In the zigzag way life startles all of us, my husband, Michael, a widower and I, a widow, were unsure of how our fathers would react to our sudden and late middle-age romance. Although they both came from what's called the Greatest Generation, these men sat on the opposite sides of every imaginable aisle. They had adapted to decades of new-fangled inventions and changing mores, but still, they lived in different worlds.
My father-in-law, son of a pharmacist, was raised Baptist in the small town of Darlington, South Carolina. My father came from a devout Jewish family in Detroit, son of the owner of a scrap-iron business. Both of their families followed strict rules of observance: one on Saturday, one on Sunday and neither was supposed to stray far from the pious path.
When I was growing up, my father's closet was jumbled with extra shoes, always a pair of size 7 and a half, as well as an identical pair of 9s, because he contracted polio as a boy and his feet never matched. He would hobble several miles on Saturdays to watch his beloved sandlot baseball games. He did learn to play tennis as an adult and loved to work in his garden, but although he was the one who taught me how to ride a two-wheeler, he never got to ride a bicycle himself, while my father-in-law climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, sailed boats and scuba dived.
During World War II, Michael's father was in the Army Air Corps, stationed at an airfield in a little village in the north of England, where he worked as a cryptographer, sending coded messages between bases, while my father stayed stateside and worked for the newspaper, Stars & Stripes. After the War, my father began working in radio and stayed in the entertainment business. When my father-in-law returned from England he went to law school and eventually became a federal judge.
One rainy day, before I made the decision to wed for a second time, my father said he wanted to talk to me in the kitchen.
My father gazed out the window above the sink. "You know," he said, "You often don't end up with the person you started walking with. The only advice I can give you is to keep on walking, as long as you can.
"And about this young man you're seeing [Michael was 56 at the time], he's a good man, a quality person, a journalist. You should marry him."
The week before, I had journeyed south to meet Michael's parents. The judge graciously offered me a "co-cola," which Michael said they called all soda growing up, and then he outstretched his arms and said, in his deep Southern accent, "Welcome to the family." "Family" had three syllables.
Both of our fathers died this year, so we will no longer hear their wise voices, one with a hint of magnolia, the other with a Midwestern lilt. But we put fried pickles on the table in honor of my father-in-law and kosher dills for mine, and when our sons bring home their sweethearts, we hope to be as generous as our fathers were to us, when new plates are added to the table.
And I admit I sometimes say a small prayer, regardless of the day of the week, hoping our family continues to reach across the aisle to one another as we are startled by the zigzag of life.