“Are you going to visit the other half of her family?” Our fingers touched as she took the money from my hand. I was purchasing a few things to complete my airplane bag of tricks—dollar bin items that would enable me to pull an endless array of unfamiliar, inappropriately messy and/or choke-inducing items from my purse to entertain a child suffering from cabin fever. The cashier was referring to whether I was taking Ruby to visit her birth family and caught me a little off guard. Damn those semantics. After a short pause, I answered her well-meaning—if a bit intrusive—question without correcting her. “We're going to visit my husband's family.”
The reality of our situation is that no, we are not visiting Ruby's birth family, but we are visiting the other half of her family: Those strange folks on her father's side. The side that doesn't provide a tightly rolled joint on the bread plate of each dinner guest on turkey day. Unlike mine, this side requires guests to provide their own stash. Bummer.
The first time I ever came to Cedarburg, Wisc., was the Thanksgiving after I'd been dating Sam for one year. He brought me to this quaint spot where he'd grown up under a soccer mullet (only for a time), tipping cows and gnawing squeaky cheese curds. (Just joking about the “tipping cows” thing.) As it happens, this sweet little Norman Rockwellian town—population 11,210—had me at howzitbyyooouuuu.
It's a river-running-through-it postcard place whose main street is lined by turn-of-the-century buildings. In late November, every vertical structure is adorned with cedar boughs and twinkly lights. At the time of my first visit, the local fire station was pumping Christmas carols into the cold air, making a post-turkey family stroll irresistible despite the effects of tryptophan. For all I know, they were also pumping the scent of apple cider, pumpkin pie and Bing Crosby's cologne up my nostrils: I was seduced.
I'll never forget watching, from my in-laws' living room on our last night, as a man and his two young daughters across the street strung lights on the leafless tree in their front yard while a woman set a table for dinner inside, all of them working in concert by the orange glow of dusk, all of them racing against the cold and the dark. Thanksgiving here is a snowflake-drifting, jingle-bell-infused Folgers commercial. I mean, if my in-laws had a kid in college, surely he'd sneak home in the middle of the night and surprise them first thing in the morning with gifts under the Hanukkah bush, freshly brewed coffee and his Ramen-thin, scarf-wearing presence. In this land, my in-laws don't lock their doors—front or back—and they leave the keys to their cars in their cars! It's Leave It To Beaverland (for reals!), and I remember thinking, “No wonder Sam has never needed therapy.”
I also remember thinking, “I could live here.”
But that's not it, exactly. The magic of this place is partially the town, sure. It's also partially this particular time of year—though window-rattling summer thunderstorms are unlike any other—and it's hard not to be nostalgic for the quintessential American idea sold to us all by corporate America. Ultimately, it's a combination of the time, the place and the crazy people I come to visit. This family that I married into is what makes it so much fun to come here and which makes it worth the wait all year.
Hungry after our flight, we began this year's adventure by ingesting a grease bomb of a lunch at Copps, a burger joint famous for its frozen custard, the Flavor of the Day being a guaranteed topic for consideration each morning (“Is there coffee made? Howdja sleep? Anyone know what the Flavor of the Day is?”). Ruby is just now old enough to recognize the good life as she sat flanked by her Nonni and Papa who were alternately shoving ketchup-soaked french fries and chocolate malt in her mouth. It was a toddler's dream meal that launched a four-day, no-holds-barred sugar festival. As a parent, it's useless to fight it.
Within the first few hours, our conversation devolved—as it always does—from any respectable, picture-perfect family chatter. We're shameless and tactless and lack self-editing so we gleefully interrogated Marcus, the Brazilian exchange student, about whether he'd gotten to first, second or third base with a girl he likes; whether the bases as we define them are still relevant (consensus: third is now first). We pontificated about blowjobs, porn, hormones in milk causing overdeveloped high-schoolers, pot brownies and where the roaches were hidden after last year's Thanksgiving visit. For many, this might be shocking. For us, it's de rigueur and it's fantastic.
This very important course of conversation is usually punctuated with intense political analysis and—perhaps surprisingly, given my previous description—articulate bashing of the current American president. But since the only two Republicans in the family were absent (one excised through divorce, the other a no-show), there was a much more yada yada, preaching-to-the-choir dulling effect that saw the topic shift quickly back to smut. It simply wasn't as much fun without the different points of view, no matter how asinine, or the ability to completely shock the giblets out of the buttoned-up duo. Besides, it's way more fun to tease my mother-in-law about why she keeps her cell phone in her front pants pocket. On vibrate.
Throughout the week, old friends stopped by to say hello and catch up on events of the past year. New friends came by to meet our little sucrose addict and, in this small place in the Midwest, we even met a family that reflected ours. They're 15 years down the road of transracial parenting but it was an instant and fundamental connection that felt like family. Truly, there is no other “half of family.” There is just family.
With a new baby on the way (not mine!) and others growing; with little kids becoming awkward teens; with big kids becoming adults and adults aging themselves through repeated stories and talk of bowel issues, the passage of time is palpable, tradition is ever richer.
Could I really live here in this place where the cold is so bitter that curling into fetal position is a nearly overpowering urge? No way in hell. But to visit is divine: It's the snapshot that I love. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.