I don’t like visiting my in-laws in Georgia. When an Atheist Jew wanders amongst Fundamentalist Christians awkward hilarity and mutually derisive judgment ensue. But my wife asked me to accompany her to her parents’ fiftieth anniversary party, and I couldn’t refuse. I sailed blithely through it … Up to a point.
The scenes in my parents in-law’s mobile home, my sister in-law’s farm house, and the Cracker Barrel restaurant had the soft feel of well worn coveralls. We made easy conversation and took self-deprecating pot-shots at our own cultural idiosyncrasies.
Over a breakfast spread out of a Paula Deen fantasy sequence, my father-in-law made snarky comments about California being the land of fruits and nuts. I kept bringing up Jesus and deliberately getting things wrong. I asked what Jesus’ super powers were. He said, “He fed the masses on fishes and loaves.” I said, “Sandwich making isn’t a super power.” He said, “It wasn’t a super-power. It was a miracle.” I said, “Really? Sandwich-making.” He chuckled and then his wife decided it was okay if she laughed too. We pretended to find common ground in protective humor but the subtext was about remaining comfortably entrenched.
Then came the big anniversary party.
It had not occurred to me until guests started arriving for the party that the friends and family of people celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tend to be really, really old.
Many old people can’t hear very well and my fancy New England education left me ill-equipped to understand and be understood in Chickamauga, GA, to begin with so I quickly resorted to nodding and smiling as ancient Southerners shouted words distorted beyond my comprehension by both elongation and, simultaneously, abbreviation.
Ordinarily, when I am forced to endure the slowly-turning thumb-screw of polite conversation, I dose myself liberally with decent Scotch, putting up a light barrier of warm amber liquid between me and those I encounter. But this party was held in the meeting room of the Southern Baptist church that my in-laws attend. No alcohol, no music, no dancing, no buffer.
An octogenarian aunt latched on to me for a conversation and worked hard to minimize her accent. She was small and thin but projected not the slightest hint of frailty. She gripped my arm, not for balance but to convey intimacy and keep me engaged. Her grip was birdlike only if one thinks of a hard-taloned eagle lifting heavy prey.
She told me first of how small my wife had been when last they’d met, how her husband had adored her. She told me her husband had died eleven years ago.
A 50th anniversary will get you thinking about things like that. Time. Love. Tenacity.
I said that I was sorry for her loss.
She said, “Oh, that’s all right. After sixty-some years, ah’d hayud enough o’ him.”
I was startled enough to be uncertain whether I should laugh, though I did hear the distant laughter of my own, ever-present unseen audience filtering through from another dimensional plane.
She went on in a careful whisper, “Ah don’ wanna talk dirty to you in a church but he got the penis cancer. You know what that is?”
“They wanted to cut the thing off but ah sayud, ‘no. If it’s gonna be lahk that, jus’ let ‘im go.”
I considered saying, “this is my new favorite story,” but the person I was talking to deserved better. I said, “Good for you. That must have been incredibly difficult.”
She said, “Not really. He had that tube thing in his mouth, so I didn’t have to listen to his opinions on the matter.” Then she grinned mischievously at me and I smiled back.
I like to believe it was an instinctive understanding of the rules of comedic delivery and not an awareness of our holy surroundings that made her work so hard to hold back her own laughter as she added, “His name was Peter.”
Suddenly my sharp, sober perspective shifted. This wasn’t about my awkwardness as a city boy in the south. It was about this funny, sad woman, this unexpected encounter. This wasn’t about easy comedy. It was about sweet, unconventional pathos. It was about long lingering romance and human beings and the universally common need to unburden oneself through confidential confession and protective humor.
I found, abruptly, that I didn’t resent my wife for needing me to go to Georgia with her, for taking me away from my comfort zone, my condo, my safe home office with the cluttered shelves and the snoring, gassy dogs, for taking me to a party in a church where no dancing was allowed, no drinking, nothing I really think of as partying at all, just oddly intimate conversations with ancient strangers.
It seemed small sacrifice to make in exchange for a connection that might take us well into the age of difficult decisions.