How to Grow a Family Tree

Family Tree

My former mother-in-law is sitting on the cafeteria floor when I arrive. She’s come to watch Bug’s karate class. I slide down next to her. She leans over and touches her head to my shoulder. She smiles.

We have not seen each other in 6 years.

While Bug practices his kicks, she describes her day at the Smithsonian. Wandering uninterrupted without a bored teenager or a husband with a contrary agenda, she lost herself in the exhibits. I ask about her sister who’s recently lost a daughter. Bug went with his dad to the funeral.

I talk too, about our pooch, the neighborhood, the kiddo’s sports, the energetic third-grade teacher Bug scored this year. She giggles remembering Tee and his karate uniform as a kid, so skinny he had to wrap the belt twice around his waist. I ask after her husband, recently retired from a career of running YMCA camps. Now he whittles his days away (pardon the pun) woodworking and golfing, of all things.

She’s changed a little. Her once steel-streaked hair has blanched to pure white. Her face has softened into a blanket of wrinkles. She’s also stayed much the same. She still wears bright rainbow socks she knitted herself. She is still trim, a tireless walker. She carries a purple wool clutch, fuzzy and flecked with silver from wool she spun on her own wheel. From it, she digs out a flip phone.

Yes, a flip-phone.

“Are you sure that’s not a toy?” I ask.

Its ringing disrupts the class. She giggles as she tries to punch the buttons. “Oh golly, I don’t know how to make this thing work.”

I pull out my phone and text Tee. “Were you just trying to call your mom?” Yes, he was. He’s on his way from class to meet her for dinner.

This woman once hated me. When Tee and I first separated, I heard the things she said. It stung, but only on the surface and not for very long. She is expressive, a chatterbox with a loud laugh. She often forgets to apply her filter before leaving the house. These are qualities that both delighted and irritated me when I was married to her son, almost as much as they delighted and irritated him. The same energy that fed gossip and hyperbole also fueled living room dance parties, Rummikub tournaments, and homemade Christmas decorations.

Also, it was hard to hold a grudge against her her for being a mama bear about her boy. Wouldn’t I be fierce and even ugly for a time if I thought someone was doing Bug wrong? I hope that when life knocks my son down, I’ll be fair, that my responses will take the full measure of the situation. But I also know I might be a little too raw at first.

She was. I didn’t blame her.

The separation was a time of earthquakes and avalanches. The upheaval blasted open loyalties and scattered them every which way. I kept myself aloof. When six of my seven brothers- and sisters-in-law (including on my own side of the family) unfriended me on Facebook, I took it in stride. They all live far away, and also, the rest of Life was was rising like mountains from the upsurge. There was a job to find, housing to secure, a divorce to facilitate, a mind to rein in, and — over and inside all of this — a kiddo to keep safe and supported.

MIL came to visit Bug and Tee sometime during our first year here. Bug and I were home making cookies that day. When I sent him back to Tee’s, I packed up the extras for him to share with Gramma.  This was more afterthought than gesture. Honestly, the last thing I need in the house is added temptation.

A few weeks later, a note arrived in the mail addressed just to me. Little magazine cutouts of cookies and milk decorated the card. It was a thank you. It was olive branch.

It had been less than a year since the split. We were family again. A new kind, and not one any of us would have chosen, but family nonetheless.

This is the fact that continues to strike with dumb wonder, even years into the co-parenting relationship with Tee. We are family. We still talk regularly about the everyday details — basketball practice, book fair, travel plans, homework. Less frequently but still somewhat regularly, we put our head together about the deeper issues having to do with how we are raising our son. Why basketball, and how do we handle it when he loses interest? How homework, and what strategies are we using to manage the projects that are growing in scope and commitment as he gets older?

Tee still drives me bananas, though probably not half as much as I do him. We probably agree more than we realize. Despite friction and petty annoyances, we are simpatico.

We are family.

