“Doing what I try to do — combine humor and inspiration, laughter and pathos — without coming off as flip or Lifetime-y is a bitch to pull off,” admits author Wade Rouse, discussing the difficulty in molding his fourth memoir, It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine. “I work very hard to get the mix right.”
Rouse fashions a heartfelt and often discomfiting collection of stories that brings out the best and worst in his nearest and dearest while traversing every holiday on the calendar — and even some that aren’t. Ever heard of Swedish Day? Neither had Rouse. But that didn’t stop him from donning a Viking helmet and welcoming home his partner, Gary, with a hearty “Välkommen!” After all, Rouse says, “nothing defines the beauty, dysfunction, and evolution of American families more than its holidays.”
From Rouse’s first dual-family Thanksgiving, during which he locked himself in his mother-in-law’s bathroom after she refused to put marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, to the last Christmas he spent with his cancer-stricken mother, Rouse details his family’s riotous get-togethers as a canvas on which to paint funny, awkward — and yes, occasionally sentimental — portraits that are ultimately about cherishing and appreciating ourselves and the people close to us. “Whether I’m writing about work, sex, family, or the holidays,” Rouse says, “I’m really writing about love, acceptance, and self-esteem because those are things that we all desire.”
Weightier emotions don’t take a backseat to a good laugh, however. Growing up gay in the Ozarks, Rouse developed his sense of humor as both a defense mechanism and a way to unite people. So it seems almost natural when he relates an anecdote about his father suffering a minor heart attack on Father’s Day and being rushed to the hospital, where doctors end up more concerned about a tick on the head of his penis. Almost.
“I tell him to get in the tub and scrub those nasty old balls,” Rouse quotes his mother as telling the doctor, “but he never listens.”
Rouse says he had no problem divulging a seemingly private moment about his father’s privates. “The ‘tick on his dick’ story is now the must-share tale in the Rouse house,” he says. “It sums up my father perfectly, and since he’s always been fine freely sharing that story with friends — and strangers — I think it should be shared with the world.”
“Oh, and all was fine with the tick,” he offers as a follow-up. “No major damage to either the wiener or the heart. Just my psyche.”