A la Famiglia: the Boisterous Coughlins
Turnabout's fair play. Or at least that's what some readers of The Pilot have been telling me ever since I wrote about how my Yankee husband met my Southern family.
Truth is, when I met the Coughlins, I was a little overwhelmed by other, more pressing concerns. I had moved to snowy upstate New York only a few months earlier, and in my new town, I was faced with "Big Questions."
Like how to keep my feet dry and warm while wearing high heels. Because no way was I going to wear bulky snow boots with my business attire. Snow boots with skirts and pantyhose! Can you imagine?
Then there was the issue of skin care. My skin was actually peeling in the dry air, for heaven's sake. I longed for the humidity that made my skin dewy and supple. What was a Southern girl obsessed with skin care to do?
At the top of my list of questions was how to keep from hitting other cars when I skidded, more than once, into oncoming traffic.
When I finally did focus on the fact that I was meeting my in-laws, a car crash seemed more appealing.
The occasion for the grand event was my future father-in-law's 70th birthday. Everyone would be there - friends, parish members, grandchildren, Patrick's siblings. All seven siblings, Lord help me.
Even before we said hello, I had two strikes against me: I was not Catholic, and I was neither Irish nor Italian, cultures of which my in-laws were proud descendants.
The siblings didn't beat around the bush. After inquiries about my hometown and family, they got to the point.
"What are your intentions with our brother?" one of them asked on behalf of the group.
What were my intentions? I could hardly say my intentions were to marry Patrick and bear his children when we weren't even engaged. Like a doofus, I muttered and stammered some unintelligible response, surely confirming the stereotype that Southerners are dumb as rocks.
I didn't fare any better at subsequent family gatherings. Due to the frequent and random use of Italian words, ordinary conversation confounded me.
"Honey, can you get some cicoria?" Patrick's mother, Nickie, asked me one night while she was making dinner.
I looked at her daftly, and instead of admitting I didn't know what in the name of Sam Hill she was talking about, I scurried to find Patrick and ask him. Turns out I was on an errand to pick dandelion greens. Instead of rolling the "r," she pronounced it like a "d."
Meal times were so stressful I invariably had agita. Before we ate, we blessed the food. In Gaelic. That was one nod to the Irish side of the family. The prayer was wrapped up with the sign of the cross, the order of which I can never remember.
I always forgot, too, that before digging into a delicious pan of baked basta (that's pasta pronounced Coughlin-style), we must toast.
"Te amo," my in-laws would say, "alla famiglia," with their glasses raised high above their heads. A good toast concludes with not a delicate clinking of glasses but loud and wholehearted clunks.
Conversation was boisterous with a constant passing of plates of more stuff I couldn't pronounce and was therefore constantly asking, "What would you like me to pass?"
When it came time for the cannoli, cassata cake, biscotti and espresso with Sambuca, I knew dinner was almost over and I could relax.
You see, I figured out early on how to manage post-dinner interactions. Turns out the best way to survive an evening with a spirited Italian family is to follow the rules for surviving a crowd crush.
1. Make a mental note of the emergency exits. 2. Stay on the edge of the crowd. 3. If necessary, hide behind a fixed object.
Occasionally, my in-laws would take note that I was missing. "Where's Melanie?" they would ask Patrick.
That's when I would wave my hand from whatever hiding spot I'd chosen that night.
"I'm here," I'd say in a quiet voice, hoping they would soon forget I was there. By the door. Away from them. Behind something big and stationary.
After hiding for a few hours, the time would come for me to utter two of the few Italian words I knew.
"Ciao, bella!" I'd utter as my petite mother-in-law stood on her tippy-toes to kiss my cheek.
Always, she hugged me warmly in a way that told me, no matter where I sat, I was now part of the Coughlin family.
Contact Melanie Coughlin at email@example.com.
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