New Kid At The Table

– By Michael!

I’m writing this post in the basement of my in-laws’ house. It’s my “temporary office” while I’m here, and it’s right next to the “man cave” wherein my father-in-law plays cards, smokes, and repairs furniture to the song of a television that, to my knowledge, receives no channels other than ESPN.

We just wrapped up breakfast – I cut up and seeded two pomegranates, fresh from the Gulf, while my mother-in-law made scrambled eggs and sausage. We gathered around the table and wolfed down our food, all accompanied by the squeals and happy mimicry of our newest addition, Laurelin, just a few days over a year old.

This is the third Christmas I’ve spent in the Brittingham household over the last five years. By now I’m part of the family – I’m allowed to do things like wash dishes or protest the changing of the channel on the big TV without getting my way – and I’m glad for it. I love it here. And I love, most of all, that my Pennsylvania family is no longer on their best behavior around me.

You see, that first time around…

Well, I was prepared for … more.

This was the same year that Joanie came to the Berg Family Madhouse Thanksgiving Extravaganza, just a couple of weeks afterward, in fact. We wrapped up our finals and, seeing as how we had five weeks or so between semesters, we decided to make the most of it and undergo a mammoth road trip: from Waco to Nashville to Uniontown for the holidays themselves, then back down through Nashville to Birmingham and thence back to Waco.

Eesh.

Along the way, the woman I was already considering my “bride to be” was regaling me with stories about the crazy family I was going to meet. It wasn’t my first time in Uniontown, but it was my first time to meet the whole gang, and I was … a little nervous. I mean, I was the new guy. I expected light to medium hazing. Maybe I would be expected to, I dunno, sing Yankee Doodle while balancing a mug full of eggnog on my nose, or something. But she made it pretty clear that they could get rough with The New Guy. Everybody. Sisters, parents, especially cousins.

Sandy, my mother-in-law, “got rough with me” by feeding me. She has a knack for somehow always having food of some kind ready before I realize that I’m hungry. Always. It’s a little bit eerie. This particular trip, we got in late at night to the enticing aroma of “pizzaburgers.”

Let the hazing begin!

My father-in-law, Mike, just likes to tell stories. And I like to listen to stories. Especially when listening tends to involve beer.

And if anything, I was the one hazing the sisters. Or at least the younger, Kate, with whom I have a five-year-long game of “race to get the smiley-face mug” every time I visit.

Overall, my reception was … well … warm. More than warm. Downright spooky. Everybody was being very strangely nice to the new guy dating their far-roving daughter. I was sternly prohibited from helping out with dishes. “Oh, I’ll get that,” I would hear, “You just sit down.” And I would sit, expecting maybe a whoopy cushion or something, but no, it was just Henry, and he just wanted to lick my face off of my body.

Then came the full family Christmas dinner, and I thought “Oh, yes, NOW we’ll get some haze on! I’ll get the well-earned ribbing I’ve always anticipated for being a prospective son-in-law at the big family gathering!”

I even sat within range of Wylie, or “Dad-dad,” my mother-in-law’s father, in order to allow the ritual “stealing of food via the extendable fork” procedure. Apparently, he used to steal so much food from the plates of those around him that nobody would ever sit by Daddad. Then the cousins came together and purchased an extendable fork from an online joke shop, so that he could participate in family meals again.

Or rather, so that there was no point in trying not to sit by Daddad at family meals again.

But this year? No fork. Nobody, not even Joanie, tried to steal food from my plate.

(Sidenote: The nicknames of Joanie’s grandparents: Dad-dad, Mamaw, Pop-pop, Mom-mom. It took me almost three years to reliably wrap my brain around the fact that Mom-mom and Dad-dad are not a pair.)

There were no practical jokes by the cousins. There were no verbal barbs or dares or challenges. People were quietly eating their own food.

Now it was just weird.

Not only was I NOT being hazed as expected, but these were obviously pod people. Who sits quietly, in one spot, and eats their food during a holiday dinner?!? (My opinions were probably skewed by the madhouses to which I was accustomed – see the Thanksgiving post.) But there we were, around a table that stretched through Mamaw/Dad-dad’s kitchen into the living room – so many possibilities for gags involving the narrow doorway! – focused on our food and only speaking to ask, POLITELY, for the salt, pepper, butter.

And then cousin Lauryn spoke up.

She had just had gallbladder surgery, and was on a pretty awesome cocktail of pain meds. So she apparently ignored the “quiet down” memo that somebody circulated (apparently, “Be nice to this one, Joanie REALLY LIKES HIM, don’t you dare scare him off!” had actually been passed around to a degree, probably by Sandy and Jayme, sister-the-eldest) and said, somewhat sluggishly, “It’s too quiet. Somebody should have a baby. … … Joanie! I nominate YOU.” And she put down her fork and stared at me with eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Well, big fella? You gonna take care of that?”

I laughed, the big, full, belly laugh that makes ears hurt a little bit, and Joanie hissed “Lauryn!” in mortification, her face turning beet red, and then everybody was laughing and joking and oh, wow, I could breathe easier.

In the years since, there has been no serious hazing. (Sure, I help out with yardwork on occasion, but that’s just good manners!) But nobody takes me too seriously around here, which is a good thing, and people feel free to make jokes at my expense, which is a great thing, because it’s the kind of easy banter that lets me know I’m home, with my family, no matter which ZIP code I’m in.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to teach the baby how to say “Roll Tide.”

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