“You look nice,” he said, surprised, as I climbed into the passenger side of his car.
“Thank you,” I smiled. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever worn a dress around him, which was de rigueur for every day after temperatures reached a consistent 65F and higher.
We arrived at his parents’ house around 2pm. It was exactly what I had imagined: a big suburban home, framed by leafy-green trees and a perfectly manicured lawn, nestled in a cul-de-sac. It was totally normal and totally different from how I grew up.
We were greeted by both his parents at the door. His dad was an older version of Marty. What was salt-and-pepper hair on Marty was pure white on his dad. They were similar in stature, but with all of the biking and rowing he did, his dad was a bit trimmer. His mother was a tiny thing — perky and well-taken care of. She was adorable but put on eyeliner and mascara with a heavy hand and exposed a well-worn cleavage that you might not expect of a 70-year-old suburban housewife.
The house itself was a lot to take in. There were what seemed like a million rooms, all decorated in bright, solid colors with pictures of the family anywhere they fit. Marty’s childhood was well-documented. Where there were no family photos to cover the walls, a decorative quilt was on display. If that wasn’t intrusive enough, there were about ten paintings of his mother scattered about the leftover negative space. His father found an artist that he believed would be huge one day and commissioned him to paint portraits of his wife. The experience was disturbing.
The house was also extremely clean. Everything was perfectly placed without a trace of dust or dirt or grime anywhere. It was pretty impressive considering they didn’t keep a cleaning lady. I could never bring Marty to my mom’s hoarder’s homestead after this, I thought. Though his mom’s walls were cluttered, they were no match for the filth and piles of precious garbage my mother kept in her living space.
After the tour of the house, I got the familial presentation. His mother’s sister was engaging and sweet. Under her gun, I was the victim of rapid-fire questions to make me feel like less of an outsider. Before she had a chance to re-load, his cousin stepped between us to deliver her wedding plans and we bonded over the latest episode of Shameless. With no chance to breathe, his cousin’s soon-to-be sister-in-law welcomed me to Peoria with pride and his dad and I talked extensively about bicycling trails around Illinois. I felt comfortable and awkward all at the same time.
I was offered and unspoken break from trying to make an impression and studied the pictures of Marty and his siblings as they grew from toddlers to adults.
“You look weird with brown hair,” I said. Though I’d been acquainted with him for years, his hair had always been gray to me.
“I know,” he said. “I used to have brown hair. And no facial hair.”
“I think you look good without facial hair,” I said. “I mean, if you felt like shaving off your scruff it wouldn’t look odd.”
My favorite picture was a big one on the mantle above the fireplace. It had been taken fairly recently and printed in black and white. It was of his sister, her husband, his brother, his wife their three little girls, and Marty. I loved this picture. Marty looked really happy. The days that he was traveling and I forgot what he looked like and why I liked him, I thought of this picture.
Dinner was served. Marty’s mother made a crown roast with glazed baby carrots and watercress salad. I was typically squeamish about eating in other people’s homes, but I knew beforehand that Marty’s mom was a good cook and this meal was no exception. Everything was perfectly seasoned, perfectly portioned and perfectly presented. She was an entertainer. It made me wish that my own mother was good at this type of thing. It was amazing how a meal could bring a family together for a few hours and not necessarily bond, but create a warmth that you can’t find in other types of gatherings. I felt cozy, comfortable, loved. It was such a foreign feeling.
Then they rolled out the dessert and champagne. Marty and I drank water at dinner while everyone else drank wine — that was no problem. No attention was drawn to the fact that no alcohol had passed through my lips. But this was trickier and an unfamiliar situation for me. They counted out glasses — they didn’t include Marty but they included me. Everyone knew Marty didn’t drink but they didn’t know it was poison to me, too. I panicked when the glass of bubbles was handed to me. I passed it off very awkwardly. It felt like I was shouting when I said, “Oh no, I’m not having any.” No one noticed, but it seemed like the whole world was watching me as I secretly declared out loud that I was an alcoholic. This was something I had to learn to be better at managing.
I recovered from the champagne trauma and had a piece of Marty’s mom’s Meyer lemon loaf cake. She was a fantastic baker. It was light, with a simple citrus glaze and generous bits of meyer lemon zest hiding in the crumb. It wasn’t fancy, but it had the flavor and texture of what I thought familial love might taste like. I had a big piece and I finished the whole thing. She also served a strawberry pie. It was sort of a jello-like pie — chilled and sugary. The crust was perfect. She told me that her secret was lard which made for the splendid balance of salty and sweet wrapped in flaky goodness.
I did my best to help clean up. I cleared the dishes from the table and rinsed and loaded the plates in the dishwasher. I tried to be charming and talk, but it was exhausting to try to keep smiling without the aid of whiskey. I was relieved when Marty said it was time to go. I made sure to get our respective Easter eggs as we said our goodbyes — they all gave me hugs and kisses and made me feel like I was part of a real family that cared about each other.
Before we walked out the door, his mother mentioned his birthday and said he should come out to Peoria that weekend.
“I don’t want to drive out to Peoria again for my birthday,” he complained, slightly irritated — a mood his mother was clearly accustomed to.
His mother looked hurt, but he read something else into this reaction.
“You’ve got something planned, don’t you?”
“Your brother and sister are flying out.”
“You see?” I said. “She can’t keep a secret, either.”
He looked at me and then said, “I guess I’ll come out, then.”
Full of pork and pie, our drive home was quiet.
“Your family is so nice,” I said. “It makes me feel bad that mine’s not.”
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2/3 cup buttermilk
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon dark rum
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- Zest of one Meyer lemon zest
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup melted butter
- Juice of one Meyer lemon
- 1 ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 TB Buttermilk
- 1 TB Lemon Juice
- 1 tsp Lemon zest
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, buttermilk, eggs, brandy, and vanilla. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest. Stir flour mixture into egg mixture (do not over mix!). Fold in butter followed by the lemon juice. Pour into prepared loaf pan (8 ½” x 4 ½”). Bake for 45 to 60 minutes. It’s done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Whisk together powdered sugar, lemon juice, buttermilk, and lemon zest. Drizzle the icing over cooled cake.