It takes a lot of courage to be mean to a little kid
Ralph and Susan were a peculiar breed. Ralph was a large, bald man with a skull than was bumpy like an overripe pair. On top of his nose was a pair of glasses about as thick as a magazine, and underneath it was a bristly gray mustache. That is how I remember him. His wife had a weathered look about her. Her wiry black hair, streaked with gray, was parted down the middle and it stuck out nearly triangularly. She was very beautiful, and she was always smiling in a way that, when you were 6 or 7, made her seem very wise. Her husband had a way of smiling, too, that you almost couldn't see from underneath his mustache.
In my family, it was always announced when we were visiting Ralph and Susan, like we were going on a road trip. They had one of those houses that has a distinct smell. Susan was an artist, and up on the walls were her works. My favorite was not one that she had done, but one that was nonetheless in excellent taste. It was a large mural scene of a village in South America, all in the pre-Rennaissance no-vanishing-point kind of perspective. But the coolest thing was that every person in the scene was a three-dimensional woven doll that stuck out from the background to which it was attached. Other exciting features of their house included this rad synthesizer church organ from the 70's, a box of classic Star Wars action figures, and an exercise room. Ellipticals are really fun when they're taller than you are.
But every time any of us (my siblings and I) went over there, we had to sit at their kitchen table for a few minutes and act civilized before we could go romp around in their basement. One time I went over there with just my Dad. Ralph offered me a soda, and I accepted. When I set it down on the table, Ralph's eyes narrowed at me. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked in a quietly disgusted tone. Like my Dad, Ralph was very intimidating without trying, so when he put effort into grilling you, it was especially horrifying. There I was breaking some mysterious unspoken rule of manhood, and I hadn't even hit puberty yet. I think I knew that there was some element of a practical joke in the air, mostly because my Dad and Susan were still enjoying themselves. But I was still too rattled by that simple question to induct as to what I had done wrong. Ralph burst out laughing and called me a knucklehead while he fetched me a coaster to put under my soda can.
As my brother would say, it takes a lot of courage to be mean to a little kid. Yeah-that and a lot of self-awareness. Ralph and Susan were a sturdy, American couple because they had been there and back. What my mom told me is that Susan had severe depression that went unmedicated for a long, long time. She would periodically go AWOL and Ralph would be heartbroken in disrepair until she returned. Their periods apart and periods together were about two to three years each, and after their longest period apart, they divorced. But they got back together and in the presence of a mail-in order minister and a bunch of strangers, they were re-married over breakfast at their favorite dive cafe. Most of the other people in the restaurant weren't aware that a wedding had just taken place, for the ceremony was nothing more than three people sitting down at a table, exchanging a few words in the middle of a bustling morning.