The other night, my girlfriend Jackie and I were in the kitchen making dinner. We were chatting about our respective days when she dropped a little relationship bomb.
“My mom invited you to Thanksgiving at our house,” Jackie said.
As I struggled to cut the carrots and not myself, I thought up as many benign words as I could. “Oh, wow, that’s great. Cool. Yeah, um, I’ll have to think about that. Is the water boiling?”
But my insides were screaming, “Oh my god. The in-laws.”
I’ve spent quite a bit of time at Jackie’s parents’ house in Los Angeles.
They’ve always welcomed me into their home, and I’ve been to more than one family barbecue. I even went to her brother’s high school graduation a few years ago and got into a really interesting political discussion with her mom while Jackie cleaned up after the dinner we had all shared. So visiting her folks isn’t foreign or unknown.
But visiting the folks on a holiday is decidedly unknown. The holidays are inherently stressful and busy, and involve visiting relatives one rarely sees. They can often result in knock-down, drag-out arguments. Lots of money is spent on food and drinks, and, because I’m a vegetarian, the phrase “Does this have meat in it?” is whispered to my buffet-line neighbor more in those few days than the rest of the year.
Keeping all of this in mind, I wondered, first of all, why Jackie’s mom would want to add another guest to that already huge family gathering, and secondly, why it meant so much to me (and therefore made me so nervous) that I was invited to something as iconic as Thanksgiving dinner.
Bringing a significant other to the family holiday meal is one of the most traditional rites of passage in a relationship. It joins the family of your old, growing-up life with the family of your future. If things are amicable, picture albums are brought out, stories of spit-up and homecoming dances are told; if things are rocky, cold shoulders are given, glares are flashed across the table over the mashed potatoes. If you make it through the holiday meal, you’re a champ-and it probably means you’ll be forced to make it through the rest of your life’s holiday meals with the same darn people. Lucky you.
Jackie’s mom’s invitation was important because it illustrated that she knows I am a big part of Jackie’s life. But it is doubly important-because of all the cultural underpinnings of bringing someone to dinner-in that it illustrates that she knows I am Jackie’s capital-s Significant Other. This one little invite shows Jackie’s mom truly validates our relationship.
Validation by anyone, but especially parents, is huge for a relationship. And in a world warped by homophobia and prejudice, validation by parents of a gay relationship is an even bigger deal. If you think about it, it’s been only 40 years since characters played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were in a tizzy because their daughter wanted to have a black man, Sidney Poitier, over for dinner.
Going to Jackie’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving is also a big deal because it shows I have the ability to choose where I spend my time. It also illustrates one of my favorite things in life: the created family. The created family is something I have always firmly believed in, starting in my early teens when my parents talked about adopting one of my friends who had been in foster care her whole life. Although that never came to fruition, the idea that we could become family to someone who wasn’t related to us stuck with me.
Since my parents haven’t been wildly supportive since I came out, I’ve had to rely on the members of my created family-the friends who became my brothers and sisters, the moms and dads of friends who provided me with parent-like support. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know how I would have survived this rough time. I’m getting through it, but I’m getting through it because of them.
Now, during another season when family is at the forefront of my consciousness, I turn to the gathering place of the newest part of my created family: Jackie’s house.
Wish me luck. I hope they have vegetarian food.