Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dinner With The In-Laws

By Richard Miranda, The Daily Bosco

Another night at the Algonquin Round Table. Don’t get me wrong; I love my in-laws. It just requires a little psyching-up before one of our family events commences. In fact it’s not unlike Confession in that respect – the anticipation is approached with some mild trepidation, an evaluation of one’s condition in life and a hearty “Geronimo!” as the actual event begins.

How am I? Physical attributes first. I check my face in the rear view mirror. Did I cut it shaving? They may light to the open wounds. Nothing large mind you. There’s no intentional malice. Going for the jugular would be mean spirited. These dinner parties are characterized by small little bites at the soft fleshy parts – like piranha.

I examine my recent past deeds and indiscretions. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know about something, they’ll find out about it. The rule of thumb is if your spouse knows about some detail of your personal life that you would prefer kept under wraps then it becomes common knowledge to the hive mind (and a valid topic of conversation – we’re all family, right?). This inventory may seem like a futile gesture considering you have virtually no control over what subjects will be on tonight’s docket. Oh sure, you can attempt to steer the conversation away from your own peccadilloes by attempting to hand over some other victim but it’s only going to distract them for a period of time. They’ll be back to you eventually. This examination just lets you know where to tense up.

I look back at the kids, all plugged into their headphones. They’re immune and oblivious to this exercise. Maybe it’s because they have their own table to dine at. It’s good thing that the family doesn’t eat their young, yet.

“We’re half an hour late.” My wife breaks the car silence. 
“Weren’t we supposed to be there at three?” I ask.
“It starts at three but I told mom I’d be there at two-thirty to help her set up.”
“So we’re late being early.” No response. Like a fool, I have to push further.

“Not to sound like a chauvinist but there’ll be five of you women doing whatever it is you all do prior to dinner.”
 “I know but I wanted to talk to mom before they get there.”
“All right.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s a tactics briefing, who knows. I make the final turn to Betty’s house. The lasagna slides across the back of the SUV.
 “Watch it!” My wife shouts.
“Yes dear.” I say in that tone that’s somewhere between “Yea, I hear ya.” and “Bite me.” All I get is one of those looks. You know the kind that lets you know that she knows you meant it to be in that tone. I’m thinking “Sorry Ann” but you get into the spirit of these things. Like a picador before the bull fight.

I’m glad that Ann made the lasagna instead of that green bean thing with the crispy onion things on top – I hate that. It is, in fact, a family dinner but the food is always a crap shoot. Tonight the menu consists of the usual fare. Turkey, family get-togethers seem to mandate the presence of a large bird. Lasagna, provided by my wife, thank goodness. I get to verbally criticize my mother-in-law’s lasagna only because I simultaneously compliment my wife’s. You want to bitch about your mother-in-law’s cooking just tell your wife she’s a better cook. Betty has a number of stellar qualities, cooking isn’t one of them. The last time she cooked the lasagna it was beyond description. The only word that comes to mind is mucous. Meat balls and Italian Sausages will also be on the menu, don’t even ask me why. Also a number of ancillary dishes like Waldorf Salad, mashed potatoes in insufficient quantity, and maybe a vegetable or two.

These family feasts are scheduled for every birthday of every adult member of the family and most of their spouses as well as any holiday where the American Flag is displayed. Even with the family now in a mild diaspora over Southern California they all still get together at least every other month, the exception being Steve and Ginny, Ann’s sister and her husband. They moved off to Memphis for business (and perhaps sanity) reasons.

The first few years my birthday was getting introduced into the mix, particularly since it was two days after my father-in-laws in mid-November. But I’d shared that celebration with a cousin in my youth and wanted to keep it out of the mix. I’m glad I did. It’s interesting to me that the depressing experience of getting a year older has become a prelude for the main event which is the Holiday Season.

A call by Ginny during the evening is usually expected. The phone is passed around for brief updates on everyone’s personal lives and the usual lamentations about being on the other side of the country. Somehow Ginny just can’t understand why we all just don’t move to Tennessee. The Walkers have discovered the overwhelming beauty and superior living conditions that the South has to offer over what the rest of us consider the Center of the Universe and have taken to evangelizing this position when the topic comes up. This time the call has been replaced by their annual visit.

