David reaches across the center console and pats my leg.
“Don't worry,” he says with a reassuring smile. “Everything is going to be fine.” I return his smile but I’m incredibly nervous. David and I have been married for about six months now. “Really, you have nothing to worry about. They're going to love you.”
“Okay,” I respond abruptly. We had a really small wedding, just our parents and a handful of close friends. But unlike me, David has a huge extended family, most of whom I have never met.
I'm also nervous because this is our first Passover. Or more accurately, my first Passover. I'm Jewish but was raised in a secular family. I don't think we even had a menorah. David's is religious, very religious. I mean services every week, big holiday celebrations, the works. I've never been to a Passover seder in my life! I wasn't even sure what it was, which was kind of embarrassing. David was shocked when I told him.
“How have you never been to a Passover seder?” he asked.
“I don't know. I’ve just never been to one. We didn't do all that stuff when I was growing up,” I told him. David knows I get anxious in unfamiliar circumstances. He pulled out a Maxwell House Haggadah. It was covered in wine stains and grease marks. He laughed and said all the best Haggadah are covered in wine and matzah stains. It was a sign they were well-loved. Then he walked me through it, let me ask questions. He was so patient. He told me stories about his memories of his family gathering, eating and singing together. I learned so much about my husband that day. Just when I thought I couldn't love this man more.
But the whole experience also made me curious about my faith. David and I started observing Shabbat together, started praying and studying together. I went to my first service. My eyes have been opened to this whole new thing in my life. Now if the butterflies in my stomach will just settle down!
David stops the car in front of his aunt's house. I swallow hard. The street and driveway are parked up with other cars.
“We're not late, are we?” I ask in a high-pitched tone.
“Of course not. My aunts always get here early to help,” he responds, trying to be reassuring.
“Well, should I have been here early? Shouldn't we have brought something?” I ask, talking way too fast. My anxiety is at an all-time high. David reaches over and takes my hand.
“Babe, relax. It's all going to be fine,” he says, squeezing my hand. I try to breathe.
He lets us in when we reach the door, ushering me inside when I hesitate. Shouldn't we have knocked or rung the bell?
“David!” someone exclaims as he closes the door behind me. Suddenly, we're surrounded by a gaggle of family all calling greetings, offering blessings on our marriage, asking when we're starting a family. It's like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My head starts to spin as I try to remember even one name for any of the people I’m being introduced to. It's complete chaos!
I'm ushered quickly into the kitchen and assigned peeling vegetables. David is nowhere in sight. I suddenly remember David saying his aunt and uncle are kosher. All I remember about that is it means having two of everything because dishes for meat and for dairy have to be kept separate. And I think there's something like Passover kosher, which is like kosher on steroids but I couldn't explain the difference between them. I've never been in a kosher kitchen before either. I decide as long as I do as I’m told, I won't mess anything up. David's aunts are loud and laughing. Everyone talks at once. They fire questions at me but I can hardly answer before the topic changes again. I've never experienced anything like it.
My family is small and quiet. We don't have big family holidays. My mom has a brother on the east coast I haven't seen in years. My dad, like me, is an only child. Our only holiday tradition involved my parents taking me for Chinese food and to see a movie on Christmas Eve. My dad always said it was a tradition he got from his parents. Something they always did. He never explained why. But it was my favorite childhood memory. My friends thought it was weird. Even weirder that we never put up a tree or went to church. I guess I felt weird about it too. Like I didn't really belong anywhere. But that all changed when I married David.
I quietly take direction on setting the table. I finally see David as I’m taking yet another trip to the dining room with small bowls of salted water. I'm being careful not to spill while trying to remember what the salted water is for when I look up and see him. He's surrounded by his uncles. They're all engaged in animated conversation, in the living room. We smile at each other before I get called back to the kitchen.
Everyone finally gathers around the dining room table. The table is loaded with delicious smelling food and the traditional seder plate. I take in everyone around the table.
“Are you okay?” he whispers.
“Yes,” I smile. He smiles back, pleased that I’m enjoying the day.
David's uncle leads us through the blessings, songs, and rituals, giving everyone a chance to take part. David and I lead a blessing together. He helped me practice how to pronounce the Hebrew words. I get chills of pride when his aunts nod in approval. David smiles at me. He's proud of me too.
After the meal, the women all gather with their wine around the table as the men handle the washing up.
“Sit, sit,” David's aunt says to me when I try to help clear the table. “Dishes are men's work around here.” David's other aunts all laugh as one of them tops up my glass. David's other cousins are younger and have disappeared to a media room in the basement. I listen as family news is exchanged and memories of Passovers past are shared. We laugh until we cry. As I take another sip of my wine, I feel it. That sense of home.