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lost in-laws

I have had three long-term relationships with women I deeply loved. They all ended in divorce, two de jure and one de facto. One involved children and two the lack of children. Infidelity played a role each time, two times on my part and once on my partner’s, a role far more oblique than it seemed at the time, less a cause of the marriages’ dissolution than the effect of their inner disintegration, at once tangible and invisible, invisible because unfaceable.

The passionate denials, deceptions, accusations, retributions, demands, and refusals that fuel a break-up all testify to the fact that separation is limned and lined with attachment. But since there is no impartial judge to hear and weigh that testimony, neither party can admit that separation cannot be separated from attachment. Just as no one can bear to hear I still love you but I’m no longer in love with you.

Admitted or not, the mourning of lost love is permanent, for the one who leaves and for the one left. At rare moments the mourning can be embraced so fully that it affirms what’s lost, affirms it purely and blamelessly. Only for a moment, though, even though one of the great poet-singers of brokenheartedness could make such a moment seem permanent:

I loved you for a long long time.
I know this love is real.
It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That don’t change the way I feel.

Leonard Cohen, master and prophet of contradiction, also sings loss in a more ironic vein:

I loved you, baby, way back when,
And all the bridges are burning
That we might have crossed.
But I feel so close to everything we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again.

These lines could only be delivered in the Tower of Song. For those of us not born with a golden voice it is well-nigh impossible to express to the one we abandoned or the one who abandoned us that our love is intact and the loss unique.

Another unique loss and intact love also haunts a break-up.

I was deeply attached to my second in-laws. From the beginning Bernie and Roz welcomed me with undeserved respect. I was their daughter’s new lover, who had mysteriously displaced her husband less than a year after her marriage to him. They had raised her in the spirit of liberation; she needn’t explain anything to them. No questions, no justifications. In time, I felt I earned their respect. Not by effort, but from our spontaneous and continual mutual affection. Children of the Depression, idealistic University of Chicago students in the late 40s, latter-day fellow travelers in the McCarthy era, and anti-Zionist Jews, they instinctively embodied many values I had acquired through inchoate rebellion and a lot of reading. Bernie quickly recognized the depth of my aggressively skeptical relation to the Protestantism in which I was raised and played up to my delight in jokes about the goyim. There were differences. I was the only Zionist in this leftwing Jewish family! And while it was in their home that I participated in my first Seder, albeit modified by a self-styled progressive Haggadah in which the plagues and locusts descending on one’s enemies were replaced by images of universal emancipation and compassion, my own fascination with religious rituals and practices pressed Bernie and Roz to attend a synagogue at High Holidays. I sat next to Bernie throughout the proceedings as he squirmed, fidgeted, and sighed with the scarcely contained heebie-jeebies of a teenager tormented in mind and body by the pew. I enjoyed his rebellion and questioned his revulsion. No matter how enthusiastically I waxed about the aesthetic and symbolic grandeur of rabbi and cantor, he just as vociferously waned in retreat from the authoritarian mumbo jumbo of the same. His rejection of his religious upbringing matched my rejection of mine.

To belong, thanks to happenstance rather than birth, to a family that rebelled against its religious heritage and yet embraced its ethnic origins, that rejected Zionism and yet identified with the suffering that brought about the State of Israel, that mocked observant relatives and yet celebrated religious holidays with them, that voiced hard convictions and yet delighted in contentious conversation, that despised absolutes and yet demanded universalism—to be granted such an experience was for me an unfathomable gift.

I later realized that despite Bernie’s antireligious spasms he was a militant Lévinasian without having read a word of the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas: No witnessed act of injustice shall go unremarked and unresisted, voiced to whomever might listen and in whatever manner short of self-destructive martyrdom. I once fell shamefully short of Bernie’s ethic, and it still haunts me decades later. His daughter and I were attending a celebration dinner at my ex-wife’s house; her elderly father, after several years of widowerhood, was accompanied by his new eighty-something “girlfriend,” a woman cruder and far more talkative than my deceased former mother-in-law had been. In the course of an otherwise innocuous story about the solicitudes of the doctor who had served her small town, she peppered her narrative about the doctor, quite possibly the only Jew in Postville, Iowa, with stereotypes that were increasingly anti-Semitic. My partner, Bernie’s daughter, passed from uncomfortable to agitated. She glanced at me to say something. I, anxious to avoid conflict that would unsettle my ex-father-in-law at my ex-wife’s table during our son’s graduation dinner, hesitated. She fled down the hall to a bedroom. I followed, but by comforting her instead of confronting the anti-Semitism at the table I had already failed her. I had balked at the very moment where Bernie’s Lévinasian ethic demanded stepping forward to witness and speak.

