One of the first times I ever heard the phrase, “soup to nuts” my incorrigible Great-grandpa I. tried to convince me it meant that crazy people would think dishwater was soup. None of the kids in my generation ever called Great-grandpa I. “great grandpa.” He insisted we call him “Shorty.” No matter how hard my mom and her siblings and cousins tried to get us to call him anything else, we all called him “Shorty.” ‘Cause he told us to.
When Great-grandma heard him tell me the wrong definition of “soup to nuts,” she explained it referred to a fancy banquet-style meal, where you would be served soup first, then a meat dish, then a fish, and so on, until dessert and finally nuts. Shorty interrupted at that point to say he still thought crazy people were involved somehow. Otherwise, why would you need such a big meal?
I grew up in a big family. Sort of. For most of my childhood, my immediate family was my parents, myself, and my sister. During that time we usually lived within 500 miles of the town where my grandparents and one set of great-grandparents lived. We almost always visited for the holidays, and usually at least one set of cousins were there. Several of my parents’ cousins (and their parents, my parents’ aunts and uncles) lived in the same region. And generally everyone tried to stay in touch.
But there were complications. There were step-siblings and half-siblings at each generation. And depending on who was speaking to who, or who was approving of which person who had re-married, which of them were present or spoken of varied.
For instance: my mom’s biological father abandoned his family when my mom was a toddler. Years later, when Grandma’s second husband tried to legally adopt my mom and her sister, the biological father came back, and caused a lot of disruption. So during certain years of my childhood, my mom’s step- and half-siblings were not spoken of, certainly not by anyone on Dad’s side of the family. Until some things sorted out in a new way.
When I was in my teens, one of my uncles got divorced, but his ex-wife got along better with us (his blood relatives) than he did, so she was at family gatherings far more often than he was. One of my aunts remarried, a man who had a bunch of kids of his own. Suddenly one of my classmates was now my step-cousin. And my new uncle had a bunch of siblings, who all had kids around my age, and also some of them classmates. They were cousins of my cousins, and occasionally attended some of the same extended family get-togethers.
One of the upshots of all this is that there are a set of my cousins and second-cousins who I grew up spending a lot of time with, and that I know as well as I know my closest sister. Whereas I have half- and step-siblings who are at the very best acquaintances.
Holiday meals with the family were often very big, crowded affairs, with a couple dozen adults and even more kids all milling about, fighting over the relish tray, or trying to sneak some dessert before the main meal. The meal itself then often included about twenty side dishes. Even if you only wanted a little taste of everything, it was hard to fit it all on your plate.
Which is the excuse I give for why, even if it is just the two of us for a holiday, we wind up cooking enough food for a small army. It just isn’t Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and some kind of green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce, and gravy, and three or more kinds of olives, and… and… and…
During those childhood years, we were always living in tiny, rural towns, where most of the kids I went to school also knew their cousins, and were used to spending at least some of the major holidays traveling to a distant relative’s house where they would have a similarly large crowd.
In my teen years, we moved to somewhere that was more suburban in culture, where my classmates’ families seldom got together in extended groups. Not only weren’t they particularly close to their cousins, many didn’t even know how many they had! And some didn’t understand what a second cousin was, let alone know them (a cousin is a person with whom you share at least one grandparent, so generally the children of your parents’ siblings; a second cousin is someone with whom you share at least one great-grandparent, so generally the children of your parents’ cousins).
It was in that timeframe when I first really started thinking about how odd it had been, over the years, as different distant relatives, step-relatives, and so on, had drifted in and out of the family.
Until I finally came out of the closet, and found myself as the one who was barely spoken of. Or informed that I was welcome to the family get-together, but my partner, of course, was not. That “of course” was the most painful part of those conversations.
Twenty-one years later, the relatives I still have regular communication with have come around. But I confess, given how shrilly some of them were going on about the election, and uniformly convinced that things like gay marriage are about to bring the apocalypse, I wasn’t actually looking forward to the holiday.
So much so, that it was a bit of a relief to find out that I have the flu and bronchitis, that my hubby is definitely still in the highly contagious phase of the same flu, so neither of us will be traveling.
I keep thinking about those big family get-togethers. I wonder, now, what the reasons really were for some of those entrances and exits. Who was in the soup, and why?
Were all of us just nuts?