For those of you familiar with the 1970’s sitcom, “All in the Family,” you can’t forget watching the bigoted Archie Bunker repeatedly mock his son-in law, Mike Stivik, (aka “Meathead”) for everything from his Polish ethnicity to his long-haired hippie appearance. Archie was relentless. The day I can’t forget, though, is when I was watching one of Archie’s hurtful rants and felt my stomach churn. It suddenly dawned on me that even if I was ever lucky enough to find a life-partner, I could still be rejected by his family.
I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant with Julian (name changed to protect the innocent), on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Julian and I had been dating for six months or so, and he thought it was time that I met his parents. I wasn’t necessarily “in love,” but we clicked pretty well. As we waited for his parents to arrive, I munched nervously on the fried crunchy noodles. When Julian’s parents approached us, I smiled at his father, and offered his mom a hug. Initially, the conversation seemed to go smoothly, and I relaxed. Then Julian got up to go to the bathroom. Left alone with his parents, I leveraged an old trick from my childhood: I began to ask them many questions about themselves, hoping to focus attention on them and in the process make them even more comfortable with me. Julian’s mom had something else in mind. She turned to me, looking directly in my eyes with a serious stare. “Meg, I am not sure where things are going with you and Julian, but as you know, his brother was born with mental challenges. [pause] And, given your own genetic mishap, a combination of gene pools is probably best not explored, if you know what I mean.” Fighting back tears I said, “Yes, I know what you mean.” When Julian returned, it was clear I was troubled, but I kept quiet for the rest of the meal. Still shaken, I raised the conversation later that night. Julian handled the topic awkwardly, clearly trying to not prolong it. Our relationship lasted only a week after that dinner.
I was sitting in my boyfriend Randy’s (another name change for the somewhat innocent) parents’ house down South. It was my first visit to meet them. Unlike Julian, Randy and I had been dating for a long time, and I was in love. To me, Randy was “the one.” We had flown down the night before. Always an early riser, I came into the kitchen to see if I could help Randy’s mom with breakfast. Randy was still sleeping, and his father and sister were out together getting bagels for all of us. As we began to set the table, she turned to me. I recognized the serious gaze. “Meg, you do realize that men in our family don’t get married young. There is no use waiting around for Randy. He won’t be available to you for a very long time, if ever. Do you know what I mean?” “Yes,” I replied weakly. “I know what you mean.” When Randy emerged from his bedroom, I felt sick to my stomach and excused myself from breakfast. Unlike Julian, Randy tried to console me when I recanted my conversation with his mom. “Don’t worry Meg. You know I love you. My mom is right that I am not trying to rush into marriage, but that has nothing to do with the way you were born.” We dated for another year, but eventually he broke up with me.
I met John in October. I had known his brother, Mat, through mutual friends and had even met his parents before. But that was another time, and back when I was dating Randy. This time was different. After eight months of dating, attending family events with me, and inviting me to meet everyone in his life, John discreetly approached his parents to let them know he wanted to give me the engagement ring that had been his grandmother’s. What were they thinking at that moment? Who knows? Who cares. What matters is what they said and did afterward. They stood and embraced him and shared their love and joy at his decision. A short time later, after John proposed, his parents could finally tell me that they knew it was coming and had been dying to finally begin the conversation about wedding dates, locations, and, as is most important to John’s father, the menu! His mom said, “Meg, I cannot wait to see what dress you select. You are going to be a beautiful bride! We are so happy to welcome you into our family!” I knew what she meant.
There will be a lot more from my dating years in the book I am writing. However, this post is dedicated to my husband John’s family. From the minute I entered their lives as John’s girlfriend, his fiancée, and eventually his wife, John’s parents, Lenny and Leslie Zucker, his brother Mat Zucker and sister Liz Zucker Barnett, as well as all their immediate relatives, have treated me as a someone, rather than a something. My gratitude for their love and unconditional support of our relationship, and of me personally, goes deeper than anything I could possibly articulate. A few months ago I wrote a post titled, “Homage to my Parents.” To be clear—that homage extends also to my in-laws, and to Mat and Liz. Meeting them, being unconditionally embraced by a second family when some others would not give me a chance, has been like winning the lottery, at least from my vantage. After meeting John and his family, I just smile to myself and think, now “THOSE were the days.” Archie and his wife Edith couldn’t have sung it any sweeter.