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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Family functions and dysfunctions

by Debra Hale-Shelton | February 16, 2020 at 1:56 a.m.

I have a problem. Well, a few problems. One is that I don't wear my hearing aids as often as I should. Another is that my sister-in-law, Andrea, and I are destined to clash, even though we try really hard to get along with each other.

The last time those two factors combined to become a bigger problem was at a family Christmas dinner in a suburb north of Chicago. My husband Huey, teenage daughter Annie and I were spending the holiday week with the in-laws and having an inedible feast on Christmas night.

The conversation between the salad on which I choked, the bloody rare roast, and the coffee-spiked ice cream was steadily going downhill. It was late, and Annie nodded as she began falling asleep at the candlelit dining-room table.

My mother-in-law, who's in her late 80s, steered the conversation to skunks. It seems her upscale suburb had a problem too: a vacant house frequented by skunks. She feared the skunks would visit her third-floor condo.

I started tuning her out when Andrea tried to involve me in the conversation.

"Do you have many skunks in Arkansas, Debbye?" she asked.

But my aging ears heard: "Do you have much snow in Arkansas, Debbye?"

After all, I think we'd all agree that the weather is a more appropriate topic for dinner conversation than skunks.

"Some, but not much," I replied. "We used to get more, but lately we've not had much. Annie only missed one day of school because of it last year. I mean, climate change has really changed things. Northeast Arkansas gets a lot more than we do in Conway."

My in-laws listened intently, no doubt perplexed as I babbled on. My husband kept eating.

I don't remember everything I said, but I think I finally must have used the word "snow" when Annie decided she had suffered enough and said, "Not snow. Skunks!"

At first, I had no clue what she was talking about. Then it hit me.

I mumbled something about how we didn't have many skunks either.

That's when Andrea decided it was time to serve dessert.

Speaking of the in-laws reminded me of another embarrassing moment. This one had nothing to do with the sense of hearing and more to do with taste and touch.

I was in my late 40s, but my marriage was in its youth--maybe a year old, maybe three. No matter, the task of preparing Thanksgiving dinner for the in-laws was the biggest challenge I had faced since I'd declared that all of my bridesmaids would have to wear bows in their hair.

The menu would be traditional--for Southerners, that is. We would of course have dressing, not stuffing. A recipe on the back of a flour bag guided me though the dressing. I served lingonberry sauce to impress my mother-in-law but cranberry sauce for others like me.

I cooked fresh green beans and a chunk of salt pork on low heat for hours, until my sister-in-law could honestly describe the beans as "mushy." I prepared Ping's Deviled Eggs, my one dish that seems to impress everyone. In a nod of gratitude to my mother-in-law, I invited her to make the rutabaga, a family favorite despite a lack of seasoning. And we had pumpkin pie--the in-laws' favorite--and egg custard pie, my favorite.

Things were going quite well until my father-in-law decided to be adventuresome and try a slice of egg custard.

"What in the world is this?" he shouted as he held out a thin sheet of paper over his plate. I had failed to remove the film-like paper separating the frozen pie crusts.

I've since learned that in-laws can be strange and unpredictable. My husband and I separated just before Christmas but got together with our daughter, my mom and my sister for dinner and laughter.

I had been sick and had bought few gifts, handing out verbal IOUs instead. I had not even mailed the traditional book gift I usually sent to my mother-in-law every Christmas.

But she had not forgotten me, sending a generous monetary gift and a brief phone conversation. It didn't matter, though, if she sent $50 or $500. What mattered was her kindness.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 02/16/2020

Print Headline: Family functions and dysfunctions


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