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When Christmas meant merry mayhem with my cousins from North Dakota

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Posted: Tuesday, December 9, 2008 10:00 pm

In the 1930s, our family was regularly blessed with visitors from that vast wasteland known as Depression Central, or North Dakota.

What the Depression didn't lay to waste, the drought did. As time passed and work and money became more plentiful, the visits increased, much to the delight of my mother, who reveled in visits from her dear brothers and sisters from what many squareheads called "The Old Country."

When my brother, sister and I were young, we had cousins galore, but we didn't see them often. To drive a couple thousand miles in cars that were built in the '20s and '30s was a major undertaking. Once here, the visitors were usually in no particular hurry to get back to the American Tundra (I just made that up. It wasn't all that bad; it was worse).

The relatives seemed to favor Christmas and Thanksgiving as ideal times to visit. The fact that my mother was the best cook in Lodi was no big deal. Her sisters and she had the same teacher, my wonderful grandmother, so great meals were common in that clan.

My dad was fun at Christmas. He usually tricked my mother into thinking one thing while he did another. For example, he hid a gold ring in a huge cardboard box one year and another time bought a big radio and used the folded receipt in a small jewelry box as the wrapped gift for under the tree.

He built my sister a kid-sized table and chair set because my mom told him to get her a tea set. As luck would have it, our guests that year were my mother's sister and her family. Their daughter got a little porcelain tea set. She was a girl who had such a pronounced lisp; she made Daffy Duck sound like Demosthenes. She and my sister set up their little tea room in the living room of the house and proceeded to serve tiny portions of warm water to their customers. My dad, the builder and provider of their most elegant furnishings, walked up and asked, "My I have some tea, please?"

My cousin drew herself up into her full four-foottwo, put on her most snobbish face and told my dad, "I'm thorry thir. I can't therve you, thir. You're a bum, thir."

That girl, now in her 70s, hasn't lisped for 68 years and still has that thrown in her face.

The home we were in in those days was a smallish three-bedroom bungalow in which the largish kitchen backed up to a mediumish living room. In order to accommodate the four families in attendance, my dad arranged to have a table for the grown-ups in the living room and a similar setup for the brats in the kitchen, with a board in the doorway so we could pass things back and forth and all eat at what ostensibly served as a single hourglass shaped table. There were five ordinary boys and three beautifully behaved girls. The boys did what boys do during the meal, and that mayhem carried over into the bedroom after the sumptuous meal. The din from the bedroom was heard nicely in the living room, and having stood it as long as she could, my aunt came in the bedroom filled with carousing boys, fished her son out of the pile and spanked him and made him sit with the elders even though he was, without question, the most gentlemanly one of our bunch.

The rest of the boys were properly chastised by that show of force by auntie dearest and didn't make another peep for over a minute when the pandemonium resumed with an added fervor. A couple of the other adults felt sorry for and won a reprieve for my cousin, and he was released into the custody of the maniacs in the boys' bedroom, but he found it was a little hard to raise hell while constantly looking over his shoulder for the next castigation and possible parental pummeling so the fun for him was flat over.

My parents knew my brother and I couldn't make that much noise by ourselves, so they just bit the bullet and let the devil take the hindermost, which, incidentally, was where my cousin took it in his earlier whuppin'.

I was always like my mother. I just loved our company from North Dakota because I liked contact sports. The black and blue spots just came with the territory. Sadly, half of those squareheads are already in heaven. I'll bet they aren't grinding mashed potatoes into each others' laps there.

Bob Bader is a chiropractor and a former holy terror. You may reach him at .

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