Toni gasped at the table spread before her. She had never seen anything like it -- except in the magazines she sold at the grocery store. Sometimes when it was slow, she would peruse them, wondering if anybody really lived like that, really decorated like that, really cooked like that. Here was her answer in living color. Not only that, but the aromas filling the house were literally enough to make her mouth water. She could, of course, make out the turkey scent wafting through the home, along with some other tantalizing aromas. Michael had told her about Thanksgiving with his family, but still, she hadn't really known what to expect, since this was their first Thanksgiving with them.
Not that Toni's family didn't do Thanksgiving -- or do it well. While there had never been a lot of money floating around in her family, they knew how to eat well. Her dad had been a meat cutter (Don't make the mistake of calling him a butcher -- he hated the term!) throughout her growing up years -- and in fact, he still worked in a little two-man meat market in a mom and pop general store that was like it had been lifted right out of the 1950's. They still sold groceries and meat alongside paint and hardware and front porch swings and Radio Flyer wagons! During her childhood, though, everyone was in jeans or sweatpants and the meal was served in pots on the stove -- buffet style. Thanksgiving meant everyone grabbing paper plates, finding a spot and settling in to some rice and giblet gravy, turkey, Stove Top stuffing (Mom always had some coupons!), green beans, corn, sweet potato casserole topped with caramelized pecans (You have to say it right -- it's pee-cans; none of that pe-cahn stuff in her household!) and speaking of cans, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a can of cranberry sauce -- whatever kind was cheapest. There was sweet tea, of course, liquor of the South, and a plethora of desserts -- banana pudding, carrot cake, and usually another one or two, depending on who was joining in to the family Thanksgiving.
No, the food before her was different, but not overly so -- there was turkey, and mashed potatoes instead of rice. She was pretty sure that stuffing wasn't Stove Top -- and that whatever it was, they hadn't used coupons on it! There was a green bean casserole, and something that looked like a Jello salad (and, indeed, it was -- congealed cranberry salad.) There was corn, but she didn't think it had come out of a can either. What really blew her mind wasn't so much the food -- but the way the food was served! There was a long table covered with even longer white tablecloths. China was set at each place setting, along with real knives, forks and spoons! No paper plates, no plastic utensils . . . .and no buffet. All the food was served family style on the table -- on beautiful platters and glass bowls. There were even little cut glass dishes of salt and pepper on the table! Real glasses set at each place, ready for the sweet tea.
Toni didn't know when she had felt so out of place. She wasn't really sure what to do or what to say, and suddenly she felt too underdressed, too loud, too poor, and too unsure. It was all she could do not to run out of the room in tears. However, this was her family now, too. Yes, she had a lot to learn, but she might as well get to learning it. She loved her husband, but until today, she hadn't realized how very different their families were. She had thought them similar. . . .they grew up attending the same very conservative church denomination, although in different states. For some reason, she thought that would trump, but she was wrong.
When her husband ushered her to a place at the table, she was ever so thankful it was by his side and they were not to be separated. Then, Michael's dad bowed his head to lead the blessing, and Toni was back on even footing. That prayer, though short, gave her a moment of respite and familiarity so that she could grab a foothold in the uncertain terrain she was in.
Conversation flowed easily, it seemed, between everyone except Toni. She didn't know these people. She didn't know their personalities, their history, their traditions, their quirks. She didn't know their expectations. They didn't know her, either. And, it didn't seem like they were too eager to. . . .conversations swirled all around her like clouds of gnats in the summer. She wasn't sure whether to swat, run, or just stand there. In the long run, she stood her ground, but after a while, things got a bit dicier than gnats in the summer. . .
It started when Toni passed the beans the wrong direction (who knew there were directions with these things, but apparently you should always pass to the left, when Toni had passed to the right.) "We always pass to the left, Toni. That way there is no confusion." Well, maybe no confusion on their part, but she was feeling pretty confused!
