I Do: Belonging

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

Editor's Note: For the month of February, we're launching a series exploring the joys and struggles of marriage, broaching the topic from multiple angles for the sake of helping, healing, and considering.

I found the letter the other day on the top shelf of the closet, where all the forgotten things go.

It was the only letter my father-in-law ever wrote to me. His stationery: a piece of paper ripped from a spiral-bound notebook. I excavated the note from an old paper bag and held it in my hands, this artifact of my life story. How could I have forgotten?

Kneeling down on the closet floor, in a shaft of dim light by the laundry hamper, I straightened out the paper creases and read old words. My heart quickened, just as it did when I first read his penned words seven years earlier. I remember how the letter felt like a weight in my hands when I slid my finger under the envelope flap. Why would a father-in-law feel the need to write his daughter-in-law?

He was the only person who ever called me Jenny. But this letter started with the more formal "Dear Jennifer.” Then he wrote, “A father always wonders what his son is going to bring home as his wife, and if she will fit into the family.”

He used 125 words in all, writing in his trademark mix of uppercase and lowercase letters. And he said what he needed to say. After I read the letter, I knew. I knew exactly how a stoic Vietnam veteran felt about this girl who had come home to his farm.

I wanted to measure up to the standards he held for his children. It’s not that he put pressure on me. A people-pleaser by nature, I did enough of that on my own.

I remember, for instance, how my father-in-law would talk about farming at the kitchen table. He spoke of grain markets or the price of a combine. I’d quietly chew my roast beef, nodding my head as if I understood. I wonder what went through his mind during those long afternoons, when we sat inside his fishing boat. Did he notice that I put a minnow on my own hook? Or did he roll his eyes, seeing how I performed the task with manicured nails? I wore lipstick the day we planted evergreen trees side by side, and he warned me that my shirt might get dirty. I hoped he was teasing.

He was a gracious man, the kind of fellow who would hold a door open for you. He loved my daughters, and I watched how he would sit cross-legged on the floor when the girls hosted toy-room tea parties.

I wanted him to love me. He didn’t get to choose which woman was folded into his family. I wanted him to approve of the one his son brought home. Because when you say “I do,” it’s not just a marriage between two people at the altar.

When he wrote the letter, he must have known that I needed to hear it, even if he couldn't say it out loud: "When you helped plant the trees and went fishing ... I knew you were a 'keeper.'"

My eyes fill up now reading those words again, for they are the richest inheritance—a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself.

“I know it is not easy living with your in-laws this close,” he wrote, “but just remember that we are very happy to have you here. I couldn’t have picked out a better wife for Scott.”

I don't think I told him until his last day, when he lay on the hospice bed, that I loved him. But I did. I told him I loved him.

And nobody calls me Jenny anymore.

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The "I Do" Collection

Image by Dan Coulter. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Jennifer Dukes Lee.