05/18/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Blending A Family

The first time I visited Glenn's parents' home, I was awestruck by the basement -- it looked like the "after" photo in a Real Simple intervention. (In my childhood home, the basement was the place to stuff old suitcases, broken chairs and file cabinets bought with great optimism but never used to file a single sheet of paper, and unruly small kids.)

I wandered around like a tourist in an exotic country, marveling over the fresh vacuum-cleaner tracks in the carpet. I peeked into the laundry room: no overflowing hampers or mateless socks lurking around like lecherous men looking for a partner in a seedy bar here. I picked up a family portrait in a gold frame, thinking about my own family's sole professional portrait: My brothers had gotten into a fight after the photo shoot, and my younger brother chopped my older brother's head out of the picture. My parents glued it back in, but you can still see the faint decapitation line.

As a former journalist, I was taught to look for telling details that illustrate a larger truth. And I knew the basements Glenn and I grew up with neatly (or, um, not so neatly) summarized differences we would need to bridge.

The first test came shortly after our November wedding. "What's your plan for Christmas?" my mother asked.

I thought about how my mother once served Indian food and Domino's pizza for a holiday dinner to liven things up (or perhaps because she'd forgotten to cook). Glenn's mother always makes the identical menu -- butternut-squash soup, turkey and stuffing, broccoli, rolls, and that Jell-O thing no one actually eats -- and serves it on her wedding china.

Both families live nearby, so we hatched a plan to drive to one house in the morning, the other parents' home for Christmas dinner, then go back to the first parents' home for dessert.
We spent as much time on the road as we did at our respective parents' homes -- especially after we left behind a gift and had to backtrack. As we careened around the highway, our dog got sick all over the backseat.

When we arrived home, having lost our holiday spirit miles earlier, I looked at the sofa in our tiny living room and felt a stab of anger: We'd had no time to be alone together.

There was only one possible solution: For our families to have Christmas dinner together.
Glenn and I were nervous. But despite their differences, our parents got along (strategically placed glasses of wine and the rapid steering away of any conversations involving politics or religion helped). Glenn's mom brought stuffing and turkey, and my mom whipped up Tofurky (she was going through a vegetarian phase) and falafel. Glenn and I exchanged glances with one another, instead of glancing at our watches.

But the best part came later that night, when we lit a fire and opened our gifts to each another. Just the two of us.

The full version of this essay was originally published in "Wedding Cake for Breakfast: Essays on the Unforgettable First Year of Marriage."