When You Say I Do

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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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. And how could I have forgotten?

I knelt 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. I felt my heart quicken, 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.” And then he wrote this: “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. I’d quietly chew my roast beef, nodding my head as if I understood when he spoke about grain markets or the price of a combine. I wondered what he thought of me during those long afternoons, when I sat on his fishing boat. Did he notice that I put bait on my own hook? Or did he roll his eyes that I performed the task with manicured nails? I wore lipstick the day I planted evergreen trees with him, and he warned me that I’d get my shirt 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 that his son brought home. Because when you say “I do,” it’s not just a marriage between two people at the altar.

He must have known I needed to hear what he had to say that day. He said he wrote me, because he wanted me to know that he loved me. He was proud of me. "When you helped plant the trees and went fishing ... I knew you were a 'keeper.'"

My eyes fill up reading those words again. These words, 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.

But nobody calls me Jenny anymore.

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