My parents-in-law are the nicest people on the planet, and although they do live in the heartlands of Wisconsin, I don’t just mean they’re “Midwestern nice”: They came to my MFA graduation. Some friends and I did a triathlon in Switzerland, and they were there to cheer. I won a coveted spot on a disaster-relief agency’s response team, and they sent me a card and called.
I published my first novel, and they were there for the first reading. When my husband got laid off, we told them first, whereas we never told my own parents for fear of their fear on our behalf.
But: They are conservative. They are religious. They consume media that is worlds apart from the media I consume. (Yes, they read my book. They haven’t said what they think of it.) We have some things in common, but our basic values are at odds. I know this because we don't have conversations about things like politics. Whenever something comes up, say, that time in the car when my father-in-law, listening to AM radio news, started shouting that President Obama was Muslim, it’s like a big fucking steel wall comes down over their opinions, and no gentle probings or proddings can get it to come down.
So we try the hammer approach: “What the hell is wrong with being a Muslim,” say, or “You know that fuel-efficient car you’re driving is more tree-hugger than anything out there,” or “Please educate yourself before passing around this fake news”—well, that just leads to another layer of steel. I can practically hear the gates slamming shut. Worse, I see it, in their eyes, in the fact that they suddenly act as if they’ve stopped hearing me.
So no, we’ve never had a real conversation about it. Until we had to fly to see them, the day after the Very Bad Thing happened. We prepped ourselves as best we could. We sent a text message to Jim’s mom, asking if all election and politics talk could be absent from the weekend. One of her replies said that she was thanking God for the results, and I almost threw up.
As the night wore on and I cried more and more and we went to bed for a catnap before getting up at 3:30 for our flight, and as we sat in the car and listened to the somber notes of reporters announcing the results like they were announcing that someone very important and universally loved had passed away of a previously undiagnosed, fast-acting wasting disease; as we passed through LAX and I looked sideways at white people, suddenly, wondering if they had voted against me (that’s what it felt like), and then we passed some people saying, “Man, I am amped about the election results,” and I wondered if they had said it because they’d caught a glimpse of me and my white husband, it became apparent that we were going to have to have some hard conversations with Jim’s parents.
I began to wonder if I shouldn’t find a hotel somewhere, avoid seeing them altogether.
It was Jim’s birthday.
I’m not going to tell you it was fine. It wasn’t. Jim talked to his parents on the phone before we got on the bus to get to their place, and he said I was considering not visiting at all, and then he handed the phone to me and I shook my head, crying into my lunch, and said I didn’t want to talk to them, and he said, “It’s not about the election,” and I said, “EVERYTHING IS FUCKING ABOUT THE ELECTION,” but still I took the phone, and his dad, in the gentlest tones possible, said, “I’m about to bake Jimmy’s birthday cake. What flavor is his favorite?”
People. There are so many things wrong with this question. First, it was clear he was trying to calm the hysterical shrew on the other end of the line. Second, I really did not care which flavor cake. Third, he knows damn well his son’s favorite flavor is German Chocolate Food Cake, or whatever they call that weird stuff with the coconut mixed into the frosting. Anyway, I was not in any state to answer, so I hiccupped something like “I don’t know, yellow?” And then, “I can’t do this,” and hung up.
And then I called them back, because there was half an hour until the bus went and I was not about to miss my husband’s birthday, even if it was going to be celebrated with people who had voted for a being who has made it clear he disregards everything I am.
The conversation was fraught. Nothing got solved. But while I was talking to them, I remembered a day in July. I was between stops on my book tour, driving back to my parents-in-law, and the rental car I was started shifting funny. I glanced in the rearview mirror, making sure I didn’t have anyone behind me, before I executed a swerving two-lane scoot to the side of the road, and coasted to a stop, noticing a long tail of something wet on the road behind me. Lucky me; the transmission line to the rental car had been damaged, and the thing was useless.
I was in the middle of nowhere. And my first instinct was to call my parents-in-law.
(You should know here that in high school, I was in a rear-ender. And that I actually debated calling my parents, knowing that they’d just ask me what silly mess I’d gotten myself into now. And that that played out exactly as I thought it would. So calling any parents is a very big deal.)
I remembered, too, how often my parents-in-law celebrate us; how many birthdays had gone by with them jointly singing “Happy Birthday” to me on my voicemail line; how supportive they’ve been for every single occasion except the Very Bad Thing.
That day after the election, huddled in a corner of O’Hare airport, trying to explain to them over and over again, and failing every single time to get them to see my side, I was compelled also to examine what it means to really differ from someone and still know they love you.
It would be a long time before I could stop being furious and distraught whenever I thought of the great divide between us, the one that won’t ever be bridged no matter how many hard conversations we have; how clear the facts. Because with every interaction, it is obvious that you and the differing party are living in two worlds, with separate and sometimes conflicting sets of guidelines and values.
How can it be? And yet, it is.
I hang some fragile hopes on this memory: Every year when we visit my parents-in-law, we visit a local arts center. There, we take solace in visual arts and in the wonderful things this particular center does for its surrounding community.
The day after the very bad thing, we did get on the bus and go to my parents’-in-laws’ house. They hugged me and said, “Glad you’re here,” and then my father-in-law went and got a newspaper clipping from the weekend. “I thought you’d want to see this,” he said. It was an article about the current exhibit at the arts center.
We don’t have the same values. We never will. But I think I can say they understand the things I value. Love, defined in any which twisted, wrangled, sideways fashion, seems to be one of those.