A cold hard coming we had of it, as TS Eliot would probably not have said of an hour in traffic looking for a Covid-testing clinic on a Hull industrial estate, a Storm Arwen-rocked ferry crossing, Rotterdam docks, lunch in a hypermarket burrito bar, then a rainy drive across three countries. But we three – not the magi, but my husband, younger son and me – finally made it from York to Normandy last weekend for a snatched pre-Christmas with his family, after two years punctuated by jerkily farcical video calls to my in-laws’ foreheads, chins or ceiling. Covid anxiety, age and illness have kept these formerly fearless travellers confined to their native France.
We were not the ones bearing gifts, though. We had dinner at another relative’s house, leaving a three-hour window to visit my in-laws on Sunday morning before we headed home. Undeterred by her 8.30-11.30am slot, my mother-in-law launched us straight into breakfast on arrival with various breads and pastries, fruit and several specially acquired Christmas jams. This had to be eaten quickly, because lunch – yes, lunch – preparations were already well under way. After a brief digestive interlude, we were hustled back to the table at 10.45am for scallops, roasted guinea fowl and cabbage, then camembert.
The meals were a sideshow to the main event. It started innocently enough. “Is there anything you need for home?” my mother-in-law asked, gesturing around the flat. “We need to empty this place.” “Maybe spoons?” I said, naively, registering too late my husband’s frantic gestures. I should have known better after 24 years, but I had forgotten: my mother-in-law’s “love language” is giving us stuff. She sprang from the table and started rummaging in a drawer, pulling out a clattering fistful of spoons (“Look: a grapefruit spoon!” she said, tucking a serrated one into my pocket), followed by another of forks. Next came a presentation box of 12 dainty coffee spoons (TS Eliot would know what to do with those), then three ladles. My husband’s head slumped forward, bashing into a glass bonbonniere (a presentation dish for sweets, suggesting a more French attitude to family-size bags of Maltesers than my own), which some involuntary twitch of my eyelid had been interpreted as consent to adopt.
Over the next 90 minutes, we failed to fight off a vegetable dish, two blankets, several quilts, a range of tablecloths and matching napkins, a gift box of face creams and one of body lotions, and a freestanding hammock. My husband and his mother clashed over some towels, I think mainly because they have missed shouting at each other. A picnic bag rapidly became three: clementines, mangoes, more roast meat and camembert, and half a bag of prunes. (“They’re pitted!” she said, as if this would sway us.) There was a fistful of lettuce wrapped in tinfoil and a stealth croissant someone refused at breakfast, hidden in kitchen roll. Also a full kitchen roll, just in case. “Would you like a tin of duck confit?” she asked, rhetorically, trying to shove it into a bag. “Or lentils?” “We have lentils in Britain!” said my husband in hoarse, futile protest. My mother-in-law once brought us a jumbo tin of mussels when we lived in Brussels.
My father-in-law got in on the act, producing a dusty bottle of wine from my husband’s birth year (“It’s probably horrible”), more wine and a bottle of his late Uncle Jacques’ lethal, probably illegal, calvados. He offered a mountain bike too, but could not fit it into the car. “Surely we have a roof rack they could take?” said my mother-in-law, thwarted but unwilling to admit defeat.
This is what two years of frustrated love looks like: a boot crammed with stuff we don’t need; a groaning bag for life for every missed birthday, meal, holiday or hug, every interrogation on grandchildren’s love lives or nugget of unsolicited advice. “We miss you,” said my father-in-law, simply, as my mother-in-law tucked the disputed towels into the last remaining crevice under my son’s feet in the car, and handed over envelopes of euros. We miss them, too, and Omicron means we don’t know when we will see them again; the least I can do is accommodate a few grapefruit spoons.