Baton Rouge, La.

Choking Out the Natives

By Herpreet Singh

My father-in-law is a local celebrity. He, born at the end of the Dust Bowl era and raised on an Oklahoma farm, might say he is a businessman. Both are true.

When I started dating Chris, a friend asked, and then many friends asked, bemused, “Do you know he’s Honest Abe's son?”

“Who?” I asked.

I’d lived most of my life in Baton Rouge, but somehow I had missed the source of my father-in-law’s renown, over 20 years of stardom in television advertisements for his tire shops.

Him, slim and 6 feet 2 inches, a workhorse of a man, wearing gigantic prosthetic ears, shouting to the camera, “Hi, folks! Honest Abe ear — I mean here! I still have WAY too much inventory. I’m not kiddin. HELP! I HAVE A WHOLE BUNCHA TIRES COMIN OUT MY EARS!” Or another, shot in his expansive yard on a day when the green of the leaves and grass looks neon and new. Never mind that it’s clearly spring. He’s dressed in full pilgrim regalia and pointing a rifle at a paper-turkey target posted to a tree. There’s a tire barrier between him and the tree. Behind him, the American flag flies.

Off screen, a voice (Chris’s brother, Abe Jr.) calls, “Hey, Pilgrim Abe! What are you mad about now?”

“I’m mad at all those turkeys!”

“What turkeys?”

“THOSE turkeys. Those so-called discount stores that say they can sell tires cheaper than Honest Abe can. THAT MAKES ME MAD.”

“I’m Mad” commercials are part of an advertising campaign replete with T-shirts. Abe Johnson is not just the star of his commercials, but also the creative genius behind them.

He is also the man who legally adopted and raised Chris with Chris’s biological mother when Chris was 2 or 3, not that Chris has ever thought of any other person as his dad. The man — in a few months he’ll be a seventh-time grandfather to my first child — the man has personality.

I was 22 when Chris and I started dating. At the time, I was often nervous about my friends meeting my parents. Would they seem too foreign? Would my dad interrogate my friends about their family origins or their parents’ jobs (undoubtedly he would). And would my friends be able to decipher the meaning of his Punjabi-accented words so they could formulate responses? How much would I need to act as translator — of language, of attitudes, of habits? I used to wonder.

But I met Chris’s parents before he met mine. They didn’t ask me about myself. They expected me to jump into conversations with clever commentary about how the Tigers were doing this football season, fishing down in Stevensville, golf, things I knew nothing about. And anyway, to my surprise, I couldn’t understand the Johnsons. I tried to follow Chris’s fast-talking Cajun mother, Mary, his quick-slurred-words Okie father, and his brothers and sister and nieces and nephews whose accents lay somewhere between.

Honest Abe made jokes about his hometown, Elk City: “Trees are so far apart, woodpeckers have to carry a sack lunch.” Except to me, it sounded like, “Treesafurpartwoodpickrshaftacarrayasacklunch,” and always, mentally sifting each word, I was too slow to laugh. In those early days, I did a lot of silent nodding and smiling.

If I heard him make jokes or complaints about “niggers,” I pretended not to. If I heard slights (“Watch what you’re sayin, your nose is gettin wider.”), I pretended I did not.


Mixed Babies

Central is a growing rural town on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. There, as a kid, Chris roamed nearly six acres. Each week, he cut the grass on those acres and was occasionally made to go out at 5 in the morning to feed the pig until it was fattened enough to kill and roast. Family vacations included deep-sea fishing and shrimping, which, if you know anything about them, require more labor than relaxation.

Chris was interested in a world more expansive than the one in which he grew up. Just out of high school, he left Central and moved to Big Sky, Mont., where he lived in a tent. For a time, he worked at a resort in Wyoming. During off stretches, he backpacked the Grand Tetons.

A sculptor and an architect by trade, he has always been driven by visions of his own making. He keeps a chest full of journals from his adolescence; the books are crammed with surreal illustrations of a recurring cast of characters whose eyes always bear a twinge of knowing and bitterness. When we met, he was training kudzu to form a canopy over his side yard, unconcerned that the invasive species would choke out the natives. Something new would be rendered. Under the kudzu was an antiquated TV chair from the airport, a sink-turned-fountain, a battered mannequin, bicycle spokes nailed along the slope of his stair railing — his own Dadaist, found-object patio garden.

