Matthew Stanley of San Francisco still gets teased by his seven brothers and sisters for the boyfriend he brought home one Thanksgiving.
The eldest son had been out for a number of years, so the fact that he was gay wasn’t the issue.
“What threw my family for a loop was my lover had braces,” he says. That spurred “some behind-the-back gossip and questions to me.”
As if that were not enough, what topped the dinner off was when his boyfriend offered to carry food to the table. He came bearing the coveted family dish: sweet potatoes topped with gooey crunchy marshmallows then he tripped on the rug. The potatoes somersaulted in the air and landed on the carpet marshmallow side down, of course.
It took more than half an hour to clean up the mess, console the mortified guest, stem the hysterical laughter and finally begin eating. “My lover and I broke up shortly after Christmas,” Stanley says, but the marshmallows, he claims, had nothing to do with it.
Thanksgiving is one of the few opportunities when far-flung relatives and friends reunite. That also means it’s one of the few opportunities to have everyone meet the significant other who may be way different from what the family expects. While the Stanley story shows that the unexpected can just be a mouth full of metal, the usual eyebrow-raisers tend to come from race, religion, physical ability, gender or a combination thereof.
Still, even as Grandma and Grandpa get more cosmopolitan and blas, it always seems there is another interesting variation to the surprise or another limit to push.
“I once brought my Japanese art school boyfriend to my Scandinavian aunt and uncle’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner in upstate New York,” recalls Laura Copenhaver, a photo editor with Salon.com.
“The funny thing about that boyfriend was that although he was a petite American-Japanese guy, he spoke like (actor) Billy Dee Williams complete with a Brooklyn vernacular.” Dinner went by without much fuss from the liberal-minded Copenhavers unlike the after-dinner activity. “Problems did arise when we got home and I retired to my bedroom with the boyfriend,” she says. “That didn’t go over so well.”
“In general, I would advocate staying away from shock value in the holidays,” advises Mariana Caplan, a Bay Area counselor and author of “When Holidays Are Hell !: A Guide to Surviving Family Gatherings” (Hohm Press, $7.95). Her 1997 book begins with a personal Thanksgiving tale: She took home a date who had cerebral palsy, sported a mohawk and was an animal rights activist. Meanwhile, Caplan “was a righteous political vegetarian” who took the holiday occasion to talk about oppression of Native Americans. Today, she gives her parents credit for surviving that episode.
Caplan wrote the guide after seeing clients come in with ulcers and anxieties over the holidays. “It would be easier if there were rules, but there aren’t,” she says.
Reverting to inner child
People do need to take strength and security in their adult choice, and not slip into “any childhood panic,” should your family disapprove.
“Our parents were often raised in situations where they were taught certain prejudices,” Caplan says. For the most part, parents “do ultimately want the best for you and they do have their own insecurities.”
Marcia Garrison, a Walnut Creek chapter member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), remembers crying on the Thanksgiving that her youngest son, John, was to bring his boyfriend to the Lafayette gathering.
He came out at 19, while he was a student at UC San Diego. Garrison met the boyfriend over lunch before the holidays. “John was so crazy about him,” she says. “I think I got caught up in it.”
That Thanksgiving morning, though, it suddenly hit. “I truly felt I did not think I could do this because nobody else was going to support me,” she recalls. She broke down in front of her older son and his wife, saying, “How are we ever going through this? What if nobody is nice to him?”
Her reserved older son, in an unusual display of affection, put his arm around her and said, “Mom, everything will be fine and everybody will be fine.”
Garrison believes “it was pretty gutsy of John, thinking back on it. I don’t think anybody knew what to do. But nobody behaved badly, and you got to say that for all of them.” Once it was over, she felt relieved. “Of course, I had to grill everyone once it was over.”
As for her son’s recollection of that momentous event, “all he remembered was that the person he brought home was a vegetarian, so it kind of created a little problem,” she says. “This shows you the different perception between parent and child.”
Now, more than 10 years later, her son will be spending his first Thanksgiving away from home. This time, he’ll be the “other” visiting the family of the “love of his life,” who just came out of the closet in July. “He’s so fun,” Garrison says. “There’s a big void there, but we’ll make it.”
