Chapter Six: Meet the Whites
New to the story? Catch up here before jumping into my favorite chapter to date.
There was time that I feared Matty wouldn’t want to spend Christmas with me. We’d only been dating a few months and almost immediately we were faced with a very serious next step. We knew that he couldn’t make it back to Australia to be with his family and I dropped daily hints that he was welcome to come to Texas. The problem was, Matty had been through this before.
The year prior, he went to visit his girlfriend in her hometown, the very same hometown in Texas that I was from, strangely enough. She was a friend of mine, though we didn’t meet until we both lived in New York. Matty purchased a ticket to visit her in Dallas shortly after Christmas, unaware they’d break up a few short weeks after. He knew that he couldn’t put forth that effort again unless he was sure that the girl was serious. And so far, he wasn’t sure that I was serious.
Matty was always honest with me, right from the very start when he told me his intentions. He felt no need to beat around the bush and I always appreciated that. As far as communicating with the male species went, he held a decent lead over my prior experiences. But when he asked me to confirm that I was indeed serious and that his trip wouldn’t be for naught, I hesitated. How could I know, really? How could I promise him anything? I needed time with him to know. Yes, I loved him, and I truly believed that wasn’t something to mess around with, but I also knew there was room to grow in our relationship. There’s a reason people wait between “I love you” and “let’s get married” - right?
But he made me think. And with that, I began to let my independence go a bit. Before I met Matty my standards were firm, like a robot with no emotion. It’s funny; I always said that I didn’t have a certain “type,” that my type would just be the one single guy that I loved. I thought I was so open and fluid! But I was wrong. I did have a type. It was the type that never hurt me, that never challenged me beyond comfort, that always knew that I was essentially right, and that stayed well-put within his robot form.
Matty was no robot. He caused me to take a deeper look at myself - and then let some of the leathered, rough parts fall away. I decided to take a chance and believe in us for the long haul. I knew without a doubt that I wanted him to be with my family at Christmas, and I figured that meant something that I hadn’t quite put a name to yet.
Matty had noticed my hesitation and he wasn’t taking it well, so I had to do something to make him forget. I had to convince him that I was ready for this - that I was absolutely sure. And since I’d already screwed up the first go around, the second go had to be perfect.
So, even though Christmas was well over a month away, I pulled out all the decor that my small studio apartment could handle and went to town. I decorated a fake tree, hung a pennant banner on the wall, turned on twinkle lights, filled glass bowls with ornaments - and then I caught myself in the mirror. We typically Skyped later in the day, long after I’d put on a cozy t-shirt and taken off my make-up. Tonight needed to be different. I rifled through my closet and pulled out a fancy dress, then I curled my hair and put on red lipstick to top it off. Quite literally dressed up with nowhere to go.
Finally, I grabbed a stack of paper and wrote a single word on each piece. Everything was in place.
When Matty answered the call I could see him, but he couldn’t see me. Instead, a piece of paper with the word “Hi” covered the screen. I watched with quiet satisfaction as confusion crossed his face. I dropped the page to reveal the next word. And the next. Slowly, I was telling him how much I loved him, how sure I was, and how much I wanted him to come for Christmas.
Matty smiled and laughed, catching on quickly as I continued dropping pages. When the last page was finished he finally saw me, glamoured up like I was headed to a swanky holiday party, sitting next to a Christmas tree. I smiled, both embarrassed and exhilarated. I really needed this to work.
On December 4th I received a confirmation email in my inbox for his flight arriving in Dallas twenty days later, on Christmas Eve.
Before Christmas came, there was the issue of Matty’s 23rd birthday to deal with. I couldn’t be there to celebrate with him, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to knock it out of the park, mapping out every single detail. He had to work that day so I arranged to have a package delivered to him there. I baked blueberry muffins and bought a coffee table book about Dennis Hopper he’d desperately wanted, along with a few other small gifts, and wrapped them carefully in a box with a letter, outlining the details of his final gift.
