By Sue Sanders
I stood in my ivory silk wedding dress clutching a bouquet with my six-year-old daughter by my side. Lizzie held tightly to a basket of rose petals with one hand and to me with the other. She pulled on my arm and looked up.
“Now we’ll be an official family? And Jeff will be my official dad?” she whispered. Smiling, I nodded, squeezed her hand, and scanned the small crowd gathered on our front lawn for the occasion. Nearly everyone important to us was there: our friends and family, my new in-laws and my ex in-laws.
* * *
When Jeff and I had first met, it was electric. It was also complicated: we’d both been married before and carried bits of our past into our present. I brought my young daughter; he, Louis the dog; and both of us, a subset of ex in-laws. When Jeff divorced, he had only occasional contact with his ex-family: exchanging holiday cards and email and later, becoming Facebook friends. But I remained close to my ex in-laws, chatting on the phone frequently and staying occasional weekends with them at their house in suburban New Jersey. Lizzie, their only grandchild then, helped cement our relationship as did my ex-husband’s severe bipolar disorder, which made it vividly clear that divorce was our only realistic option.
My ex-husband and I met in college and were together eighteen years. His parents, Tom and Nancy, had seen how I’d spent the final five years of my marriage, desperately trying to get my husband to take the pills that could control his illness. We were bound by the horrific experience of seeing someone we all loved deeply refuse psychiatric help and get sicker as a result. His parents knew that their son’s illness was no one’s failing; that ours was the ultimate no-fault divorce. They’d welcomed me into their lives all those years ago and their son’s illness wouldn’t change that, would it? Part of me wondered, but I tamped down the doubt, sure we’d continue to have a relationship.
From the time my husband and I had separated, my ex in-laws continued to be both emotionally and financially generous with Lizzie and me (I had quit working to stay at home with our baby). When my ex’s “episodes” became more frequent and severe, finally leading to the end of our marriage, Tom and Nancy took Lizzie and me into their home while we worked with a series of doctors and New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to have their son hospitalized. They were there for us when their son, in an angry manic phase, canceled our health insurance and had all our mail forwarded to his house. They were there when their son frightened my upstairs neighbor into giving him a key and then let himself into my Brooklyn apartment. Much later, when I finally met with a divorce lawyer and we all realized that my ex-husband was in no condition for court, his father Tom became his son’s legal guardian and represented him in the proceedings.
More than a year went by. I eventually started dating and met the man who’d become my second husband. Jeff and I met online, flirting and getting to know one another remotely. When we finally met in person, we knew it was real. As time passed and our relationship deepened, it all seemed so easy and natural something I hadn’t experienced for ages.
After dating for a year, we moved in together, to a little house in a small town in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon, a few months later, Tom and Nancy drove the two hours from their house to ours the house that they’d loaned us money to help buy—where Tom would meet Jeff for the first time and Nancy, who had joined us all for Lizzie’s fifth birthday party a few months earlier, would get to know him better. I was nervous—I felt a bit like a matchmaker arranging a blind date. Would Tom and Nancy like Jeff? Would it be awkward for them to see me with someone who wasn’t their son and to see Lizzie treat Jeff as the father he had already become to her? Would they flinch if Lizzie referred to Jeff as “my dad”? How did they fit into our lives, anyhow? I wanted them to continue to be involved, but what are the rules for ex-family? I wasn’t sure, but we were grafting new branches to our family tree.
As I wondered what would happen, I realized I was really seeking their approval—even though the logical part of me understood this was ridiculous. I was an adult. I wasn’t their child. They knew staying married to their son wasn’t an option. Still, there was a tiny portion of me that felt guilty for abandoning my mentally ill husband.
