The first time I met my future in-laws, I was standing next to the bed that their son and I had been sharing for some months. The apartment was small, the bed very large. While the four of us made a stab at pleasantries, our eyes darted furtively to pillows and sheets. It didn’t help that B. T., our cat, kept rolling across the blanket, purring and occasionally licking her stomach.
For the two graying Baptists, the scene must have been especially disturbing because Cliff had told them he lived alone. Despite the glaring evidence of our cohabitation — my socks drying across his bicycle seat, for example — we all continued with the pretense after their surprise visit. When we sent them letters, we delicately omitted my name from the return address. When they called from Los Angeles and I answered the phone, our talk was polite yet stiff, like that of neighbors who share a fence or cherished apple tree, but little else.
Little by little, I got to know them through Cliff’s descriptions. They were two shy people who had met in Los Angeles in the fifties and courted against the starchy backdrop of JC Penney, where Francis worked in menswear and Ruth was a manager. As parents, they had sacrificed their house to the neighborhood children, who’d convene there almost daily, nicking the furniture and shrieking as they cannonballed into the pool. They were famous for adopting stray dogs with terminal diseases. I loved to hear these stories; they were so different from memories of my own quiet, orderly childhood in San Diego, where my sister and I had racked up Girl Scout badges and faithfully rinsed out our sandwich bags after school.
Even when we later went off to graduate schools five states apart, Cliff and I continued our courtship, making do with letters and impromptu train trips. Sometimes we would fly home together to California, visiting briefly with each other’s families during the holidays. At his sister’s wedding one fall, I wore an emerald bridesmaid’s dress and danced the hokeypokey at the reception. That night, Cliff slept fitfully on his parents’ living-room sofa while I shared his childhood bedroom with a sewing machine and a stack of Bibles. To my surprise, Ruth cried as we left the next morning.
When Cliff and I finally married, it was not a big church wedding in California, as both families had hoped, but an outdoor ceremony on a Tuesday, on the East Coast, with just a few friends in attendance. Worse yet, I kept my maiden name. I had to, I explained to Ruth on the phone that night: my sister and I were the last of the Mundell clan. But a few weeks later, I began to receive the first of many letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs.,” and I slowly came to the dim realization that, whatever surname I took, I belonged to another family now.
That fall, after years of homesickness, weary of cold Eastern winters and too many miles separating us from family and old friends, Cliff and I drove a fourteen-foot moving truck back to California. We settled in Cliff’s hometown of Los Angeles because it seemed promising for editors and because, in what I now know to be their typical generosity, my in-laws had offered free room and board.
At first, a holiday spirit prevailed. Certain we’d soon find work, we crammed our possessions into their cavernous garage and sent out our résumés to the film studios. In between long swims in the pool, we pored over maps of LA, imagining where we’d soon live. I approached living with my in-laws as nothing more than an extended visit, and was stiffly polite and aloof (although I did have enough sense to volunteer to wash dishes). After a week of our sharing the kitchen in our bathrobes, I abandoned formal address and they became “Ruth-and-Francis,” just like that. It would be some time before I’d come to know them as two separate people.
As the weeks passed, my in-laws’ habits became familiar to me. At 4:10 each morning, the alarm would go off in their adjoining bedroom, and Francis would prepare for his punishing shift as a supermarket manager, donning his crisp white shirt and a tie. Ruth got up then, too, making her daily pitcher of sweet tea and picking a few of the larger lemons from the fragrant tree outside the kitchen. Next to the coffeepot, she’d leave messages in her careful, Victorian-looking cursive: “Bake casserole at 350 for two hours”; “Turn off sprinklers at 2 P.M.” Her notes were both comforting and unnerving in their similarity to the ones my own mother used to leave me.
Around ten o’clock, Cliff and I would go job hunting in the family’s ’74 Monte Carlo, which rattled along the freeways like a stagecoach chased by outlaws. It took all day to drop off a few résumés at destinations scattered among the cities whose seemingly identical names — Glendale, Glendora; Thousand Oaks, Sherman Oaks — left me perpetually lost. Later, over Ruth’s egg-and-bacon dinners, we’d spin thrilling tales out of otherwise monotonous days: Eight dwarfs were auditioning for a commercial next to a temp agency! We saw the actor Aidan Quinn in Santa Monica! For her part, Ruth gave us a much more realistic account of her day at Penney’s, where officemates joked and white sales forever loomed.
