Marshmallows in Germany

My guess is that blogs everywhere are going to be exploding with vignettes about family, food, travel and homecomings this week. Thanksgiving week is magical – more so than Christmas or New Year’s week because so much happens this week – the child who went away to college comes home for the first time. The estranged family member accepts the invitation to dinner and is on his or her best behavior. Mothers-in-law compliment daughters-in-law, most likely for the first time. Football teams are triumphant, as are fledgling cooks who meticulously followed Martha Stewart’s dozens of suggestions for the perfect holiday meal.  Mothers are demanding and critical, relatives get drunk (and become estranged), the college kid’s friends stop by sporting funny haircuts and using strange words (Hey! Mrs. C.!  How’s it hanging?), and diabetics eat way too many carbohydrates and jack up their insulin doses.

 

Ah, yes, Thanksgiving week. I have a few fond memories and stories to share.  One year, during our annual pilgrimage to North Carolina to see my mom’s sister and family, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, so a bunch of us donned bathing suits and laid out on the deck roasting ourselves not unlike the turkey. This was a huge deal to me because this Jersey Girl was usually eating her turkey while bundled up in GoreTex, welcoming winter’s wrath at Thanksgiving.

 

I’m sure of a year or two…or six…the boyfriend du jour joined my family for the feast.  In fact, it was, again, in North Carolina that I recall a chair breaking under the weight of a not-fat-but-tall-and-solid boyfriend. I didn’t laugh because I identified with his horror. A room full of strangers and the ‘new guy’ gets the broken chair. Even now it’s still not funny to me. After the dessert plates were cleared, and the incident long forgotten, it was time to play Bonanza.

 

Bonanza is a card game played after dessert by everyone in the house – age didn’t matter, the more players, the better.  Two decks of cards are shuffled together. A coffee can of pennies lands on the table with a thump. And every one throws quarters, nickels and dimes at the guy with the can in exchange for the pennies required for play. The young children in my family learn how to gamble and hone their skills during the annual game of Bonanza. During play, cards are dealt, pennies are thrown into the pot, pennies are taken from the pot, more cards are dealt, there is a countdown, and, at the end of each round, someone wins the pot. It’s a marathon card game that would incite my family to yell at the cards and at each other, cheering and jeering the winners and losers. Games typically would end when players started falling asleep at the table.

 

My ex-mother-in-law almost caused an International incident one year. A Fulbright Fellow from Germany was visiting the college where I teach. Frauke and I had formed a nice friendship, so I invited her to join us for her first American Thanksgiving. No one is more American than my ex-mother-in-law. She bleeds apple pie and judgment.  It was a roll of the dice, and I’m not much of a gambler, but I hoped the spirit of the Holidays would shine on this small-minded Majesty and move her to keep her damn mouth shut.

 

She didn’t. She lost it over the marshmallows that topped the sweet potatoes.  Frauke never heard of such a travesty – how could someone ruin a perfectly good root vegetable with marshmallows? Okay, so that was my point of view, but still, Frauke was so amazed at the marshmallows, she took pictures to send to her friends in Germany because they would never believe this stupid American could ever do this to the humble sweet potato. Okay, so I was the one who thought it a stupid American thing, but still, Frauke was amazed; she took pictures (after asking very politely if she could) of the dish and of her holding the dish, and she even tried some of the bizarre combination at dinner (deftly, I must say, hiding her disgust for the overly sweet baked dish of Type II diabetes).

 

However, ex-mother-in-law was having none of it. She talked about the family tradition that is the marshmallows and the many American recipes that use marshmallow. Throughout dinner, she made marshmallow comments. She asked Frauke if she enjoyed the marshmallows…twice. She made it her job to point out which foods didn’t have marshmallow in them, such as, the turkey and the green beans.

 

I was thankful that Frauke spoke and understood little English. Most of ex-mother-in-law’s snide comments passed her by as she smiled back at the woman smiling at her, insulting her.

 

I was even more thankful that I brought my own wine, a punchy Cabernet Sauvignon that I knew my ex-in-law’s palates couldn’t tolerate. I drank the bottle, but my drunkenness wasn’t enough to get me estranged. I’d have to work harder for that.