He reads magazines and books about contemporary design theory. He fabricates metal and admires Isamu Noguchi, Richard Serra, Richard Deacon and Joseph Cornell. During his graduation show, you could see that his work awed his family, but they didn’t know what to make of it or from what forms and influences it could possibly have been derived. His mom asks repeatedly for a decorative piece to hang over her mantle, something with fleur de lis or scrollwork, something easily understood.

He has a constantly growing collection of 700 albums on vinyl that include music of most genres. His music explorations started while he was still in Central. In high school, he had a poster of Bob Marley tacked to his wall. He came home one day to find that his parents, unsettled by the black man’s face plastered to a wall in their home, had torn it down and discarded it.

The Johnson nieces, loud-mouthed and not so tactful, over the years we’ve been married, have always found a time to ask, “When are you and Chris having babies?” For many years, we glanced at each other, waiting to see who would answer first. Maybe one of us shrugged. Maybe one of us said, “We don’t know.”

After years of this, the oldest niece picked up on the real question, “Do y’all want to have kids?” This we could answer without hesitation.

“We’re not sure. Maybe not.”

“But y’all would have the cutest babies. Mixed babies are the cutest.” She turned to bring her sisters into the conversation, “Y’all, won’t Chris and Herpreet have the cutest babies?”

It occurred to me to explain that we’re all mixed, really. But the explanation required more history than they had the patience to endure.

“How come you’re not racist?” I once asked Chris. I wish I’d had a camera to capture his expression. I think my question surprised him, but it also made sense to him.

He said something like this: “I started working in my parents’ shops when I was 11. The guys unloading tires and stocking inventory expected me to act lazy and entitled. I was the boss’s son. My parents weren’t standing around to watch if the employees resented me. I had to prove myself. So I worked my ass off because they worked their asses off. What they did for a living wasn’t easy. I respected those guys.” Not satisfied with his explanation, I remember he shrugged and said, “It just made an impression on me.” I don’t think Chris can make any more sense than I can out of who he is in relationship to his family. And yet, he is decidedly connected to them.

I once suggested, while we were still in college and shared stretches of time off between semesters, that we should take a backpacking trip over Christmas.

“My mom would kill me if I missed Christmas.” Knee-jerk.    

“What about when you’re 40 and married and have your own kids and don’t live in the same state?”

No pause. “I can never miss Christmas.”

I felt hugely irritated. Then I went to a Honest Abe Christmas party. Next to the tire showroom, a warehouse mostly lit by fluorescent bulbs was also strung with colored lights. Under a tree, there were presents for employees and their children. Among compartmentalized Styrofoam plates, napkins and plastic-ware set over holly-printed, disposable table cloths, there was homemade jambalaya, a ham, dirty rice, shrimp dressing; the long table was crowded with food Chris’s mother had worked over for a week in advance.

A group of employees who were in a band together, their instruments hooked to amps, provided surprise entertainment. Under the too-bright lights, they played their own version of Sam & Dave's "Soul Man,” replacing the lyrics, “I'm a soul man” with, “I'm a tire man.” The song echoed in the metal building. Dressed as Santa, Chris’s dad was tickled.

The party was a showcase of easygoing Southern eccentricity. It was funny and humble and born of a generosity of spirit. Everyone seemed congenial, but the party was not entirely void of the grade-school lunchroom segregation I grew up with, or worse. Maybe it was only my own discomfort, but the discomfort was palpable. It was the next-to-last Honest Abe Christmas party I attended.


Red, White and Fused

After five years together, Chris and I got married. “You’re not getting married in a church?” his mom asked. “You’re getting married outside?” my parents asked. Neither of us could conceive of anything more Godly than, well, tall grass, wildflowers, trees, a pond. Chris wasn’t Catholic enough and I wasn’t Sikh enough for either of us to want a religious ceremony. His parents reluctantly agreed to let us wed on an April day, the time of year when irises bloom, on the property at the back of their house.

I wanted to honor certain Indian traditions. White is a color of mourning. Red is a color of celebration. So, at the sunset ceremony, I wore a crimson sari heavy with gold embroidery stitched out of thin metal thread that sprawled like vines over the fabric. My bridesmaids — a western convention — wore red dresses made of raw silk, their only accessories delicate gold bracelets and red, chiffon wraps draped over their shoulders, the edges trimmed in gold. They carried fiery orange and red Gerber daisies bundled with yellow goldenrod. I carried a bouquet bursting with dark yellow, coral, saffron and red roses. When I walked down the aisle, something else that would not happen at a Sikh wedding, sitar music played.

