The Un-y-mooners: the grand finale
Here are the links to previous chapters in this series:
After a wonderful whirl-wind trip with the usual share of mishaps, some hilarious, others unnerving, we grabbed a taxi to the airport. We thought we were early and in fact, by Asian standards, we were.
So, imagine our dismay when we arrived at the Lufthansa seating area and saw at least several hundred people for what was supposed to be a 200-seater, through Frankfurt, to New York. Nevertheless, ever the optimists, we sat patiently until the the agent called for boarding. Or so we expected.
About an hour after our scheduled departure time (yes), a plane taxied past our window, way, way out on the tarmac somewhere. Could that be our transportation back to civilization, we wondered? It looked so tiny. No sooner had it come into clear view, than a rush of people stormed the door to the maintenance area and sped toward the aircraft, as if propelled by some subliminal message. Geoff and I exchanged puzzled glances and stayed obediently in our seats.
No, the agents didn’t announce boarding. No they didn’t restrain the crowd. No they didn’t rein them back in or broadcast a warning. Literally within five minutes, the plane was full. Wait, what? We have tickets! We have boarding passes! We have seat assignments! Geoffrey approached the agents’ station and got on a line of mostly Europeans who were buzzing among themselves in confusion that mirrored ours.
Then we saw our plane taxi toward what we assumed was the runway. And with that, it was gone.
We looked at each other in astonishment and then the panic set in. Ah! But, not to fear. This was Lufthansa, after all. Germans are nothing if not sticklers for law and order. We felt some relief when the agent announced — in German, which neither of us speak — what we gathered was the imminent arrival of another plane for the rest of us, who now numbered about 300. All around us people began sitting on the floor and opening cloth parcels containing — food, … ohhh … nooooooooooo. We noticed that they were largely Indians. OK, ok, ok. No worries, calm down, let’s just trust and await our new aircraft.
At long last we were ushered, wordlessly, in a line of weary and willing humanity down a long corridor to … wait for it … the Air India terminal! Our tickets, boarding passes and seat assignments, we were now made to understand somehow, were being transferred to another carrier. When the plane itself lumbered into view and shuddered to a stop out on the pavement about 100 yards from the window we were staring from, it was clear that this was part of AI’s backup fleet. There are no civil words to express the string of expletives that came out of my new husband’s mouth and that even the most parochial of Hindi speakers must have known were not encomiums to that machine.
After another hour of waiting, we were allowed to traipse across the asphalt, dodging potholes, and climb steep rickety open metal stairs to our seats, which bore no resemblance to the ones we had paid for. The plane did not stop in Germany, but made the entire 26 hour flight to New York — oh yes — in one long grueling marathon, with only a quick refueling touchdown. Guess whether the food and lavatories held up?
Our return to NYC was bittersweet. Geoffrey had been offered an amazing opportunity in San Francisco and I got a preliminary invitation to teach at Stanford. But, as luck would have it, at the last minute my mother-in-law lamented that she needed him nearby in Los Angeles because her younger boys were giving her problems and her executive husband was rarely around. So, dutifully, Geoffrey agreed to move back to LA, leaving me to fend for myself work-wise, to make his never satisfied family happy. He also had to look for a job and now both of us would be doing that with less then stellar track records.
We packed up my Mercedes, which though virtually a block long (or so it seems in hindsight today), was still too small for all the stuff I felt I couldn’t send in a moving van (which literally was a block long). As I looked at that truck, I realized that I was hauling around so much materialia, a virtual albatross, that I could never just pick up and move again. And that was decades ago! Among the occupants of my car, was my blind, elderly, female Cockatiel, Fulana. That is another long story, but suffice to say, driving across country with a large bird and cage would prove to be one of the great challenges of my life. How many nights we had to sneak her into the motel room or sleep in the car with her, I will leave you to imagine. The trip took almost two weeks and we got to stop along the way to admire parts of this country I had never seen like Missouri and New Mexico — both two of my favorite places now. The Ozarks and the night skies of Albuquerque are matchless anywhere else.
