The 1940s remake of a 1927 silent film, a classic tear-jerker, called The Way of All Flesh features a main character, a bank clerk, who accidentally kills another man who robbed him of his watch, his ID, and a large sum of money that he was entrusted to carry. In the midst of a tussle, the man throws the thief under a train. The thief’s mangled body is misidentified as the main character’s because he was wearing the stolen watch.
In order not to bring shame on his family because of the murder and lost money, the man lets his family believe that he is dead. He can never go home and spends the next 20 years homeless. At the end of the movie, the man, aged and unkempt, goes to see his son perform. He had taught his son to play the violin and the son became a successful violinist. After the concert, he trudges through a snowstorm, following his son home. Not recognizing his own father, the son gives the old beggar man a dollar before going inside. The old man looks through the front window and sees his entire family, a warm and cheery Christmas scene, as they celebrate the concert and the memory of him, their father. Cold, destitute, and alone, he walks away.
When I first saw this movie 54 years ago, I cried and cried at this final scene, which was accompanied by the swelling of sad violin music. Corny yes, but I was six years old and I took all of it to heart.
Perhaps I was finally grieving my father’s sudden departure and the loss of our family when my parents divorced. Maybe I worried about my father being alone out in the world. To be like that man in the movie, watching from the outside, excluded from family happiness and love, seemed unbearably sad.
And yet, this is just the position I found myself in when my 16-year marriage ended in divorce in 2005. Whereas I was relieved to disconnect from Stefan though we agreed to remain parenting partners, I was distressed to realize that my close and loving relationship with my in-laws was likely to change too.
I could sum the marriage up in one of those six-word memoirs, my favorite of which is Nora Ephron’s happy “Key to life: marry an Italian.” The six-word memoir of my marriage on the other hand would be something along the lines of “We should have been just friends” or, if I’m in a mood to beat myself up, “I was stupid to stay there.” The truth, as it turns out, was that “we were simply wrong for each other.” That’s seven words, but who’s counting. We were opposites in so many respects, and rather than fitting together like ying and yang, our differences brought out the worst in one another. He was an anti-abortion conservative Republican, I a liberal Democrat. How could I have thought that wouldn’t be important? Our parenting styles were at odds. On the spectrum of dictatorial and laissez fair child-rearing, we crisscrossed depending on what the issue was. I went nuts when he allowed Gregory to ride his bike without a safety helmet; Stefan got furious when I gave Gregory a sugary snack. He would establish strict rules for Gregory but then bend them. If I did the same thing, Stefan would explode. He was impatient and yelled a lot. I, frustrated that I seemed to have no voice in our home, withdrew and selfishly shut down. We became each other’s harshest critic. Them was tough years.
His parents, by contrast, were happy people who provided an oasis where I felt safe and loved in the midst of unhappiness. They lived nearby, and we visited them frequently for dinners and long Sunday lunches. My mother-in-law Irene was the quintessential hostess. She’d feed us fragrant dill-specked soups, rich Hungarian meat stews, and always something sweet and pretty to finish – homemade pastries and cookies learned from her Greek mother. Irene always asked about my life, saved articles from the newspaper she wanted me to read, and was interested to hear my thoughts and opinions about things. My father-in-law Nick was the son of the chief rabbi of Budapest’s famous Doheny Street Synagogue. In his strong and charming Hungarian accent, Nick told fascinating stories of his life’s experiences. He had traveled alone through Nazi Germany when he was only 18 to escape the Holocaust and make a life for himself in America where he went to school, then taught engineering at MIT before his long career with the US Department of Energy. Nick fathered me in a way I had never experienced. He listened to me and made me feel respected and valued.
For many years, Nick and Irene took care of Gregory every Friday while I worked, and they were just as enthralled by their grandson as I was. My mother-in-law unabashedly shared my motherly joy. She kept journals of what Gregory did and said, records that delighted us both as we’d pore over them from time to time while we oohed and aahed and laughed at the miracle this boy was to us.
I had a sister-in-law, too – Ruth, a single mother to my niece Katie. When Ruth and Katie visited, my niece and I would draw together and play board games. Once I curled her baby-fine blonde hair, setting it on rags. She was a darling. One day when she was about 5, Katie asked me, “Are you a kid or a grown-up?”
“What do you think?” I asked back, tickled by her question.”
“I think both.”
Perceptive kid. I watched Katie grow up over the years from an energetic three-year-old into a level-headed college student.
Stefan’s parents were like parents to me in a lovely adult way. Even though I had a close relationship with my mother, and to a lesser extent with my father, my relationship with Nick and Irene was different. Even though I had siblings, and other nieces and nephews who I was close to, Ruth and Katie were important to me. I felt true love for this family. If not for them, I probably would have left my unhappy marriage a lot sooner.
