If I'd belched, I'd have cleared the table, and some people would have passed out.
-- My father
It was decided months ago that if they wanted to jump into the deep end of the pool, David's family should meet mine for the first time on a holiday. The final head count for Easter dinner was 24, 19 of whom were related to me. When I passed along this information to David, he remarked, "I'm looking forward to seeing the bear on the unicycle and fez-wearing midgets riding by in a go-cart." Our families had been prepped. David's parents and sister were warned of bedlam and irreverence. I informed my brethren of their guests' perennial preference for propriety. "They don't curse," I'd explained to my perplexed parents. "They eat chicken legs with a fork and knife." I had to answer a series of questions regarding this fact before I could move on to the next. "Not one of their children has ever had a tattoo or exotic piercing. Conver-
sations about bodily functions at the dinner table are right out."
David's parents stayed in a downtown hotel, while his sister, Michelle, camped on a futon in our living room. My cousin Jane from Staten Island, her husband, and their three children were staying at Mom's, or what I referred to as the "fun house."
"This might get confusing," I explained to David's family over breakfast at the Mission on Easter morning. "Today there will be two Janes, two Liams, and two Olivias. See, my cousin Jane has a Liam and Olivia. My sister Jane now has an Olivia, and my sister Heather has a Liam. It's easy, though, because with the kids, we say 'big or little Liam' or 'big or little Olivia' to indicate the older or younger ones; with the Janes, we just say 'cousin' Jane or 'sister' Jane, or we use their last names." Watching the looks of consternation grow on the faces surrounding me, I cheerily added, "You'll catch on."
Mom fretted over details. She'd had the house scrubbed, the yard re-landscaped, the carpets cleaned, and the deck painted. She bought new towels for the bathrooms and made frequent trips to the grocery store. Michelle and David, however, seemed to be the most apprehensive. They struggled to prevent catastrophe by convincing their father not to wear his suit and desperately persuading me that applying red marker to the palms of my hands to simulate stigmata would not be as funny as I imagined.
Once through my Mom's door, we were presented with baskets of goodies. "The Easter bunny forgets no one," Mom said proudly. Thirty minutes after we'd arrived, David's mother, Ency, found me in the kitchen and said, "You overexaggerated, Barb; your family is so polite!"
"Just wait," I said forebodingly. I hadn't told her they were "rude," but I had made it clear that my family's definition of the word was vastly different from hers. My mother also cornered me to complain about my misrepresentation. "Ency is wonderful ," she said. "I was expecting her to be cold, but she's warm !"
"Mom, I told you she was 'proper' and 'elegant'; that doesn't mean 'tight-lipped' and 'cold,'" I replied.
David said that my family was the most "normal" he'd ever seen them, almost "too" normal. "I haven't heard anyone curse all day," he told me. "It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers . It's creepy." He'd obviously missed my conversation with my cousin Jane in the back yard -- in ten minutes, she'd dropped enough F-bombs to level Chicago.
While I was chatting with Ency and Michelle, my sister Jane appeared with little Olivia in her arms, and Michelle asked if she could hold her. As Jane transferred the pink-wrapped papoose into Michelle's arms, she said, "Don't worry, she shouldn't be too fussy. I just topped her off."
"You just what?" asked Ency.
"Did you give her one boob or two?" Mom shouted from across the counter.
"Two," Jane called back. Then, in answer to Ency's question, she said, "You know," pointing to her chest and then to the baby, "I topped her off. And she went to the bathroom, too. She's set for a while." Michelle and Ency raised their brows at each other and then turned their attention to the tiny, pacifier-sucking person between them.
Six of us bustled around the kitchen making last-minute preparations for the meal. Michelle helped Heather with the salad, Jenny and cousin Jane tended to different types of garlic bread, Mom kept an eye on the lasagna, and I sauced and cheesed dozens of chicken-parmesan cutlets. As the temperature in the room rose, so did the mingled scents of garlic, tomato, vinegar, and baked bread. Ency stood to the side, staring at us in awe. "I could never do this," she said. "I could never have this many people in my kitchen. It's amazing. I love watching the production."
As I had predicted they would, my dad and Robert, David's father, sequestered themselves in a corner of the living room and discussed politics with the enthusiasm of frat boys comparing notes on chicks and beer. I interrupted, telling them it was time to move to the table, where the chicken was already settled and losing heat. "What are you guys conspiring over here, anyway?" I asked my father.
"We're working on bringing you and David back to the fold," he said. Robert nodded emphatically.
"And what kind of fold might that be?"
"The right-thinking fold," Dad said.
"If this has to do with religion or politics, you can just forget it," I advised.
Dad directed his next words to Robert, who nodded along: "There are none so blind as those who will not see, none so deaf as those who will not hear."
"All right, all right, that's enough, you two," I said. " Mangia ."
Robert, the archetypal patriarch, seemed startled by my tone. While in his castle, I do my best to pretend to be all the things I'm not -- demure, submissive, secondary. At my mother's, the home that produced four strong, unyielding women, I can't help but hold my own. Robert half-teased my father, "What's this? First she runs the show with David, now she's telling you what to do?"
"That's right," Dad answered in kind. "I get no respect." Despite their Statler and Waldorf routine, the men obediently rose to their feet and walked to the table.
It would not have been practical to wait for every last person to settle into their seats before eating. Regardless, Ency and Robert waited patiently, as if for some kind of signal, to begin. Some were already eating. Finally, Ency asked no one in particular, "What should we do?" and I answered, "Eat," and took a bite of chicken to encourage her. Once she was convinced that enough people were chowing down, Ency allowed herself the first bite.
During the meal, Dad managed to slip in a suppository joke. The chandelier above grew bright and dim, bright and dim, as Bella, on tiptoes, conducted scientific experiments on the rheostat. Like my sisters, I jumped in and out of conversations, keeping up with several of them at any given time. I intermittently glanced at Ency and Robert to see how they were holding up and often found them quiet, smiling, trying to take it all in.
When my sister Jane finished eating, she stood, grabbed her plate, and disappeared into the kitchen. Her husband, Simon, soon followed, then my cousin Jane, followed by her husband, Roger. Heather and Sean never even made it to the table; they had stayed in the kitchen, where they could see the dining room and still keep an eye on the children, who were parked in front of the blaring TV in the family room. "Where's everyone going?" Ency asked. In her house, people request permission to be excused before leaving the table. My family, accustomed to eating on TV trays or laps, sees no reason to regulate who stands or sits.
"They'll be back," my mother answered breezily.
Some wandered into the other room to check on the kids; a few returned to the table with their Easter baskets and nibbled on candy. Ency and Robert remained seated. Mom announced she was making coffee, and when Robert said he would like a cup, she asked, "Would you like regular or decaf?"
"Regular, please," answered Robert.
Mom guffawed, and said, "That's great because I don't even have decaf. I was going to lie! " She continued to laugh all the way into the kitchen, leaving the few people left at the table to stare after her in bemusement.
My family was scattered to the four corners of the house when Ency and Robert began to say their goodbyes. In her authoritative, no-is-not-a-word manner, Mom said, "So now you're going to do every holiday here, right? You're coming back for Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and then Easter again. Okay?" Before they had a chance to answer, Mom said, "Great, then it's settled." David and I caught each other's eyes, and agreed silently, There's not enough wine in the world.