My former brother-in-law was the first good man I knew. He was also the first person to marry into our large brood, which he did when I was still a child. He left when I was a young adult. There were boyfriends and girlfriends coming and going from the family, but he was the first and only in-law for a ten year stretch, a unique, possibly not enviable position.
I wasn’t too sure of him at first. He was unknown, not from our community and not someone who glad-handed or courted his wife’s many siblings. It wasn’t clear how he’d fit into the family dynamic or what role he’d play. Unlike my loud, animated family, he was more reserved, less given to emoting and — most crucially — he was logical, a rational, thinking person. This was new. Structured, calm, reasonable approaches to thinking and relating? I hadn’t known it could be done.
I was an observant child, sensitive, and quieter-spoken than much of my family. My brother-in-law’s sensibility appealed to me. I liked listening to what he had to say. He did, it turned out, have a strong sense of humor but unlike the slapstick and bravado that was central to the typical family wit, his was dry and understated. He’d crack a rare chuckle, not laugh uproariously or physically act out a joke or story. He looked a person in the eyes when he spoke and kept his mouth shut when the other person talked. The reward of that chuckle or focus became worth having because my brother-in-law wasn’t an easy audience. This was a man whose attention and respect had to be earned.
It took awhile to learn these things about my new brother-in-law and for the two of us to forge a connection. There were just too many of us in the family plus many relatives and an assortment of friends who were adjuncts; a shy-with-strangers little girl many years younger wasn’t going to be on the radar. He was a big guy, tall and stocky, somewhat physically imposing, favoring jeans, heavy belt buckles and boots. He liked his beer and cigarettes. He drove a foreign car and had a fondness for gadgets. I, on the other hand, liked playing with dolls, reading, arts and crafts, and being with my close-in-age siblings. I’m not sure exactly when we started to be closer. I can’t recall a specific moment, or our first meaningful conversation, only that there would be many.
He and my sister came to the house often. For dinner, for holidays, for cook-outs, for movie nights (he loved James Bond films, even though in the middle of the film he’d point out mistakes or why things couldn’t have gone down as they did). Sometimes the family en masse would go in the early years of their marriage to my sister and brother-in-law‘s apartment, and later, their house. We were a possessive, interdependent lot; I didn’t like it a bit the occasions my sister and brother-in-law instead went to his parents’ home for a holiday. They should be with us. (I was a child and thereby entitled to think that way; not so sure the rest of the family was but they did.) Once, maybe twice, his parents joined our family at our house for a gathering. That was a mix made in hell. His father was an accomplished, traveled man. He looked like Walt Disney, sophisticated. His mother was pretty tightly wrapped from what I saw, reserved, and not someone who was going to crack a beer, enjoy ribald humor, or get down for basement pool table or shuffleboard tournaments. Their family had even lived overseas. Class differences? Yeah, you might say that, although I didn’t know it then.
As I moved into my teens, my brother-in-law and I had more to say to one another, finding we both enjoyed challenging, in-depth conversations that wouldn’t long hold the attention of other family members. Oh, my family liked to argue – lord did they – but theirs wasn’t the stuff of rigorous, analytical discussion; it was often nonsensical and usually loud. In my brother-in-law I found someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to intellectually challenge me. He didn’t have to, but I think I can safely say he came to love me and the rest of his wife’s family (well, most of them I’d venture).
He treated me with respect and valued what I had to say, even if, I can well imagine, he couldn’t fathom some of my teenage girl pastimes (he did have an adopted sister of his own, but all these years later I remember clearly there was NO love lost there). Nobody had ever singled me out from the rest of the family that way and appreciated my mind before he did (my family thought all my question-asking and deep pondering was just weird).
Lest you think by now I have an idealized, child’s view of the man, I’ll assure you I don’t. My brother-in-law did not suffer fools gladly. One of his oft-used phrases when driving, said within the confines of the car about another driver’s poor technique was,
“You bought that piece of shit, now drive it.”
To breezily insult someone, even one of his sisters-in-law, he’d say, “Cute but not too bright.” He’d refer to anyone he took a dim view of as a “clown.” Once, on a long car trip to a family reunion in a neighboring state, one of my sisters was in a snit about fixing her hair with curlers in the backseat of the car. She was dissatisfied and complaining a lot, working everyone’s nerves. I guess my brother-in-law, at the wheel, had enough, because he said words to the effect of how my sister was going to look dropped off on the side of the highway with a bag of curlers shoved up her ass. Um, no, he would never really do that or harm us, but by then he knew us well. He was family.
When the marriage between my sister and brother-in-law ended, my family reacted poorly. How quick they were to turn on my brother-in-law and bad mouth him behind his back! I didn’t know the details beyond what my sister told us – and they weren’t exactly clarifying with statements like, “He’s gone crazy” – and knew there was more to the story. I had enough respect for my brother-in-law and his history as a member of our family to want to hear his side. I never did, not up to and including now.
My married sister and I weren’t especially close – there was a big age gap – and each of us was closer to other sisters. Yet, maybe because I’d reserved judgment, or maybe because she knew the connection I shared with her husband, it was me she asked to join her the day the divorce was final. Not as a celebration, more to commemorate the moment, I think. I was surprised she wanted to spend the evening with me, but pleased. We went to dinner in a nearby waterside community and afterward hired a bicycle-drawn carriage, powered by the hugely muscled legs of a buff young guy. (He must not have been too taken with us because I remember the ride as not being very long.)
I saw my former brother-in-law one more time when our family was dealing with an enormous crisis. It was awkward. I think he wanted to chat and catch up, but the timing was wrong. He disappointed me in that time period in that I felt he didn’t come through for our family. I could not tell you what he thought. Did he no longer have any reserves of love for us? Not feel any obligation? Too involved in his new life? Again, don’t know.
I can tell you this. I loved him mightily. With every passing year of my life, I’ve appreciated more and more what he did for me. He gave me a template for many relationships to come. He saw and valued what I had to offer. He loved me. He was first good man I knew.