Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Meet the parents
Published 8:06 am, Thursday, November 19, 2009
Home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. -- Author Unknown
Thanksgiving is the head of a month-long banquet line of expectation. When children are young, we work to embed traditions that will serve as important family touchstones. As children get older, Thanksgiving is a time of transition with gilded anticipation that ultimately yields to the reality of change. Eventually a mother's only desire is for one more year as a family unit. Finally, the dreaded Thanksgiving arrives on a cold wind where someone is absent -- lost to new in-laws or competing priorities.
For my mother, living in the house of four grown sons, the holidays were a losing battle fought with an unseen enemy -- the mothers of the new "serious" girlfriends. Mom had always accepted us as wayward tomcats, yet we always seemed to find our way back home slipping in through the back door each November with massive appetites, dirty laundry and an unspoken need to be wrapped in holiday affection.
The girls who seemed to come and go like purple jacaranda blossoms suddenly made repeat appearances. Her boys were transforming under the relentless company of these "serious" girlfriends -- dressing well, arriving on time and bathing regularly. She was actually excited to be rescued from this male planet so completely devoid of estrogen. It was as if a side dish was missing or a present had been lost under the tree. The holidays had changed. She was now slowly opening her family to new people, new traditions and, at times, coming up second as the place to be.
It had been this way for a while with her teens. Those who were still living at home could not wait to move out. They disappeared like spooks into the night but they always appeared the next morning. One morning a bed was empty -- then, another. With three empty chairs this Thanksgiving, there would be too much food and too many memories.
She grudgingly accepted that she must now share her sons with the "competition." Love and the approval of potential future in-laws were too powerful a force to overcome. She loathed the emasculated October phone call that tiptoed toward the inevitable excuse -- a stuttering son dropping that he would not be coming home this year but instead be spending it with Carole in Princeton or Brooke in Colorado.
My father was delighted with the absence of competition for food, the family room TV or a hot water in the shower. Like a prisoner marking hard time, he had been awaiting liberation for years. There were no more missing shirts, fugitive pairs of underwear or a car left with a mere one-12th a tank of gas. The idea of a full turkey dinner with only three mouths to feed (my younger brother was still at home but he had perfected the art of total invisibility) was as appetizing as pecan pie. On the other hand, the idea of his castle being filled with young women -- suppressing his ability to swear, forcing him to " graciously" serve himself last and abandoning holiday clothing ensembles that would stupefy Mr. Blackwell -- was anathema to him. As he hugged my mother and reassured her that it would be "just like old times," she rolled her eyes at the thought of an empty house.
While the family matriarch was navigating the martyred stages of an empty nester, my brothers and I were being blown to the four corners of the state to "meet the parents." I had heard from my brothers of strange customs and odd in-laws. These stories were usually pried from them over threat of death as they were now walking on the slippery slope toward permanent domestication. My future spouse was born in Britain to a highly intelligent English/Scot mother and a kind, cerebral English father. Being a provincial West Coast American, I assumed a trip to their home would be the equivalent of visiting one's grandmother -- a more mature but familiar culture where colorful people spoke like Charles Dickens characters and the holidays were one grand protracted celebration of life. Being a Brit, my future spouse gave me no advance cultural training other than her penchant to drink copious cups of tea and to spread butter on top of butter.
The introductions were difficult as I realized that she had not informed them that her new "friend" was indeed a serious replacement for an old boyfriend with whom her parents had been quite fond. This disappointment was poorly disguised by my future mother-in-law but completely lost on her dad. The small talk was painful with minutes like dog years. The matriarch was not happy with this changeling boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father was still trying to understand why someone my size had never played rugby. A phone call from her sister thankfully broke the social stalemate.
As we walked to the front door to drive to the store for milk, I conceded that her parents despised me. "I might as well be French." I shared with desperation -- to which she responded, "Oh, no. They really like you." I tried to help in the kitchen but was ushered out to the foyer where an ancient television sat silent and neglected. "What games are on?" I yelled across an open family room. "Oh, we don't watch much television except PBS -- you know `Upstairs, Downstairs,' `The Avengers' and `Rumpole of the Bailey' -- and the Dallas Cowboys!" At the mention of the Cowboys I perked up. There was hope.
An ancient animal resembling a flea market mink suddenly leapt up onto the sofa and proceeded to wrap her tail around my head. The rhythmic purring could not perfume the smell. It was the odor of recently deceased road-kill. Yet, this escapee from the "Pet Cemetery" was quite alive. Within moments, I descended into a wheezing fit of sneezes as the zombie cat followed me and would jump into my lap whenever I would sit. I loathed cats but I did not want to reveal this ugly parochial side of my personality. " Oh, looook. Molly likes you." My future wife smiled as she happily set the dinner table and winked.
An appetizer of cheese and crackers appeared with what looked like a dark dollop of animal feces and cloudy tangerine orange jam with paprika adorning the middle of the tray. I was starving -- but the dark, chunky mass had already started to spread and had touched several of the cheese wedges and crackers. My expression betrayed my ignorance. "It's Branston Pickle and Major Gray's chutney," she said urging me to the inedible offering. "It's great on cheese. Here taste this." She shoved the wheat biscuit with dark chunky jelly and cheddar cheese into my mouth before I could create an excuse. I gagged.
It was like this all afternoon. Since Thanksgiving is hardly an English tradition -- the holiday gave them the opportunity to combine the best parts of old and new culinary traditions. I was confronted with my lifetime nemesis -- Brussels sprouts -- as well as a bizarre concoction of white onions, milk, flour and cloves known as "white sauce." In this sea of alien side dishes, the traditional entrees appeared -- all originally accentuated with the spices of a foreign cook's cultured hand. All eyes were on me as I devoured everything put in front of me.
When salad came, it was presented innocently enough with onions, tomato and sliced cucumber. However, I soon bit into a massive clove of garlic. I hesitated, smiling with my mouth closed. No one noticed my discomfort as I slowly chewed. I assumed this "Eating of the Giant Raw Garlic Clove" was a Dunn family tradition. I was honored and ill. My eyes were beginning to water and my throat began to burn. I tried to speak for a moment but was unable to utter a sound. Chasing the clove with tons of water, I was relieved temporarily -- only to turn a salad leaf and find another even more monstrous clove lurking below. I closed my eyes and bit into it, tears flowing down my face.
"Oh, no," my future mother-in-law blurted. "I am so embarrassed. I usually rub the bowl with cloves of garlic before mixing the salad but I thought I had removed them. You poor boy, don't have to eat those ..."
Gratefully, I put the massive white herb down and became the object of modest admiration for taking on the monster garlic. Even my future brother-in-law, the tough outdoors man, was impressed. Later that evening, as I was helping clean the dishes, my future mother-in-law was more relaxed and it was clear that we had crossed the Rubicon together.
As I related the story later that evening to my parents -- wishing them happy Thanksgiving -- my mom laughed a deep chuckle and there was a small pause on the phone.
"You're still coming for Christmas Eve right?"
"Yes mom, and I am bringing Caroline -- if that is OK."
"Oh, yes. We'd love it! Won't we Miles?"
I could not hear my father's response but I could just see him wincing and thinking, "There go my leftovers."