Life at the HOUSE of JOES - or - When it Comes to In-laws, Sometimes Divorce is the Only Way Out - 2

When my ex-husband’s mother Derba was born, she was meant to be called “Debra,” however, due to a clerical error by the registrar, the birth certificate read “Derba.” Her parents never disputed the typo and chose instead to stick with Derba. It was a story she told often. And when Oprah came on the scene in the early 1970s and recounted the story of how she was supposed to be called Orpah from the Bible, and that her birth certificate said Oprah, Derba amended her own tale to end with the line, “Just like Oprah!”

Joey’s sister, Lamilla (which is an Aboriginal word meaning “stone”) was two years Joey’s senior. Lamilla, whose own nickname was “Lambchop,” had teased Joey mercilessly at every opportunity since he could walk. She had dubbed her brother “YumYum” one day during a neighborhood game of Candy Tag. Apparently the goal of the game was to squat down and immediately call out the name of a type or brand of candy before you were tagged, so you would be “safe.” Joey, failing to come up with something quickly, had cried out in desperation…“Yummies!” From that day forward, she never called him Joey again – it was always YumYum. Later, when Lambchop married and had her own children, she instructed both of them to call Joey “Uncle YumYum, and addressed and signed all greeting cards to him as:  Happy Birthday YumYum! Love, Lambchop. The whole YumYum thing was difficult for me – not only was it a stretch, but it was something that drove Joey crazy. In fact, on many occasions he asked Lamilla to stop calling him YumYum, but to no avail. Derba viewed it as a sign of sibling closeness, while Big Joe never registered an opinion – one of the few subjects he did not have one on.

When Joey and I first started dating, he drove a1971 Pontiac LeMans station wagon that was bigger than our apartment. His father had handed it down to him when he bought a new 1979 AMC Pacer, and each car subsequently moved down one rung. That was a pattern that carried on through the years – whenever his parents bought a new vehicle - American, of course – the oldest car of the three went to Joey. In theory, it was a lovely gesture. In reality, we couldn’t afford to keep gas in it and the tires cost three times that of my 1967 Corolla. In addition, Joey knew that if he ever tried to sell the gift cars in order to buy more practical vehicles –  or go Japanese – Big Joe would have given him the deep freeze for a year and he’d have been dragged in for a Mudroom Chat before you could say Lee Iaccoca. The irony of the Hand-me-down Car Program was that it came with many strings attached, many of them difficult to even identify, and nearly impossible to keep track of.

Visits to the House of Joes were strange, to say the least. When I first met the family, I was enthusiastic and wanted to please. Derba and Big Joe held a dismal view of divorce, and my parents had had seven between them. In fact, my mother used to refer to herself as “the poor man’s Liz Taylor,” and she wasn’t very far off. My parents had been inattentive, eccentric, and over-married. However, I often confided to Joey that I would rather have grown up five times in my family than once in his.

I soon learned that there were many unwritten and unspoken rules of conduct in the House of Joes. There was a ritual at dinnertime – which occurred promptly at 6pm. If it was one minute past, Big Joe would bellow from the living room where he was watching television, “Geez, Derbs, when are we going to eat?” Derba would squeak and sputter and say, “It’s ready Joe, come on to the table.”

Supper always consisted of inexpensive cuts of chicken or pork, Birds-Eye frozen vegetables, and some sort of potato or rice pilaf. This is not because they were poor. In fact, at one point when Joey and I were considering moving from New York State to California, I received a phone call from Derba where she said, “I know you are trying to take Joey as far away from us as you can. But just tell him to stay in touch with us for business reasons. We have more money than you could possibly understand.”

Conversation at the dinner table could be dicey because you never knew when Big Joe was going to blow his top. Inflammatory topics such as politics, news stories, movies, financial issues, fashion, local happenings – anything could set him off. If you had the temerity to disagree with him on any topic, it was like walking through a minefield. So I learned that it was best to keep the conversation focused on Joey and his artwork – that was the only subject that seemed to keep the peace.

After the women cleared the table – yes, at the House of Joes the women always served the men – there would be an awkward silence. Then, like clockwork, Derba would say nervously in her high-pitched squeak, “Do you want to go sit inside?” “Inside” meant the living room. The first few years Joey and I were together, his family had two elderly cats, Betty and Wilma, who provided a welcome diversion and ample conversation. Sadly (for so many reasons) they passed away within months of each other at the age of 18. I had not realized how much I had depended on Betty and Wilma to get me through those dinners until they were gone.

Early on I started to get the impression that not only did Joey's family view me as somewhat of an oddity – they rarely responded to anything that was said in any way other than to state the obvious: for example, when I described how I had attended 14 schools by the time I was 12, Derba’s reaction was, “Well, you certainly did move around a lot!” Or later, at a Memorial Day picnic where a friend of mine had been in town visiting her sick father, who subsequently died, had stopped by. Derba had asked my friend, “How is your father feeling?” When my friend replied that he had passed away, Derba’s response was, “Oh, I guess he really was sick.”

And it’s not because I didn’t try to communicate and fit in. I just couldn’t seem to say the right thing. If I were too opinionated, Big Joe would skulk off to his room in a huff. The awkward silences were sometimes unbearable. I recall one occasion when I felt as if the ticking of the clock was piercing my brain, and Derba suddenly blurted out, “Kitty, who’s your favorite Muppet?”

But it was not the lack of finesse and diplomatic prowess that proved the most destructive aspect of life at the House of Joes. In a few words, it was the nonexistence of emotional honesty and constant proffering of guilt and control that cast the longest shadow. These traits became more and more pronounced as time passed, especially as graduation approached and it became obvious that Joey and I were serious about each other.

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