While I were in New York that November, I’d snuck away for a few hours when Matty was working to pull together a birthday surprise. Through all our phone calls and Skype dates, Matty managed to convince me to sing for him, which is rather nerve-wracking to sing into a phone and then face the silence after, but Matty loved it. His favorite song was, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he asked me to sing it for him several times. Eventually, I became more comfortable - it makes it easy when you can tell you have someone in the palm of your hand. A friend of mine in New York had a small studio set up in his apartment and agreed to arrange and record the song for me. My plan was that Matty would open the package I sent him at work that afternoon and then that I’d send him the song - one last surprise.
And it all would have worked out, if the postal service had done it’s part of the job. The package was lost. For days. Try sending something to New York City a week before Christmas and see if it will arrive in time. You will face a downpour of stress and emotions.
I was devastated. Here he was on his birthday, without me, without family, working. I finally had a boyfriend to lavish with love on his birthday and he was empty-handed. I didn’t know what to do and all the questions went through my head: Would the package ever arrive? Would he open it up to find moldy food and a ruined book? Would he think I didn’t actually do anything and this was all a ruse?
The only thing I had was the song. It was a true test in control, but I decided to forego my plan and the effect that the letter in the box would have had (“One last surprise!”) to have something for him on his birthday. So I emailed him.
“Just a little present…
I'm doing this all out of order from the way that I planned but you know what, it's okay. Love you, happy birthday :)
A few days later, the box arrived. And he ate every last muffin.
The house was buzzing. Not only were all the kids home for Christmas that year, but we all toted significant others, as well. My youngest sister and her husband, my middle sister and her very serious boyfriend, and me and Matty. Our parents were elated.
As we bustled along to prepare Christmas Eve dinner, everyone was throwing questions at me about how to act and what to say around Matty. My mother was the “expert,” since she’d already met Matty the weekend she came to move me out of New York, and everyone else had spoken to him on Skype. Everyone but my dad. Call me old fashioned, but I wanted the first meeting between my father and the man that I loved to be face-to-face. It frustrated them both but I held my ground.
I should have been ready for what happened next.
Matty’s flight landed at 7:05 PM and I drove to the airport alone, figuring it might be the only one-on-one time we’d have the entire trip. I was so thrilled to see him and less nervous than I’d been before, though I can’t say the same for him. He was fine seeing me, sure, but we were minutes away from walking through a door to the unknown. I felt confident; I knew they would welcome him lovingly and that soon enough he’d feel at home.
Again, I should have been ready.
When we arrived at the house there were a many hugs and someone put a beer in Matty’s hand within seconds. I can’t be for certain, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was my brother-in-law, Jake, who took care of that.
Just when it seemed that everyone was at ease, my dad began commenting on Matty’s tattoos. I was sitting next to Matty on a love-seat in the living room that butted up to the couch where my dad sat, perched and ready at the end of his seat. Dad commented that he had something to show Matty and he stood up. I caught glance of my mom, eyes wide, shaking her head at me as if to say, “I told him not to.” I panicked as my dad turn around so that his back faced us and he began to bend over.
“Dad. Dad! Dad?!? What are you doing right now!”
He reached behind him and grabbed hold of…
The bottom of his shirt. I glanced at Matty. Crap.
He pulled up his shirt to reveal what was written so eloquently in the handwriting of my brother-in-law (so much for the beer):
“Let’s go down unda”
I laughed so hard that I cried. I slouched further and further into the couch, wanting at once to disappear and rallying hard in my mind for Matty to find this funny and somehow welcoming.
He stared at my dad and took a swig of his beer. Then he laughed. He laughed at me, actually. He seemed to enjoy my reaction of being mortified that my father had just faked us out by first pretending to almost moon my new boyfriend and then revealing a tramp stamp with the words “down unda” scrawled across his lower back. If Matty could handle this, the next six days should be downhill.
Somehow, we transitioned to the dinner table and for a second, we were a normal family.
Then the doorbell rang and my beautiful, hilarious, and feisty grandmother walked through the door. No one knew she was coming by, including my Papa, apparently. (“He had his hearing aid turned off when I stood behind him and whispered that I was going out,” she told me.)
My mom shrugged at me, laughing while she added a place setting where Mimi had pulled up a chair at the table and situated herself next to Matty. He was incredibly good-natured about the whole thing and I could see my family had taken a liking to him right away. At one point my younger sister, Rachel, started laughing and gave me a knowing look after Jake whispered something in her ear.
