The first meal my wife, the beautiful Judy Licht, had at my parents' house was on a Christmas Eve 33 years ago.
Judy arrived with her mother and there was that uncomfortable awkward introduction time that we all have been through when introducing our parents to someone with whom we may be "serious."
Judy and her mother were ushered into the kitchen where, on the stove, eels were frying and squiggling. A whole octopus was swirling around in tomato sauce with the tentacles appearing with every boil.
Judy looked like she was going to be sick. Her mother was stunned and held on to a table and looked as though she was going to faint.
We survived that meal and it turned out everyone really liked each other, although I still remember Judy and her mom politely moving the eel and octopus on their plates from side to side with the speed and dexterity of Las Vegas blackjack dealers. They didn't eat a bite.
I thought of that when I received this column years ago from someone on the Internet. It's good writing. And I'm sure it's true. If the writer comes forward I'm ready to give him all the credit he deserves for surviving and living to write about it.
I thought it would be a nice idea to bring a date to my parents' house on Christmas Eve. I thought it would be interesting for a non-Italian girl to see how an Italian family spends the holidays. I thought my mother and my date would hit it off like partridges and pear trees. So, I was wrong. I had only known Karen for three weeks when I extended the invitation. "I know these family things can be a little weird," I told her, "but my folks are great, and we always have a lot of fun on Christmas Eve."
"Sounds fine to me," Karen said.
I had only known my mother for 31 years when I told her I'd be bringing Karen with me. "She's a very nice girl and she's really looking forward to meeting all of you."
"Sounds fine to me," my mother said. And that was that. Two telephone calls. Two sounds-fine-to-me. What more could I want?
I should point out, I suppose, that in Italian households, Christmas Eve is the social event of the season – an Italian woman's raison d'etre. She cleans. She cooks. She bakes. She orchestrates every minute of the entire evening. Christmas Eve is what Italian women live for. I should also point out, I suppose, that when it comes to the kind of women that make Italian men go nuts, Karen is it. She doesn't clean. She doesn't cook. She doesn't bake. And she has the largest breasts I have ever seen on a human being. I brought her anyway.
7 PM – We arrive. Karen and I walk in and putter around for half an hour waiting for the other guests to show up. During that half hour, my mother grills Karen like a cheeseburger and cannily determines that Karen does not clean, cook, or bake. My father is equally observant. He pulls me into the living room and notes, "She has the largest breasts I have ever seen on a human being."
7:30 PM. – Others arrive. Uncle Pepe walks in with my Aunt Mafalde, assorted kids, assorted gifts. We sit around the dining room table for antipasto, a symmetrically composed platter of lettuce, roasted peppers, black olives, salami, prosciutto, provolone, and anchovies. When I offer to make Karen's plate she says, "Thank you. But none of those things, okay?" She points to the anchovies.
"You don't like anchovies?" I ask. "I don't like fish," Karen announces to one and all as 67 other varieties of foods-that-swim are baking, broiling, and simmering in the next room.
My mother makes the sign of the cross. Things are getting uncomfortable.
Aunt Mafalde asks Karen what her family eats on Christmas Eve. Karen says, "Knockwurst." My father, who is still staring in a daze at Karen's chest, temporarily snaps out of it to murmur, "Knockers?"
My mother kicks him so hard he gets a blood clot. None of this is turning out the way I'd hoped.
8 PM – Second course. The spaghetti and crab sauce is on the way to the table. Karen declines the crab sauce and says she'll make her own with butter and ketchup. My mother asks me to join her in the kitchen. I take my "Merry Christmas" napkin from my lap, place it on the "Merry Christmas" tablecloth and walk into the kitchen. "I don't want to start any trouble," my mother says calmly, clutching a bottle of ketchup in her hands. "But if she pours this on my pasta, I'm going to throw acid in her face."
"Come on," I tell her. "It's Christmas. Let her eat what she wants."
My mother considers the situation, then nods. As I turn to walk back into the dining room, she grabs my shoulder. "Tell me the truth," she says. "Are you serious with this puttana?"
"She's not a puttana," I reply, "and I've only known her for three weeks." "Well, it's your life," she tells me, "but if you marry her, she'll poison you."
8:30 PM – More fish. My stomach is knotted like one of those macramé plant hangers that are always three times larger than the plants they hold. All the women get up to clear away the spaghetti dishes, except for Karen, who, instead, lights a cigarette. "Why don't you give them a little hand?" I politely suggest.
Karen makes a face and walks into the kitchen carrying three forks. "Dear, you don't have to do that," my mother tells her, smiling painfully. "Oh, okay," Karen says, putting the forks on the sink.
As she reenters the dining room, a wine glass flies over her head, and smashes against the wall. From the kitchen, my mother says, "Whoops." I vaguely remember that line from Torch Song Trilogy. "Whoops?" No. "Whoops is when you fall down an elevator shaft."
More fish comes out.
After some goading, Karen tries a piece of scungilli, which she describes as "slimy, like worms." My mother winces, bites her hand, and pounds her chest like one of those old women you always see in the sixth row of a funeral home. Aunt Mafalde does the same. Karen, believing that this is something that all Italian women do on Christmas Eve, bites her hand and pounds her chest.
10 PM – Coffee, dessert. Espresso all around. A little Anisette. A curl of lemon peel. When Karen asks for milk, my mother finally slaps her in the face with a cannoli. I guess it had to happen sooner or later. Karen, believing that this is something that all Italian women do on Christmas Eve, picks up a cannoli and slaps my mother with it. Rally
"This is fun," Karen says. Fun? No. Fun is when you fall down an elevator shaft. But, amazingly, everyone is laughing and smiling and filled with good cheer – even my mother, who grabs me by the shoulder, laughs and says, "Get this bitch out of my house."
Sounds fine to me.
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