Saturday morning of the party, I went for a run. It was only the second run I’d done since my 50 miler, and despite having declared that I never wanted to run again after that 12-hour ordeal, I went out hard. I did speedwork. I did hills. And when I say hills, I mean hills, because I was in the Pacific Northwest, where unlike east-central Illinois, topography actually means something. After 45 minutes of going all out, I returned to my sister’s apartment feeling supremely satisfied. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to wonder if this run would end up being the high point of the day.
Once I had showered, my sister and I set about making party food. She had an ambitious menu planned from recipes in her “Four Ingredients or Less” cookbook, which makes it sound like everything would be a snap to throw together, except that fewer ingredients doesn’t automatically mean less work unless three of the ingredients are salt, pepper, and a parsley sprig and the other ingredient is a phone to call for delivery. There were cucumbers to slice, avocado to mash, cheese to shred, mushrooms to stem, stems to saute, stemmed mushrooms to stuff, stuffed mushrooms to bake, and hard-boiled eggs to peel and peel and peel. My sister, ever the perfectionist, spent a good part of the morning trying to pick specks of eggshell off the eggs without wrecking the whites—something neither of us had much success at. “Who cares,” I said impatiently after taking out yet another divot from an egg. “That part’s going to be on the bottom anyway. Nobody will see it.”
My sister did not listen. She wanted everything perfect. I left her to fuss over the eggs and set about mashing avocados, since I clearly prefer the messy to the pristine when it comes to food. At home cooking for me consists of mixing up a bunch of stuff and throwing it on rice, pasta, or a tortilla. It ain’t pretty but it eats good, and since the BF and I have contests to see who can chow down the fastest (the only race I almost always win), that’s all that matters.
I was also of the opinion that all of this seemed like an awful lot of work for a half-assed party. I’ve never been a fan of parties that are thrown on other people’s behalf; what the party-givers think would be an appropriate and manageable celebration is seldom what the party-honorees do, and inevitably one side is left stressed out and the other disappointed. My sister clearly thought a dozen people standing awkwardly around her living room eating deviled eggs made for a fine 50th anniversary party. (My aunt clearly disagreed and insisted on throwing a second party that evening at an overpriced Italian restaurant, since my aunt has a penchant for anything overpriced even as my sister maintains that if you didn’t get it from the clearance racks at Target, you paid too much.)
“I did it!” my sister exclaimed. “I got one shelled perfectly!”
Terrific. The guests were coming in less than an hour and the only thing we had to feed them was an egg. Suffice it to say my sister and I will never run a catering company together. Truth is, the fact that we were working together in the same room toward the same goal is more in common than we’ve had in ages. If siblings teach you anything, it’s that you can share most of your DNA with someone and still feel like you come from different planets.
And yet you can still laugh about stuff no one else understands.
“Did you like the invitations?” she asked with a grin. “I made them myself. All the store ones said things like ‘50 wonderful years’, which, well, that’s just wrong.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “More like ’50 years—why?’”
The invitations feature a photo of my parents and the caption 50 years, can you believe it? “This was the only picture I had of the two of them together, just them, and sort of smiling.” It’s not an especially noteworthy picture; they are middle-aged and don’t seem terribly enthused about whatever the occasion was. “Man, fifty years and only one picture.”
I shrugged. “That’s not really surprising, is it?”
“Nope. Not at all.”
The guests were punctual; we were not, still madly dashing about prepping the food and drinks, but at least that put us in the enviable position of having something to do and not being forced to mingle. There’s a reason people are so desperate to help the hosts at a party, and it has nothing to do with being polite since most hosts would rather you get the hell out of the way. My mother absolutely hates it when people try to help her when she’s cooking, so of course my father has to go in there and insist that she not work so hard, that she allow him to help, even though there’s very little he can do right, in her eyes, and whatever he attempts will inevitably be met with wrath and not gratitude.