My parents and Chris’s parents and each of our siblings adorned each other and then us with red and pink and peach flower garlands my sisters and I had stayed up late making a couple of nights before the ceremony. It was an adaptation of a Sikh tradition in which the bride and groom’s parents and aunts and uncles exchange marigold garlands and gifts to welcome each other into their families.

During the reception, people ate gumbo and shrimp Fettuccine and lamb rogan josh and tikka masala. A Cajun band played folk songs and two-steps. Later, a DJ played Bangra music, during which every guest, including Chris’s dad, crowded the dance floor.

That Christmas, Chris and I got drunk with his sister. After a day of drinking at his aunt’s house, we ended up at a bar. Picture Trudy. She knows how to dress an ample body so it’s flattered. She has a jolly, attractive face; not a wrinkle to be found; a peachy, glowing complexion; playful blue eyes. She wears too much pink blush. Her hair is dyed yellow blond and curled to perfection. She is what Mrs. Claus might have been in her 40s if she’d grown up in Lafayette, the capital of Cajun country and where Trudy lived for many years.

I am sloshed, one drink away from stumbling all over myself, but I’m trying to click with my sister-in-law. Big sister Trudy, her face close to mine, declares her love for Chris and me and reminisces about how perfect our wedding had been. We are drinking white Russians. I remember the sight of a Maraschino cherry floating in milk-white liquid.

Trudy says, “Your family are the nicest people. All of ’em. And they looked gorgeous in those costumes, all those colors.”

The word “costumes” turns over in my head, but I know she is sincere.

“And Daddy was such a jerk before the wedding.” She breaks into an imitation of the man: “‘All those people better not show up at our house with dots on their heads. I’ll rip ’em right off.’”

I am sobered, instantly. Speechless.

“What?” Chris asks, his eyes narrowed.

Trudy doesn’t pick up on my shock or Chris’s anger; she doesn’t know to stop. Her voice loud, she continues as if we’re sharing a moment, complaining together about something minute, like bad service at a restaurant. “Saying he didn’t want ‘all those Indians crawling on his property.’ He can be such a jerk.”

Better not show up at our house with dots on their heads. I’ll rip ’em right off. Those words, heard secondhand, I remember exactly. They ring in my head for many years after. Though I didn’t, I can practically hear my father-in-law saying them.


Foreign Relations

That same Christmas, Chris’s dad instituted a new family tradition, one that’s been going for eight years now. And in those eight years, we have never missed a Johnson family Christmas. Chris’s mom would kill us. This doesn’t irritate me anymore; it’s ingrained truth.

The day, always Christmas Eve, begins around 2. There are oysters that Chris’s dad shucks on the back patio. One or two chimeneas are burning. The brothers show up. Trudy shows up. The granddaughters and grandsons; now, the great grandbaby daughters, too. Chris and I are the only red wine drinkers. “Don’t you wanna put that in the fridge for a bit?” his mom has stopped asking. At some point, she’ll say, “Lemme taste that wine, see if I like it,” and it will not be cold or sweet enough. The brothers and sisters drink Crown and Coke, whole bottles emptied through the night. My father-in-law drinks gin and tonics. Chris’s mom fixes rum and Cokes. The granddaughters, some who are of age, or close enough, are fixing giant rum and sweet-juice drinks in plastic tumblers, passing sips to their younger boy cousins. Or the grandsons are sneaking beer, which everyone will move on to later. It’s merry.

Around 5:30, Chris’s mom has supper ready to go. Everyone hurries to fix another drink. Then we stand and hold hands, and Chris’s father says what I have finally memorized. “Bless us, oh, lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ, our lord.” They make the sign of the cross, mumbling, “In the name of the father, son and holy spirit. Amen.” When they cross, I stand silent with my hands folded together in front of me. Throughout, I fight the urge to open my eyes, peek around, and see who’s really praying and who isn’t. Sometimes, Chris says the blessing and makes the sign of the cross. Sometimes, he doesn’t.

The gumbo, on a less favored year, is turkey and sausage. On a good year, it’s seafood, my favorite, which Chris’s mom knows, and every year she tries her best to please me. The Gulf oysters, she purchases. The shrimp, she and my father-in-law sometimes catch, sometimes purchase from roadside vendors. The lump crabmeat and claws, she purchases. It’s Christmas; she can’t be stingy with the crabmeat. The okra is from their summer garden, cut up and frozen, waiting to be used. Her gumbo is, hands-down, the best I have ever eaten. I make it a point to tell her, every year. The oysters on the half shell, the drinking, the gumbo, these are longstanding.