“What??” I asked her.
“You have to tell me!”
“Jake said he wants Matty to be his brother-in-law.” She said, for everyone to hear.
Welp. You get what you ask for.
We all slept in the house that night. My sisters and I found it strange and amazing that there were now six of us. We’d catapulted into a new chapter without even knowing it, and though we may have been a tiny bit nostalgic for our childhood, our three new additions were welcomed with giddiness. We couldn’t wait to introduce them to our Christmas morning traditions - chocolate gravy and biscuits with venison sausage and mimosas for breakfast, stockings, gifts, music, Rachel waking the house since she was always the first one up…
It started out as expected. We woke up, we poured coffee, and then the phone rang. It was my uncle, Chris.
“We’re at the hospital,” he said. “Amber is going into labor.”
My aunt wasn’t due for a few weeks and we knew that their daughter, Nyah, was facing significant challenges in the womb. They’d found out that she had spina bifida, among other complications yet to be confirmed. We said a prayer and felt a mixture of excitement and concern as we prepared to welcome our new family member into the world on Christmas Day.
There was still some time, so we opened gifts and had breakfast before heading to the hospital. Nyah had a healthy birth and we all cheered and hugged Chris when he came to see us in the waiting room. Matty was getting to know my cousins, easing into the strangeness of meeting my family in a hospital, when Chris said that Amber wanted to see us. And that she really wanted to meet Matty.
As we walked toward the room I don’t think I was totally aware of how strange the situation was, but Matty must have felt like he was in a different universe. That’s the odd magic of my family, I suppose. Ready and willing to make anyone feel at home, even under the most significant or challenging circumstances. It could have been a private moment - not anyone would invite the new guy into their hospital room after just giving birth on Christmas Day. Gone was the normalcy of a regular handshake and a hello; welcome to the White family.
The day continued like a rollercoaster. We went from the hospital to my grandparents’ house, as originally planned. There, Matty was finally had the pleasure a seemingly regular introduction as my two older cousins approached to shake his hand.
“Hi, I’m Justin.” And then not missing a beat (or letting go of his hand), “What are your intentions with my cousin?”
So much for normal.
Justin and his brother Jarrod had us all rolling, keeping a constant eye on Matty and sending Justin’s son to do the dirty work and stand next to Matty at the dinner table, asking him if he was done eating every five minutes. When Matty looked up, Justin and Jarrod were staring at him from across the room with lazer eyes. Their protective nature was hilarious and light-hearted. Later that night, my aunt also asked Matty about his intentions, though in a much more poignant way. I found him sitting alone with her at the kitchen table and smiled weakly as he snuck a wide-eyed glance in my direction.
After joining everyone for games and opening gifts, the conversation shifted to my late aunt, Mary Alice. We’d lost her to breast cancer the year prior, so everyone was facing a lot of new emotions that Christmas. My family has never been known to shy away from emotion (for better or for worse), so we took the time to honor her memory. It was a difficult season for our family, as my cousin and her husband lost their sweet and premature baby, Edie Brooke, that November. She was weeks old before her little body gave in. Essentially, this meant over 25 people sitting together in a room, bawling our eyes out as Matty looked on.
Until this point, Matty had survived the ups and downs, the crazy and the emotional, but I could see that he was struggling now. As we spoke of our loved ones lost and tried to remember them with joy, Matty was faced with the sadness of missing his own family during Christmas. I felt the weight of his longing to be with them, and I knew that my family would never replace his own, but I prayed that one day he would know that he had family here with us.
It was the most emotional and exhausting Christmases I could remember, besides the time we got a puppy and I wore myself out from excitement before she peed on my new shirt. Not quite the same, I suppose.
Without any intention whatsoever, we threw Matty into the deep end. But unlike others before him, he didn’t drown. He held my hand. He kissed my forehead. He laughed with my family and gave what patience he could while we wasted away hours inside on 1000 piece puzzles. He rode roller coasters with us at Six Flags and even managed to find a few things to like about Fort Worth. My dad took Matty and the other boys out to shoot bows and arrows at targets in the woods and was unsuccessful at hiding his sheer delight. After raising three girls, he finally had the boys he’d been waiting for.
It was around this time that Matty decided to start saving for a ring.