There is an astonishingly adorable one-year-old taking his first flight, seated with his parents in the row behind me. His parents are wonderful with him: it sounds like a party I’d love to be part of. Next to me is my younger daughter, solving a sudoku puzzle and attempting to steal pretzels from her father, who is in the aisle seat, headphones on. I expected he’d be listening to the Beatles (it’s so often the Beatles, whose work he analyzes down to the last hemi-semi-demi quaver), but apparently today it’s something classical. He’s a man of parts, is my husband. Now daughter has finished the puzzle we were working on and has moved on to the next one. We are all three of us mildly disgruntled that this airplane has no power outlets; our flight out had power outlets (this last comment should be spoken with a resentful whininess). But we’re persevering, flying from Philadelphia to Phoenix and thence to San Francisco.
We were in Pennsylvania for my father-in-law’s memorial; Emil died in November at 99 1/2 (one of the notions floated about Emil this weekend was that once Donald Trump won the election, he didn’t want to hang around to make 100 because he didn’t want to receive the traditional birthday card from that president. Appropriately, the memorial was at least as much of a roast as it was a solemn get together (the community where he and my mother in law spent the last two decades is Quaker based, and tends toward the quietly reflective, but quiet is not a characteristic of my family-in-law). So: music, jokes, stories. Some gossip about the generations past, and even a possible scandal. So much food–it seemed we were always finishing one meal and talking about when the next one was happening. But really, it was a weekend for stories. Here’s the one I told:
My husband was the last of the three children to marry; I was introduced to the family at a dinner celebrating his sister’s engagement (which became at least as much a “Hooray! Danny brought a girl!” event…) and his family welcomed me with warmth and noise and humor. His father immediately started to flirt (the man could flirt with a table leg, a trait he shared with my father) and pretty much kept flirting with me for the next 29 years. And he adored his wife Penny and she him–they bickered and teased and drove each other nuts and thought that no one else was as splendid. They went folk dancing and traveling together; they raised three principled, caring, funny, lefty kids together. They believed in education, in involvement, and in each other. And when I married into this family that umbrella of love and belief extended to me.
My family of origin was different. I got no less love, and had amazing experiences and advantages. They were terrific role models in a ton of ways. But my parents, it’s fair to say, sucked at marriage (and not just to each other: my mother was my father’s third wife, so his track record was not great). So when Danny’s family welcomed me in I got a thing I had never had before: a model of a marriage as partnership, as an organism that moved forward, that didn’t get caught on the little things (and when it did, unhooked the brambles and moved on).
It’s now 29 years since I met Emil and Penny and their kids. I’m still married (and have kids who are no longer kids, because that’s the way it works). I think about arriving to visit in those early days: Emil would greet me as he greeted everyone: with a broad smile and a “Hey!”–a single syllable with a Bronx inflection that stretched way longer than a single syllable should be able to do. He was always prodding me (and everyone around him) to extend themselves, better themselves, go after their dreams, make the world a better place. And as with marriage, it’s much easier to do these things when you have a good role model.
That was Emil.