*Early Thanksgiving morning, Jennifer phoned her mom and asked how everything was going.
Is there anything she can do? Did Aunt Freddie and them get in? Did she want her to make the cranberry sauce and bring it?
Then Jennifer took a deep breath and asked what she really wanted to know: How’s Dad?
He is doing as well as can be expected, was mom’s response, pensive by careful design. Translation: Your father still isn’t crazy about his baby daughter being involved with a man he doesn’t approve of, and he’s absolutely uncomfortable with said man planting his feet under the family table for Thanksgiving dinner. But he is coping.
Jennifer sighed. Really? It’s going to be like this?
She knew her father’s stubbornness; she inherited his propensity for pigheadedness. Outspoken? Certainly. But racist? Jennifer never considered her father to be this. When Jennifer was a child, dad, now retired from a Southern California energy company, enjoyed the camaraderie of coworkers of all colors and religions. Over Jennifer’s 36 years, her parents hosted in their cozy San Fernando Valley tract home people of all persuasions. From the time she was young, it was dad who taught Jennifer and her older brother and sister that prejudice of any kind was wrong.
That philosophy appeared to evaporate over sizzling fajitas one Saturday afternoon back in June when, over lunch, Jennifer pulled out her phone and showed her parents a photo of her cheek to cheek with the man she’d been seeing for four “incredible” months.
“Are you in love? If it’s love, who cares?” mom declared uneasily. Dad, however, couldn’t conceal first his trepidation and then outright anger. Jennifer was being “unrealistic” and “irresponsible,” he huffed. He’d get past it, mom assured her daughter in a phone conversation later.
But here it was Thanksgiving morning, and he hadn’t. According to mom, he rekindled his pouting a couple of days before, when he inquired if Jennifer was still bringing Marcus to holiday dinner. He heard the answer and went silent.
For weeks, both Jennifer and dad bent mom’s ear with their righteous soliloquies on the subject, but refused to speak to one another. According to Jennifer, there was nothing to discuss–this is my man. According to dad, this is my house. He didn’t ban Jen and her boyfriend from dinner, but he didn’t have to be pleased. And he wasn’t.
Jennifer said Marcus, 38, was cool about it all. Born and raised in the melting pot of the Bronx, he had friends of every hue. She met him at the wedding reception of a mutual friend, initially attracted after hearing Marcus speak so passionately not about himself, but the middle school students he taught.
Before Marcus, it never occurred to Jennifer to date a man who didn’t resemble her father. However, as she told friends—some supportive, others characteristically mute–you can’t control who you fall in love with.
And actually, Marcus WAS a lot like her father—at least as tall, slimmer but with the same detached folksiness and intuitiveness about him. The latter quality made Marcus, for Jennifer’s sake, beg off attending the dinner.
Jennifer wouldn’t hear of it. However, she did warn him that uncles Ted and Chris, being from “another time” and fueled by holiday alcohol and a good football game, might excitedly let the N word fly: “Run, nigga, run,” or “Look at that nigga go.” That sort of thing. She hoped Marcus’ presence would clip such behavior, but she couldn’t be sure. “Baby,” Marcus, said gingerly, “I’m from the Bronx. You can’t think I haven’t heard THAT word.”
Of course, he had. But that didn’t make Jennifer any less nervous as the two stood on her parents’ porch, cradling two bottles of a really fine Merlot while enduring the eternity it seemed to take for someone to answer the doorbell.
“Well, it’s about time!” Aunt Freddie said jubilantly, throwing open the door. She gave her niece a tight hug and then warmly shook Marcus’ hand. You’d have thought it Christmas, what with the blazing fireplace and the Poinsettias mom had placed about the living room, filled with the delightful aroma of great food. The sound of a televised football game wafted in from the den.
“Mom—-Perry Como…already?” Jennifer deadpanned, giving her mom an embrace.
“Why not? You know I love Perry Como! Hi, I’m Betty, Jen’s mom. So nice to meet you!”
The ever congenial Marcus was then introduced to the room–some eleven people, the core of which possessed a cordial cool that suggested they’d been briefed by mom. Out of the den, in his favorite gray jogging suit, emerged dad.
“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” said Marcus, taking dad’s hand.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” was the solemn reply. The man of the house then lumbered back into the den to his game.
Jennifer poured her beau a glass of wine and invited him to take a seat on the living room sectional, grateful that her brother Kenny immediately engaged Marcus regarding Kenny’s restored mint condition ’68 evergreen GTO.
It was from the dining room, while chatting with sister June and assisting her setting the table that Jennifer at some point noticed Marcus rise and head toward the den. Panicked, she went to follow him, when mom stepped in. “Stop it. He’s a grown man. He can take care of himself.”
Sure he can, Jennifer thought. Relax. But after a several minutes, she realized Marcus and dad were in the den alone–Aunt Freddie had sent Uncle Chris to the store. It didn’t help that Uncle Ted had sauntered into the kitchen and impishly quipped, “He’s an opinionated fella, isn’t he?” Anxious, Jen went to look in on the situation.
Entering the den, she found Marcus on one knee beside dad’s beloved Lazy Boy recliner, looking inquisitively into the monitor of dad’s laptop, which sat in dad’s lap.
“What’s going on?”
They either didn’t hear Jen or ignored her, absorbed in the information on the Internet. “Well, yep, you’re right,” said dad. “But it sure SOUNDS like something Cash would do; you GOTTA give me that….”
“Oh, for sure it does,” agreed Marcus. “They were both great story tellers.”
What had happened was that “El Paso,” the classic 1959 country and western ballad, was featured in a TV commercial. Dad offhandedly mentioned to Uncle Ted that the song, a hit for C&W legend Marty Robbins, was written by Johnny Cash. Marcus, Bronx native and student of hip hop, neo-soul and oddly…all things Johnny Cash, politely begged to differ. The song, he said, was written by Robbins himself.
Dad, an old school soul, jazz and blues aficionado with a soft spot for roots country music–a sentimental hold over from his Mississippi childhood—disagreed. Uncle Ted, sensing a duel, vacated the room, leaving the two men to settle their debate in the fashion gentlemen settle such disputes these days: Wikipedia. Sure enough, Marcus was right.
Jennifer was mystified as to what part of the event altered her father’s blah mood-—the fact that Marcus knew what he was talking about, or that he dared say so—-but briefly alone in the kitchen with Jennifer, while getting himself another Bud, dad took his daughter into his arms. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled in her ear. “I love you.” And then he was gone, hurrying back to his new friend, before someone else claimed him.
Thanksgiving dinner was filled with warm conversation, laughter, story-telling and undoubtedly, plenty of unspoken, personal reflection.
The following afternoon, on the phone, mom would relay to Jennifer what her dad had told her. So, my youngest daughter, he said—-“my ‘Chocolate drop,’” as he affectionately called Jen when she was a toddler–is dating a white man. It isn’t the end of the world, he decided. After all, they weren’t married. They hadn’t had kids. He’d cross that bridge, he said, when THEY came to it. “Even he had to laugh at that one,” said mom.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]