At dinner the other night, I mentioned words to this effect, and my wife recalled a previous time, exactly 20 years ago, when another set of circumstances—trying to bring our newly-bought old house to livable condition—forced us all to spend nine weeks in a small bedroom at my in-laws house in Skokie. Another experience that was far more pleasant than we had any right to expect, as I documented in this column at the time.
Since I often point out when columns are much longer than today, I should mention that this is from the period when my columns ran Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the latter two in the features section weighing in at a scant 600 words.
For years, whenever I wanted to sing the praises of my in-laws—Irv and Dorothy Goldberg—I would cite the most amazing fact I knew about them: that in the seven years I dated their daughter before we got married, they never asked about my intentions. Never.
Not one sly hint. Not one probing question. Not a murmur.
Instead, they acted . . . (and this is so incredible I can hardly articulate it) . . . as if . . . it were . . . none of their business.
How rare is that?
But this summer, a new wonder eclipsed the Long Engagement Silence. I moved into their home in Skokie, with my wife and two young sons, while our new house was fixed.
We moved in. And we stayed. And stayed.
For nine weeks. Nine weeks and some change.
Take a moment. Think about your in-laws. Or think about your adult children and their families. How would you get along? All packed into the same house. And not some big honking McMansion, either. A modest, two-bedroom ranch house with one full bathroom.
How long until you were strangling each other?
A few days, judging from my friends. I have enjoyed the sympathy of everyone I know this summer, just by letting slip "We've been staying with my in-laws for two . . ." then four, then eight -- "weeks."
With this shock still washing over my listener, I really broke out the violins.
"The four of us," I'd sigh, "all crowded together in one tiny bedroom."
My friend would exude pity, and I would feel a pang of secret shame. Because though I had recited the cold facts correctly, mere facts can mislead.
The truth is: It was great.
My wife loved being with her parents. My kids loved being with their bubbie and zaydie. I loved living in a house crammed with people and home cooking.
And my in-laws seemed to enjoy having us. They really did. I know that because I watched them like a hawk for nine weeks, waiting for any whisper of complaint or criticism.
Here's what I came up with.
My father-in-law once said: "There's more beer in the refrigerator downstairs."
That's it. The comment struck me as a veiled criticism. A reply formed, and I almost growled: "I know. That's where I got this one."
I kept quiet. Not that I've perfected restraint. I still have the tendency to open my mouth and let whatever thoughts are in my head pour out onto the floor.
But I have also begun to admire discretion, and am learning at the feet of masters. I realized, very quickly, that my father-in-law was not saying, "Enough with the beer, Booze Boy." He wasn't being sarcastic. He was informing me that, if I wanted more beer, there was some. In the basement.
We all moved out Monday. It was a cool, cloudy day. My wife and I didn't feel the joy of liberation. We felt, as we silently packed, a certain melancholy, as if a special time in our lives was ending, something we hadn't planned, but that came about through the incredible slowness of our painters. An accident. A gift.
I didn't thank my in-laws profusely. Just a few words, with a handshake for Irv and a hug and kiss for Dorothy. None of the speeches I like to make.
Although there is one thing I'd like to say. Many times, over the summer, my mother-in-law would express concern over how we were faring at her house. Not an-invitation-to-leave-disguised-as-concern concern or control-your-damn-boys-masked-as-concern concern. Just concern. Real concern.
And I would always look at her and say: "Dorothy, if I knew how much I was going to enjoy staying with you, I wouldn't have bothered to buy a house. We'd just have moved in here."
We'd both laugh, as if it was a joke. But it wasn't a joke. I meant it.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 2000.