You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives.
So sayeth my sister, who for years refused to acknowledge I was her brother.
The point is, as I was trying to tell Nancy, the woman who had agreed to marry me, “my family has long been ashamed of me because I refused to become a doctor.”
“That’s no excuse, in fact, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
To most people, it would. I agreed with her. But then, her family had not had a forebear who stood shoulder to shoulder with George Washington at the Siege of Yorktown.
It was a statement my mother had often pulled out of nowhere at dinner parties, and sometimes in general conversation, just to impress. I thought of trotting out as another example of ridiculous statements, but thought better of it.
It was a situation I had not bargained for, and probably why it took so long to find someone to share the rest of my life with.
Perhaps I hadn’t quite thought through what would happen once I asked the question, and it was a yes.
It was not as if Nancy and I hadn’t taken the long road with our relationship. She had been burned a few times, and I always had my family in the back of my mind as the biggest obstacle.
In fact, I always had considered it insurmountable, and because of that, rarely made a commitment. But Nancy was different. She was very forgiving and had the sort of temperament saints were blessed with.
Her family sounded like very reasonable people who lived upstate out of Yonkers on a farm she simply said had been in the family forever.
She didn’t have big city aspirations, was not impressed by wealth, travel, large houses, or a resume a mile long with achievements. It was everything I didn’t have and didn’t want, and my job as storeman and fork life driver was one where I could go to work and leave it there.
Nancy, on the other hand, was a checkout clerk at a large supermarket, with no aspirations to be a boss or run the place. She had a run-in with a tractor early on in life and could manage a lot of the farming basics.
Her parents sent her to the big city to learn a different trade, but she just wasn’t interested. She was a country girl and would never change.
We met when she was attending the same pre-wedding party that I was, both with different partners at the time, and both of whom were more party animals than we were.
A week later we ran into each other in the same bar, and it grew from there, and after a rather interesting six months or so, we had ended up making the ultimate commitment.
“I guess, now, we have to tell our parents,” she said, stating what was to her, the obvious.
Such a simple statement with so many connotations. I had deliberately steered the conversation away from all of them, and so, at this point in time, she knew I had parents, grandparents, and three other siblings. And that they lived on the other side of the country.
Asked why I had moved so far away, I told her that I’d failed to meet their expectations and preferred to be as far away as possible. My brothers more than made up for my failings, so it was not necessary I stay there.
It was only recently I’d told her those expectations were of me following the family tradition into medicine. It was when I told her my father was a pre-eminent thoracic heart surgeon, my brothers top of whatever field they’d chosen, and my sister, a well-regarded general practitioner.
When she asked in what way I’d failed, I said it was not in the education because like all Foresdale’s, we were always top of the class, and as much as I tried to fail, the teachers knew better.
I just refused to go to University. Instead, I tried to disappear, but my father had the best private detective at his disposal. It took a very long, loud, screaming match to sever that tie, get disinherited, and leave to make my own way in the world.
Perhaps, I said, it would be best to just say I was an orphan.
That, of course, to Nancy, was not an option. She came from practical people who always found a solution to any problem, and they had had a few really difficult ones over the years.
But, for the first time, there was a look of perplexment on her face. Maybe she was thinking that she should have asked more probing questions about my family before agreeing to be my wife.
“I think I can safely say that your parents will be more approachable than mine. Those expectations on me will also fall on you.”
And having said it aloud, it sounded so much more like a threat. The problem was, I knew what there were like, living in that rarefied air where the upper classes lived.
I might be a forklift driving storeman, but I was still a Foresdale, and my match had to be commensurate to the family values.
“Then we’re just going to have to go visit them and lower those expectations. I’m not afraid of them.”
No, I expect she was not. I’d seen her deal with all types of miscreants at the checkout counter, rich and poor alike. She had the sort of gumption I always had wanted but was too much of a coward to confront the problem.
Perhaps now, it would be the perfect opportunity.
“We should go next week. I’ve got some vacation days owing, and I’m sure the boss will let you go if you tell him the reason.”
Practical as ever. Confront the beast and get it over with.
“Sure. I’ll talk to the boss, arrange the tickers, and let someone know we’re coming. But I will not be staying at the house. That way if it gets too intense, we can leave.”
I saw her shrug. I’m not sure she agreed that was a good idea, but I didn’t want to see them corner her the way they had a habit of doing when any of us children brought anyone home. I did once, and never again.
“It will be fine.”
Famous last words.
I had the phone number of my sister Erica, stored on my phone, not that I’d ever intended to call her. It was there because she had called me, I had made the mistake of giving it to her when I left because she asked me for it.
I hadn’t spoken to her since I left home all those years ago, nearly ten by my reckoning, and perhaps it was a testament to my father that not one of them had called, or even reached out.
Being cut off literally meant that. But it was not something that irked me. I was glad not to see them. I could easily keep up with them in the newspapers and magazines, such was their visibility.
I was surprised Nancy hadn’t made the association.
I don’t know how long it was that I stared at that number, finger hovering over the green button. My first concern was whether I’d remain civil, or how long it would take before I disconnected the call.
Then, courage summoned, I pressed the button.
An anticlimax might occur if there was no answer, or the number had been disconnected, but such was not the case. It rang.
Almost for the full number of rings before a familiar voice answered. “Good morning, this is Erica speaking.”
If only I’d learned to answer a phone properly like that.
“It’s Perry.” Damn, I hated that name, and once I left home, I adopted my middle name, James.
“Now that’s a blast from the past. Never expected to hear from you again.”
“Believe me, if I had my way, you wouldn’t, but there’s a person who insists she meets the family. I tried to talk her out of it, but she’s a force to be reckoned with.”
“Good for her. I always knew you’d meet a sensible girl who wouldn’t put up with your nonsense. I’m assuming you asked her to marry you?”
“I’m beginning to wonder if I should have just outright lied and said I was an orphan.”
“Yes, and how would that have worked when we finally ran you to ground. Besides, your father has known where you’ve been hiding all along. You are still a Foresdale, and that will never change.”
“Even when I’ve been ex-communicated from the family.”
“That’s only your assumption. Everyone here might have expected you to change your minds somewhat earlier, but we never doubted you would return. Now, just who is this Nancy, and who does she belong to?”
© Charles Heath 2021