What we do for love
Families have rituals that nobody understands. I myself never ate scallops till I was 23 because I was raised with a deathly fear that scallops would rise up and maim or kill you. I finally asked my mother what the deal was with the seafood pariah — all my friends insisted scallops were great and not much different from shrimps (I was also tired of picking them out of restaurant dishes). My mother said that once — ONCE — she had eaten seafood soup and became deathly ill. Her conclusion was the scallops did it.
"Why the scallops?" I asked. "Weren't there all kinds of fish in there?"
"Yup," she answered. "But it was the first time I had scallops. I never got food poisoning from anything else." Mom's detective work may have been flawed, but like most family "truths," there was no control group to scope out a different answer.
We say we have dispensed with "old wives' tales" and urban myths, but secretly, we fear breaking the mold. My father took me to a ballet concert for my sixth birthday. I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him I was bored with the pirouetting and prancing, so I cheered and clapped and told him how much I liked it. For the next four birthdays — and assorted non-holidays — I had to endure "Swan Lake" reruns. When I was 23, (the year I first tasted scallops), I remarked to someone at a dinner how my dad was a great fan of ballet.
My father interrupted. "I only went because you were a fan. I didn't want to disappoint you. Personally, I found it tedious." Sigh.
The fabulous writer Milan Kundera once said, "Be very careful what rituals you start at the beginning of a relationship — they will be etched in stone and expected forever." So don't serve breakfast in bed with a rose and a love letter if you don't plan on dishing this up every Sunday for the duration of the affair. If you light a hundred candles before making love, when you descend to quickie mode, your sweetie will wonder where the sensitive lover went. And don't say "Monday Night Football" is no big deal unless you mean it — you'll be leaving an opening for a brand-new week-starting ritual, like driving to the bird sanctuary to feed the red-peckered billspoons.
When it comes to family togetherness, the absurd is only matched by the silly. You amalgamate with a person whose extended family starts Christmas a month early. They craft their own wreaths from recycled milk cartons and invite all kin, including Uncle Louie, who is only allowed out on supervised visits. Then everybody gathers around the piano, singing for hours in boisterous, if uneven voices — all the carols you thought you left behind at the school pageant in grade four. If this doesn't sound like your idea of an enchanting event, be aware that the first time you are included, this episode will become part of your life for the run of the relationship.
It is best to be honest about your little quirks and absurdities up front. If baby talk is the way you apologize, let him know it at the first peacemaking negotiations. If your mother calls you four times a day and you are okay with that schedule, there's no use pretending she just started the habit the day after the two of you got together. Rituals can also be endearing relationship cement. For example, if your tradition is an annual honeymoon rerun, or never going to bed angry — no matter what. There's nothing to stop you from writing a fresh Practices and Procedures Manual of your own. While you're at it, add on some fun configurations.
Those outside the unique clique that is you and yours will not comprehend the customs and rituals. That's because they are there to enhance and solidify the participants and, to some extent, to exclude the outsiders. Like a unique language, they are communication tools, and they are architectural supports for the framework of the relationship. Enjoy.