Then, her father-in-law asked for a roll, and she picked one up and handed it to him. He just glared at her. Michael took the one from her hand and passed the platter of cloverleaf rolls over to his father.
Things were so much more formal here! These people were family for goodness sakes! Didn’t they know? Were they really so persnickety as all this? She wasn’t sure how she would ever fit in with Michael’s family. In that moment, she was longing for jeans and paper plates and people that were too loud and too poor. At least with them, she knew what to expect.
The food was delicious, although that cranberry salad took some getting used to. Toni noticed that many of the family didn’t eat that one either. Apparently not everyone is a fan of Grandma’s cranberry salad.
Glad the stress of the meal was over, Toni was trying to relax and find her niche in the family. She offered to help clean up, and her offer was readily accepted. “Finally!” she thought. “Maybe it will be okay after all.” She began to wash dishes by hand (which is all she had ever known . . .)
“Honey, you don’t have to do it that way. Just load them into the dishwasher!” Well, she wasn’t sure how to load the dishwasher -- her family -- in fact, everyone she knew -- didn’t have a dishwasher beyond their two hands. She was afraid to let on, for fear they would think her more poor and less worthy of Michael, so she pressed on, doing the best she could, but she couldn’t help noticing that Michael’s mother and grandmother came behind her and reloaded everything she had put in. She wasn’t sure whether to acknowledge and apologize or just to roll on and pretend that she hadn’t noticed. She opted for the second, and excused herself to the bathroom, where she fell into tears. How she wanted to make a good impression on these people, wanted them to like her, wanted them to think she was worthy of her husband’s affections, but she had no idea how to do that. She didn’t know how to navigate this world. How could it be so different? We are two Southern families who love God, go to church, work for a living -- should it really matter that Michael’s parents both had college degrees, when neither of her parents had gone on to school beyond high school. Her dad was a well-respected meat cutter and her mom was a mail lady -- a rural postal carrier --also a well-respected job. The thoughts were swirling in her head like the cream in the after-dinner coffee. She just wasn’t sure how she was ever going to fit in with this family!
After the kitchen was cleaned, family photos were taken by the big stone fireplace in the living area -- big family groups and little family groups and the littlest family group of just her and Michael. They did include her in their large family group photo, so that was something. Maybe they didn’t hate her…
Then the board games came out. Dominoes, Parcheesi, Sorry, Rummi-K, and Scrabble! Perhaps here? Maybe this is where she could prove that she belonged in this family -- with Michael.
Toni was smart, she was a quick learner, and she enjoyed board games. They played for several hours -- various games, various partners and teams. She was teamed with Grandma for Dominoes (Mexican Train version). They dominated! Scrabble was a tight match, and it became evident that Michael’s family loved board games and were very competitive! When all was said and done, she won her fair share -- and apparently, that was difficult to do in this family, since Grandma played to win -
After the round of games was complete, Grandma came up to Toni and said, “You can be my partner anytime.”
Toni fought back the tears welling at the corners of her eyes and surprised Grandma with a quick hug, as she said, “I would love to be your partner!”
That was the beginning of a long and happy friendship wherein Michael’s grandma became her grandma too, and Michael’s family began to become her family, too. Their food began to become her food too, and their Thanksgiving traditions began to become hers too.
Thirty years later, Grandma was gone, as was Michael’s dad, and now Michael and Toni have Thanksgiving at their house each year for Toni’s family and friends. There’s rice for Toni’s family and mashed potatoes for Michael. There’s sweet potato casserole with caramelized pecans (Sometimes Toni calls them pee-cans and sometimes pe-cahns, and sometimes pee-cahns just to be different.) There are place settings with forks, knives and spoons and real dishes and everyone has a place at the table. If not, they’ll add another table. But everyone wears whatever they want, and it doesn’t matter whether you pass to the left or to the right. The food is delicious and family traditions merge and fade and continue and change -- just like life.