The new tradition Chris’s dad has concocted is a hayride and bonfire. Throughout the afternoon, the men have been rigging Christmas lights along the railing of a flatbed trailer, which is hitched to a tractor and padded with plenty of hay. To the back of the tractor, Chris has been hooking up a red metal megaphone, at least three feet in diameter. For the past week, he’s been making his annual Christmas mix. The lights will compete with the music for power, each cutting out in turns.

Another round of oversized drinks is made. We bundle in coats and under blankets when it’s a cold year. We hope it won’t be a rainy year. Abe Johnson puts on his Santa hat and drives the tractor and trailer across the back of his property, past the pond and through a small wooded area.

Chris has timed the music so that when we emerge in a 1970s era subdivision —  where I’m sure there is not more than one black family, and maybe one family of some other shade of brown, Vietnamese most likely, if at all — James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” is blasting. It pisses his dad off. Everyone else, sitting on the trailer, unsure what to think or do that first year, now sings along, no recognition of irony, whatsoever.

People expect us. They come out of their houses, children hoisted on their parents’ hips. They throw candy at us like it’s Mardi Gras. Chris’s dad waves and calls over the music, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Everyone in the trailer shouts, “Merry Christmas!” Spectators shout it back. One year, a dog chased us for the entire ride, a good 30 minutes.

During the hayride, I grin stupidly. It’s like I am floating outside of myself, watching. At the same time, this hayride, which began on the night before Trudy confessed my father-in-law’s bigotry to me, is the one time of year when I feel and think to myself, with certainty, I am a part of this family.

After we roll through a couple of isolated suburbs, we head back home, make a pit stop, refill drinks, pile back onto the trailer and then ride it again to the clearing in front of the woods. For several months, Chris’s dad has been piling up pallets that tires are shipped in on, branches fallen loose during fall storms, other remnants of wood, with no attention to whether they’ve been chemically treated. Something toxic and tear-inducing is always in the pile.

I’m not sure that I can adequately convey how massive the bonfire is. When it is fully lit, when everything has caught fire, it reaches at least 30 feet into the air, and it spans at least 20 feet of land. Ten or 15 feet away, illuminated by the glow of the bonfire, Chris’s dad has constructed a less noxious fire of branches so the little kids can make S’mores. Somewhere in this vicinity is Chris’s brother, David.

This is what David does while the family (there are always 20 or more gathered) looks drunkenly on at the blazing spectacle. He drives his car, a practical Honda CR-V, to the back property and sets up his annual Christmas gift to the family — two or three hundred dollars’ worth of fireworks. I’m not talking about sparklers or piddling bottle rockets.

David leaves his car doors open, stereo on. He has had enough of Chris’s music mix. No more James Brown or Ray Charles or Sun Ra singing “Happy New Year to You,” no more Elvis and Bobby Helms and Dolly (the crowd pleasers), no more Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, no more Chipmunks even. It’s time for — and nothing else would do justice to the fireworks display — Christian heavy metal played at top volume. “Silent Night” on wah-wah-pedal steroids. The mega-bonfire, the bursting sparks taking shape in the sky and leaving behind ghostly phosphorus smoke-flowers, these are not the only things lit. David, especially, has by now had his complete cocktail of Crown, sleepy-dope, a painkiller or two. He’s grinning at the fireworks as stupidly as I grin during the hayride.

This culminates in the 10:30 or 11 p.m. tearing apart of gift wrap. Nobody is sober enough to be civil. That first year, on that night before I heard the words, “Better not show up at our house with dots on their heads. I’ll rip ‘em right off,” Chris’s mom, who likes a big finale, tosses thick envelopes to everyone, and we rip into them all at once. Tickets for a New Year’s Norwegian cruise. Everyone receives an oversized, blue Hawaiian shirt to wear when we will board the ship. It’s going to make the best photo, we’re told. Nieces and nephews jump up and down, scream their pleasure. Chris and I look at each other.

We’ve only made it to midnight Mass once, and his mom never forced the issue again. At church, we were those people, a blitzed spectacle.


