What does slinking around with an air sickness bag face puppet have in common with torching toy boats in the backyard? In my family, the same thing as turkey, mashed tater towers, and a cranberry sauce cylinder straight from the can. Each is a Thanksgiving memory—a tradition of the highest order.
If you haven’t guessed by now, traditions in my family go a bit beyond your Norman Rockwell portrait of a holiday gathering. Everybody can gorge themselves on pie and watch football, right? So we kick it up a notch. If our after-dinner entertainment can keep us laughing all year and just this side of safe and sane, well then that’s a custom we figure is worth repeating!
“Good thing Betty is back in Boulder this Thanksgiving,” I said the other day. I’d done my annual “who’s going where and who might come all the way up here” calculations, and couldn’t help mentioning her. “Poor Betty’s traveled a lot over the holidays and it’s time for her to stay put.” Tom and I laughed knowingly. Someday, somehow, we’ll be engrossed in our festivities when…oh jeez…her dopey face will just pop out of nowhere and suddenly Betty’s baaaaack!
“Mom, you can’t go talking about her on Facebook and stuff,” Becky said earlier this year. “My friends want to know who Betty is and it’s too hard to explain.”
She’s right. Betty is even harder to explain than Mr. Mac Bear on the Stairs (a memorial statue to my dad, her grandpa, who’s only moved twice in the last 18 years), and my Grandma Prudy angel that hung in the kitchen for years till the girls pointed out all she was “watching over” was the dogs’ food bowls.
“Somehow I knew you weren’t talking about an actual person,” a visitor said. She asked about the challenges of consolidating homes for my Big Move to Rangeley, and I told her that finding Grandpa Mac a “good view” from the second landing was right up there with getting all my furniture to fit.
And Betty, well, she’s a whole ‘nother level of anthropomorphic aberration. She’s the weird aunt who’s funny till you realize you’re stuck with her at your house again. She’s a stowaway who’s slipped past TSA checkpoints all over the US and the Caribbean, tagging along wherever she can catch her next ride. She’s a talking head drawn on a Southwest Airlines barf bag.
“Please watch your step while entering and exiting the moving walkways,” she said, right after Becky brought her to life. We were en-route back from the Bahamas and, if I remember correctly, Becky used the multi-pack of colored markers she always seemed to have in her purse to distract herself from the bratty kid in the next seat. “Please watch your step…” she repeated in an airport security monotone, her horsey-toothed jaws flapping up and down, her too-blue eyes glaring from her pasty paper face. By the time we landed, I’d dubbed her Betty Barfbag and I was transfixed. I gained a new travel companion and a new level of enchantment with my teenage daughter. Not only did she have the seed of thought necessary to look into her seat pocket and want to animate a barf sack, she had the drive to execute her vision and give it a voice!
“Of course you’re going to take Betty back to the Bahamas with you,” I said a year later. “She was sort of born there.” Watching Becky pack for her three-month SCUBA internship, I was doing the obligatory “Mom inventory” of stating all the obvious things she’d need.
“You’re going to make a thing outta this aren’t you?” Becky challenged, peering down at the Sharpie creation I’d laid on her bed next to her flip flops. “Leave it to you to even save it!”
“Don’t call me a this or an it,” I made Betty plead as I passed Becky a bottle of sunscreen with my other hand. “My name is Betty. And I’m here to remind you to take your vitamins, call your mother when you can, and please watch your step while entering and exiting the moving walkways…”
So yes, I made a very big thing out of Betty. How could I not? And I’m pretty sure my daughter knew that I would as, moments later while her back was turned, I crammed Betty into the side pocket of her luggage. If not, she certainly was convinced a few days later when she found her little travel mate folded up next to her deodorant. Like it or not, Betty was now a family thing. Over the next several years, she’d be stuffed and stowed and carted back and forth from Becky’s luggage to mine and back again while Becky learned to suck it up with a smile and accept responsibility for what she’d spawned. I couldn’t even draw a straight line, never mind paint life onto a barf bag! It was Becky, after all, who had lit the torch the moment she’d reached into that Southwest seat pocket. I’d just taken hold of what she’d started and run as long and as far as I could keep the spark alive.
Betty Barfbag, I’m proud to say, has been our bon voyage ambassador for ten years now. She’s been shuttled back and forth from Maine to Colorado to the islands and all stops in between so many times she’s taken on a salty, musty, left-too-long-in-a-drawer smell to prove it. She’s survived attic mice, near misses with washing machines, countless drop kicks and detours—and even the biblical Boulder flood of 2013.
“We need to stuff her way down in there, far enough so she’s not going to find her till a few days after she starts to unpack,” I whispered to Helen a couple Thanksgivings ago. Becky had flown into Boston from her new teaching job in the Bahamas for a quick visit—just long enough to attend her friend’s wedding, eat egg rolls and lo mein with us under an indoor pagoda on Route 1, and take Betty back with her again. It was time. Betty had spent a long stint with me in Maine, by way of the Florida Keys or Grand Cayman, or whatever recent rendezvous I’d had with Becky and been stupid enough to leave my luggage unattended.
“She’s gonna be pissed when she digs her back outta there,” Helen giggled. Getting Betty stowed incognito was almost as hairy as driving through Logan holiday traffic. But we pulled it off, and soon she was headed back where she really belonged.
“She’ll wish she could have kept an eye on that luggage, even when she went to the bathroom,” I said. “But she won’t be nearly as pissed as she’d be if she lost the burning boat races this year.”
“Yup! That’s what we’d be doing right now,” Helen remarked. “You’d be helping Aunt Marie put away the turkey and get the pies ready, and we’d be out back by the pond setting fire to our homemade boats. What a tradition!”
For sure. How that got started is almost as hard to explain as a talking barf sack, but it came about as most time honored childhood customs do. The older, teenage cousins were trying to hide from the younger cousins and, in the course of getting as far away from the “little kids” table as possible, came up with a bad ass idea. Walking around the small pond on the country “farm” where we gathered for Thanksgiving was boring. Building tiny boats of paper and cardboard was better. Setting fire to their flotilla and seeing which floating ball of flames could sail the farthest before sinking was a downright blast.
“Pond races!” they’d holler, and the grownups would trundle out to supervise their playing with matches, one minute cheering the inventiveness of our offspring, the next twittering about how the custom wouldn’t translate too well to the ER doctor, should we require his services.
“Remember the pirate ship I built with the little crow’s nest and the Jolly Roger flag?” Helen said wistfully. “That was my favorite.”
Sure I remembered. The vessel was almost as fire retardant as it was seaworthy—a festive beacon of toothpick masts that probably would have won her the race if she hadn’t singed half her eyebrows off shoving it into the water.
“Good times,” I said, wondering when we’d all gather again to revive the tradition. Hopefully before any of the cousins had kids of their own and had to explain how flaming boat races got woven into our family heritage. Meanwhile, we’ve got Betty Barfbag to keep us in the spirit. And, except for the time I almost took a header sprinting over Becky’s luggage with her, she’ll probably keep us safer while we celebrate.