probably just as many bars, inhabitants of a place like Walkerton have their own fashion dictates that may not always be in sync with those of their big city relations.
Owning nothing NASCAR-related, or printed in nature-loving camouflage, we"ve learned to make do. Always the diplomat, my vegetarian husband typically selects Woolrich plaid, making him approachable to hunters and old men alike. As for me, I"ve developed a formula for choosing the right costumes and accessories to get me through a variety of hometown gatherings. Family get-together Unlike holidays with my husband"s family, where people wear their Sunday best, when the relatives descend upon my parents" house, I"m swimming in a sea of flannel accentuated by the familiar fragrances of Dial soap and gun oil. Knowing even a matte jersey dress would be overkill, I try to blend in, pairing a red turtleneck with boot-cut jeans. I"m picking over a remnant of turkey when one of my Puritan aunts points her breast implants my way, announcing through collagen-injected lips: "Joni Marie Back, did you know that the State of Michigan is turning their kindergartners into little Communists?" She nods, imparting the terrible truth: Michigan public schools ask children to purchase a box of crayons, only to have it opened and dumped into a collective bin for community use - clearly, first-stage Communism. Looking me square in the eyes, she announces: "We"re going down, babe." Thanks to encounters like this one, I"ve learned to accessorize in a big way. I discovered long ago that my sweet 90-pound Labrador not only looks great next to me when I"m wearing a little black dress, it"s also capable of retrieving me from countless unwanted conversations. When the chatter gets too thick, I simply glance side-to-side, look a little worried and say, "I"m sorry, Cha Cha hasn"t been outside in hours. I better go check on her." Then, I RUN out of the room, as fast as I can. Before becoming a parent myself, I found another tactic for avoiding such encounters was to plant myself at the children"s table. Teach them to balance spoons on their noses or make arm farts and they"ll follow you around like rats after the Pied Piper. With so many tiny fans, you won"t have to keep yourself from throwing up when your second cousin describes how he field-dressed his latest buck barehanded or how your uncle was THIS CLOSE to President Bush the last time he dropped by the South Bend Regional Airport. You"ll be too busy playing hide and seek in your mother"s walk-in closet. Of course, adding your own offspring to the mix opens a new set of problems, as you simultaneously try to impose yourself between them and certain death at the hands of older cousins and listen to 12 relatives reveling in the merits of a good spanking. "Your mother spanked you plenty and it didn"t mess you up much," they"ll say, and you"ll wonder out loud how much coal Saint Nicholas left in their shoes this year. A night on the town Trips to Dollar General Store aside, the most exciting thing Walkerton has to offer is karaoke night at one of the local bars known as the Stardust Lounge. During the holiday season, my sister and I, appropriately dressed in vintage biker jackets, venture into this den of song, where we"re greeted with an earful of a toothless, yet earnest, performance of something that sounds like: "Whoa Black Betty Wham Ba Lam Whoa Black Betty Wham Ba Lam Ö" Next, we"re treated to a number by Psycho Ray, who, anchored by a broken heart and a parole officer who won"t let him leave Indiana, recently set up housekeeping in an old school bus parked in his ex-wife"s driveway. After painting it black, Psycho installed a wood stove and in the window placed a hand-lettered sign advertising his jailhouse specialty: TATTOOS. When he stands in front of the crowd, his massive stomach inches its way from beneath his untucked shirt as he closes his eyes and clutches the microphone, growling the words to "Ghost Riders in the Sky." No one dares laugh, speak or even blink as Psycho manages the final "Yippy-Ai-Ay, Yippy-Ai-Oh," because everyone knows Psycho can see in the dark, broken heart and all. The song over, Psycho Ray raises a clenched fist high above his head. Amidst the whoops and hollers of his loyal fans and mothers of his unclaimed children, he growls, "Take that, you fucking cowboys. Merry Christmas." Then he walks out the door into the black, one-traffic-light night. With Love, Miss Joni