Back Talk

Once, while watching a “60 Minutes” segment about a man who, unprovoked, had been shot at multiple times by police officers, my father-in-law blurted about the victim, “Shouldn’t have been acting like a nigger.” In these instances, when the publicly boisterous Honest Abe, the privately ornery today, jubilant tomorrow Abe Johnson, makes loathing comments, I have had confrontation fantasies. I’ve imagined walking up to him, standing inches away, and saying, “I know what you said about my family before Chris and I got married. My parents have never uttered a single word against you. I want you to know that, and I want you to think about what kind of person you are.”

I sometimes imagined the day I might have a child, though at the time I was not sure I wanted children. We would be at the Johnson house. My father-in-law would make some ugly remark. I would say, steady as wood, “Your hateful ignorance is not welcome near my child.” I would swoop the kid up and leave, self-righteous. But the fantasies have dissipated.

In truth, I think I’ve forgiven the man. Or, at least I’ve accepted and stopped lamenting how he is. When Chris finished his master’s degree, we had a crawfish boil at his parents’ house. Could we invite 50 friends and hire a band? They made no complaint about the number of people, but my father-in-law grumbled the entire time leading up to the boil, certain, against our reassurances, that the band would play something raucous. He didn’t expect what he heard, covers of old-timey country songs. Slightly buzzed and perfectly taken upon hearing music from his youth, he requested “Okie From Muskogee.” Then, his Honest Abe persona beaming, eager to entertain, he stood and sang into the microphone.

He’s 74. He’s a Dust Bowl-era farm boy. And to me, that’s just a label for a piece of history that I can’t even robustly imagine. Except, there he is.

When he turned 70, I framed an original tire advertisement from 1936, the year of his birth. I imagine it ran regularly in Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post. I forced myself to think of all the positive qualities about him that I could. In his card, I wrote about the ways I admired him.

The man is self-made. He is one of the hardest working people I have encountered. I can’t call him kind. But he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself if it means giving people a laugh. Other people’s laughter brings him pleasure. And when he laughs, it’s like thunder and sun together breaking clouds open. These are qualities I have seen in my husband. Every spring, my father-in-law, be damned if he’s just had knee replacement surgery or hip replacement surgery, prepares and seeds a garden the size of a swimming pool. Okra, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, corn, black-eyed peas, cantaloupe, it all spreads wide across the ground or stretches to the sky. The man fights off crows like he himself is a scarecrow. He’s planted peach trees and pecan trees, figs, kumquats, Satsumas. I envy gardeners, the way they dig into earth, move it around, loosen it, make room to nurture growth, enable nutrients to ripen.

The last time I heard my father-in-law say something offensive, Chris and I were home for a July wedding. It was two years ago. We were sitting around watching television. A commercial aired that depicted a couple with their baby. “Why do they have to show an interracial couple?” he said, his voice like a low-growling old dog’s.

Chris and I tensed up, and then his mother did, too. You could feel it. His father realized what he’d said. I don’t know if he felt embarrassed or defensive or neither. He shut his mouth, scraped the scowl off his face. Silent, the four of us watched the happy, interracial family until the commercial ended.

Behind the closed door of the guest room, I asked Chris, “What the hell does he think we are?”

“What do you want me to do?” Chris asked, red-faced, tense, as always. His anger is palpable, not just because he wants to say something, but because in this house, Abe Johnson is the unquestioned head. To voice an opinion opposing his would lead to another altercation altogether. No one can challenge him; it is the unspoken first rule of the house. I feel it as much as Chris has felt it his entire life.

My father, just two years younger than my father-in-law, is far from perfect. I’ve never heard him utter the word “nigger,” but he has prejudices. When I was a kid, he complained to my mom that she was letting me spend too much time out at the pool. I was starting to look black, he told her. I’ve heard him poke fun at South Indians, at their mannerisms, the way they eat, the very food they eat, the color of their skin. During over 20 years working at grain elevators, he had a different perception of black employees than he had of white employees. In his estimation, all of them, black and white, largely because most were not college graduates (yet another prejudice), resided on a spectrum of poor education that bred poor manners and habits. The black people were at the tail end of the spectrum. I had a Jamaican friend as a girl, and he hesitated, always, to let me play at her house.

When I heard my dad’s remarks, I objected openly, vehemently, from as young an age as I can recall. Having felt others’ prejudices against him in his 40-plus years in this country, I realize, now, how conflicted my dad feels by his own attitudes when he is forced to think about them. Usually, in the face of my daughterly outbursts against his flawed character, eyes looking off to an introspective place only he can see, he concedes, “I know. It’s not a fair thing to say.”

