My mother-in-law is turning 80 today. She’s wearing lipstick, eye shadow, Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew bath powder, and two hearing aids that cost more than an aircraft carrier.
It’s a big day. A fish fry. There are cheap party decorations on the old pier, overlooking the Choctawhatchee Bay. The water is calm tonight. We have a local term for this calmness. Some of us might say the bay water is currently “slicker than owl snot.”
Sailors and commercial truckers often substitute the word “snot.”
Everyone here is using their outdoor voices because the people attending this party are social distancing, sitting 25 feet apart.
It’s a tiny, select gathering of immediate family members, not many. This party was supposed to be a humdinger, but COVID-19 stepped in and slowed the whole universe down.
In fact, my wife almost didn’t throw this party at all since my mother-in-law has some health issues. But here we are, keeping 3,203 feet away from each other, using gobs of hand sanitizer after we swat mosquitoes.
I have a conversation with the birthday girl from afar. I am holding a beer. My mother-in-law and I are talking about how Aunt Flossie goes grocery shopping during a pandemic.
“FLOSSIE DOES ALL HER SHOPPING ON SENIORS DAY!” says my mother-in-law, using a volume loud enough to rattle the windows of a 747 overhead. “SHE WEARS A MASK AND RUBS THAT STUFF ALL OVER HER HANDS!”
She is definitely using an outdoor voice. Also, I think her hearing aids are turned off.
It’s funny. When I was a kid, everyone’s parents were big on indoor voices. “Use your indoor voice!” was the gentle instruction offered to me by the parents of my friends. Apparently, I was always using an outdoor voice, and thereby driving many local parents to take up heavy drinking just to deal with me.
But I couldn’t help it. I came from a loud family. My father was deaf in his right ear. He talked loud and so did my uncles. They had spent a lifetime working around heavy equipment, too.
So nobody in my life was quiet. This is why my mother made all my father’s friends sit on the front porch whenever they came to visit. She didn’t want all that loudness in the house, scaring the dogs.
Eventually, I learned how to use an indoor voice. And this is what most well-adjusted American adults do. But ever since this pandemic began, people have started using outdoor voices again. It goes against everything I’ve been taught.
But that’s what we’re all doing at this party. We are standing in different postal zip codes, shouting.
When supper is ready, everyone sits and eats fried fish. The blessing has to be screamed. My voice breaks on the “AMEN!” I won’t lie, this is bizarre.
“HOW’S YOUR FISH?” my wife hollers to her mother.
My elderly mother-in-law, eating with both hands, sitting 20 feet away, says, “YES, HE JUST GOT MARRIED!”
“NO! THE FISH! I SAID THE FISH!”
“SHE SPENT IT ALL ON NEW WOOD FLOORS!”
And so it goes.
I’m not complaining, but I certainly do miss the days before social distancing. For crying out loud, it has been a million years since I’ve felt relaxed at the grocery store.
Over the past months, it’s been like a science-fiction movie at our house. Whenever we bring groceries home, we spread them on the porch and treat them like kryptonite. My wife wears gloves and washes every box, jar, package, and tin can with Clorox while I wave a crucifix over each item and speak in Latin.
It’s difficult to comprehend just how different our world has become. This new way of doing things has become so normal now that the idea of going back to the old way feels like a pipe dream.
Fortunately, everyone at this party still remembers the way things used to be. People are having no problems smiling, laughing, and making merry like they used to. Fried triple tail does that to people.
My wife’s brother fried the fish, and I for one am a big fan. I remember when there used to be fish fries at the VFW every Friday night. I used to go with my friend. We’d listen to a cowboy band of elderly men in ten-gallon hats play to a crowd of blue-hairs with bad hips. Each old man in the band would play his respective instrument through an amplifier so that it sounded like a nuclear air strike. All-you-can-eat fish for 5 bucks. It was great.
And those are the kinds of things I’m being reminded of right now. The old days when people used to get together and do stuff. Back when parties were commonplace, without fear.
The night starts winding to a close. As birthday parties go, it’s been pretty sedate, almost boring. A cake is brought out. There are candles glowing. The sun setting over the bay behind us looks like a Monet.
Everyone sings “Happy Birthday.”
I smile at my elderly mother-in-law of almost 18 years. She is white-haired. Her face is shining. Lots of her friends and family aren’t here tonight for safety’s sake. But everyone is singing. The tiny group of us, standing far apart, singing for the belle of the evening. With our outdoor voices.
When we finish our song, my mother-in-law flashes a confused look at us. She adjusts her hearing aid, and addresses the group. “I’M SORRY, WERE YOU ALL SAYING SOMETHING TO ME? MY HEARING AIDS WERE OFF.”
Happy 80th Birthday, Mother Mary.