I did not exactly have an orthodox upbringing. There was not too much that was "normal" about my family experience, really. My parents loved each other passionately, which they regularly demonstrated by screaming, slamming doors, slinging obscenities, and throwing tableware at each other. My father once hurled my Cabbage Patch doll through a window. (In case you were wondering, following this incident I performed brain surgery on her and had her wear a paper towel around her head for a week or so following. She recovered beautifully.)
We did not have a lot of "together" family time, generally speaking. My dad would come home from work, and he and my mom would chat in the kitchen while watching television in the background. They'd watch re-runs of game shows (usually something like the $25,000 Pyramid) and play along. They'd mute the television and one would sit with their back to the screen and they'd alternate giving each other clues.
Perhaps understandably, children were not allowed to interrupt during these times.
Then Jeopardy! would come on. My sisters and I were more than welcome to play along, but I can tell you -- no adolescent stood a chance at getting a question in edgewise against such formidable trivia-players as my mom and dad.
We didn't eat dinner together. My dad grew up in a household with a nanny and parents who frequented New York City and believed it uncouth to eat dinner before 8 p.m. So my father maintained a disdain for eating early. But as many of you know, kids don't want to wait until 8 to eat. So every night, my mom made two dinners. One for the kids and one for my dad (which she would pick at). Then by the time I got to high school, my schedule was so crazy and hard to juggle that I just started making my own dinners. Not every night, necessarily, but many.
I don't mean to belabor the point about how we ate dinner growing up, because it doesn't really have much to do with this entry except to say that it seemed perfectly normal to us. I had no idea (until much later) how abnormal it was to feel like spending time, say, eating dinner with one's parents was a special treat.
My parents didn't entertain a lot, but when they did -- which usually came in the form of family visiting -- it meant two things. One, we'd all eat together. Two, we'd all play games. And that meant we would all be engaged in the same activity. It was our "family time."
I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which playing games is part of the Sammis Family zeitgeist. This "family time" simply didn't happen without a game. Mostly the games were trivia- or word-related. Jeopardy was a big favorite, and of course, Trivial Pursuit was popular for a while. Password, too. And Outburst.
We never played anything like Monopoly. We never played Scrabble, either, although that always surprised me since my parents were avid crossword puzzlers.
New York Times crossword puzzlers, mind you. In fact, my father actually competed in the national NYT Crossword Puzzle Championship. The first year he went, he won some award for his rookie status. Eventually, he became the highest-ranked puzzler in all of New Hampshire.
The fact that he was the only contestant from all of New Hampshire mattered not. It was all about the glory.
Most frequently when we'd play Jeopardy, we'd play as one big team, and the goal was to "beat the game." This meant that we'd just go through the 50 questions (plus Final Jeopardy) as a group and discuss and come up with answers to all of the questions. The goal was to get them all right. Sometimes it happened, but not as frequently as we would have liked.
Of course, there were many, many non-group games that became rather...competitive.
(Ha! Anyone who ever met my dad just laughed at that sentence.)
My father was many things, among them a tremendous asshole. But not in the way that might sound. He was fun-loving and jovial and funny, and he didn't have a mean bone in his body. He teased people relentlessly out of love, and most people (but uh, certainly not all) loved him right back for it. But he was sloppy and full of mock bravado that people who didn't know better took to be genuine conceit. It wasn't. He was loud and obnoxious, but never, ever cruel. He did not harbor hatred, not even a little bit, not for anything.
I've met bitterly saracastic people who, under the surface, are even more bitter. And there are those who have "dark" senses of humor that really just speak to a dark side within them. Occassionally, someone would miscategorize my dad as being this type of guy. My father told off-color jokes a lot, but it's one thing to tell a joke about a black person to your racist friends; my father would tell a joke about a black person to his black friends.
My father's competitiveness was kind of legendary. It was always there, and for the uninitiated, it was maybe intimidating. But once you got going with him, you realized his competitive side was really nothing more than a love of the game. If you beat him, he'd have tremendous respect for you. If you didn't even come close to beating him, he'd just be thrilled that you gave it a go. And if you did come close to beating him, but then faltered at the end, well. You'd never, ever hear the end of it.
During big, group games (if you have never played Outburst, it is the best game ever for a big group of people because it's a level playing field and everyone can contribute), our family tended to divide into "men" and "women" teams. I'd have to say that over the years, both "men" and "women" have fared well, and have won/lost about an equal amount of times. However, if you asked me to pick a single moment of my life -- a moment that encapsulated what it was like growing up with my dad -- I would paint this picture:
We are sitting around the kitchen of 11 Little Fox Lane. The old, cracked, New England country kitchen with the brick floors and brick fireplace and enormous farm table full of games and newspapers and pens and cheese and crackers and one of my mom's dips (she always used dill). Most of us are sitting around the table, but my mom's off to the side, smoking. Someone's standing at the kitchen island mixing another drink. A couple of us are sitting on the charming old window ledge, the one that extended at least six feet against the wall. There are dogs everywhere. The door to the house is constantly opening and closing, as kids and friends and dogs and cats come and go. The maladjusted bird sqawks. My dad has a legal pad out and he's keeping score with a Papermate pen. There's a timer. And the timer is empty, and the women have just lost to the men. And my father has thrown off his glasses and thrown up his arms, and his fists are pumping the air while he chants, "MEN! MEN! MEN! MEN!"
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Sammis Family Household.
As I said, my parents didn't entertain a lot. Mostly it was just the five of us, hanging around somewhere in our big old house. And mostly, it was my mom and dad, chatting with each other ("yacking," my parents would call it) and playing games with just the two of them.
For a while, my parents got into playing Jeopardy on the computer. Now, to play computer Jeopardy, you have to come up with a screen name. Many people go with their actual names. But for some reason (I'm not entirely sure how it came about) my father, John Sammis, decided at one point -- I believe after several consecutive wins against my mom -- to dub himself El Juan Magnifico.
Just, ridiculous. And fantastic.
And that's how I remember my dad a lot of the time. I am a teenager upstairs in my room, yacking on the phone with the boyfriend du jour. I can hear muffled "damn it"s and "you're an assholes" coming from the computer room, where it's evident my parents are once again competing at Jeopardy. I don't pay much attention, except to try and drown out my father's booming chant of EL JUUUUUAN MAGNEEEFEEECO! as he goes to the kitchen, victorious, to fix himself another bourbon.