After what seemed like the longest ordeal of the century, we crawled down from Barstow into Los Angeles and arrived at my in-laws beach house, dusty and weary. I was nervous already, so intimidating were Emily (my MIL) and her retinue. One thing I learned living with wealthy, gregarious bi-coastal people like Geoff’s parents, was that they always had a crowd of people coming, going, staying, visiting or calling them out to events somewhere. There was never a quiet moment when they were in town. And, when they were at one of their other four homes, some of the hangers-on they accumulated would invite themselves to stay at the rambling multilevel beach-front home anyway. It was a circus. The night we arrived Heidi was there with her husband and children. As we came in the door, she brushed past me as if I were invisible, on her way out to a party. I was to discover that Heidi, territorial and insular, was feeling that I was what I now realize is her idea of an elite, Ivy League, snobbish, threatening East Coaster. Had I only understood that this was a cultural phenomenon of the fly-over Staters, I might not have taken it so personally.
That same night, barely had we caught our breaths, when Emily sent us out to the store as their favorite delivery service was unavailable, and she had invited people for dinner (not in our honor, mind you). Geoffrey thought he was more than clever by making a quick run to what was Stan’s Liquor, a place that carried the kinds of upscale provisions the coupon-clipping beach aristocracy in the South Bay liked to have on hand for the impromptu champagne-and-caviar fete. At Stan’s, as I was nervously tooling up and down the aisles, feeling like the frumpy slum cousin in an oversized boyfriend shirt and pinwale cords, I bumped into an exquisitely architected tower of giant imported plum tomato cans, the topmost of which promptly fell and hit my foot, smashing a sandal-nude toe.
Laid up for the remainder of the night with an eggplant throbbing at the end of my right foot, we were then treated to — oh yes, why not? — an earthquake. Geoffrey was on the other side of the room and he and his family observed my reaction to the enormous house swaying back and forth with considerable interest. Not rushing to reassure me where I was marooned, they simply went on with their conversation as if nothing was amiss. I was devastated. This was not the idyllic introduction to SoCal that I had envisioned. It was little comfort either that when I finally hobbled to the balcony, I was to be blinded by the sight of scantily clad Amazons, perched high atop roller blades, tanned like Fabio, zipping past rows of celebrating beach nobility, some of these goddesses with drinks in hand. I was crestfallen. Now I really was feeling like the buttoned up college professor, handicapped, exhausted to tears, cold-shouldered by my new “family”, and feeling 40, while only in my twenties.
My MIL, I thought at first to give her credit, planned a West Coast reception to announce to all their important friends that Geoffrey was married. As the heroine of DuMaurier’s Rebecca notes pitifully in one scene, “what a slap in the eye” I must have been. First off, I was not blonde and everyone in California is or tries to be. Secondly, I was not, err, how to put this delicately, top heavy. I could feel myself shrinking in stature with every day that passed that first month. We found a condo within walking distance of the family (ugh). Fulana was settled in. We had a balcony with a remote ocean view. We only fought over the placement of the furniture once. Geoffrey found a suitable job right away. Still, I cried every single night, after we returned from his parents’ house where we had to make a pilgrimage regularly so Geoff could “bond” again.
The day of the important party finally arrived. So did my things from NY and I pulled out a beautiful handmade dress I got at a trendy boutique on Madison Avenue. I wish I had kept it. It was of black polished cotton, with a shirred bodice, little delicate puffed sleeves, tiny buttons up the front, a flared out skirt with a tasteful ruffle at the hem. The material itself was stamped with tiny colored flowers. I loved it. I wore some strappy multicolored patent sandals I had bought in Florence, that picked up the colors in the dress and the black background. I added small diamond flower earrings and thought I looked perfect for a West Coast summer gathering.
My parents-in-law were well connected. My FIL was the genius behind an ultra successful investment firm with offices all over the world. He knew everyone that was anyone in Manhattan and Beverly Hills. So, they invited these people to our reception, held high atop Palos Verdes on a windy cliff overlooking the Pacific. Cocktails were timed to coincide with a glorious sunset. The food was all flawless, the tables glittered with gold and silver laid out elegantly on snow white linens. The flowers were flown in from Hawaii. It was all magical, except, of course, not a soul thought to ask me for any input at all or what I thought of the whole idea in the first place.
Over 250 people arrived in the usual gleaming black or white chariots of that day. I knew no one. Well, with the exception of two people: my mother-in-law’s maid’s niece and her maid’s daughter. The latter was hired to clean our modest starter apartment, a stone’s throw from the in-laws. Both of them eyed me warily with a fair amount of unvarnished jealousy.