This brings about a slightly different dynamic. When Steve and Ginny are out here hey feel the need to spend some of that time with Steve’s parents as well as some of their friends. How odd! At least that’s the opinion that Ann and Betty share. The purpose of these trips is for the family, i.e. the DonVito family, to be together. Some underlying tension festers over this that eventually combines with the normal anxiety of impending separation for a year and before they leave Ginny reaches a blowup point that will leave Betty in tears and Ann pissed off, or vice versa. This is just Ginny’s coping mechanism kicking in. Apparently leaving with some animosity is less painful. This occurs in the Navy sometimes when guys have to go to sea for an extended period of time.

In the seventeen years that Ann and I have been married I’ve noticed some phases but there seems to be a pattern developing that indicates that the main entrée is cursed. Even in the summer. Betty planned a barbeque last summer even though her gas grill was broken. Now I’m not rich but we have some means and all of her children are doing okay so we could’ve pitched in and bought her a new one but her brother Malcolm came to the rescue.

To be technically accurate, most of America does not barbeque, we grill. Now a days most of us go out, turn on the propane and throw whatever red-meat we delight on the rack and in a few minutes we have dinner. To barbeque is a pastime and art form predominately of the South. It requires knowledge of how to mix the charcoal and mesquite in one chamber and having enough patience to wait for hours while this concoction smokes the hell out of whatever you’ve dry or wet rubbed in the other chamber.

 Malcolm couldn’t be there that day but he left his genuine Louisiana barbeque there for my brother-in-law, Nick, to suffer with. This Cajun artifact had the little chamber on the left side where the charcoal and/or wood goes and the big chamber where you put the meat in the middle and the cute little chimney on the right side. None of use knew how to use this thing but I did know enough from the Discovery channel that you’re not supposed to open the lid every five minutes to see if the food is cooking. Well I get along fine with Nick and didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all so I let him struggle with that himself. Two and a half hours later after he got the charcoal briquettes burning – something our dads used to do – and steak Tar-Tar still sitting on the grill. Nick said hell with it and put meat on a mini grill where the fire was.

Then there was the time that Malcolm did show up and insisted on cooking the food, on charcoal because it’s supposed to make the food taste better. That is, provided the food cooks at all. Three hours later by the time this mid-century means of cooking was complete we were all a bit testy. Oh well, combined with the alcohol it probably enhanced our dinner conversation that night.

Back to tonight’s menu. In light of the aforementioned curse, a turkey is just tempting fate. We’ve had it burnt, dry, hard, crunchy, falling off the bone mushy, hacked because it was carved with a machete and medium-rare. That’s when I’m grateful for the meatballs. Sometimes it turns out okay but the periodic snafus just build the suspense.

“I wonder if Steve and Ginny are already there.”
“Of course they’re there. They’re staying there while they’re in town.” A brief pause.
 “I told you that.”
I’m not inclined to commit the Walker’s travel itinerary to memory. I figure, one, they’ll show up if they’ve already traveled twenty five hundred miles to get here, two, there are more entertaining bits of trivia to constipate my head with and three, I don’t really care.
“No trips to the Walkers?” referring to Steve’s parents.
 “Oh, of course. They’re spending at least three days there and you know Ginny will have to see Roberta while she’s out here.”
 “Well they have their list of people to fit in. It’s only an annual visit.”
“That’s my point. They’re only her for little more than a week, you’d think they’d spend more time with the family.”

This complaint always leaves me perplexed. The family, meaning the DonVitos, are scattered, as I said, throughout Southern California. Nick and Michelle DonVito (brother and wife) are in Rossmoor living in white suburban bliss. Patrick and Stephanie DonVito (brother and wife) are in Santa Monica living in condo two blocks from the beach and no children, Ann and Rick Miranda (sister and husband – yours truly) living in Riverside County, just across the county line but it might as well be on the moon the way people make it seem. And then there’s Betty, residing in Fullerton, at the center of three spokes. Like El Camino Real, each site a day’s ride from the next so I don’t see how spending more time with the family would work unless it was more of these get-togethers at Betty’s.

However, Ann and Michelle are intent on perpetuating these events after Betty gets too old to accommodate us any more. We tried having Thanksgiving at our place one year. We have the room for the adults and the kids since our house bears the battle scars of raising three boys. It was comfortable enough once everyone got there. The problem was that holiday traffic added an extra hour on to everyone’s travel time. Nobody seemed to be willing to repeat that anytime in the near future and that was fine with me. Parties at other people’s houses are always better since you can drive away from the mess afterwards.