Whether and how that episode left an unhealed wound in our relation I never knew. Bernie knew something about that day, and he knew from me that my father and the world in which I was raised were racist and anti-Semitic. Years later, when I refused to reconcile with his daughter, he rejected me in absolute, uncompromising terms. We talked on the phone one last time; I listened as he consigned me to oblivion. He voiced his agony by imagining that my father must be celebrating my break from his daughter the Jew. Cut off, I had no contact with Bernie and Roz after that. I occasionally searched the internet for news about them with little result, and eventually looked less and less. Late one night I googled name and town. Up flashed Bernie’s obituary from a year and a half earlier, and then Roz’s from a year later. They were in their nineties. The obituaries were studded with details undoubtedly supplied by their daughters, vital nodes in the family’s history and legends.

Reeling from this news, thinking of the years of excited discussions of politics, religion, and cooking I had missed with Bernie and Roz, imagining how they might have suffered the frailties and conquered the ailments of their seventies and eighties, hoping their impassioned minds had stayed lucid and articulate to the end, I spiraled into a reverie on in-laws.

Three marriages, three sets of in-laws. I always loved my in-laws! And enjoyed their company, their singular histories, and the affection we were able to forge across differences of culture, belief, tradition, and even language. Marion and Margaret, my first in-laws, grew up in the Norwegian communities of northeast Iowa. Seed-corn salesman and housewife, they were upright and reserved to the point of seeming severe and cold until you got to know them.

An unexpressed, never acknowledged sadness enveloped Margaret, and there were many sources to speculate on: birth in a North Dakota sod house, death of her mother when just a child, growing up in the affectionless home of the childless relatives to whom her father entrusted her and miles from the family who took her brother in, the death of her third child just a few days after his birth, the discovery of her next-door neighbor and friend having hanged herself, the return of her aged father who never cared for her and then demanded to be cared for by her in retirement while he regaled her children with tales of his life in the FBI, a life and tales he had never shared with her. I visited her on her deathbed, and the warmth of our meeting was the beginning of the end of my exile from the family.

My sons adored Margaret and Marion. Just a few days after I had moved out, my wife and the kids visited them. When I asked my five-year-old the next week how Grandma and Grandpa were, he answered, “I think Grandpa is on Mom’s team.” After Margaret’s death Marion was willing to resume at least the semblance of our original bond and easy conversation. We had had, way back when, a rocky start. He was scandalized by his daughter’s involvement with me, a blow to respectability in the eyes of friends and neighbors in a small everyone-knows-everyone town. Raising our firstborn outside religion disturbed Margaret as well; she secretly had him baptized when in her care one weekend.

My third set of in-laws—my ex-wife’s mother and stepfather and her father and stepmother—are French. And not much older than me. My ex-mother-in-law had long ago so scandalized her husband’s respectable family as to set a scorching scar across so many relations that only an utter outsider like me could feel at ease with all of them, across two remarriages, three extended families, half-siblings and step-siblings, devout Catholics and determined atheists, and the barely muted but essentially symbolic class conflict of bourgeois, ouvriers, commerçants, fonctionnaires. Our divorce created no animosities toward me, just the disappearance of the occasions to see the extended famille recomposée. I miss them.

And that is what the shock of Bernie and Roz’s obituaries brought home to me. Passion and marriage blessed me with three sets of in-laws I cherished and still cherish. Divorce tore me away from them. The hard-earned freedom of individuals to love, marry, and divorce—which even our society still struggles to embrace as a universal right—is also the freedom to expose ourselves to irrecoverable loss.

It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That don’t change the way I feel.
… I feel so close to everything we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again.

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