When my husband and I celebrated 23 years of marriage this month, we got cards and emails from both sides of the family. It hadn't always been like that.
Twenty-four years ago when we announced we were getting married, my husband's parents looked at us like we were on another planet. We had been officially dating only four months at the time. I was 28 and he had just turned 25.
It wasn't that they thought we were young; it was they didn't think we knew each other well enough or had dated long enough. My sister-in-law-to-be had been living at home, met and dated her husband the requisite two years, became engaged for 18 months and then got married. John's parents didn't know we had met and become friends two-and-a-half years before the official first date. We tried to explain this to them, but they didn't want to hear it.
So John invited me and his parents to dinner to give them an opportunity to get me know me better and to talk about our future with them. It was March 1984, and we were living in the Boston area. John's family lived about five miles from us and mine lived in Florida. We wanted to get married in the next few months. We didn't see any point in waiting.
We were all at John's house when the bomb hit: his parents found out I am Jewish. They are Catholic but hadn't practiced since the kids were young.
"Are you going to convert?" my father-in-law-to-be asked me. I looked at John. I didn't know what to say. I knew I wouldn't convert and I didn't think he would.
"I think one of you should convert; I don't care which one. It's better for the kids to have one religion," Sal said.
"I'm not going to convert, nor will I ask John to. Neither of us grew up in a religion we followed faithfully, so it doesn't make sense," I said.
"What about the kids? How will you raise them?"
"We aren't going to have any kids," John said.
Finally John took me home. We discussed the conversation and were relieved we had told them that we were getting married soon, rather than waiting as they preferred. The next night we had to face John's maternal grandparents. Fortunately, that went really well.
My future in-laws, including the siblings, tended to ignore me--I felt invisible to them. I think the siblings were afraid of going against their father by trying to get to know me. They all hoped I'd go away. I tried to be friendly and helpful but couldn't seem to break through the emotional barriers to become friends with them.
I arrived at my in-laws' house one night and overheard a tape recording of my father-in-law and some of his friends discussing Jews and making anti-Semitic remarks. My father-in-law was playing the tape for John's two brothers, laughing, and saying, "You gotta hear this." He didn't know I had arrived. I was appalled and didn't know what to do. I asked John what the tape was. He mumbled something like "Oh, just my father fooling around with his friends." I just glared at him. He shrugged his shoulders and turned it off. Later at home he apologized for his father and said he hadn't known his father disliked Jews.
We were married at a hotel by a female justice of the peace. My father-in-law was aghast. Not only was it a justice of the peace (meaning no religion), but a woman, as well! He didn't want to believe it was legal.
Over the next 10 to 11 years, my husband's siblings and parents continued to ignore me. At the holidays when we had to spend 10 to 12 hours with them, I sat there bored. If I asked someone a question, it was as if I wasn't there. Persona non grata, that was me.
After we were married five years, we decided to have kids. We invited his parents over one evening to tell them I was pregnant. They were ecstatic and never mentioned our original intent not to have children. When my first son was born, the grandparents doted on him like he was the only baby in the universe. They still ignored me, however.
My husband and I discussed how I felt invisible when I was with his family. It was very difficult for us. He understood my anger and frustration, but didn't know what to do. They were not the kind of people one could confront. They didn't like any conflict. But we came up with a great solution: he would take the boys (we soon had another son) over to John's parents for dinner every other Sunday night, and I got to have time alone.
In 1995, we moved to California. Hooray! We could get away from them. We could have our own holiday celebrations, no matter what they were. We had enrolled Matthew in a Jewish preschool (in Massachusetts) to learn the traditional Jewish holidays. In those days we lit the candles at Hanukkah and said the prayer in Hebrew, just the four of us. On occasion friends invited us to their Hanukkah parties. Otherwise, we didn't really observe any holidays at home.
When we moved to California, our boys were 2 and 5. Four months later, John's brother was getting married and we were all going to fly back east for the wedding. It would be the first visit since the move. Two nights before we were to fly east, we got a phone call from John's brother: his father had suffered a major stroke. Could John fly back any sooner? We made arrangements for the red eye flight that night and took off.
My father-in-law never came out of his coma, and died about five days later. It took another eight years before my sister- and brother-in-law realized they could be nice to me. I think that part of the reason it took so long had to do with the distance. Our vacation plans, including holidays, from 1995-2003 took us to other places, or we just stayed home and celebrated with friends.
When we finally went back for a visit in 2003, suddenly I existed. Everyone talked to me. My husband's brother actually hugged me when I walked in his house. My mother-in-law was still skeptical. If I looked at her wrong, she wouldn't talk to me for two days. She doted on my kids and my husband and occasionally talked to me. We still seemed to dislike each other. I continued to be as nice as I could for my kids' and John's sake.
We spent a week with all my in-laws, including the kids, in July 2007 and had a great time. Everyone got along well--even my mother-in-law and me.