The stress level is always higher when the party is at your house. Particularly for the hostess, and this in turn, transcends to the host. When guys have a party we throw out some chips, drinks, noise in the form of music and/or television. Voila! A party! Pre-cleaning is pretty much limited to removing underwear from view and anything you don’t want broken or stolen. I’ve always operated under the naïve notion that parties should be enjoyable for the home team. Otherwise, what’s the point of it?

However, I’ve learned that when women have a party it’s more than just a celebration or get together. They’re showcasing their home. Their hostess skills are being peer-reviewed and any little detail that is missing or not up to whatever expectation they have construed is a potential disaster. The guests will talk about it for weeks. She’ll never live it down if we run out of onion dip! There are not enough chairs! The patio furniture needs to be wiped down! Hurry, or we’ll be accosted by boo’s and cat calls at the next reception!

And then there’s the pre-ordained response to an invitation. “Can I bring anything?” If you’re going to someone’s house for dinner why do you need to bring food? I guess it’s a way of spreading the pre-party stress around. It’s kind of a strange stress – empathy bonding thing.

The joyful anticipation of family get-togethers, the warmth and happiness of the upcoming festivities … Than may be the way they do it on Walton’s Mountain but not in this family.

This tension builds right up to zero hour. The Earl Hamner warmth is replaced by pre-party bitchiness. Men, don’t you dare sit down and try to watch the game. No recreational activities will be tolerated prior to this evening’s event. As if being more unpleasant is an effective way to display a sense of urgency. “I’m stressed about this and why the hell aren’t you?” I usually retreat to some other area of the house and try not to look like I’m too relaxed prior to the party.

When it finally starts the stress usually starts to subside. And as things look like they’re running smoothly she gets more pleasant but you still have to keep on top of things. Ice levels, food service, just moving the party along and don’t hang too long with one person. Be a good host and circulate!  

Finally, in the end, there is the resolution phase. Life is good. The party was a success. All the turmoil is forgotten (at least by her). The last of the guests/relatives have left. Now there’s the clean-up. “What!?” you say. Who on Earth wants to clean up right after a party? There’s a reason for two days in a weekend.

Patrick and Stephanie have had some limited success staging these but their place isn’t rated for small boys; just the large ones. It’s a condo one block south of the Santa Monica pier. Along with the view Patrick has got to own more guy toys than anyone I know. He must have stock in Sharper Image. All the latest movies, two wide screen TV’s, his cigar lighters look like something that Q gave James Bond. His bathroom has a sauna. These are things that we dream of having in another life or after winning the lottery. It’s a great place to go, we usually meet there and after a drink or two we all walk up the Santa Monica Boulevard to eat at one of the restaurants up there. It’s nice for adults, Patrick and Stephanie are fantastic hosts but it’s just not the venue for a “family” dinner.

What’s required is the proper family atmosphere. A table long enough for the adults. One for the kids, preferably in the kitchen so they’re out of earshot of the adult conversations. Capacity for at least four extended families. A kitchen capable of handling a full scale holiday meal and enough room for mulling about before things get started. You don’t want too much room since enough density is required for the conversations to get dicey enough for the diner table. You need that critical mass or people will just separate before things really get going. Also enough liquor to work as a catalyst - cocktails and beer for before and wine for dinner and desert. The post game coffee is more like a garnish and if it’s as weak as what we get it it’s about as useful.

So far, Nick and Michelle’s has been the best alternate venue. The same jocular spirit that looms over the table in Fullerton finds its way to Rossmoor. That’s good. It means that they’ll get their wish and the tradition will live on for another generation. I expect some minor changes in tempo and style since the hosts will be different but by and large the same pain and delight will ensue. Although I should dread this form of low intensity conflict, I’m strangely drawn to it. Like a moth to the flame.

“Did you bring that bottle of Champagne?” 
Once again, my wife breaks into my semi-meditative state.
 “Yea, it’s in the back.”
“How about sodas for the boys?”
“I brought a couple of six packs.”
“Are you getting off at Lemon?”
 As we approach it we began the tradition known as the litany of the off-ramp.
“Why not at Euclid? It’s closer to your mom’s house.” 
Once again, I can’t resist.
“Lemon is faster.” Ann’s voice jumps 10 decibels.
 “It just seems faster.”
 The route hasn’t changed in all the years we’ve been together but she still feels compelled to tell me the proper route to get to there; even if she’s wrong. What she may lack in accuracy she makes up for in adamancy. This back-seat driving, a trait she shares with Betty, as well as the increased volume, I attribute to our anticipated arrival as a sympathetic response to her mother’s increased pre-dinner stress level. Well, better to start the vocal exercise now then jump in cold and strain her voice. Ann’s an accomplished soprano with years of voice training and should appreciate this warm-up period.

