48. Better Late than Never

48. Better Late than Never

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Better Late than Never

A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.

~John B. Priestly

I wish that being late and disorganized were an Olympic sport because my family would be grinning from the front of every Wheaties box in the country. We are not timely, organized people. Well, let me retract that—we can be timely and organized, in our own way. For family parties, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, the general rule is to expect guests to show up roughly two hours after the agreed-upon time for the event. So, if dinner is set for four o’ clock, you should expect family to start arriving around six. You cannot try to circumvent the rule by scheduling your event two hours later. You will just end up having people arrive four hours later than you originally wanted.

By some odd twist of fate, I married a German man, who is (true to the stereotype) fanatical about timeliness and organization. He gets edgy and tense whenever we have a plane or train to catch, even if we are leaving the house many hours in advance. He has embarrassed me many times by insisting that we arrive at a party exactly at the hour stated on the invitation. He gets this from his parents, who have an ability to be punctual that borders on the supernatural.

Obviously, coming from such an organized and timely family, my family’s tardiness was shocking to my husband. Over time, he has learned to roll with our chaotic ways, though I can feel him trembling in frustration when we miss the first five minutes of a movie because we couldn’t figure out who was supposed to be picking up whom.

Given my husband’s sensitivities, I was relieved that he was away when, a few years ago, my family made a plan to go out to dinner. It was my sister’s birthday, but because my mother, nephew, and I all have birthdays around the same time, we decided to celebrate them together. So, one Saturday evening, ten of us—my brother, his wife, their two children; my sister and her two children; and my mother, her companion and myself—set out to go to dinner. It started well. We met at my mother’s apartment in a timely manner and decided that each family would travel in his or her own car, with me driving my mom and her friend.

The restaurant was about thirty minutes away from my mother’s apartment. I had been following my brother’s car on the highway for about fifteen minutes when I realized that he was going in the wrong direction. Just then, my sister Simone called me on my cell phone: “Where is Kenny going?” I told her that I thought he was going the wrong way. Simone responded, “Right, I thought so, too. I’ll call Kenny.”

A few minutes later, Kenny called me to say, “I made a mistake. I’m turning around.” So, we all took the nearest exit and got back on the highway going in the other direction.

Forty minutes later, we arrived in the right neighborhood. I drove down the street slowly, scanning the storefronts for the restaurant, but I couldn’t find it.

“I thought the restaurant was back there,” said my mom, pointing behind me.

“I thought so, too,” I replied, “but I don’t see it.”

I called my brother. “Where is the restaurant?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Kenny. “We have the correct address, but I don’t see it. Veronica’s going to call the restaurant.”

We parked our cars as Veronica, my brother’s wife, made the call. Soon, she called me back: “It doesn’t exist anymore!” A collective groan rose from within my car, and I could hear my brother shouting in the background in his. My sister, brother and I got out of our cars to discuss where we should go next. Very soon, we were yelling at each other about whose fault it was that the restaurant was gone. Who was supposed to have made the reservations? How could we not know that the restaurant had gone out of business? My brother’s five-year-old son began to cry. Finally, I cried, “Enough! It’s Simone’s birthday. Let’s just calm down and choose another restaurant!”

We stormed back to our cars. I flung myself into my seat, glad that my husband wasn’t there.

We decided via cell phone to go to a large family restaurant not too far away. By now, night had fallen. I drove staring grimly forward with my hands tight on the steering wheel. I wasn’t sure where we were going, and it was growing difficult to follow Kenny’s taillights since most taillights look the same in the dark—not to mention that Kenny was driving faster than usual because he was annoyed. To make matters worse, my mother, a nervous passenger in the best of circumstances, began to gasp with terror whenever I changed lanes, and slam on her “brakes” if she thought I got too close to another car. One gasp too many, and I’d had it.

“Mom,” I shouted, “cut it out! You’re making me nervous!”

My shouting enraged my mother’s companion, Jacob. “Don’t talk to your mother that way!” he roared. “Show some respect!”

“Oh, shut up!” I snarled.

Well, that did it. The remainder of the drive was rather unpleasant. Jacob ranted the entire time about my flagrant disrespect for my elders, while my mother defended me in an angry whisper. I drove in flinty silence, reflecting that the only bright spot in the evening was that my husband was not there.

When we arrived at the next restaurant, we were promptly told that the wait for a table of ten would be an hour and a half. Upon hearing this, both of my brother’s young children began to sob loudly. Simone and Kenny began shouting at each other again. My sister-in-law, unable to bear the sound of her children weeping, shouted above all the noise in a maternal frenzy, “The children are hungry! We must get something to eat now!”

We decided to eat at a chain restaurant five minutes away at a local mall. We arrived at the restaurant exhausted, hungry, and many of us not speaking to the others. As soon as we were seated, my sister grabbed my hand and dragged me to the restaurant’s bar, saying: “Come on. We need a drink.”

One strawberry daiquiri later, my sister and I were in good form again, and we returned to the table. Appetizers had been served, the kids were placated with fries, and everyone was in high spirits. We ate heartily, laughing at our own ridiculousness. When dessert came, we sang the birthday song, harmonizing as usual, and the other patrons in the restaurant smiled and applauded.

As we prepared to leave, I looked around the table at the faces I loved so much and marveled at our ability to be genuinely happy to be together after so recently snapping at each other’s throats. I knew we would always remember this night with amusement and affection. Suddenly, I wished that my husband had been there. I wanted him to see that timing isn’t everything. Love is.

~Barbara Diggs

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