When they finally pulled into our gravel driveway, we all dashed out to greet them. Nancy struggled on an arthritic knee to extract herself from the passenger seat, then greeted Jeff with a peck on the cheek. Lizzie and I escorted her into the house, walking slowly in time with her cane, while Jeff helped Tom pull multiple bags of brightly wrapped gifts out of the trunk. I could hear them laughing and talking. Jeff let Tom know how grateful he was for their generosity and compassion toward me. Tom told Jeff he really appreciated hearing that. When Jeff repeated all this to me later that night after Tom and Nancy had left, I felt incredibly thankful—and relieved. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath and I could finally exhale.
Their visit crystalized something that had been bothering me since my ex-husband and I separated: there needs to be better vocabulary to describe changing family relationships. Lizzie seems to be aware of this deficiency, and flips back and forth in an almost bilingual manner depending on her audience, referring to Jeff by his name when she ad- dresses him, and calling him “my dad” when she talks about him to friends and family. I find the lack of accurate words challenging, as well. What label is there for ex in-laws who are still in a person’s life? I’ve tried to refer to them in other ways, though nothing seems right. Using just first names when I introduce them to friends somehow doesn’t convey our bond. And introducing them as “my ex-mother-in-law, Nancy, and ex-father-in-law, Tom” maybe accurate, but it’s an awkward mouthful. I play around with possibilities, but none seem right: my mother-out-law; my father-ex-law; my parents. I can’t think of any short, pithy label to explain how our relationship, though changed, is still a close one.
* * *
A few months after that visit, when Jeff and I decided to marry, we didn’t hesitate to add my ex in-laws to our small wedding’s guest list. It felt right.
So there we all were: friends, family, ex-family. That June afternoon was a clichéd ideal of Hudson Valley wedding weather—sun peeking through wispy white clouds that kept the day from getting too hot. Though our row of peonies had already died back, dropping their petals all over the ground as Lizzie soon would hers as flower girl, the potted foxglove and geraniums on the deck overlooking the distant mountains were in full bloom. A scrum of kids played freeze tag and softball in the yard before settling into chairs with their parents. Then I said that I did and Jeff said that he did too, and we kissed. I grinned at my family and ex-family, so glad they were there for the very beginning of this newest phase of our life.
Jeff’s friends seemed surprised that we’d invited my ex in-laws to the wedding, after they’d been introduced during the reception with that awkward mouthful of words. Later, I poured a glass of merlot and brought it to Tom as he sat on a folding lawn chair in the backyard. He stood and hugged me, a genuine hug from someplace deep inside. I thought about how conflicted he must have felt to see his ex-daughter in-law so happy with a man who wasn’t his son, and to see his granddaughter bond so firmly with a “new” dad in a way that she never would with his son. I hugged Tom back.
“I’m so glad you came,” I said, as we sat back down.
Tom reached for his merlot and took a sip. He seemed at a loss for words.
“You’re part of our family,” I said, tearing a little for all that we’d been through together with his son—and for all that was ahead of us.
“And you’re part of ours,” Tom said softly, eyes moist.
I feel so lucky to have had even that brief conversation. Three weeks after our wedding, Tom died in his sleep.
* * *
Now, years later, we’re still writing our own rules about what family is. We visit Nancy in her Manhattan apartment every summer. She’s stayed with us as well. But we still grapple with explaining our relationship to others and what, exactly, to call one another. Lizzie has it easy: “grandma” is grandma no matter what. But I still don’t have a convenient word and perhaps I never will.
Our new nuclear family is celebrating its ninth anniversary this summer and we’ve each celebrated nine birthdays together. Lizzie’s homemade birthday cards to Jeff have progressed from squiggles and backward letters, with stick figures with curly gray hair crayoned on the front, to tiny, careful cursive with anime-like drawings. Some have said “To Dad;” others, “To Jeff.” But however she chooses to address them, he’s very much her “official” parent.
Author’s Note: I’m still wrestling with what “family” means and searching for a word that can describe ours to others less awkwardly—there aren’t any nice, concise expressions that easily explain ex-family still in someone’s life. I also sometimes wonder if these bonds will remain as strong over time as with “regular” family. I hope they do.
Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others. She is the author of the book Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore.