"You've never been south of New York, have you?" Max asked his bride.
"Nope!" said Toni.
"Trust me, where I grew up is a completely different world." Max drove onto the interstate and headed south. He'd been working at the Volkswagen dealership in New York City for about nine months. He'd moved out of the Shevchenko's and into his own apartment, and over several months, he'd saved up enough to buy his own used car. As soon as he felt he was ready, he'd asked Toni to marry him, and she'd said yes.
They'd decided to honeymoon in Max's hometown for a couple of weeks before returning to New York City. Max was eager to see his family again, and Toni looked forward to meeting her new in-laws.
Max drove through miles and miles of woods and farmland, the landscape dotted with occasional houses, buildings, and signs. He kept going until the sun started to set, by which time his stomach was rumbling. He pulled into the parking lot of a Howard Johnson's and looked over at Toni, who was snoring softly.
"We're here, hon." He gave her arm a gentle shake, and she startled awake.
"Wow, I guess I must have dozed off," she mumbled.
"It's almost dark, and I'm tired," said Max. "Let's see if they have any rooms available."
Luckily, it turned out they did. Max and Toni checked in and brought their suitcases in from the car, then walked to the restaurant.
"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!" Toni declared.
Max laughed. "I'm not far behind you!"
They found a booth and sat down. A waitress came over and took their order. They both ordered steak and mashed potatoes.
Max reached across the table and took Toni's hand. "Our first meal out as husband and wife."
"With many to follow, I hope," she replied.
"In between your delicious home-cooked meals."
"I can't cook as well as my mother," said Toni. "I'm afraid you might be disappointed."
Max smiled. "Ubung macht den Meister. That's what my Dad used to tell me every time I fell down roller skating."
"So are you the world's champion roller skater now?"
"Not quite, but I'm a lot better than I used to be, just like I know you'll be able to cook just like your Mom in no time."
The waitress brought their food, and they dug in hungrily. As she collected their plates later, she asked if they wanted dessert.
Toni frowned. "I'm not sure if I should, after all that wedding cake."
"Oh, go ahead," said Max. "It isn't exactly an ordinary day." He had fudge cake with vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce, while Toni had a Boston Cream Pie.
She didn't feel one bit guilty about it.
Elizabeth was fastening Jeremy into one high chair, and Laura was fastening Jennifer into the other, when they heard the car pull up outside.
"They're here!" said Elizabeth.
Jakob jumped up from his play. "I'll let them in."
"Wait until they ring the doorbell," his mother told him.
Five minutes later, the doorbell rang, and Jakob pulled it open. Elizabeth lifted her grandson from the high chair and went to embrace her son.
"I feel like I haven't seen you in forever!" she cried as she held him close.
"This is my lovely wife, Toni," Max told his mother.
"Welcome to the family." Elizabeth hugged Toni as well. "I'm Elizabeth, and this is my grandson, Jeremy."
"Well, aren't you a little cutie pie!" said Toni. Jeremy gave her a bashful smile and tried to hide his face in his grandmother's shoulder.
"Come on inside and meet everyone." Max waited for Toni to enter the house, then followed her. "This is my sister Laura, my cousin Amon, my brother Jakob, and my niece, Jennifer."
"How do you do." Toni shook hands with Laura, Amon, and Jakob.
"Max's father will be back from work in a few hours," said Elizabeth. "We were just about to have lunch. Won't you join us?"
"Thanks, we'd love to." Max pulled out a chair for Toni and then sat beside her.
"They're so cute!" said Toni. "How old are they?"
"Fourteen months," Laura told her.
"Did you have a pleasant drive down?" Elizabeth asked her son.
"It was nice," Max replied. "We stayed in a Howard Johnson's last night."
"How's your job going?"
"It's going well. Lots of people buying Volkswagens." He talked and signed at the same time, since Amon was looking on in interest.
"So are you gonna stay living up there?" Jakob sounded disappointed.
"I have a job and a wife up there now, Jake," his older brother told him. "But I'll come back down here to visit as often as I can."
After spending an hour or two with his mother, Max took his wife to meet Ginny and her children. Paula and Lili were swinging on the swing set in the back yard, and Benny was riding his tricycle on the sidewalk while Ginny was soaking up some sun. She rose to greet her visitors.
"Welcome home, Max!" She hugged him and kissed his cheek. "Seems like forever since I saw you last!"
"It does," he agreed, returning the hug. "This is my new wife, Toni. Toni, this is my cousin Ginny and her kids."
"It's so lovely to meet you." Ginny shook Toni's hand.
"Thanks. It's nice to meet you, too," said Toni.
"Would you like some lemonade?" asked Ginny.
"That sounds good," said Max.
"Come inside, and I'll pour you both a glass."