My ex-debutante mother trained my siblings and me to be good hosts. She also trained us to be good guests. We brought bread and butter gifts. We found something to compliment in every home. We ate whatever food was placed in front of us without complaint and insisted on helping with the dishes.
We were groomed to make social occasions run smoothly, with nary a scene. White Anglo Saxon Protestants (i.e., WASPs) with social pretensions avoid conflict and HATE scenes. They are a symbol of ugliness and failure.
And so common.
If you were a WASP, it was unacceptable to fight or lose your temper – especially if you were a girl. Big Brother had some rages that put my childhood tantrums to shame. Mom shrugged his off. But mine? I’ll never forget the time Mom told me she’d “never been so embarrassed in her life” as when I screamed and swung at my older sister during one event. (Undoubtedly my sister deserved it.)
If I was a good helper/ hostess, I got lots of praise. If I lost my temper, I was bad. The ability to anticipate and cope with the most egregious behavior without losing my shit made me an excellent executive assistant/ enabler, even with the worst Hollywood had to offer.
I was also pretty good at entertaining. The parties my husband and I threw were well-attended. Folks loved coming over for dinner. Family members visited often, dropping hints well in advance about how much they liked pot stickers or chocolate cake. We always made sure to have their favorites prepared. Guests were generally effusive in their thanks.
And then there were my in-laws. They emigrated form Hong Kong before my husband was born. Their ways were not the ways of the WASP.
But, oh! How they stung.
My Chinese-American father-in-law had, within three days of his arrival, insulted me, insulted all women, rubbed my face in the patriarchy, insinuated that many things were wrong with our house, screwed up our plumbing in one bathroom, and locked me out of the other.
Uncaring or oblivious, Jay continued to wander the house, armed with a screwdriver. I tried to be a good hostess, but the bathrooms were the last straw. I asked him to please put the screwdriver away and cease his attempts at home improvement.
Like most Chinese-American sons, my husband Andy will not confront his parents. No way was he going to wrest the screwdriver away from his dad. But he did get his parents out of the house long enough for me to find it and hide it.
The white Cotillion gloves were off.
Screwdriver hidden, I went back to working on dinner. I ‘d just finished frosting a chocolate oblivion torte when they returned. Jay was in the kitchen within minutes, asking me where the screwdriver was.
I said, “I put it away, Jay. No more home improvement, okay? It’s almost time for dinner anyway.
While Andy and his mom Sunny discussed plans for the BBQ on Saturday with her relatives, Jay ate in silence. He devoured pot roast, homemade bread, and torte. Then he left.
No, he did not carry his plate to the kitchen. Just in case you were wondering.
In the midst of dishes—which I did alone—Andy came in and said, “My dad can’t find the screwdriver.”
“Good,” I said, continuing to load the dishwasher.
“Where did you put it?”
“Somewhere he’ll never find it and neither will you so you won’t be tempted to cave and give it to him.”
“He’s getting kind of upset,” Andy began.
“He’s upset?!” I interrupted. I lowered my voice and continued in a hissing whisper: “Your parents don’t consult us before buying airplane tickets, but I bump my family out of the house so they can visit. Despite that, I’ve done my best to be nice, I’ve fed them and waited on them at all hours of the day and night, even though I’m seven months pregnant and I should be sitting on my ass, not busting it! Your mother has said thank you twice and your dad has said nothing besides ‘you’re fat!’ The only gift they brought is because I’m carrying ‘the baby boy Wong,’ not because they appreciate me or anything I’ve done, and then your father locked me out of both bathrooms and I wet my pants. And now he’s upset because I’ve taken away his screwdriver of misery?! Boo-fucking-hoo.”
Andy said nothing, only hurriedly took over the dishwashing while I whisper-ranted. By the time I was done, so were most of the dishes. I dropped into chair for the first time in hours, propping my aching feet up on another chair.
Less than thirty seconds later, Sunny stuck her head into the kitchen and said, “Your father wants to talk to you.”
Andy sighed and left. I overheard rapid-fire Cantonese and figured Jay was still complaining about the screwdriver, but I was too tired to care. Until I heard Andy banging around in the garage.
Certain there was some new DIY devilry afoot, I left my comfy chair for the office. Andy carried his parents’ enormous suitcase from temporary garage storage into the office.
“What now?” I asked.
“Dad says they’re going to a hotel because you won’t give him back the screwdriver.”
“WHAT?!” I screeched.
“What is he, a two-year-old??!”
“If that,” Andy said, dropping the suitcase on the floor. “And you know what? If he wants to go to a hotel, he can go to a hotel.” Never before—and never since—have I heard such a mix of disgust and anger in Andy’s voice. He shoved the suitcase with his foot and added, “I’ll call him a taxi.”
“Oh, no. Goddamnit, no.”
“Let him go, honey.”
“Don’t you get it?” I raged. We’d been outflanked again. “He goes to a hotel, and we’re the bad ones,” I explained. “I’m the evil daughter-in-law who was so mean I drove your poor old father to a hotel, and how is THAT going to play when your whole family comes over on Saturday?!”
I did. My liberated mother liberated me from a lot of other sexist baggage, but she packed me a whole trunk of “if I’m nice and perfect and care about everyone else, people will like me and care about me, too.”
On top of that load of baggage, I also cared about the child I was carrying. Was two days of screwy behavior and one screwdriver worth jeopardizing my little boy’s relationship with his grandparents?
No. And so I did what women always do when men bulldoze through our boundaries.
I sucked it up and went to get the screwdriver.
But if you’re imagining I carried it nicely down the hall and handed it over with a smile, well, I have my limits. And a temper.
According to Andy, I stormed down the hall like a cross between Norman Bates and a raging Valkyrie, the screwdriver clenched in an upraised fist.
Jay dropped the clothes he was holding as I barged into the room. He flinched back and raised his arms protectively.
“Here!” I yelled. “Here is your stupid screwdriver!” I grabbed his hand and shoved the tool into it. “But you are the worst houseguest I have ever had! You are mean, and selfish, and self-centered, and rude and also terrible at fixing things! And I have had it with you!”
Jay’s mouth dropped open. So did his hand. The screwdriver fell to the floor.
I stomped to our bedroom. Andy followed. I broke down into sobs.
Andy patted my back. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
Sunny even came into the room, wringing her hands and saying, “Autumn, I am so sorry, he is just…terrible. So terrible.”
I sniffled and said, “I know, but I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I’ll probably have to apologize.”
Andy quickly closed the door. Because he was LAUGHING. He was laughing so hard he could barely choke out, “But honey…did you see the look on his face?! Hahahahaha…the pure shock…hahahahaha…no one has ever…hahahahaha…I can’t even…”
Andy could not stop laughing, even as Sunny kept wringing her hands and I struggled to stop crying.
To this very day, if anyone even mentions “the screwdriver incident,” Andy laughs, remembering his father’s shocked face.
My mother might disagree. The world certainly does disagree.
But perhaps a woman with a temper isn’t the worst thing to be.