Miss Manners was no help

Meeting the future in-laws may be a piece of cake for some people, but for me it was a pickle.

It probably didn't help that Ken's parents had never heard of me before he phoned to invite them to our wedding - less than three weeks away. And by the way, he had added, she's been married before and has a 4-year-old son.

When Ken received a month's leave from active duty in Southeast Asia, neither of us suspected we would spend most of it planning a wedding. During that short time, he also attended to other business, including the military paperwork to take his new wife and son back with him. And I had to complete a project before resigning from my job.

But highest on my prewedding "to do" list was a trip to New Jersey (from Little Rock, Ark.) to meet Ken's parents - a daunting prospect!

Not only had Ken's out-of-the-blue phone call gotten me off to a peculiar start with his folks, but there also was the matter of culture shock. My suspicion that the Roe household exercised more refinement than I had grown up with gave me pause.

Don't misunderstand. It's not that I was raised by wolves. My family used silverware (though not as many pieces as Emily Post suggested), and we knew enough about etiquette to feel guilty when we rested our elbows on the table. Occasionally we even got dressed up and ate in the dining room. We just didn't get caught up in issues like which side of the chair to scoot into. But Ken's parents ate every meal in the dining room! Never would I get through an entire visit without doing something appalling.

Ken, who arrived in New Jersey a day or two before I did, met me at the airport - with his parents.

Much of my fear vanished when his mother gave me a greeting I will cherish forever. "I've always wanted a daughter," she said, beaming.

My prospective father-in-law was just as gracious, though reserved. I began to think I might survive this visit after all.

Meals loomed large, though. And the prospect of the inevitable faux pas hung over my plate like the fork of Damocles.

But not for long. It dropped during the first dinner.

The trouble started when I took a gherkin pickle from the relish tray. Big mistake! I realized too late that I didn't know the proper way to eat a pickle. Why had I taken it? Panic set in.

All of my attention focused on that pickle. At home I would just pick the thing up and bite off a chunk. But that's too easy; it must be wrong.

We were beginning to eat now. It never occurred to me just to leave that pickle untouched. No, I must conquer it!

So I attacked it in arguably the most ill-advised way possible - by trying to cut it with the side of my fork. It resisted. The laws of physics kicked in: As I pressed down, the pickle shot out from under the fork, leaping an impressive distance and landing with an ominous thunk on the pristine tablecloth.

The next few seconds seemed like an eternity. My life flashed before me.

Then I realized that Ken's dad was addressing me.

"I must apologize," he was saying. "Usually our dinners are better behaved than that."

Everyone laughed. My life wasn't over!

That evening brought two other incidents that moderated my in-lawphobia.

First, I noticed that our dinner rolls remained snuggled in a warming basket that was plugged into an outlet in the corner - out of reach for the entire meal. What were they being saved for? Did people in the know serve rolls at the end of the meal? I dared not ask - not even as dessert came and went and the bread remained warm and untouched.

As we cleared the table, my hostess glanced toward that corner and gasped, "The rolls! I forgot to serve the rolls!"

This was my first clue that my in-laws were just as concerned about making a good impression as I was.

The other incident? Ken walked by the kitchen and overheard his parents chatting while they loaded the dishwasher. He delighted in telling me that he'd heard his dad ask, "How did Kenny ever land her?"

It turned out to be a good visit.

These many years later, I treasure the memory of loving parents who put their son's fiancée at ease against all odds - including a recalcitrant pickle.

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