Before Chrisie and I spent our first Thanksgiving, we had our first Christmas together. We had only dated for about nine months, but I knew beyond doubt she was the one (and had also already bought a ring) so when she asked me to spend Christmas with her family I couldn’t really refuse. That didn’t mean I relished the idea. I mainly worried that I would breach some family custom of which I had no knowledge or accidentally fall into family politics. I fretted a great deal as Christmas approached. When it was all over, things didn’t go as badly as I expected. They went worse.
The festivities began Christmas Eve at Chrisie’s home. I spent plenty of time there so this was the least awkward of three days I travelled with them. We enjoyed a good meal and things only felt weird as the night wore on. Chrisie’s mom impressed upon me to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to Chrisie’s sisters. I can be, um, animated when I read out loud and I’m still not sure if they did it just to laugh at me (and they still want me to read it most years).
After the youngest had gone to bed, I helped arrange things. When it was time for me to go to bed, Chrisie showed me to her sister’s room where I was to sleep. The main problem with the room was that is was absolutely filled with dolls, most of them porcelain. The dolls ringed the entire room and staved off sleep as they stared at me with empty eyes. When I finally managed sleep, sugar plums did not dance in my head. It was murderous children’s toys.
I made it though the night and followed the scent of coffee to their living room.
“Sleep well?” my future mother-in-law asked.
“Not really, Peggy. I think those dolls have it in for me.” She had the decency to laugh.
It wasn’t long before Chrisie’s sisters woke up. I am the youngest in my family (and the youngest grandchild) so I had never really seen kids on Christmas morning after I got older. It was wonderful! I caught their joy and enthusiasm and we all had a great time. Sadly, it was soon time to load up to head for the first of two grandparents’ houses.
I fidgeted on the ride and Chrisie asked what was wrong.
“Well, I’ve met some of your family, but I’ve never been with you with all of them, and on Christmas no less. I’m worries you’ll all be catching up and talking and I’ll be lost. I won’t even really know who anyone is.”
“I’ll make sure you know who everyone is.”
“And you can’t abandon me. You have to stay by my side when we go in so people know I’m with you and they don;t have to wonder who I am.”
“Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.”
We finally arrived at the first stop (her mother’s parents). They live outside of Franklin, Tennessee on a large farm. They also had a grant from the government to help care for aging veterans who the referred to as “the men.” The men needed care because they had diminished mental capabilities for one reason or another.
Everyone jumped from the van once it stopped. I turned to shut the door and said, “Chrisie, don’t abandon me. Remember to stick with me as we go in. Chrisie? Chrisie!“
I looked around. I stood at the van alone. No one was even outside. I have no idea how they all got inside so quickly. I briefly flirted with the idea of waiting in the van until someone came to collect me, but I knew that would make a worse impression that whatever I would do walking in by myself. I screwed up my courage and went to the door.
I opened the first door and heard the loud conversation emanating from within. Chrisie has a large family on her mom’s side. Really large. I took a deep breath an walked in. Chrisie was nowhere to be found. I stood as the door closed behind me while several looked at me and tried to figure out who I was.
“Who’s this then?” asked Chrisie’s grandmother.
“That’s Leighton, Mother. Chrisie’s boyfriend,” answered Peggy. Chrisie’s mom was a lighthouse in a sea of unfamiliarity and I steered directly for her. This took me right to a small round table where Chrisie’s grandparents sat. It was towards the corner of the floor plan, but it was clearly the center of the room (and possibly the house).
“Let’s get a good look at him then.” She grabbed by arm and gently turned be slightly left and right. At least she didn’t check my teeth. “What’s your name again?”
“It’s Leighton,” I said in a voice much more confident than I felt.
“Leighton? Well, that’s Buck’s name too!”
“He’s one of the Men. He likes to take his clothes off and climb over fences. We should call you Buck!” Everyone in earshot seemed to think this was a grand idea.
“Let’s not,” I pleaded.
I took the good-natured ribbing and accepted the ridicule of my appearance and anything else that seemed out of the ordinary to them. I finally saw Chrisie in another room and hurried to her.
“Hey!” she said as she slinked her arm around mine.
“Where have you been? What part of don’t abandon me was unclear.”
“I didn’t abandon you.”
“Did times infinity.”
I made it through and we all eventually piled back in the van to travel to the next stop. Chrisie’s dad’s family is much smaller so I thought it would go better. I thought. Chrisie made a point of sticking right beside me, which was hardly necessary at this house. The gathering consisted of Chrisie’s family, her grandparents, and her uncle’s family. There were only twelve people total (as opposed to over thirty at the last stop) so it was a much more comfortable situation.
Maybe it was the going through the fire of the last stop, or maybe it was just that this gathering was quieter and seemed more familiar, but I was more relaxed. It didn’t even bother me when Chrisie’s grandfather’s first words to me were, ”This doesn’t look like the last boy you brought around.”
We had a delightful time as Chrisie’s aunt and uncle prepared the meal. I had such a good time (and was so comfortable in fact) that I commented on a difference between Chrisie’s father and uncle. I should have kept quiet.
Here’s the thing, Chrisie’s dad is very nice guy. He’s funny and fun to hang out with. He’s not necessarily reserved, but he seemed so next to his brother who was extremely gregarious and cracking rapid fire jokes. We laughed and carried on as Chrisie’s uncle walked to a back room. This left Chrisie, her mom, grandmother, and aunt in the kitchen. I was there as well and felt the need to comment on sibling differences.
“Wow, he is nothing like his brother,” I said to Chrisie’s aunt, “is he adopted or something?”
The room didn’t go silent, but it did get a little awkward.
“Yeah he is.”
“He’s actually adopted,” I said numb and horrified at my faux pas.
“Of course he is.”
I stared at Chrisie. She just laughed at sheepishly smiled.
I survived that first Christmas with her family and they all came to accept me (more or less). It was a couple of months before I proposed and more than a year before we married, but I held to one thought, the ring back at my apartment. I didn’t care how uncomfortable I initially was around her family, or how often I stuck my foot in my mouth. I planned to propose to Chrisie in two months and I knew, beyond all doubt, that I wanted her to be my family and anything was worth her becoming my wife.
Of course, I didn’t let her meet all my family until after we married. I didn’t want to take any chances.