Family Inherited: When An Ex's Loved Ones Are Yours Now, Too
Family members I 'inherited' from my exes or from the exes of my real family remain important to me long after the person who brought them into my life left it
I hesitated to accept the invitation, thinking how awkward it might be to celebrate Jewish New Year with the family of my partner's late wife. I knew my reservations were well-founded when my hostess' elderly father, Eli, gestured to me at the end of the long dining room table, set with gleaming china and crystal. His dark eyes narrowed under their wispy, white eyebrows as they met mine.
"I don't think I know you," he said. His tone was soft and apologetic, as if he was sure that it was his fault that he did not recognize me.
Wendy, a granddaughter in her twenties, jumped in to make the introduction. My connection to Eli was so remote that I couldn't imagine how she would explain it but she managed to reduce it to a few words. "Grandpa, this is Alex. She is your son-in-law's, late sister's, new partner."
"It was kind of you to include me," I said, and meant it.
I could almost see the wheels turning inside Eli's head, as he tried to line up the description Wendy had just given him with the decades of information he stored in his brain about his family. After a minute or two, he turned to me and smiled warmly. "It's so nice to meet you, Alex", he said. "We miss Darrel's wife at our table. And we didn't want to lose Darrel if we didn't have to."
"It was kind of you to include me," I said, and meant it. I looked around the table at these people who Darrel had known for thirty years. They were an unexpected benefit of our new relationship.
Remote, but Still Close
When I thought about my luck in being welcomed by Darrel's brother-in-law into his family, I realized that I had other family relationships which were equally remote but felt close. I had "inherited" these additional family members from my exes or from the exes of my real family. They remained important to me long after the person who brought them into my life left it.
Last summer, I attended the wedding of my niece, Arielle, to her new husband, Charlie, in a small town just north of Toronto. Arielle is the child of my brother's first marriage, which ended in divorce. I had kept in touch with Arielle's mom, Cathy, over the twenty-five years since she and Simon divorced but I had not seen her family. On the drive to the wedding, I tried to remember the names of Cathy's three sisters. I was surprised by how quickly the names and faces came back to me.
I was surprised by how quickly the names and faces came back to me.
The wedding was an informal affair in the backyard of the small bungalow where Arielle and Charlie live. The sun shone brightly on the white tent set up on the lawn. Gold and white helium-filled balloons hovered over about one-hundred wedding guests, who milled about the garden, sipping wine and snacking on hors d'oeuvres. Arielle and Charlie had extended wedding invitations to my kids, their partners and grandkids.
I knew that I was beaming as I surveyed my family, including five grandkids ranging in age from five-year-old Miles in his lime green shorts and navy seersucker blazer, to seven-month-old Esty, looking like a plump canary in a multilayered tutu dress. It was a feat to have assembled them all for their cousin's wedding.
When I spotted Cathy's sisters standing in a group nearby, I was happy that my whole family had gathered for this event. Like me, Cathy's sisters had transformed into late-middle-aged versions of themselves. But they were unmistakably the same people I knew. I herded Darrel and my family over to meet them, show off my grandkids and get reacquainted. We embraced like long lost family. They filled me in on the basic facts of their lives and I did the same. Later, we stood together on the lawn and watched our niece marry her husband.
The divorce had not changed the way I felt about them. And so far as I could tell, it had not changed the way they felt about me, either.
On the drive home from the wedding, I tried to figure out why I had been so excited about reconnecting with Cathy's sisters. It had something to do with our shared history and the fact that the same people were important to us. Although I had lost contact with Cathy's sisters, the divorce had not changed the way I felt about them. And so far as I could tell, it had not changed the way they felt about me, either.
A Precious Inheritance
I am always a little embarrassed by the trail of broken relationships that mark the course of my life. My eighteen year marriage ended in divorce. In my mid-forties, I began another relationship which ended ten years later in separation. My sister has been estranged from the rest of my family for fifteen years. In all of these situations, I have regretted the loss of connection. But I felt better after I realized that some of my relationships with "inherited" family have survived all kinds of rifts and changes.
During the ten years I lived with my second partner, Mitchell, I came to know his mother, Annalee, very well. Annalee lived in a townhouse, perched on the side of Mount Royal in Montreal. The windows, dressed in heavy brocade curtains provided a bird's-eye view over a rock garden and further below, the stone houses of Westmount. The townhouse was full of antiques and art, chosen by a cousin who was an interior decorator in New York.
Annalee knew that I loved her home and she took a lot of pride in telling me about it. Shortly before she died, Annalee summoned her family to her house so that they could choose their keepsakes. Mitchell picked a set of simple, art deco era china that she had been given as a wedding present in the late 1940's. He knew it was my favorite of her many china sets.
A few months after Annalee died, Mitchell and I separated. When he packed up his things to take them to his new apartment, he left his mother's china. He told me that she would have wanted me to keep it. "What happened between us would not have changed the way she felt about you," he said. "You were family."
I have moved house twice since Mitchell and I separated and both times, I have found a cupboard where I can safely stow the china. I take it out a few times a year when I want to set a really glamorous table. If anyone asks me where my china came from, I tell them that I inherited it from Annalee, who was herself, a precious family inheritance.