My mom is a narcoleptic. She tried to read me fairy tales when I was little but she was always sleeping before Sleeping Beauty could be rescued by the Prince.
This has left me with a somewhat jaded sensibility about love. We only got far enough into the fairy tale to see our heroine suspended in a state of distress, not able to save herself and not yet saved by her hero. Pre-coitus interruptus.
Bad things happened to good princesses. They met a wonderful man -- and promptly choked on a poison apple. They pricked their fingers and fell into untimely comas. They were enslaved by wicked stepmothers. They got lost in forests never to be heard from again. They got cabin fever, stuck with seven tiny men with pesky ailments. If this was happily ever after, I wanted nothing to do with it. When I got older, I'd occasionally dream of movie love -- the weekend in Paris, the shared giggle over a lazy brunch -- but generally I was just hoping not to get locked away in a bell tower.
I wouldn't have minded a Prince Charming, but I wasn't banking on him. I was muddling through. But now, at 26, I've been hit with another hard dose of literary reality from my family -- once more complete with romantic illustrations.
"Uncle Phil is writing a book," my dad announced recently. He paused, then added: "It's called Grandpa Does Grandma: The ABCs of Senior Sex."
"It's kind of a picture book," he continued helpfully, as if cute drawings of senior citizens making like minks would somehow soften the blow of my 70-year-old uncle writing about sex. "He, uh, he goes through the alphabet and each letter gets its own picture."
"So K would be what?" I asked, horrified. "Kinky?"
My dad offered the same goofy Parker grin he shares with his older brother, the budding author. "Yep. So maybe grandpa takes a bowl of whipped cream and--"
"Dad, gross," I cut him off. "Enough."
It wasn't burnishing the family name. It didn't rise to the level of Dorothy Parker, or even Sarah Jessica Parker. My uncle's book became an uneasy joke in our family. We wished him well... and yet.
I suggested a new slogan for our family reunion: "The Parkers: Grandpa Does Grandma, while everyone else stands around awkwardly and eats bagels." My dad joked about writing the sequel, "Grandpa Does Grandma, Just As Soon As He Can Remember Where He Left Her."
My sister sent me a late-night email from college. After expressing her "mixture of pride (for Uncle Phil) and borderline repulsion," she ended her dispatch on a philosophical note: "This reinforces the reason we spend all major holidays with Mom's side of the family even though Dad's side is 'equally great,' just the more 'creative' and 'eccentric' side."
Creative, indeed. My dad forwarded me an email from my uncle, by way of alert, when the self-published book came out this month. I checked out the website with justifiable trepidation. Two naked cartoon characters that looked disconcertingly like my uncle and aunt, covered only by a small cupid's scroll, bounced gently above a red rectangle that warned, "Enter at your own risk." I tiptoed forward, clicking through to the "Sneak Peak" section, where you could preview the letter "L."
"I wonder if he went with 'Love,'" I mused, as I waited for the page to load. "That could be tasteful."
The word awaiting me was "lubrication." My uncle urged his readers to "Lubricate! Lubricate! Lubricate!" and suggested "an extended session of non-genital love-making (kissing, stroking, etc)." Above the text was another animated cartoon -- an older woman, with Palm Beach-style reading glasses, spread eagle on her back, while her partner holds her legs aloft and squirts her privates with KY Jelly. ("Why can't she just do that herself?" asked a friend, peering over my shoulder. "Arthritis?")
I nervously checked out a video of my uncle in his first TV interview, with a local affiliate in his hometown of Atlanta. The interviewer seemed as flummoxed as I was, while my balding and beaming uncle settled back into his oversized chair and chatted about "bed-hopping in the senior community" (Grandpa does Grandma and Contracts Chlamydia) and how he's something of an expert on the subject because he's "been practicing sex for 50 years."
Quickly straying into TMI territory, he noted that his "grandma,'' as he calls his wife, wears cowboy boots and that he sometimes leaves flirty notes inside the boots "so when she takes them off at night, she has some expectations of what's going to happen." ("Ooh, ooh, oh, ok," stammered the poor interviewer.)
Watching my uncle, so utterly comfortable in his utter quirkiness, I worried that my family represented some horrifying variation on Tolstoy: All horny families are alike, but...
But upon reflection, I was able to come to terms with the upside of having a family that is always cheerfully oblivious to oddities, and loyal in the face of hideous embarrassment.
A mom who never got to the Prince Charming part but who still managed to instill a love of reading by taking me to the library most summer days when I was growing up, checking out hundreds of books that she knew she'd have to struggle through just to make it to the end.
A dad who may be chagrined about his brother's public sexual renaissance, but is loyal enough to provide editing help. An uncle who is proudly Rabelaisian (and more romantic than I am) -- willing to literally bare all to anyone willing to look and listen.
The book party may be tough, but my family is a fractured fairy tale, and I'll take it. In the end, I decided, I prefer our motley version of Happily Ever After.