Fifty years of that. Can you believe it.
My father had brought along one of the only two wedding photos they’d had taken fifty years ago. She’s in a dress that seems positively nunnish by today’s strapless, form-fitting standards, though my cousin (who of course went strapless and form-fitting at her own wedding two years ago) called it “elegant” and my mother explained how she sewed longer sleeves onto it in the car on the way to City Hall since it happened to be an unexpectedly cold day. In it they look only marginally less stiff than they do in the picture on the invitation. He’s seated in front while she’s standing slightly behind him. My aunt studied the picture with a frown. “Hmm. Isn’t he supposed to be the one standing and she’s supposed to be sitting?”
“That would be more typical, yes, but the photographer said he wanted to do something different,” my father explained.
I chuckled privately; these days even running-and-jumping wedding photos, once radical, have become commonplace. Fifty years ago, this was considered odd.
As good a precursor of things to come as any.
The food was ready. The guests were assembled in a lame-looking hokey-pokey-type circle around the living room, holding glasses of champagne or sparkling non-alcoholic cider. Everyone looked uncertainly around to see who was supposed to give the toast. Finally enough people looked at my sister, who raised her glass of sparkling cider (she doesn’t drink—told you we have very little in common) and said, “Um, here’s to another 50 years?”
People laughed and raised their glasses, but honestly, what else could be said? My mother, who had taken a cider, sipped at it and put it down. “Did I ever tell you how I met your father? I was at a party and I drank too much champagne!”
I just about dropped the bottle of bubbly. I knew they had met at a party but the other part was news to me, my sister too judging from her taken aback expression. “Uh, no you never told us that,” I said. Now I don’t feel so bad about some of the things I’ve done, though it would have been nice to have known this little nugget sooner. We tried to cajole her into replacing the cider with the real stuff, for old time’s sake, but she wouldn’t budge. Guess she doesn’t want to be making the same mistake again. So much for another 50 years.
Still, once again, they left the party together.
My sister and I cleaned up, or rather she did and I sat down to write, the way I knew she’d prefer it; she’s the neat freak, I’m the slob, though nobody other than my family has ever called me this. The way family defines you is unique, stifling, frequently wrong, but never entirely unshakeable. As we worked we marveled, patting ourselves on the back, at how well the party had gone. The food was perfect, pock-marked eggs and all, and we’d made just the right amount. Nobody squabbled; everyone, including our folks, had been on their best behavior.
“Yeah, that won’t last,” my sister said sourly, and I knew what she meant—and was sorry that she, living only 10 minutes away compared to my two time zones apart, had to deal with it far more frequently than I did.
Listening to my parents have a conversation is like listening to a popular song that isn’t very good. This again? Why do people like this crap, and why do I have to constantly be subjected to it? My father has never quite gotten the idea that conversation is a dialogue and not a series of alternating soliloquys. He makes statements when he talks, and doesn’t need much in the way of feedback other than to know that you’re listening. My mother picks one word out of everything she hears and attacks that word regardless of the context. Heaven forbid my father should say, for example, the word “education,” because then she will launch into the most vitriolic anti-intellectual rant a self-made working-class hero ever embarked upon—even if the context was a description of a terrible accident he saw on the news involving a drivers’ ed vehicle. Eh, scratch that comparison; their conversations are actually like two familiar songs playing at the same time, neither of which you especially want to hear again, and certainly not together; instead of harmony, there’s cacophony.
And yet sometimes maybe that beats silence.
Reading what I’ve written, I know I haven’t done justice to these two people. My parents are hard-working, responsible, intelligent, interesting, and thoroughly decent human beings, and as non-ideal as it was, theirs was still far from making anyone’s lists of worst marriages in history. And come on, they did stay together. There must be something to that. Damned if I can figure out what it is, but I guess I’m not supposed to figure it out. That there can still be unfathomable mysteries after so much time—maybe that’s as good a takeaway as any.