Off the freeway and up through the city streets of Fullerton. As we make our way around the final turn to her mother’s house. No cars as yet are present in the three-car driveway. Just garage doors up and Betty’s blue sedan parked inside. Why do people do that? It’s not a pet peeve with me except when it comes to my own garage door but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving my garage door open like that. Especially my garage since it looks like a disaster inside, but even if it was bare empty and had paneled walls I wouldn’t want it open for all the world to see. It’s like “Hey everybody! Here’s all the stuff that I own that doesn’t even rank a place inside the house.” Maybe I’m too private. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid we always had a separated garage. Betty’s got this nice front entrance preceded by a wrought iron gate and a little patio off to the side. But everyone comes in through the open garage and the door to the kitchen. She could almost have the front door sealed. I see the same thing up and down my own street, I just don’t get it. It’s got to drive the architects mad.

“Just pull in.” Something I’m usually uncomfortable about doing. It’s not my driveway and it seems like you should always park on the street unless the driveway is a small road from the street and then parking out there would seem standoffish. Still I hate it when people park in my driveway – it’s my driveway. Go leave your oil drippings somewhere else. And what if I want to go get some ice or something? Still, I pull in. I murmur a “Tally Ho” under my breath and shut off the ignition.

On cue Betty comes out (through the garage). I always figured she sits by the door there and waits for the first ones to arrive. We get out and start to unload the usual cargo of food, jackets, gifts and miscellaneous sundries. These events also serve as an opportunity to exchange those things that relatives share like books, tapes, pictures and all the stuff that is not worth shipping or mailing. The lasagna has survived the trip, good, the survival rations are intact.

“Hi Betty, how ya doin’?”
 I extend my greetings. Hey, I’m sincere.
 “Oh I’m a doin’.”
 She replies with a chuckle.
 “How’s the job search going?”
I can find lots of things good about my job but I can find more that are bad. I guess aside from the fact that I have one, it sucks. With 13 hours a day working and commuting I’d like some time to search for a better one. People say,
“What you do for a living is not what you are.”
 Well aside from my distaste for platitudes you’ve got to be naïve to think that you’re not framed to some extent by anything that occupies the majority of your waking hours. In any case this is not a subject I care to reflect on during any time that should be dedicated to entertainment; even one of these parties. But that is the nature of these events. Aha! A touch, I do confess. First blood has been drawn and so the festivities have begun!
 “Well you know, I keep looking”, I respond. Betty has no idea that this question annoys and depresses me. But she’ll keep asking it until I find something to terminate her queries. You may wonder why I don’t respond with something more appropriate, like
“Okay, how’s your property taxes?”
 But it’s not about jabbing Betty. She means well. I’ll take the hit as part of the opening ceremonies and anyway, any sarcasm would be lost on her.

She moves on to Ann,
“Steve and Ginny and the kids are shopping and Malcolm said he’d be a little late.”
“Are Nick and Michelle are on their way?”
 Ann totally dismisses the Malcolm update. Malcolm is Betty’s younger half-brother whom she raised. Malcolm is a straight guy that hates women. Malcolm has issues. Ann doesn’t like Malcolm. But his presence at dinner has become as important as the turkey stuffing – not mandatory but you’re going to miss it if it’s not there.
“They just called and said they’d be leaving within the next few minutes.”
 Long Beach to Fullerton is about half an hour, add 15 minutes to get the two boys and additional gear into the car.
 “Patrick and Stephanie are somewhere in Los Angeles.”
 Translation - ninety minutes out, minimum.

Alright, traffic report is over and we move inside. The house is stifling! Between the turkey in the oven and all the other food cooking as well as the fact that it’s unseasonably warm today thanks to a Santa Ana wind it’s got to be in the 80’s – in the house that is. The door to the patio is open as is the door to the garage. Aside from this meager attempt at cross ventilation the house is sealed. A combination of feeling perpetually cold and constantly worrying about bills, Betty refuses to turn the air-conditioning on, ever.