 

 

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Two Hearts Need Not Beat as One

“We must learn how to be alone…but not expectant, not needing the other in order to feel fully alive, and unafraid, and ready for the road.” ~DHG

I’ve never been the marrying type even though I tied that knot at the age of 29. While I enjoy, and can’t resist, a good, dysfunctional relationship, I’m at my best when I am alone. The spiral of relationship dependence easily sucks me in, and I sink, deep and deeper into the identity of the Other until he becomes sick of my whining and clinging and casts me back to the sea. That’s when the spell is broken, and I’m brought back into my own where I stumble and stutter for a while until I find my feet again. Then the next dysfunctional relationship presents itself. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The awareness of my become-dependent-get-dumped pattern hit me in the mouth months before I said, “I do” to the sweet, simple country boy, Lance*.  I was less concerned, this time, about the dumping part and more concerned about losing my identity. I felt like I was giving up ‘everything’ even though I couldn’t list anything that comprised the everything I bemoaned. But I did the “I do” anyway, hoping for a different outcome. Lance was passive and genteel. Quiet and laid-back. He was everything I deplore in a man – all smiles and empty eyes, no strength and fire. Still, I married him. He showed well in public. As long as he didn’t talk, which he didn’t do much, thankfully. He could tell a joke, though. Typically at my expense. But oh, how they laughed and declared, “what a great guy!” and then looked at me with eyes that said, “Finally! Annmarie did something right.” I sank deep into my new role, and adopted a new identity. However, since Lance was so passive, I pretty much got my way. All the time. I didn’t have to yell or cry or threaten to leave. I would declare, “this is how it is and shall be.” and he replied, “ok” every time. I could have easily taken advantage of his passive nature further than I did.  I could have been a real shrew. Luckily, momma taught me better than that. As the marriage wore on and the responsibilities of home and hearth fell mostly on me, I  told Lance I needed him to be an equal partner in our life. He glanced up from his cycling magazine and said, “ok.” Then he sat there, shut off to the emotional needs of his wife and children.

To be fair, Lance wasn’t a bad guy. He had moments of genuine tenderness. And when his jokes weren’t on me, they were funny.  For a couple of years, he did well to make me laugh. But the occasional laugh didn’t support my growth and forward momentum. It moved me to work harder to bridge the chasms between us, which prevented any hope of developing an identity separate from my marriage. I didn’t know what a wife should do, so I suffocated myself to breathe his air. This was my choice, based on my distorted needs and familial beliefs. In order to paint the portrait of a ‘good marriage’, I never complained; in fact, I talked about how good things were to anyone who would listen, and I supported him endlessly. Two adoptions and a major surgery later, I courted a deep, frightening depression. In therapy, I examined every corner of my life. Except my marriage. And when I finally did, I was at my breaking point. The rage and resentment was deafening. I went home and made my last declaration; it’s time to divorce.

Since giving Lance his pink slip and sending him on his way, I have had to work tirelessly to develop a sense of self.  I too-quickly bounced into a frighteningly abusive relationship. It almost made me appreciate Lance. Then, battered and fragile, I began Internet dating. Granted, my emotional state was not the ideal condition under which to search for my soulmate, the love of my life, but dating provided a distraction and allowed me time and experiences during which I could examine my relationship patterns and see precisely where I was going south. I confronted my need for approval and  practiced saying no; I voiced my feelings, asked to have my needs met, using delicate words, and weathered rejection after rejection after rejection. Eventually I started to see that; in fact, I wasn’t being rejected. It simply was not a good match. I was fortunate to have met some wonderful men who have become lifelong friends. They have helped me see my worth and won’t let me settle. No matter how tempting the dysfunction is, they keep me in check.

I believe in the long haul. I believe in having a monogamous relationship. I believe in the sanctity of marriage, but I don’t feel a need to rush back into one. I’d rather focus on the immediate ground under my feet than on the road ahead. I can’t say with an ounce of certainty that I’ll retain my independence if I find a relationship partner. But, maybe I will if the relationship becomes, through mutual, shared effort, a loving partnership. Meanwhile, I am going to relish being “fully alive, and unafraid and ready for the road” so much so that it becomes a deeply ingrained part of me – a part I’ll not be willing to surrender; then I’ll be able to consider the road ahead.

xo
~AJC

*Not his real name

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