There are so many rituals in a family…
Every holiday, well, major ones like Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would dress up, all of us, and get into the station wagon, and drive the maybe 2 miles to Grandmère’s house, which was actually an apartment, though we weren’t really allowed to call it that.
Her home, the second floor of Gib & Suzy Merrill’s big gray house on West Clinton Street (it was very important to include the West – these things matter), was full of light, dark but still delicate or elegant woodwork and wood furnishings, and tons of yellows and blues. On holidays it always smelled divine – usually rôti de bœuf (roast beef) and whipped potatoes (not mashed, not at Grandmère’s), asparagus none of us liked (overcooked), peas sprinkled with dill, haricots verts (green beans) sprinkled with almond slivers, or corn, Land o’ Lakes salted butter in the round paper tub, Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls warmed in the toaster. Did I mention that Grandmère was a French teacher forever?
As a girl, those dinners also included my great-aunts, Anne & Alice, whom my uncle calls “The Weird Sisters,” and my grandmother’s cousin, Mary Alice. Grandmère’s name was Mary Catherine Curran Sekella…and there were some who actually referred to her as such.
At any rate, those dinners started in the living room, with fancy nuts and Ruffles and Helluva Good French onion dip. Mom would get a glass of wine and maybe the aunts & Grandmère started with wine, but they always inevitably got to the Canadian Club. Mary Alice was a Manhattan drinker and, given her wraith-like size, I think she topped out at 2 drinks. Jillian, my sister, and I got Coke or Canada Dry with ice from the cans stored in Grandmère’s back hallway off the kitchen.
There would be some polite chit chat, some catching up, a reciting of the children’s activities or accomplishments, and the aunts would tell us we looked pretty, then Anne would suggest I try to eat less or be sweeter or some “improvement” so that boys might like me and I could maybe get married some day. The fact that my great aunt was rotund and had never married didn’t connect with me – the mean comments did.
And then there was dinner… by then, the three elderly sisters were sufficiently lubricated to start bitching at each other, using sarcasm as a knife to wound one another over and over and over again. Discussions escalated even as they devolved until they were refighting childhood battles over dollies and daddy’s love. I think my eating fast and compulsively began there – drowning out the war and trying to bury the discomfort.
I don’t know why we never left – it just wasn’t done. After all, Grandmère had invited us to dinner and there was still coffee, cake, & ice cream (and more time to lambaste one another). Coffee was Gevalia, cake was one of those triple decker frozen chocolate layer cakes from Pepperidge Farm, and ice cream was vanilla from Häagen Dazs.
When we were finally allowed to go home, we were all exhausted and miserable. But, also relieved that we were free of Grandmère’s house and all the drama.
Now, this morning, the ritual is making tea – black for mom & me – 1 Splenda for her, 2 stevia for me, add skim milk to both, dad gets either decaf English Breakfast or Constant Comment – no sugar. We gathered on the “lanai” (a glorified porch, but it IS Florida), had some breakfast, and talked about the ducks, the people my parents met last night, what we plan to do today… nothing fancy, no expensive brands, no special attire required. I like it that way.
Come as you are – whomever you are.