Ann tags the first elephant in the room.
 “Mom, it’s hot in here!”
 “Really, you think so?”
“Yes, it’s like an oven.”
“Well I don’t want to turn on the air just yet.”
 I’m wondering when, the next solar flare? This house never seems to be at a comfortable temperature, except in January. I’ve never seen the windows open. I don’t think they do.
“I guess we could turn the ceiling fans on.”
Ann wastes no time in turning on the fans. I’m guessing it’s a perimenopausal hot flash. She makes a fanning gesture and then turns to me. “Rick, would you take the clothes bag and the towels into the spare bedroom?”
I’ve been dismissed. Ann and her mom will begin to catch up on what’s going on since the last time they talked, which is a little less than a day. I go down the hall to the spare bedroom. You can’t mistake the fact that you’re in an Irish-Italian Catholic household. The walls are adorned with the appropriate religious pictures as well as pictures of all the DonVito children in their catholic school uniforms. No child would willingly dress like that, at least not since 1947. There’s a picture of the Pope John-Paul II on the wall. No new picture of Benedict XVI. Maybe she doesn’t like the new pope or maybe she hasn’t got an upgrade yet. In the bedroom the theme remains consistent. I go to throw the stuff on the bed but hesitate. Betty has a bedspread with the Lord’s Prayer on it. Now my Catholic Guilt kicks in. I can’t throw anything on top of that. It’s seems blasphemous. I doubt that any children could be conceived in that bed. It’s weird enough sometimes with the pictures of the Saints staring down at you. But I digress. I put the bag on the floor and leave. This room is tripping me out.

As I come back up the hall I hear Betty updating Ann on the latest.
 “…and you know they found out that her liver has to come out.”
 “Mom, it can’t be her liver, you can’t live without that.”
“No, trust me.”
 This is Betty’s fall back phrase. Whenever she’s sure about something that’s completely wrong she’ll put this one into play. This phrase is generally complemented by
“Oh what do I know?”
“Maybe it’s her gall bladder.”
“No I’m sure she said it’s her liver.”

“Dan McKinley has cataracts.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed lately he’s had a little trouble with the readings. They said he can put it off until next year but he’ll have to go in for eye surgery. I wonder what causes it.”
“Hair dye.” I interject.
“Really, you think so?”
 Betty get’s this worried, surprised look.
 “Rick!”, Ann scolds me.
“I’m just kidding.”
 This guy is in his late 70’s and has one of the worst dye jobs I’ve ever seen – coconut brown. 
“Oh.” Betty doesn’t get it.
“I just seem’s awful. His poor wife just had her hip replaced a year ago. She’s still using a walker, you know. And now poor Dan”
“They are in their seventies.”
 These are people that have endured a lifetime of exposure to nuclear testing, global warming, food preservatives and bad television. Cataracts and a bad hip translate to pretty good mileage in my book. It’s not like you just get to walk into the light after all that.

“Rob Campbell found out he has diabetes.”
 “Oh that’s too bad. Does he have to take insulin?”
“I think he just has to start eating better.”
“Then it’s not too serious then.”
“Well you saw how your father got.”
“Yes but Dad didn’t take care of himself.”
“And look what happened to him.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
 Ann’s up to 70 decibels now.
“He wasn’t on insulin.”
“He wouldn’t take it.”
“Well who knows how it would’ve helped.”
“I’m sure it would have, Mom.”

“John and Joan are grandparents again.”
 Apparently the health report is over. Why do old people always talk about illnesses? If not their own then someone else’s. I wonder if it’s just the world news is of no interest to them. Have they seen it all before? Is it too depressing? Personal news is more salient? I kind of like the idea of becoming some sort of Arthur Schlesinger type of pundit-emeritus on world events.
“How many does that make?”
 “Just two.”
“That’s right Betty you’ve got … nine! They’re just amateurs.” I join in.
“Well it’s just their one son he had some, you know, problems for a while.”
 I don’t know and I really don’t want to. Some of these people I may meet in the future. Did you ever have to shake hands with someone that you know some intimate detail about and they don’t know that you know; and you know that they would die on the spot from utter humiliation if they found out that you did know? Well these people should never eat at Betty’s.
“I didn’t.”
“Oh, yea. And do you have any idea on how much they spent trying to have another one?”
“I can imagine.” I’m trying to escape this now.
“Fifteen thousand dollars! Can you believe it? Fifteen thousand. Something about the number of sperm. No wait, it wasn’t the number. It was that they couldn’t move or something. What’s that called?” “Motility.”
“No, motility. I’m curious, Betty. Just how did you hear about this, ah, complication of his?”
“His mother told me.”
“Your kidding?”
“No she told me.” I had to ask. Okay, something to put on the list of items not to discuss with your mother. Of course in this family that wouldn’t hold. Your wife would tell her and it would all come out over turkey at the next family get together.

…more to follow…

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