The day we told Gregory, then 13, that we were separating was the worst day of my life. The three of us sat in his bedroom for a family meeting, and then Stefan and I broke the news as gently as possible. Our work in an intensive couples therapy program didn’t prevent our divorce, but it did give us the ability to communicate and unite when it came to our son. Gregory, sensing that something big was up, kept looking back and forth from his father to me. I was so aware that, despite my need to protect him from any kind of pain ever, I was to be the direct cause of his great distress, his fear, his grief. Stefan broke the news: “Mom and I aren’t going to be married anymore, but we will both be with you.” After we told him, Gregory cried. We answered all of his questions and reassured him that we loved him and that everything would be OK. Our decision to end our marriage wasn’t a surprise to Gregory – there had been great strife in our home and he knew that we went to a “marriage class.” He knew. Kids can be remarkable in their understanding.
My in-laws took the news hard, too. I wasn’t there when Stefan told them. I felt like such a deserter, as if I had let them down by not sticking it out with their son. So I didn’t contact them directly. Several weeks later, I saw them for the first time at Gregory’s basketball game, and they were the same towards me as they’d always been. They sat with me on the bleachers. “We love our son,” Nick said to me, “but we understand why you left. Let’s stay close.” Although I had been the one to actually instigate our separation, it had been very mutual – but I didn’t bother to explain that to him. Despite their warmth, it still felt awkward to be around Nick and Irene. Other than those afternoons of Gregory’s baseball and basketball games, I never saw them. There were no hard feelings and I wasn’t being excluded, but I had cast myself in the role of the man who is outside looking in at the family that he loves but can never return to.
Several years after the divorce, my mother died suddenly of pneumonia. I had no mother, no husband, or boyfriend. My father was barely there for me, and my sister and brother were struggling with their own staggering loss. I felt untethered. The grief I was feeling unlocked the sadness that my in-laws were no longer my close family. Just as I would never see my mother again, I would never eat Irene’s cold cherry soup out on the terrace in the summer and I would never bask in Nick’s fatherly attention. When we leave a marriage, we lose other people who are important to us too. Collateral damage.
* * *
Then several years later, Stefan remarried. His new wife Laurie was smart, pretty, and easy-going. She seemed to share so much more in common with Stefan than I ever did. I was happy for Stef and happy, too, that someone so nice was going to be a part of Gregory’s life. In some ways it helped, knowing that Irene and Nick were thrilled that Stefan was getting married. I felt relieved, vindicated, and absolved from having hurt their son. I felt the possibility that we might be close again. Still, I held back. Although Laurie was gracious to me, I was still the ex-wife, and what woman wants her husband’s ex-wife to be deeply involved with her new in-laws? So out of respect for her, I continued to keep my distance from Irene and Nick.
Relations among everyone evolved into a comfortable circle with Gregory at the center. All of us, my family and Stefan’s, celebrated his birthdays together at restaurant dinners. By the time of his high school graduation party, I had met and become serious with Peter, the man who was to become my husband. As we were leaving the restaurant after that dinner, Irene took me aside. She took both of my hands in hers: “Lisa, Peter is terrific! He’s a real gem!” she said. I felt so happy that this woman who had been another mother to me liked my guy.
Peter and I moved to New York City soon after that and got married. On my frequent visits back to DC, I spend time with my son. Several years in, I began to visit again with my former in-laws. Irene welcomed me to her table where I always found waiting for me a tiny ornate cloisonné plate just big enough to hold one perfect, round kourabiedes cookie dusted with powdered sugar. I drank the coffee Nick had made for me, and we sat together in their sunny dining room while they asked all about my life in New York. When I left, Nick would always say, “Let’s stay close.”
Katie, my former niece, got married. I didn’t get to go to her wedding because I was not invited. It was entirely right that I wasn’t part of Katie’s destination wedding celebration in the Bahamas because I wasn’t family. But I felt sad that I couldn’t be there, that I wasn’t part of her life anymore. I sent her a card and sent her love and best wishes over the time, miles, and circumstances that had turned us into acquaintances instead of family. Now Katie has a new baby, a little girl who looks just like people in her mother’s family. I see pictures on Facebook and on my mother-in-law’s front table and kvell for them all. I want to see this baby, this sweet child who I feel connected to but I know that if I ever do, it will only be by happenstance.
Some relationships change, we can’t control that. Other times we have a choice. I still love them, I still see them, and they are my son’s family. Connection is a choice both conscious and of the heart. As those who have experienced it know, we even stay deeply connected to people we have lost through death.
Over a decade after Stefan and I divorced, my former father-in-law had a stroke. He was 96. The stroke left him confused at first and now has him in hospice, barely aware of himself or the world. Before hospice, he recognized me the few times I visited their house. The last time, he held on to my hand when I went to leave. “I love you Nick” burst out of me. I had never said it to him. When I went to visit him in hospice recently, he was so deeply asleep that I couldn’t rouse him. I smoothed the hair from his forehead and, not knowing if I would ever see him again, I thanked him for being so good to me and silently prayed that he be at peace. When he goes, I will be a guest at the funeral not as family, not technically, but I love them just the same.
Lisa J. Daniels is a freelance writer with a BA in English from Brandeis University who lives in New York City. When she and her ex divorced in 2005, they promised their son that “everyone will be happier,” and, after the initial adjustment, that is exactly what came to be. She is currently writing a work-memoir of her 23 years of experience as a salon owner/hairstylist. Please visit her at www.lisadanielswrites.com.