Every year around mid-December, I get nervous. My wrists start to sweat (what can I say, I perspire weird), I get anxious, and I have a deep unexplainable desire to head to a local department store and try on dresses that will never look good on me. Well, it’s not TOTALLY unexplainable… it’s a bit of a family tradition.
Every December when I was growing up, my father would be invited by his old high school buddy (in town for the holidays) to play in a winter golf tournament. It was one of my dad’s favorite tournaments, mostly because he was with an old friend, but also because it was at the bougiest, most prestigious, most annoying country club in Western New York: Wanakah. As a chubby middle-class kid, I was only invited to Wanakah once by my neighbors to go swimming. I don’t remember the pool, but I remember the chicken fingers. They were choice. Wanakah was the kind of place that was a dream for a kid, and a nightmare for a working mom. Why? The whole tournament culminated in a Saturday night dinner-dance, where all the wives of the golfers would arrive in epic 90s style to dazzle the men with their ability to drink chardonnay and wear tight mini-dresses.
Growing up, my mom worked 70 hours a week. She didn’t have a personal trainer. Her gym was the house, cleaning it with us every Saturday morning. Then, we did a real life Supermarket Sweep with my great grandmother, taking her to get two slices of deli ham, one slice of provolone, two bananas, and the ingredients for about thirty pounds of pasta sauce. We would take her home, then go back to the grocery store to buy our groceries. Sunday, my mom would furiously finish cleaning the house, then make 3-4 pre-made family dinners and stick them in the fridge with notes for my Dad to throw in the oven: to this day, I think he only knows how to cook anything if it’s on 350 degrees for one hour. She didn’t have time for laying in the sun or hitting up a jazzercize class- her dusty Jane Fonda tapes were put to good use in making stairs for my lego fortresses. But every year, at Wanakah, she would have to face the Wanakah Wives. Like 90’s mean girls, these bitches could literally disintegrate you with their shitty comments about how your outfit was last season, or how “cute” it is that you have a job and support your family.
These women were unreal. She would describe them to me as she plunked me down in the backseat and buckled me in: sequined mini-dresses with shoulder pads, perfect tans in DECEMBER in Buffalo, long thin legs in perfect nylon sheathes and two hundred dollar shoes, reflective teeth and huge eyes. To me, they sounded like glittery monsters. To my mom, they really were. She couldn’t compete with their tanned legs and tight frocks: my mom’s most dressy outfit was a pants suit with a patent leather collar that she adored. But we would always try to find some new dress the day of the event.
At the mall, we would park right next to the entrance (which was rare for my mom because she loved any chance to burn calories). But I knew why. We would head inside, and by the time we were in the dressing room with two dozen dresses, my normally stoic mom was already on the verge of tears. I sat on the floor, collecting straight pins and making snowflake designs in the carpet for the next bored kid, while she tried on dress after dress. Nothing worked. I wanted to say, “These dresses weren’t made for real women!” but since I was 8, I said, “That looks stupid. Wear your black pants suit!” Tears welled up inside her as we ran out of the dressing room, to the car, and straight to McDonalds.
The conversations we had the day of the Wanakah Wives were always the most real. My mom was the most frustratingly honest I ever saw her. “How the hell do they stay so tan all year?” “I would have time to look that good TOO if I didn’t have a career!” I would give her conversation starters because she said these women were impossible to talk to, and we would joke about trying to talk politics with them. “They can’t even SPELL politics,” she huffed between chicken nuggets.
I always waited up in bed on Wanakah night, and now that I’m older, I feel like I know what she went through. We’ve all been through it: walking into an awkward holiday party, in last year’s dress, facing women who literally spend their days making themselves externally perfect while they rot from the inside out. At some point, my mom would literally say “fuck it,” and throw back a glass of wine. My dad would pull her out on the dance floor (he is a great dancer), and they would dance until her basic black pumps ended up in the corner of the room. When I heard the car pull in the driveway, I would close my eyes and wait for her to come upstairs, in her stocking feet with her shoes still in the car. She would stroke my hair, and I would open my eyes. “How did it go?”
“Brooke, those women are awful. But I had fun. I love you. You should have been sleeping three hours ago.”
I’m not very good at resolutions or holiday cheer, but this time every year, I remember the Wanakah Wives in all their glittery glory. I think about my mom walking in that room, the silent panic and frustration she would feel as those women judged the fuck out of her. The legacy she gave me from those weekends every year was more valuable than the baubles of costume jewelry those wives passed on to their kids. I won’t drink my coffee out of a straw, and red wine will always stain my lips. I refuse to stretch and burn my skin under tanning lamps, or skip dessert. Dessert is the fucking best. I will love my family, take care of them however I think best, and I won’t let anyone stop me from throwing off my shoes and dancing all night. Happy Holidays, readers. Now, go get yourself some dessert.
Note: Brooke Cartus is a horrible dancer. If she does throw her shoes off any dance all night, be advised. Someone will be going home on crutches.