When Families Collide

  • Barbarella

People talk about "dysfunctional" families; I've never seen any other kind.

-- Sue Grafton

I don't know why I was so surprised. I mean, I've been with him for four years -- it was bound to happen sometime. But like getting your period for the first time, it's impossible to know how it will feel until it happens to you. Just as I accepted the fact that a week of discomfort each month would make me a woman, I have embraced the idea that David's parents are going to leave their little island and come to San Diego to meet my family, a prospect that (like my first cramps) both excites and terrifies me. When David's mother, Ency, first mentioned her desire to meet my family, I took it as one of those things someone says to be nice but doesn't expect to be taken up on, like when the event planner David and I met at the Friar's Club in New York said, "Look me up if you're ever in New Orleans, and I'll take care of you!" But the subject came up again and again, and when she started throwing out calendar dates, it finally became clear that Ency meant business.

"I have only one request," said David's younger sister, Michelle, who makes her living as a glass artist in Seattle. "Please schedule the meeting so that I can be there. This is something I don't want to miss." Over the Thanksgiving holiday at David's parents' house, the ladies (Ency, Michelle, Katie, and I) were sipping wine and picking at leftover desserts in the kitchen when Ency made a passing comment about how she was looking forward to meeting my mother.

"If you really want to do this," I told her, "you should be prepared."

"I know, I know," she said, in a rare post-entertaining and alcohol-induced state of extreme relaxation. "I am de boont ."

Once, in an attempt to illustrate to his parents the differences between his family and mine, David referred to the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding . "You see," he began, "Barb's family is like the Greeks, partying and roasting a lamb on the front lawn, and you're like the reserved, extra polite family that brings the bundt cake." Ever since that explanation, whenever Ency wants to apologize for her "bundty-ness" (like when she freaks out over a ring of water on her cherry wood cabinet or obsesses over what to make for dinner), she'll say in her aristocratic Hungarian accent, "I know, I know. I am de boont. "

With wine and sugar fueling my tendency to exaggerate, I tried to paint a picture of a typical family gathering at my mother's house. "Imagine six people all speaking really fast and really loud all at the same time, okay? That's the ongoing din. When someone really wants to be heard, they'll just speak louder than everyone else. You're smiling, but I'm serious here." Ency refilled her glass. "Yeah, you're gonna need a lot of that when you come over," I said with a laugh.

I continued, explaining that my mother's method of making people feel at home is to treat them like one of the family. The "welcome" a first-time guest receives is often delivered upon the doorstep as my mother, before saying hello, admonishes the new arrival for not having shown up sooner (whether or not the guest is actually late). If the house is not tidy, she will say in her thick Brooklyn brogue, "What's ah mattah wid you, comin' heah and makin' such a mess?" Warm greetings like these are meant to put guests at ease -- to let them know that short of dropping their trousers to shit on the dining table, nothing they say or do is likely to offend my mother, and even a repulsive act such as that would most assuredly be forgiven.

Ency's husband, Robert, followed the laughter into the kitchen and asked what was so funny. I said I'd just been telling the girls about my family and then suggested that perhaps Ency might summarize for him. In her polite and euphemistic way, Ency said, "Barbarella says her family is...upfront." Robert watched for a moment as we broke into hysterics over Ency's polite synopsis and then, realizing he wasn't going to be let in on the joke, he dismissed us by pushing the air with his hands in an "okay, forget it" gesture and returned to the other room.

Whereas the information my mother dishes out is raw, save for a liberal seasoning of salty expletives, Ency prefers to clean, cook, and garnish the facts until she deems them suitable for company. I have never heard anyone in David's bundt-cake family burp. In my Brooklyn-bred Irish/Italian, lamb-on-the-lawn clan, gaseous emissions win awards.

My family is more comfortable with playful, antagonistic teasing than with polite conversation. My mother is direct, demanding, and controlling, but in a palatably humorous way. For example, if someone places a foot on Mom's table and she decides in a rare moment of furniture awareness that she'd rather not have it there, she'll say, "What da Hell, were you born in a barn? Take your Goddamn foot offa my table!" This usually achieves the desired effect, which is a laugh, followed by the swift relocation of the suspect foot.

David's mother, who is perpetually mindful of her furniture, takes a more indirect approach. If a be-shoed foot verges too close to one of her clean white cushions, Ency will simply focus her gaze upon the trespassing appendage until its owner takes the hint.

As I imagine our parents' impending meeting, I see our fathers disappear into the TV room, where they loudly agree with a Fox News anchorperson. Robert regales my father with tales of life in Hungary under communism and Dad returns the favor by explaining to Robert the current state of the world in military terms. Meanwhile, over in the kitchen, my mother jokes to Ency that she should "make her own damn coffee." Realizing the miscommunication as Ency rushes to find a cup, Mom backtracks and says, "What da Hell are you doin'? Sit down, you're a guest, let me get it." They then retire to the living room, where they have a clear view of my nephews and niece running around the dining table and dragging a magic marker across the white carpet or the freshly painted wall.

Beneath their very different exteriors, however, Mom and Ency have a lot in common. They both strive, in their ways, to ensure the comfort of others; they love their children dearly and would do anything to see us happy; they are nervous and curious about meeting each other.

After I explained to my mother that Ency is a proper lady, one of good upbringing and acute attention to manners, she said, "So how do you want me to be? Phony-nice? Funny-entertaining?" It struck me that no matter how they behave, our mothers' intentions are all good -- they only want to make a positive impression for the sake of the family, because through David and me, they are family. Perhaps my worry is for nothing. After all, our parents are who they are, and we love them.

"You know what, Mom?" I said. "Don't be anything other than yourself, and we'll all have a great time."

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