For my in-laws, it’s a point of pride to work hard and everyone seems to be vigilant for anyone who shirks. Hard work, in this case, is physical and often dirty. The kind of work I do, work where my hands never get soiled and my body doesn't ache at the end of the day, doesn't have much standing. Counseling people and writing is even more suspect in a man.
Early in my relationship to my wife, I was visiting the family farm in late summer. Everyone was getting ready to spend the day collecting bales of hay. The alfalfa had been cut, raked and left to dry. It had been turned, and dried some more, and the bales were now scattered out on their 17 acres. They would have to be lifted and stacked in a wagon, attached my father-in-law's tractor. A storm was forecast for late in the afternoon. Any bales that didn't get from the field to the wagon, and into the barn, before the rain came would be ruined.
I always suspected I was lazy. Between my reluctance to shovel out our driveway as a child after a snowstorm, and my staring longingly at the clock in my father's hot and dusty warehouse, when I worked for him as a shipping clerk, I concluded I had little appetite for hard and dirty work.
My wife informed me that the dried and bailed alfalfa could scratch any bare skin that was exposed, and advised me to cover up as well as possible. I dutifully donned a long-sleeved cotton shirt and work gloves, even though the temperature was 92°. It turned out that cotton was meager protection. I probably worked about half as hard as my future wife and her siblings, even though I'm sure I worked harder than I ever had before in my life. I took the good-natured ribbing, even poked self-deprecating fun at myself, but always wondered about my status within the clan.
I knew I was different: verbose while they were taciturn; emotional while they were stoical; loud and urban, having grown up in Brooklyn, while they were quiet and rarely traveled more than a few miles from their rural Pennsylvania home. Still, I felt immensely drawn to them even as I sensed their misgivings. At the same time I was inexplicably confident that, eventually, I would win them over.
It was like the way I interacted with my mother-in-law. Eileen was a no-nonsense woman, right out of that famous depiction of a farm couple in American Gothic. Only she was a lot prettier. When I greeted her, upon my arrival at their farm, I would walk right through the severe, though invisible, barriers emanating from her, and give her a big hug, insisting she was beautiful.
She pulled her head away, scrunched up her face and uttered a dismissive remark. But that only led to an escalation on my part. I’d insist that I was serious, claiming something along the lines that the only reason I married her daughter was in the hope that she would look just like her when she got older. Eileen waved me away but I redoubled my efforts till she finally relented, as a smile she could no longer contain spread across her face.
I didn't court the rest of the family so relentlessly, but hoped that one day I would be seen as an equal and valuable member of the clan, even though I couldn’t, or at least didn’t, work as hard as they did at pruning fruit trees or loading firewood, and had no idea how to fix a tractor.
Over the many years of my marriage, and relationship to my in-laws, they made a place for me in spite of my apparent lassitude. Almost as important as hard work, is something along the lines of loyalty expressed, among other ways, as showing up for important events in the family. Perhaps, it's more constancy and reliability I'm thinking off. In any case, after more than 30 years, I had secured a seat at the family table. But I never felt that the subtle suspicion, about some underlying male inadequacy, was ever completely erased.
I love these people, and they love me, but I wasn't much use to them if I couldn't pull my own weight when it came to getting the hay bales in before the rain. I cooked linguine and clam sauce and helped in the kitchen, while the men did men's work, and that counted for something, even as it placed a small asterisk over my masculinity. I wrote poetry and had a way with words, and that counted for something, even though, in this family, the deep suspicion that ‘talk is cheap’ had to be overcome.
When my mother-in-law began to falter, after breaking her hip, my wife and I, along with many of her siblings, visited every Sunday for the two and a half years of her diminishment. We drank tea and told stories, and generally just kept her company. When she finally died, my father-in-law asked me to eulogize her. I was deeply honored. After all he had four sons and two other sons-in-law.
I didn't feel comfortable accepting my father-in-law’s offer, until I spoke with his oldest son. When I approached him, explaining I did not want to take a place that was rightfully his, he explained that he wanted me to do the honors. He and his dad had talked about it, and felt I would be better able to honor her and give voice to the family's collective lament.
So I locked myself in my basement office and began digging into the meaning of this immense loss. I tried to unearth the essential qualities in Eileen that made her quiet and fierce stoicism such a force for good. I lifted what I could carry from the stories her children shared with me, and stacked them in the best order I could fathom. When I spoke in their church, I marshaled as much of the unexpressed emotion I sensed in her lifelong devotion to her family, to help put what I could of her up in the barn of their collective memory, to be retrieved when most needed.
I finally got to do the work that I knew how to do, to repay my in-laws for taking in someone as foreign to their experience as me.
After the service, as is the custom in rural Pennsylvania, the family gathered for a simple meal. When I entered the hall, one of my brothers-in-law approached me. He was maybe the hardest worker in the bunch and he had a tightlipped and severe expression on his face. He walked right up to me extending his hand and said "Nothing ever breaks me, but your speech broke me. Good job!"
—Photo Credit: Flickr/F Delventhal