My dad is fond of saying, “Eccentricity runs in your mother’s family.” This is never more obvious than at Thanksgiving when our family gathering rotates between my parents’ house and my two uncles’ (on Mom’s side) houses. The discussions are always lively, interesting, and sometimes surreal. That’s why I worried as my wife and I planned to spend the first Thanksgiving after we married with my family.
It was 1998, and the meal was at my one of my uncle’s houses. This was fortunate because this uncle lived about half an hour from Chrisie’s grandmother, so we’d be able to see both our families on our first Thanksgiving as a married couple. I spent Thanksgiving with her family before we married, but she had yet to experience it with my family (I wanted to wait until after the wedding when it would be a little more difficult for her to jump ship). On the drive there, I tried to prepare Chrisie for what she would experience, even though I knew it was futile.
“I just want to let you know that this will be an experience,” I told her.
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating. You tend to do that.”
“True, but I’m not exaggerating now. You know what Dad says -”
“I’m sure he’s exaggerating too.”
“He’s not. It’s not hyperbole to say you might think we’re a bit eccentric.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means we’re different, especially when so many of us are in one place.”
“No, what’s hyperbole mean?”
“Oh. It’s exaggeration for dramatic effect.”
“That settles it, you are exaggerating. I know because you are overly dramatic.”
I resisted the urge to unbuckle, leap onto the seat in the moving car, and loudly proclaim, “I am not overly dramatic!” while making wild hand gestures. Instead, I settled for a shrug and said, “Suit yourself, but you’ll see.”
We arrived. I made all the usual introductions and did my best to stay near Chrisie so she wouldn’t feel too awkward. She quietly sat as my family debated politics (and any other subject). She slowly got comfortable and relaxed a bit. She obviously thought we were like any other family with a few quirks.
We continued our usual pre-meal discussion until my aunt loudly announced, “Oh, y’all need to meet our rabbit, Mr. Jingles.” There were quite a few things wrong with that statement as far as I was concerned.
Before we could meet the rabbit in question, however, my aunt and uncle began regaling us with many stories of the rabbit’s various hijinks as they laughed hysterically. I was only half-listening, mainly because I wasn’t convinced that Mr. Jingles could cause as much mad-cap comedy as they described. I had never seen a rabbit do anything interesting.
I began completely listening when my uncle talked about taking a nap on the couch. More precisely, I began intently listening when he said, “I was taking a nap on the couch and was sleeping pretty well. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Jingles jump on top of me. Scared me to death!”
I must have missed something important, because I swore he said the rabbit jumped on him. I thought for a moment and processed a couple of things. First, my uncle said the rabbit jumped (I always thought they hopped). Second, Mr. Jingles jumped on my uncle. That was when I realized Mr. Jingles didn’t live in a cage (where I expect all pet rabbits), but roamed their house freely. I started looking around a little nervously. I’m not afraid of rabbits, but the idea of a wandering house rabbit struck me as more than a little odd. The Monty Python fan in me also began to fret about big pointy teeth. (If you are also a Monty Python fan, feel free to read the last line aloud and make the required hand gesture. If you are not a Monty Python fan, you should be.)
The stories were finally exhausted and my aunt left the room to gather up Mr. Jingles. Chrisie fidgeted and looked uneasy. I gave a reassuring pat on her leg.
My aunt returned holding a large, rather skittish rabbit and sat down on the floor in the middle of all of us. Chrisie openly stared and then turned to me. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but I held my hand up and shook my head. We all looked in silence because my aunt literally and figuratively had the floor.
“Would Mr. Jingles like to meet everybody?” she asked the rabbit. She must have discerned a reply because she quickly continued, “He would?”
She introduced us all in turn to Mr. Jingles. Formally. When it was my turn, I gave a little wave. I wasn’t sure of rabbit protocol, but it seemed appropriate.
“Pweased to meet you,” said Mr. Jingles, speaking through my aunt in a voice somewhere between her own and a cartoon.
When the introductions were finished, my aunt and Mr. Jingles began a long conversation. Just the two of them. You could always tell who was talking because my aunt pronounced “L” and “R” properly. Mr. Jingles didn’t. Silly rabbit.
Occasionally she attempted to draw others in to the conversation.
“How come nobody wants to tawk with me?”
“I don’t know Mr. Jingles, I like talking with you.”
“But none of them are tawking to me.”
“Awwww, don’t be sad. I’m sure they want to talk to you.” No, we didn’t.
At the time, I thought Mr. Jingles did not possess the power of speech. This went right along with my admittedly limited experience with rabbits. Now though, I wonder if maybe he really could talk and just played dumb because he figured it was a great deal easier and the conversations would be shorter if my aunt had to keep both sides going herself. There was even a moment where I was almost sure Mr. Jingles tried to catch my eye, as if to let me know he and I were the only ones in on the joke. Or maybe he just wanted to get out of there and do his own rabbit things.
Eventually, the conversation ended and my aunt said, “Well, it’s time for your walk, Mr. Jingles.” There was definite relief in his eyes as she took him outside for a walk. She took the rabbit outside for a walk. On a leash.
Things returned to normal (or at least what counts as normal in my family) while Mr. Jingles and my aunt enjoyed their walk. After a few minutes they came back in and we all settled down to eat. It was in the course of the much less lively conversation over the meal that my aunt and uncle revealed what I considered a shocking fact. Mr. Jingles wasn’t even their rabbit. They borrowed him. From the neighbors.
After we consumed too much, Chrisie and I excused ourselves to make our way to her family’s Thanksgiving meal. As many others pretended to watch football and nap, we said our goodbyes and walked outside into the brisk afternoon. The moment, the exact moment, she was safe in the car, Chrisie turned to me and said, “Are you serious?” She stressed each word as if it was its own sentence. I clearly had not done a very good job of preparing her.
“There was a rabbit in the house. Not in a cage. In the house, Leighton. There was a rabbit in the house!”
“I know. I was there as well, remember? You know my family can be eccentric. Dad always likes to say -”
“The rabbit walked around the house. Then outside on a leash. Who walks a rabbit on a leash?”
“Well, apparently my family does.” She just stared at the road and sighed. I perceived that she was working out whether or not she was going to have to go through this every time we got together with my family for the holidays. After a while she calmed down enough to ask, “Is Thanksgiving with your family always like this?”
“Oh, no,” I assured her, “Sometimes it gets pretty weird.”