Geoffrey knew everyone. There were heads of investment banks, politicians — including a former POTUS, who was on a Board with my father-in-law — lots of corporate CEOs, some chairmen of charities that Emily worked on, and a lot of Geoffrey’s family’s former neighbors and schoolmates. Including an ex-girlfriend of one brother. She and Geoff spent the night getting drunk and reminiscing. Since I don’t touch alcohol, I found little to console me.
An entire room was dedicated to the gifts people inevitably brought, even when told to refrain. A sleek van idled outside all night in anticipation of loading up the treasures and taking them somewhere (to the in-laws house, as it turned out, so Emily could make sure the proper thank yous were sent, I being a barbarian, apparently). I spent time glancing over the tables as they filled up and absently fingered the gift cards, with famous names that I recognized but who only knew me as “… and his bride”.
To make matters even worse, one of the two ladies that worked for my mother-in-law, a single mother about ten years older than I, wore a billowing white dress and tucked enormous roses in her very dark hair. All evening long, people congratulated her on her marriage to my new husband. Geoff’s family loved it and had quite a few laughs for years to come. It didn’t endear them to me, is all I have to say. And, Nuria, the white-clad Beth analogue, developed a haughty attitude toward me thereafter, turning her back dramatically or flouncing out of the room whenever we were in the same place. Did I hear you say “galling”?
As I write and think about this fitting final chapter to the Un-y-moon saga I have shared here by installment, it strikes me as an almost sad and angry tale. Somehow, we overcame all this and managed to eke out our own lives, especially by moving away from the force of this powerful galaxy in which we were supposed to orbit. My MIL slowly mellowed, never quite understanding or liking me, you understand, but coming to spend time with me without trying to dominate and criticize my very different approach to womanhood. Like many traditional wives, brought up in sheltered families where men provided everything except respect and emotional support, the women in my husband’s family knew no other type of role and were offended by what they saw as my superiority complex. Honestly, I never felt superior, just independent. I was an adult, an educated and I thought liberated East Coast professional. I didn’t see myself in the same light that Heidi, Geoffrey’s sister did. Heidi married a rich, strong man, whose money and stature in his own sphere enabled my SIL to glide carefreely from one jeweled abode to another. She took my candid opinions and frank comments to Geoffrey as an indicator that I thought I was better than she was and that has caused her to resent and reject me to this very day. I just no longer care.
Things went on like this for some years, no matter how I tried to change the atmosphere. Little slights that hurt and were meant to put me in my place were constant. Such as the time I asked for an apron to use while in the kitchen helping to prepare dinner and Emily turned to Heidi with a bemused smile and said, “I never needed an apron. Did you?” To which my SIL slowly shook her head in mock disgust. I wanted to tell them it was to keep the food prep area sanitary, not because I was such a clod. But, I was properly cowed. Or the time Emily gave everyone in a large group a dish to prepare, then looked at me quizzically and said, “Beth, I think you can handle the lettuce, can’t you?”, as if I had been raised by wolves. Or the many meals that were anchored by beef or lamb and only left me, the lone vegetarian at that juncture, with a roll and a potato, no apologies made.
You could argue that Geoff fell down on his responsibility to welcome me into his overwhelming family and lay down rules for them to treat me at least with some courtesy and politesse, but he was spoiled. He was used to his mother doting on him, her handsomest son, the one with the most promise in her mind. The one to take the place of her largely absentee spouse. It took years of arguments for my husband to see what was going on and reluctantly cut those apronless strings.
The rest of this blog has posts scattered throughout that shed light on the times and events that have followed. As we both turn 50 shortly (yikes!), we have come to a place of equilibrium. Heidi lost her husband and is now less of a presence in our lives. Emily is experiencing cognitive decline. My father-in-law died suddenly years ago. The other brothers are around but consumed with families of their own. And most importantly, we live nowhere near any of them and that has been a true lifesaver.
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I want to dedicate this “finale” post to the memory of my dear blogging friend, Susan Irene Fox, who passed away suddenly last August. She loved the Un-y-moon series, appreciated all my ironies and jokes and was one of my biggest supporters. As she did with so many people, she offered me her warm, kind, loving advice, and helped me to see a way to accept the adversities that come even into the most fortunate of lives, like mine. God Bless you, Susan. How I miss you and think of you often.
And to my loyal friend Bob, with whom I have had such lively discussions on all sorts of things, including places we share, as in New Jersey, New York and Southern California: You are the best, Bob.
Images: Chez BeBe assets and Creative Commons