“So, tell us, Jay, what is it like to grow up in a family of all boys?”
Like a birdie in a polite game of badminton, that question was lobbed at me delicately about mid-way through my first meal with Diana’s family. The lunch was an elegant garden affair at her aunt’s house on the banks of the Kentucky River. I was already fumbling with the five different forks and spoons laid out on either side of the fine bone china, so it’s no wonder I fumbled the question.
“Well,” I answered brightly, before taking an enthusiastic bite of fried chicken and a swig of iced tea, “the toilet seat is always up.”
Diana’s uncle, who’d posed the question, gasped and covered his mouth with a napkin at my gaffe. Diana sank into her chair. If she’d gone any further she would have slid under the table decked out with flowers, candles, and crisp white linens. Her grandmother shuddered and fanned herself even more briskly.
Naively, I thought it was the humidity causing the beads of perspiration on everyone’s face. Turns out, I was wrong. It was me. Diana’s family didn’t know quite what to make of the guileless dark-haired boy from up Nawth.
Not long after that debacle, Diana came to Boston to visit my family. That meant, of course, a visit to my Italian Grandma. Pots were clanging in the kitchen when we arrived and my tiny grandmother paused her energetic stirring to smother me, her oldest grandson, with kisses.
Diana, the blond Southerner, didn’t get anything close to that treatment. Grandma looked her up and down with a sharply appraising eye and muttered under her breath, “from Kentucky? Harrumph.” Diana retreated to the living room but sitting primly on the sofa was difficult. It was encased in a plastic slipcover and she kept sliding off.
Grandma was a whirling dervish in the kitchen but that didn’t stop her from barking commands at us and all the other relatives who were pouring loudly into her house. “Take your coat off!” “Set the table!” “Pour the wine!” Grandma did look up when my aunt came in. “Your hair looks good,” she snapped. “What happened?”
Once everyone was seated at the Formica table covered with a vinyl tablecloth, Grandma hustled in and out of the kitchen, carrying dish after dish, demanding everyone load up their plates. She noticed that Diana didn’t eat the fried artichoke and publicly demanded an explanation: “You don’t like it?”
I ate and ate and ate happily. Meanwhile, my future wife stared at her plate, heaped high with food, in shock at the riotous feast going on around her.
Now, some thirty years later, we both appreciate the culture clash we encountered when we first met each other’s family. Diana came to realize that food was love for Italians, and our meals were loud, chaotic affairs overseen by a tiny old woman with a big ladle.
As for me, I learned that Southern hospitality meant sitting, relaxing, and appreciating the pretty plates. Diana’s family talked softly, laughed lightly, and merely picked at the food. We Italians devoured everything on a platter.
While our cultures clashed initially, our families grew to appreciate the unique traditions and values of the other. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when you are combining different styles of home furnishings. When done well, contemporary can work with traditional. French style can mix with English. Southern Shaker furniture isn’t that different from the early American furniture that was handmade in the North.
Sure, there are a few things that can – and should – stay in the past. Grandma’s clear plastic slipcover is one of them.