Summer 1975. I was nervous meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. They lived a considerable distance away and I was to spend the night. Ma was happy because her daughter was happy. Pa was more protective of his youngest of four, and like some mythical king, had set five tests for his princess’s suitor. I had two days and one night to prove myself worthy of his daughter’s hand. We all chatted amiably that afternoon, then the tests began. As I found out, I had every right to be nervous.
Test 1: Personal Background / Oral Exam (4 points)
“I’m Sagittarius; the Archer, December 5th,” Pa said.
“Me too. December 16th.” A point for me. Astrology held little significance for me but if he gave it importance then I’d show an interest. I would quickly learn that his arrows were sharper than mine and his aim was better. One for Pa.
“I’m an electrician and teacher of everything electrical,” he said.
“I’m not, but I can wire a three-way switch without electrocuting myself or burning down the house,” I replied. My point.
“I love British cars,” he said.
“Did you see my MGB in your driveway?” Bonus point!
“But I hate Lucas Electrics, the bane of every British car owner.”
“Come and see the custom, waterproof, high-tension wiring I built.” My point. A worthy opponent. I had to watch my step.
Test 2: Sleeping Arrangements / Manual Dexterity (6 points)
My beloved’s parents were expatriate Brits and had decorated half their basement in the Tudor style; dark wood beams on white stucco walls adorned with brass and copper objects, and pictures of hunting scenes. I would sleep here; but, there was no room for a proper bed. Instead, I was to sleep on The Camp “Cramp” Cot. It was not unlike an old military stretcher supported by thin, wobbly, steel legs. In addition to the test of sleeping on this contraption, a preliminary test was to assemble the legs and canvas myself. Pa took great joy in coaching me as I fumbled with it. Whichever war it came from, I knew it had been designed by the enemy.
I could fix almost anything but I was amazed by the complexity of the cot. After scraping a few knuckles, I assembled it to his satisfaction and suggested a modification that would eliminate some of the fumbling. I sensed he was beginning to like me and he offered me a coffee. Three points each. A sleepless night convinced me to rethink the cot on my next visit.
Test 3: Table Manners / Deportment (3 points)
The living room had floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with books, figurines, and pewter cups. Music and videotapes, catalogues, magazines, journals and newspapers were everywhere; under and on chairs, under and on tables, and piled up in corners. I found some books that interested me, and he approved. One point for me.
The dining table, where the family ate, was piled high with more books, magazines and papers of all description. It all went on the floor so we could eat.
“Help shift these things,” he said.
I helped, and smiled. One point to me.
I was never an adventurous eater (meat and potatoes, hold the potatoes); but even though I knew which knife and fork to use for most courses, I’d never seen a fish knife before. Minus one point for asking.
After dessert I helped move everything back onto the table. I was learning. One point to me.
Test 4: Open Mind / Open Palate #1 (2 points)
Dessert was Bird’s Custard; completely foreign to me, and not to my liking at all. I choked it down and smiled, my dearest smiled, Ma smiled, Pa grunted but appeared satisfied. One point to me.
I wanted to bring a gift and my love suggested candied ginger which I bought not knowing what it was. After dinner Pa passed it around, understanding it was new to me. I felt like an infant given his first dill pickle. It was fragrant and sweet-smelling, but I was completely startled by the taste. And the hot, after-dinner coffee only intensified its spice. I gasped. I sweated. I’m sure I turned beet red. Ma smirked. Pa chuckled. My sweetie howled with glee. I managed to regain my composure. An own goal.
Test 5: Open Mind / Open Palate #2 (2 points)
Growing up, I ate primarily rye bread. I’d never tried Pa’s favourite, whole wheat. Given a choice between whole wheat and cardboard I’d choose cardboard. Forfeit one point. But what was this on the toast, all black and shiny like patent leather? Bird’s Custard, candied ginger, now this? Pa had laid it on far too thick for most devotees, let alone for a novice. Ma and my dearest protested. One point to me, just for their support.
“Leave him be. He’ll like it,” said Pa. I put on a brave face and took my first tentative bite of Marmite. Since then, all opinions I’ve heard of Marmite fall into one of three categories: 1) It’s the most heinous crime ever committed to taste buds; 2) Vegemite is better by far, and isn’t it a pity it’s not in any of the shops; and 3) This is so good I’ll just eat it out of the jar with a spoon.
That first bite hit me right smack in the umami. It was warm and rich and savoury. The flavour filled my mouth and my nose with new wonder. My eyes lit up and by the looks on everyone’s face I’m sure I was smiling from ear to ear. It really could have been on cardboard. I loved it! I couldn’t get enough. From then on, it was Marmite on everything! For every meal! Forever! My point count was way over the top. I won his princess and Pa and I became the best of friends.
I passed Pa’s tests and I have the diploma to prove it; our marriage license.
Pa had many lessons for me over the years and I learned a lot. I think the most important lesson he taught me was the love of learning and trying new things.
After almost 50 years with my princess, there have been many more tests in our lives. Like most marriages, some tests we passed with ease and others required a huge effort on the part of one or both of us. But the most important tests were those first five tests that Pa set for me.
© Howard Pell 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.