On Tuesday, I missed my in-laws.
That's because it was my wife's birthday, and her family always has wonderful celebrations involving food and fine beverages and usually a bit of family tension that we can laugh about later.
But this year, as in many recent years, we were down here in Columbus and her parents were way up in the northwest corner of Tennessee, where if you were holding a stone and wanted to hit a state, you could take your pick from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Meanwhile, her twin sister lives in Houston, a 12-hour drive in the opposite direction. Their father has been complaining about this since they started bearing him grandchildren.
It doesn't bother me, of course. I only feel sad about it this time of year, when the burden of cooking my wife's big birthday dinner falls on me.
On Tuesday, my two youngest sons and I butterflied six pork chops, pounded them into schnitzel, stuffed them with ham and cheese, tooth-picked them shut, coated them in flour, dipped them in egg, dredged them in bread crumbs and fried them in oil.
My wife walked through the door, took the battery out of the smoke detector, and looked through the smog to see about a thousand pans piled high in the sink.
Thirteen years ago, we were way up in the northwest corner of Tennessee, celebrating the birthdays of the twins -- my wife and her sister. I'd been outside with their father cooking the most beautiful ribeyes I'd seen in my life.
We took them inside and set them on the table with the salad and potatoes and bread and green beans and baked apples. My father-in-law popped the cork on a nice bottle of cabernet.
We were ready to roll.
That's when we heard tires in the gravel, followed by a shout. It belonged to my wife's grandfather. Then we heard the bang of a screen door and he was standing right there in the dining room, holding a huge dish over his head with one big hand.
"I brought a present for you girls," he said. And he lowered the dish, revealing his specialty: Coon and sweet potatoes.
I'm not kidding. He celebrated special occasions, usually New Year's Day, by cooking a raccoon he'd shot along with a bunch of sweet potatoes, which absorb the unbelievable amount of fat in the animal.
I'd eaten it before, in fairly small amounts. You stick those sweet potatoes with a fork and they shoot little explosions of coon fat into the air.
I tried not to frown. We sat down and said grace. Then we opened our eyes and stared alternately at the giant platter of aged grain-fed beef and then the even bigger dish of scraggly scavenger animal.
My father-in-law tapped me on the arm. "Pass the coon!" he said. "After you help yourself, of course."
Everybody took some raccoon and one of the bulging sweet potatoes and sat there chewing slowly, exercising mind over matter.
Even our children, who back then were very small, took little bites and didn't cry. They seemed to understand. We were showing our elder the respect and honor he deserved.
While we ate, we asked him questions about coon hunting and rural living and what things were like when he was a boy and how in his eyes the world has changed. He waxed nostalgic, he ranted some, but mostly he told stories about a time when people had nothing but their character, the people they loved and the knowledge that hard work pays off in the end.
Then he finished his stories. He surveyed the table and his eyes stopped on the platter of juicy ribeyes. "Mankind!" he exclaimed. That's what he said when he saw something particularly impressive.
"Mankind! Those steaks look good. Anybody want one?"
We all did, and we'd earned it.
And we'd learned that birthdays are kind of like Halloween parties: The really good ones are big and sometimes scary.
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.