As a young woman in my early twenties, I was desperate for my parents to meet and approve of Peter. I was euphoric, madly in love. My mother, a no-nonsense psychiatrist, was harder to win over than my father, so I focused my rehearsed speech on her.
“I hope you like him, Mom. He is very polite and very kind to me. And he told me he loves me. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“I see. Well, I’m preparing a Thanksgiving dinner. You can bring Peter if you want. Be here by 6:00 on Sunday.”
“I’ll ask him. Thanks, Mom.” Her invitation provoked a wave of anxiety. What if he didn’t want to come with me? Or what if he said yes?
I lived in a small, one-bedroom flat on the third floor of an old house, at the top of a spiral staircase. Seated at my kitchen table across from Peter, I inhaled several tokes of hash and gulped sherry. I watched Peter do the same and assessed his mood. His misty, hazel-green eyes twinkled as he told a joke. I giggled at his punch-line and then popped the question. “My Mom invited the two of us to dinner on Sunday. You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
Peter winced slightly and shrugged. “I guess so,” he agreed without enthusiasm. “Are you sure she wants me there?”
“She told me to ask you. Don’t worry.”
On Sunday, I hooked arms tightly with Peter for the walk to my parents’. I released his elbow as we approached the front door. Mom ushered us in and, to my great relief, immediately offered drinks. We all settled down on two opposite couches in the small living room. My father cleared his throat, shifted his weight, and crossed one leg over the other. Mom perched on the edge of the sofa, her chin jutted forward, eyeing Peter from his shoulder-length hair down to his bell-bottom jeans.
I gratefully slurped on a rye and Tab. Peter accepted a beer. My ice cubes clattered with each gulp and we all hyperventilated on cigarettes during uneasy gaps in the conversation. Discussions about the weather fizzled quickly.
Without warning, Mom targeted Peter. “And what do you do?”
“I’ve been on unemployment insurance since I got laid off at G.E. I’m looking for work. My benefits last until the end of May.”
“Oh,” responded my mother. as she flipped her ashes into the ashtray. I noticed a familiar wrinkle between her brows.
After another nerve-rattling silence, Dad changed the subject to tell some stories about his service in the navy during World War II. I’d heard these stories many times. With a sigh, Mom left the room to see to dinner. I knew not to offer help with the cooking. The dish-washing was always my job. Within a few minutes, the aroma of pan-fried steak drifted out to the front room.
In lieu of Thanksgiving turkey, Mom always served filet-mignon steaks, baked potatoes, fried mushrooms, and green peas drenched in butter. Horse-radish was offered as a garnish and Dad loaded his plate with a heap. Peter declined. A bottle of dry red Bordeaux sat enticingly on the table. Dad splashed large portions into our goblets. Nervous, I gulped the first glass and gratefully accepted a refill. I savored the mouth-watering meat, potatoes smothered in sour cream, mushrooms sautéed in butter, and the sweetness of the peas.
Peter began to loosen up. “This steak is delicious, Mrs. Scott. Thanks so much for inviting me.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Mom as she reached for her wine. Peter craned his neck to peer around her outstretched arm and scan the tabletop.
“Have you got any ketchup?” he asked.
Mom’s knuckles whitened as her grip on the glass tightened. Her arm froze in mid-air. I held my breath. Slowly, she raised the rim to her lips and took a deep swallow. Then she set the glass down with a clank. Finally, she spoke between clenched teeth.
“There’s ketchup on the shelf in the pantry. Get it yourself.”
After a bewildered pause, Peter rose to grope through the cupboard. He found his prize and returned to his seat. My parents and I watched as he held the bottle upside down and shook it vigorously. The stubborn sauce clung to the inside, so he slapped the bottom as if beating a tom-tom. A huge, thick glob finally exploded all over his food.
“You are ruining a perfectly good piece of meat,” Mom muttered. She would remind me of this faux pas for many years to come.
Oblivious, Peter continued to gush over the meal and lavishly praised Mom’s heated pumpkin pie slathered with whipped cream. She accepted his compliments with a curt nod. While Dad and Peter commiserated over the inevitable approach of winter, Mom and I cleared the table. Then I tackled the dishes frenetically so that Peter wouldn’t be alone with my parents for too long.
When I finished, Peter and I bundled into our coats, thanked my mom, and walked out into a chilly gust. Several brown leaves swirled around our ankles. Shivering, I hooked my arm through Peter’s for the walk back to my place.
“Your folks are really nice. I had a great time.”
I said nothing, just squeezed Peter’s arm tighter.
Six years later, when our son was one year old, Peter and I finally tied the knot. We had navigated a turbulent relationship, frequently breaking up and making up. My mother had suffered the roller-coaster ride, so when her grandson had hit the one-year mark, she was the one who proposed!
“Peter, don’t you think it’s time you married my daughter? You have a family now!”
Sheepish, Peter agreed. We married, experienced highs and lows, learned many lessons. Eventually, we separated after sixteen years. Absence, in our case, did make our hearts grow fonder. We reunited seven years later - wiser, more accepting, compassionate, and appreciative of one another. We had finally grown up.
My mother, formidable until her end in 1983, begrudgingly accepted the father of her grandchild, but continued to quip about ketchup, always reminding Peter where he stood.