Preparation is key
Priming the family and then paying attention to the guest, both of which Garrison’s son did, are important when bringing someone into an awkward situation.
The guests need to be prepared as well. For their first Christmas together, Texas-born Janie Escamilla-Herpe had to apprise her boyfriend of six months about her strict Mexican upbringing and the importance of maintaining Southern manners, with lots of yes ma’ams, no sirs.
“Going to Texas, it’s like almost another country,” Escamilla-Herpe says.
First, though, the Hayward resident had to spend Thanksgiving with Barry Herpe (now her husband of three years) and his family, who had their heart set on another type of girl.
“I have one of those typical mothers and grandmothers,” Herpe says. They were urging him to marry someone Jewish. Escamilla-Herpe is Catholic Hispanic and, being from the Lone Star state, she says, “you can imagine the number of Jewish people I grew up with.”
She needn’t have worried. Herpe’s family welcomed her with open arms and kisses, although they kept referring to her not by name but as “Barry’s girlfriend.” The food turned out to be more perplexing than cultural or religious differences, especially when she encountered (and repeatedly declined) chopped liver.
Herpe’s mission was to win over his girlfriend’s father a traditional military man with a penchant for pranks and grandma, the family matriarch.
He won over her mother immediately (“She thought I looked like Bruce Willis,” he says, laughing), and his green eyes appealed to grandma. As for Mr. Escamilla, he lived up to his prankster reputation all weekend. He sent his brother to pretend that he was Janie’s father. During a drive, he had everyone run out at the stop sign for an impromptu game of “Chinese fire drill.” He kept asking if he could wear a yarmulke which he called “the beanie” when he visited them. And of course, he could not resist Barry’s surname, Herpe.
“I can’t believe how well (Barry) took everything. It showed a character in him that I learned to appreciate,” Escamilla-Herpe says. “I was thinking, If Barry survives this, I’m going to marry him.'”
Maintaining a sense of humor is essential. If there isn’t humor in the atmosphere, Caplan says, try to introduce it. Escamilla-Herpe’s dad might have been a wee bit excessive, but his future son-in-law took it in the spirit it was intended.
The young couple also kept to the holiday spirit. “Thanksgiving, traditionally, it’s a holiday of gratitude and sharing,” Caplan says. Even if you have the moral high ground, you don’t have to insist upon it then and there. The point of bringing home your loved one is to share that love, not to prove yourself. You don’t have to stay silent, but make your points calmly without overreacting.
If the visit does test one’s limits, shift the focus onto others. “Pay attention to the children, let the children be the large part of what’s going on,” Caplan recommends. “Don’t use them, but include them.”
Kids, meet my new friend
It’s not always the adult child that brings the surprise guest. In the age of divorce, the parents often bring home their new significant others to an audience that is at worst hostile, at best leery. That happened with Robert Brown, a researcher for a Berkeley think tank that deals with security and environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region. After his parents divorced, he began spending Thanksgiving with the family of his girlfriend, Sandy Hashima.
Three years ago, Hashima’s father invited Brown’s mother and her then-boyfriend. Jerry, who, though a reasonably well-off accountant, had led a somewhat sheltered existence. This in turn led to many innocent but tactless comments, to which Brown’s mother another Sandy exercised damage control by saying “Later, Jerry.”
After a relatively painless evening, the “kids” went to watch TV while the older folks gathered in the living room. Not long after, Brown could hear snippets of conversation that contained phrases like “Korean War,” “Second World War” and “You were in Japan?”
“Now, being a white American,” Brown says, “I have a certain amount of trepidation over asking people personal stories about wars in which we fought against them, and especially ones in which we dropped nuclear weapons upon their people, and especially in their homes when I’ve been invited for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Jerry was not so encumbered by these concerns, but Brown did what Caplan says is a common occurrence in the nightmare Thanksgiving scenario:
“I was thinking that if I could just sink a little farther into the couch, nobody would notice that I was there, and then hopefully not remember that Jerry was invited because of me.”
His girlfriend and her father were furious, and Brown’s mom later broke up with Jerry. She is now, Brown says, “dating someone with a higher degree of acumen when it comes to appropriate holiday dinner conversation.”