|The Hatch Family, by Eastman Johnson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
A good pun should be savored. You do not want to rush it. So after I opened my menu at Szechuan Kingdom the day before Thanksgiving, sitting in a booth with my wife and sons, I saw my opportunity, but took my time. I let them order first. Then the waitress looked at me.
"I'll have the 'Happy Family,'" I said, order a special of scallops, shrimp, chicken and vegetables, only then glancing over at my wife, who was genuinely surprised, almost shocked.
"You always get the beef and broccoli," she said.
It's true. I really like beef and broccoli.
"I thought I'd try something new," I explained. "Although I've sampled the 'Happy Family' at every Chinese restaurant I've been to. To compare them. And do you know what I've found?"
I paused, savoring their puzzled faces.
"All happy families are alike..."
I don't think there was actually the sitcom groan that lives in my memory, but the triumph was mine. Nice one dad.
Of course I missed my beef and broccoli during dinner—I always order it because I really, really, really like beef and broccoli—but it was worth it.
The opening sentence of Anna Karinina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
A famous line, though, like many aphorisms, not necessarily true. The happiness in my family seems more idiosyncratic than general. We don't watch football, except sometimes the Super Bowl. But Tolstoy is not only bantered, but played a significant role in there being a family at all: years before I got married, I remember seeing Edie on the sofa, reading Anna Karinina, her face wet with tears, and thinking, for the first time, 'Can't let her go.'"
We toted his-and-hers copies of War and Peace on our honeymoon, and while we didn't find time to read them, beyond a few symbolic minutes at the end, just because we had lugged the damn things, we did eventually. I later read the whole book, aloud, to my older son, finishing the night before he left for college, a high point of parenthood. Not only do I not believe the happiness of all dads involves reading War and Peace twice, I'm fairly certain it's just me.
Not that reading, and punning about reading, is all we do. We attend or throw the same big family gatherings that most families have, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the Jewish holidays and sometimes we assemble just for the heck of it, and bathe in the glow of relatives close and distant.
Though other families find happiness in other ways. The Orgill family of Utah, as I discovered on Facebook Monday, choreographs ecstatic Christmas dances, which they perform in their home, record on video then share online. I assume doing so makes them happy, though following in their footsteps would be the definition of misery for the Steinbergs (though I do smile imagining the result, no doubt something between "The Dance of the Hours" in "Fantasia" and "Long Day's Journey into Night.")
Although we did have one quasi-Orgill family moment. We were on our way to Ohio, to visit old friends who have a place at Put-in-Bay. We stopped at a Wal-Mart for some reason—pick up supplies I imagine—and they had this deep sale on these grey and aqua striped t-shirts. They were practically free, $2 or some such thing. So we each bought one, and put them on. Dressed identically, we rolled up to our friends' house. There is a photograph, but I'll be damned if I'm going to put it online, not matter how many clicks it would get. Give those wholesome dancing families credit. It takes guts. I like to think my family has courage too, in our, very different way. So with apologies to Tolstoy, I'd suggest that all happy families are not alike. While unhappy families, well, all families are unhappy, at one point or another. The key is getting past the unhappiness and becoming happy again.