Christine here. When my husband and I got married, I was 30 and he was 39. Both of our sets of parents were relieved: cousins had teasingly been putting money on my never getting married for years, and my husband thinks his parents were just thankful to find out that he wasn’t gay. Regardless, both were rather uncritical about their future son- and daughter-in-laws. Gone were any thoughts of cultural, emotional, or intellectual compatibility: a warm body was all that was required.
There was, nonetheless, some trepidation on both of our parts about meeting the other’s parents before we got married. My parents, who were rather ardently anti-nuclear back in the 1970’s and 80’s when the USA’s and USSR’s nuclear arsenals were at their peak, had marched in several protest marches with the Catholics and the Quakers against nuclear proliferation. Methodists themselves, they joined with some of the religious organizations that thought maybe the ability to destroy all life on earth 200 times was a bit of overkill… maybe just the ability to destroy all life on earth only once would be good enough.
My future husband was, at that time, gainfully employed in something that he couldn’t talk about at the GE Aerospace facility in Valley Forge. Whatever he was working on behind the security clearance walls, he had to walk through a crowd of anti-nuclear demonstrators every day to go to work. (No, my parents didn’t demonstrate there). So, of course, I had to devil him with what the first Dinner-with-Mom-and-Dad would be like. He didn’t know that my parents would be very circumspect… to heck with concerns about the future of the planet: they were afraid to frighten off anyone who had actually agreed to marry me.
My own first meeting with future in-laws was quite different and a bit sad. My husband’s mother, who was only in her 60’s, was beginning to show some early signs of dementia. I met them at their retirement “cottage” in South Carolina and it was exquisite. My mother-in-law was clearly one of those women who enjoyed china and silver and setting a beautiful table and making a gourmet dinner. Everything was lovely, tasteful, and gracious. My future father-in-law was charming and, as a retired general surgeon from Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, tried not to choke on his food when I expressed my plan at that time to go into Psychiatry once I finished med school. (He didn’t think much of psychiatrists). But he kept his mouth shut in hopes that his only child might actually reproduce one day.
You get the feeling that perhaps both John and I were a little… difficult. I really don’t think either of us were that bad, but somehow things just never worked out with other people. My earlier relationship ended when my former boyfriend’s father didn’t speak to him for 6 months after meeting me, so that he would know what it would be like to be cut off completely from the family (his father was Hindu, and pretty religious). John’s earlier two girlfriends not only broke up with him; they left the state. So… overall, our parents were glad to see us get married and they just weren’t all that picky.
When it came to furnishing our first house together, though, we both were old enough that we each had our own dishes, silverware, furniture, and… rugs. My chairs and tables were items handed down from my parents’ attic… probably originally purchased at a yard sale or “antique” store and fixed up. My dishes were purchased at thrift stores and consignment shops and left behind by former roommates. And my rugs were worn but beautiful braided ovals made by my grandmother from my father’s and his siblings’ old clothing.
I loved my things. I thought they were beautiful. They were just as precious to me as my husband’s family’s carved mahogany highboy and velvet-cushioned walnut side chairs and oriental rugs and grandfather clock were to him. The only problem was, his items were probably of some actual value and mine were… not.
Thus began the inequity in the distribution of family goods. When given a choice between something from his family or something from my family to display in the living room… you guessed it: his family.
I understand it: his oriental rugs are truly beautiful. His furniture is, objectively, much better made, often sturdier, and sometimes a real antique. When faced with the decision of where to place furnishings, it wasn’t as if he were dismissing items from my family: it was that I was choosing what looked better, which was always his stuff.
But I still like my grandmother’s Victorian sofa with the leg that she got replaced, the little lady’s chair that she needlepointed the seat and back for, and the small pie-crust table that she broke off wooden toothpicks into the base of it to make it level. I like my unmatched silver-plated bowls for Thanksgiving dinner. I like my mom’s china set that she gave me from saving S&H greenstamps. To heck with the accepted valuation of objects: I like my family’s stuff.
This slight tension in the perceived “value” of our differing origin-family’s items has been a recurring theme throughout our marriage. So, when my husband brought up wanting to re-do part of the house and rip up the carpeting to give me a place to show off my “beautiful braided rugs,” I was flabbergasted.
And very happy.