Meeting the matriarch of my husband’s family came as a bit of a shock to me. When we visited them over Christmas, a woman dressed in head-to-toe in lilac hugged me and presented me with a gift: a jewelry box made from balsa wood that she’d glued shells onto and hand-painted turquoise. I held it in my hands as she smiled at me; this was Grandma Evelyn, Aaron’s mother’s mother. She was so foreign to me, so seemingly not real that I kept waiting for a leprechaun to appear, jumping over his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We ate cookies and played cards and when I left she gave me her calendar from last year, because it had nice pictures.
To me, the term grandmother was something to be feared–mine was a hard woman. Grandma Florence demanded that everyone be fresh-faced and fancy in her company. Often, after I’d buckled my Mary Janes over my white tights, she’d shake the ice in her Old Grand-Dad and say, “Hhhhhmmmmm, you didn’t think very hard about your outfit, now did you?”
I was eight.
Grandma Florence had grown up without a toilet in rural Illinois, and had willed herself into owning 12 toilets in three houses. But using those toilets came with a cost: The dinner table in the private room at the country club was her center stage, where she’d test us. She probed for ambitious, well-thought-out arguments, to which she’d express her approval with a smirk, or her displeasure by avoiding eye contact. Then, the zingers would commence, aimed first at the waitress and then at us. We would attempt to protest, but Florence was impossible to reign in. This was a woman who removed her emphysema tube and smoked in the hospital.
You can tell a lot about a family by its matriarchs. The descendants are often not so much copies as reactions to what came before. While my family continued to fight for its life, my husband’s family, the Murtaghs, had all been so fully accepted for so long that they didn’t have a care in the world. “What are you doing today?” my husband Aaron asked his brother on the phone. He replied: “Sweeping the porch.”
The first time Aaron had dinner with my family was when we joined my brother Mitch and our mother and stepfather in Philadelphia. Grandma Florence had since passed, but her presence was palpable. She had molded her descendants into Type A, hypercompetitive people who were constantly competing for smarts and more importantly, for laughs. I guess it’s as they say: from misery comes comedy. And on that night, the moment we got in the car, my mother let out her first “You go now!” She’d been told, “You go now” at a recent pedicure and thought it was hilarious. She proceeded to engage in the worst type of Asian mimicry, I’m talking Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she was pointing out the window and saying it at things: “You go now!” Then my brother took us to a Malaysian restaurant.
We pulled up to the parking lot of the Banana Leaf, and Mitch and I explained to our mother that she would have to stop doing it, immediately. She didn’t, and this eventually led to a political argument in the middle of the restaurant. Aaron balked at our manic use of facts and the intensity of the argument, which culminated in public screaming, and crying in the bathroom.
To smooth things over we went to a bar, an Irish dive nearby. Whitney Houston had died that day, so while my brother and I lost our shit over “I Have Nothing”, Aaron hung out with his med school friends, who had met us with their backpacks and were quietly drinking Cokes. My mother had become the de facto master of ceremonies, and kept pulling the over-40 crowd out on to the dance floor. The DJ announced that we had a birthday in the house, and pointed to a man who looked exactly like Judah Friedlander of 30 Rock: trucker hat, potbelly, long hair and beard. The DJ put on a slow song and Judah laughed and just kind of hovered — until my step-father stepped up in his Brooks Brothers shirt and slow-danced with Judah. This was no lark — to Mr. Friedlander’s surprise, my stepfather danced with him for the remainder of the song. Another Whitney hit came on that I didn’t recognize but Mitch told me to, “Wait for it, wait for it,” then the chorus of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” kicked in, and we jumped and sang while Aaron had his second Coke.
The next song was a dud, so I sat down with my husband and his friends. I was trying to make small talk, when a senior approached me and said, “I just can’t wait to go on one of your mother’s cruises.” At the time, my mother was an educational administrator who was apparently moonlighting as a cruise director, but as long as she stopped her ethnic impressions my brother and I were happy.
My first dinner with the Murtaghs happened in their home, with the whole family around the dinner table. The Murtaghs talked about how the ocean works: the tides, the dunes, the fish, the barriers, the islands, the barrier islands. They’re all about process; between them they have a chemist, a machinist, a government lawyer, and a homemaker who actually makes things for the home. While I admire and even relish these skills, I do not take pleasure in these discussions. Take recipes. That’s a topic the Murtaghs could talk about for hours: how they altered the recipe, how these different flavors altered the dish. I’m the type of person who thinks there are about 20 different types of foods that can be expanded upon with adjectives. For me, “white lettuce” is cabbage; fennel is “hairy celery.” I also literally can’t understand what the Murtaghs are saying. After seven years of being with Aaron, it’s still unclear to me if his family has finished a sentence or is in the middle of it. “It’s a nice day… for a swim… at the ocean… or off the boat… might be too windy…for the boat.”
Mid-way through the meal, Aaron’s brother was deep in talking about all the various forms of life under the sea “Sea Bass… black drum… snapper… grunt…” when Aaron’s mom interrupted him with, “How could you think there’s not a god, I mean really.” See for me, all of these slightly different creatures co-existing together in a shared ecosystem pointed to another phenomenon, but no matter — here was something we could sink our teeth into. I knew Aaron and his sister were both pretty progressive. I waited. Silence. What? Silence. Nothing? Just the clinking of silverware and the quiet acceptance of this viewpoint.
Once Aaron and I were alone, I asked him how he had said nothing in response to his mother’s comment. He shrugged and said that they didn’t debate with each other. “But then how do we know who won that conversation?” I asked. I got no response, probably because, like the rest of the Murtaghs, Aaron had retired early and was drifting off to sleep.
I woke to an empty bed in a quiet world. My mind drifted to my and Aaron’s last morning with my people. The TV and the stereo were on and five people were making five different breakfasts, all in competition and all sure that his or her breakfast was the best breakfast. Aaron made me sit on the sofa until the kitchen cleared. As a giant Yellow Labrador came at me, my mind wandered to the night before, when my mother told us how Grandma Florence had kept a doghouse on her kitchen wall. It had little figurines of Daughter Susie, Son Doug and Husband Marvin, who were subsequently put in the doghouse when he or she deserved it. My mother laughed with the rest of us, then sighed to herself, at ease with how far she’d come as a parent.
Back in reality, the doorbell rang. My mother answered the door with my five-year-old nephew in tow — I barely caught a glimpse of the police officer before she shut it. We would later learn that earlier that morning that to impress my nephew, my stepfather had driven the contractor’s digger truck to the end of the street and around the cul-de-sac. He had then proceeded to crash the truck into the island, and the digger had fallen off. He drove the rest of the truck home, then took a nap while the digger remained half on the island and half in the road. But at the time, all we got was my mother running off to her bedroom, with my nephew nipping at her heels. He tugged at her nightgown until she finally stopped, and whispered something in his ear before she ran off. My nephew wandered into the living room and announced a statement that would be repeated by various members of my family throughout the weekend: “Grammy says Poppy’s in the doghouse.” “Grammy says Poppy’s in the doghouse.” “Grammy says Poppy’s in the doghouse!”
At the Murtaghs, I walked down the stairs imagining what a delicious breakfast they had made, which I would eat as I tuned out how it was made. I received a solemn hug from the father. I’d seen him give these before, even to his daughter after she came in from a night out on the town, so I was skeptical as to what it meant. I’d pick it apart while I ate. But there was no food, no noise; just five people sitting and drinking coffee while they watched the bird feeder. I stood in the kitchen, serving as a beacon that we should be eating. But I went unnoticed. They each sipped their coffee and chipped in, until they eventually came to the resolution that before them was a Yellow-coated Warbler.
During my first Christmas with the Murtaghs, we were huddled on North Topsail Beach with our lunch when a woman passed by and yelled “Destiny!” to no one in particular. I immediately put down my food and watched her with delight. To the sky and the sand, she yelled again: “Destiny!” I couldn’t tell for sure if she was cursing life or celebrating it, but she was definitely yelling it in public. Then, up on a dune, I saw a small white dog 20 feet in front of the woman. The dog sniffed an abandoned Coke can and the woman snapped “Destiny!” I was about to explode with joy. I took a moment, then I looked at the Murtaghs and said, “You really have to think twice before you name your pet, don’t you?”
You could hear a pin drop. Maybe I didn’t use enough pauses. It was going to be a long four days.
Later the Murtaghs retired to the kitchen making a Christmas feast. The recipe talk was reaching its crescendo. I wandered outside and found myself on the beach. The air was warm, the fog was thick, and there was no one around. It was an amazingly warm North Carolina December, and we were staying on a beachfront that wasn’t built up, and actually quite magical. Earlier that day, Aaron and I had kayaked to a deserted island that had wind-swept trees and bushes with thick green leaves. We did it standing and naked like animals, until a giant owl flew over and scared the shit out of us. As we put our clothes back on, we saw that there, starring down at us in the daytime, was the full moon. Here she was again, now fully illuminated, taunting me with her night sky beauty. I took all my clothes off and swam in her glow.
When I came back inside with wet hair and dry clothes, there was hardly a murmur. In my family, this would have never died. It would have gone on and on for days: the comments, the spastic pained effort, just beating that dead horse. Still suspicious, I’d ask my husband later that night if any comments were made while I was in the bathroom. “What? No, we talked about the barometric pressure,” he said.
With the Murtaghs it was as simple as: the tide comes in, Jenny takes her clothes off and jumps in the water. A wave sweeps over her, Jenny smiles at the moon as if it were her companion. The tide goes out, Jenny puts her clothes back on. As I shook the water from my head, I watched them move food across the table – in that moment, they were concerned with only the passing of beets.
Jenny Hatchadorian is an award-winning storyteller. Jenny earned her MFA in Film Directing from CalArts in 2010. She taught filmmaking for five years, including as an Assistant Professor of Film at Montana State University. Jenny’s films have won Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Women & Film Awards. She currently writes and reads comedic essays for her podcast Everything Good.