It was during these evening meals that I really got to know my in-laws, and discovered what great storytellers they were — although with vastly different styles. Francis favored high drama with a clear moral lesson: the fire that could not destroy his mother’s modest stone house; a bully vanquished with a quick left hook. Ruth liked tales with humorous twists, like the time she was driving down a snowy hill in Salt Lake City and glanced out the window to find a tire rolling abreast of her car. She was surprised to see a small child curled inside. Only after the tire had bounced past and landed in a snowdrift did Ruth recognize the child. It was her young daughter.
With the four of us seated around the small kitchen table, listening avidly to each other’s stories, it seemed natural to begin calling my in-laws Mom and Dad. By then, they had become a second set of parents to me: worrying about me when I had a cold, believing — despite my many protestations — that I’d eventually go to church with them. In turn, I regarded them with the exasperated affection of a daughter. I knew also that I had entered their family’s oral history: Lynn, wife of Cliff, terrible sense of direction, spends hours each Halloween carving both sides of a jack-o’-lantern. And I was coming around to the splendid realization that my in-laws were rooting for me with the fervor and the patience that only parents can bestow.
Unlike our elders, Cliff and I were guided by our hearts, not our heads. It was in Los Angeles that this fact caught up with us for the first time ever. As the weeks wore on and the phone lay silent as a dead bluejay, our enthusiasm for job hunting waned. Desperate for any kind of work, Cliff turned to hoeing and planting the back-yard garden, while I systematically refurbished our furniture. The panic must have been palpable. Sometimes, passing me in the long, cool hall, Mom would give my arm a quick squeeze.
Dad handled it differently. Arriving home in the early afternoon, he’d often launch into an advice-laden soliloquy that would last well into evening: get a good job and keep it; never choose credit over cash. It suddenly became clear to us that we were making a slow nose dive before a hostage audience, and that despite (or perhaps because of) their practicality, Mom and Dad were much more comfortable in Los Angeles than we could ever hope to be.
By winter, Cliff and I were spending evenings at a half-deserted bowling alley, where we drank beer and monopolized the video games, vexing several fifth- graders. Later, the two of us stuffed ourselves into Cliff’s narrow childhood bed like sausages in a pita, and I battled a longing for my lowly newspaper job back East. Our nightly talks about our dilemma were echoed by voices humming from the next room, their words indistinct, but their tone decidedly worried.
It was right after Christmas that Cliff and I corralled the last of our savings and announced that we were moving to San Francisco. Unsure whether this would be our salvation or our undoing, we knew only that we couldn’t languish in LA a minute longer. Mom and Dad seemed relieved for us — and, I realized, for themselves. Family or not, it must have been wearying to entertain two very morose guests for so long. The morning we left, Cliff watered and fertilized the garden one last time. When we all hugged goodbye, we held each other just a little longer than usual.
Four years have passed since then. A friend recently chided that, if there’s one thing you should never do, it’s return home to the parents. I’m not sure I agree. Unlike many people, I have no in-law jokes, only two people to whom I owe a great deal, not the least of which is my husband. I love their son most for the qualities I can now trace to them: sympathy, humor, and an unyielding optimism.
A couple of weeks before we left LA, I’d used up another gallon of wood stain on our furniture but still couldn’t find my way to the nearby home-improvement store. Dad drove me there, then took me on a tour of the grocery stores where he’d worked. Settled contentedly next to him, I was amazed by his skillful driving; he ignored the freeways, using obscure side streets instead. Sometimes he pointed out high-rises where there once had been orange groves, and studio sets where he’d whiled away his boyhood visiting with the stars of old westerns. As I watched, the chaotic urban sprawl magically assumed order, and an old, stately Los Angeles arose before me — each part of it in its place, linked, like a relative.