And we couldn’t have done this with toxic in-laws.

I am crazy grateful to my local parents for including Tee in our family celebrations. To my dad for meeting up for tennis dates with Tee well after the divorce. To Tee’s dad for giving me a giant hug every time he’s in town and filling me in on his six kids’ now grownup exploits.

More than any of this, I’m thankful for the thick web of love and support this family creates for our boy.

Because our in-laws are forgiving, because all of them welcome all of us despite what they may “really” think, they model civility. They live the commitment to the bonds of love. They give our son thick, deep roots so he can thrive.

Image: “Family Tree,” Richard Arnold, Artist, Cotswalds, England


6 thoughts on “How to Grow a Family Tree”

  1. This is so wonderful. It puts me in mind of my own divorce, how each set of in-laws did not cast aspersions, did not place blame, but remained cordial. I have a warm relationship with my former mother-in-law, and my parents treat my ex very well. I remember when my kids were in elementary school, right after we told them, I contacted the school to let them know what was going on. They joined a group called Banana Splits, for kids of divorced parents. My kids would come home and tell me, “Why do people who loved each other treat each other so badly, and why do they put their kids in the middle? If you and dad don’t do that, why can’t these other people?”
    I explained that circumstances were probably very different, and it was hard to judge, just getting the kids’ versions, but that either way, it was sad what they were going through.

    I once received a note from the social worker that she was impressed at how well the kids were doing. This is not bragging; it’s just to show that if people put kids first, which they should, civility can succeed.

    My ex and I remained excellent partners and good friends. Until he remarried.

    Before the marriage, the woman played a role. Afterwards, however, her true colors bled through, and she has seriously compromised my ex’s relationship with our children. My daughter, who bore the brunt of her antics, has reached a point of acceptance, and refuses to allow her relationship with her father to degrade further. My son, a somewhat hot-blooded teenager when it comes to being hurt, is having a great deal of trouble with it. I cannot describe the level of hurt, meanness, and chicanery this woman has unleashed. Unfortunately, my ex is a passive-aggressive, exceedingly nonconfrontational (pathologically so) individual, and despite family meetings and other attempts to resolve matters, his steadfast refusal to tell her she is wrong and that his children have a place in his life has irreparably torn at the protective, warm, carefully and lovingly constructed quilt every player in our respective families worked to make. It has been, and continues to be painful, the power of one person to destroy years’ worth of successful co-existence. I applaud your family; may it ever continue.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that things took a wrong turn with the reconfiguration of the family. A couple of years ago, Tee was in the running for a job out of state. That possibility — even though it didn’t pan out — almost knocked me off a cliff. It made me realize how fragile and possibly fleeting this setup. Knowing how jobs, partners, illnesses, and just life could take us in new directions, it makes me even more committed to nourishing the good bond we have now. I trust that what you modeled for your kids in the first chapter of your divorce gave them a strong foundation and a deep sense of security that even the unwelcome changes won’t destroy. Best of luck to all of you.

  2. Its tempting to say your are lucky, but in reality, you made a good deal of the present situation. You chose Tee to start with – a man with enough emotional maturity to separate the divorce from the family. He was that way probably because he had decent and emotionally secure parents.

    And you also choose to act in a way that makes didn’t escalate the emotional upheaval of the divorce but held it in check until its wounds could heal and the scars could be accepted and incorporated. You now reap the rewards of several good choices.

    You remind me that I could make some choices now about some emotional wounds that will reap me benefits in the future. Not divorce but family wounds nevertheless.

    1. Thank you for the vote of confidence. I could do a bit of what you suggest in your last paragraph. The good choice is rarely the easy one. You are right that it is a wise investment nevertheless.

  3. So lovely to read where you and your family are in this present time. What a beautiful tribute to all of you. Allowing each one to grieve and grow in their own time, that is inspiring! Your boy is so fortunate to have each of these incredible humans as examples in his life. Wonderful!

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