Certainly, sometimes my dad feels that his children overstep, that we are overtly disrespectful. Given four daughters, outspoken women outnumbered him. But that oppressive rule, never contradict your father, did not exist in my home. If it did, it was not enforced.


Family Names

Chris has never been bothered that I didn’t change my last name. We talked about it once before our wedding. I said, “You fell in love with Herpreet Singh. That’s who you’ll be married to.” It seemed enough. Keeping my name is an overt way that I stay tied to my ethnicity, to my parents’ origin. That matters to me, and when I think about it that way, I get the slightest inkling of understanding for Chris’s dad.

Recently, making lists of boy names and girl names, a child on its welcome way, I wanted to put “Nicholas” in the boy column. It’s Chris’s middle name. He shrugged. “I don’t have much attachment to my name. To any of my names, really.” Chris doesn’t always feel exactly like a Johnson.

But Chris is his parent’s son. He can race his mother in a crawfish-peeling contest and tie. Like both Abe and Mary, he cannot be still or bored. There is not a lazy bone in him. He has a do-it-yourself mentality about oil changes, insulating attics, laying floorboards, painting the exterior of a house, “fixing” a leak. “Why can’t we just hire someone?” I complain. But he is his parents’ son. And he has also always believed what he has believed, in opposition to most of his parents’ beliefs.

I’m not comfortable calling my in-laws “Abe” and “Mary.” It’s not in my upbringing to call in-laws by first name. If they were Indian, I would call them “Mom” and “Dad.” It’s the Indian convention: Your in-laws are your parents as much as your parents are your parents. I stick with a polite, Southern convention. He’s Mr. Abe. She’s Miss Mary.

Now that I’m going to have a child, some little, living, growing person who will be inextricably part of the Johnson family, I wonder if it is right to call my mother-in-law “Miss Mary”? She signs cards, “Love, Mom.” On voicemails, she says, “Hi. It’s MOM calling,” exaggerated, just like that. Sometimes, she says, “It’s Mom Johnson.”

In a swell of tenderness toward my mother-in-law, almost two years after my mom died, I thought I might try to call her “Mom,” ask her if it was OK, test it out. It was Mother’s Day weekend. Chris and I had gone fishing with his parents in Venice, La., at the mouth of the Gulf. Nothing in sight except water and sky and a few other boats, I had the strong urge to dive in and swim, but it would have disturbed our chances for fish. And I did almost catch my first fish, a speckled trout that was small but big enough to be a keeper. Miss Mary coached me from the sidelines, hopeful, so hopeful — no one had caught anything that day. I also suspect that one catch on my part would have put me a tiny step nearer to being the kind of get-loud, get-dirty daughter-in-law I think she always envisioned.

The poor fish struggled fiercely against me for minutes, finally got loose, and swam as far away as he could, and then I watched him die on the water’s surface, a meal for a pelican. If she’d had the rod in her hand, in 10 seconds flat she would have reeled him in. But she never lost patience or said, “Let me get him for you.” I didn’t sense an ounce of disappointment. Instead, she joked, blaming my failure on Chris for the way he’d strung the pole. The rest of the day, she said, “You almost had him. That fish was THIS BIG, right?” Arms wide apart, a quick wink. I felt like a daughter.

It occurs to me, on becoming a mother, that I’ll need a mother, a real mother, more than ever. My own mom comes to me in dreams lately, but what good is that? If I were to call Miss Mary “Mom,” I think I could say it and mean it. But could I bring myself to call Mr. Abe “Dad?” The thought paralyzes me. Have I stopped lamenting his bigotry? Local celebrity, Dust Bowl-era man; I don’t love him.

I struggle not to see my in-laws as foreigners. The annual Christmas extravaganza and fishing trips, both of which I’m sure my child will experience with his grandparents, these are moments to look forward to, in which to know and feel that I am a part of this family.

Between the Johnsons and my own family, I suspect that Chris doubly inhabits this clash of cultures. I’m learning every day that we make our lives. Place and culture and history, be damned; we choose for ourselves who to be and how to be in the face of these. Whether we’re brought into a family’s fold, marry into it or are born into it, becoming a member of a family, if it’s easy, it isn’t necessarily natural, and if it’s difficult, it isn’t merely a growing pain.

I’m bracing to talk back to my father-in-law. I’m bracing to show my son that becoming a member of a family is a conscious act of digging out and occupying a space, taking root, invasive or not. In the most complicated circumstances, it’s micro-assimilation in an ever-shifting landscape that is resistant to change, in spite of itself.


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