The first time I met my boyfriend Eric’s family my sweet potato casserole went on fire. It was Thanksgiving 2003. Eric, whom I felt funny calling my boyfriend, since we were 36 and 40 at the time with five children between us, had invited me to his sister Julie’s house for the holiday. Since neither of us had our kids for Thanksgiving that year, Eric and I would get to be grown-ups, not parents. No strollers. No strained peas.
Eric drove up to Julie’s the night before Thanksgiving to cook. An obsessed chef, Eric had spent a week planning the menu with his siblings. “I’m making my sweet potato casserole,” I said to Eric as he made a grocery list, “with mini marshmallows on top.” I sensed disappointment, a Campbell’s Soup casserole stuck out among toasted almond haricot vert and saffron-infused stuffed turkey, a recipe that involved coriander, cumin, cranberries and couscous. My mother roasted a turkey every year and we were lucky if she remembered to take the giblets out. “You don’t have to make anything,” Eric said. But alas, I insisted.
I drove the two hours to Julie’s house in Vermont on Thanksgiving Day, sweet potatoes on the passenger seat next to me. I imagined what I would say when I met Eric’s large family. Painfully shy, I needed to rehearse.
I arrived at Julie’s house an hour late due to my inability to find something to wear. Eric answered the door, handsome, his gray hair mussed, his apron flecked with gravy. He guided me inside. His two brothers, two sisters, their husbands and wives and Eric’s mother, sat on the plaid couches. Eric’s father stood in the center of the living room miming something by putting his hand over his head and squat-walking like a penguin.
Charades. A game that is pure torture for the introvert. But Eric’s family grew up in the theater. His father having been dean of the theater department at University of Vermont, his sisters and brothers all actors at some point in their lives. I was terrified when they called me into the crowded room to play the game, no doubt anxious to see what the new girl would do. And what I was wearing was just wrong, I was dressed for a city Thanksgiving with a miniskirt and see-through silk blouse, among a room of turtlenecks, wool slacks and pearl earrings.
I accepted a glass of wine without hesitation, despite the fact that drinking doesn’t do anything for my personality, other than change it completely. My shy side flips; an introvert gone awry. I talk too much, use my hands to gesticulate, and by the end of the night a few cocktails always make me sick.
But I took the drink because I could not play charades without tilting a glass. I needed a little dose of confidence before I could possibly pretend to be a snow blower in front of a room of strangers. “I have to put the potatoes in,” I said when it was my turn. Eric’s mother followed me into the kitchen. While I sipped my wine I unloaded the basket of bread that I fashioned to look like a turkey. “That’s adorable,” his mother, a warm lovely Vermonter, gushed. Then I took out my sweet potato casserole, topped in a sheet of tinfoil.
The family joined his mother and me in the kitchen. They’d moved on to martinis for the cocktail hour and I could not help but participate.
“What do you do?” Eric’s identical twin brother asked me.
“I’m a writer,” I said, tipsy, and trying to keep a straight face. For some reason looking at a carbon copy of Eric was funny to me.
“Have you published anything?” Jon asked. I felt the familiar kick in my gut, never sure how to answer that question.
“I’m an unknown,” I said, taking a sip of my martini.
“What’s that smell?” John said next, scarves of smoke coming out of the oven, a fragrance of burned tar in the air.
“Do you have a fire extinguisher?” I panicked, my sweet potatoes on fire. I jostled the hot pan of burned marshmallows in my hands, my blond hair seemingly singed while Jon put out the flames.
I recovered; Eric’s family was kind. Before dinner, I scraped off the black parts and served my sweet potatoes anyway, my brain hitting that yolk-like stage where nothing seems real. I proceeded to say the dinner prayer, which led into a long toast about how much I loved Eric. I nibbled on turkey. But I missed dessert altogether. I’d shot out of my seat at the table to go pass out in the master bedroom.
I married Eric several years later, and even today I don’t drink on Thanksgiving, still proving to my in-laws that I am not the lush they first met. Given that first impression I never expected the close relationship I share with Eric’s family now. But they love me and I love them, enough so that I play charades every Thanksgiving. And I make my sweet potatoes -- minus the marshmallows.