Thy People Shall Be My People

How often do we reflect on the profundity of the simple proverb Opposites Attract? It’s a brief axiom as familiar as a surname and ordinary as an apple, but to probe its meaning and implication is to plumb a mine shaft of mystery. What do we mean when we say, “opposites attract?” Why are we so often compelled to audibly acknowledge this lucid, conspicuous truth? Why do we so frequently delight in this revelation and bask—as if it had fallen afresh upon Creation—in the joy of its light?

We feel attraction to the Opposite because so much of our lives is spent in the enduring embrace of the Known, the Familiar, and the Like. Our friends and follows, our politics, and even our pantries are all neatly curated and discriminately culled. Little about our lives anymore is foreign or happenstance. Insular unto ourselves, each unto his own, and ever more so ad infinitum.

So many of us, if left as unchecked captives to our wants and desires, would otherwise descend further and further into the inertia of our own self interests. Our affections would be guided chiefly by clannish and tribal mores. Our pursuits would be fed by the familiar and perpetuated by the predictable.

But that which is Other sparks a flash of novelty across our familiar, placid landscape. And Opposite dances a Funky Chicken to the offbeat of our innate and incessant rhythms. The Opposite in another can unexpectedly attract us because it is outside and apart from us. We can become bewitched by another’s polarity and find ourselves inexplicably and inseparably intoxicated by one’s differences in behavior, opinions, and worldview. Opposites, as they say, attract.

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One of the most delightful and enduring means by which Other has been introduced into my life has been my marriage to a daughter/granddaughter of the Roszel family. The portion of my life spent conjoined to my Rebecca Rose has been one bright, burgeoning ray of newness and novelty. My wife is both my singular Compliment and my supreme Opposite.

Of course, we share a number of overlapping interests and a similar list of essential tenets. Music, literature, and time outdoors comprise a significant portion of the former. The orthodox Christian faith, familial devotion, and conservative, constitutional patriotism the latter. The concentricity of our passions and creeds is no small portion of our relationship’s Venn Diagram. But the Otherness and even the Opposite of our personal histories and heritage is what continues to fuel an attraction.

So knitted are the events and changes of our last 18 years together, that it’s hard to recall just how many differences we brought to the His and the Hers sides of our relationship in the beginning. I was a Presbyterian minister’s son from the most densely populated state in the Union. She was a dairy farmer’s daughter from a place where you can only hear the neighbors if they’re shooting firearms or fireworks (or both). My home life was stable, almost sedentary. She was a child of divorce. Rebecca grew up on a diet of Uriah Heep, John Mellencamp, and Van Halen. My home rang with peals of Canadian Brass, Handel’s Messiah, and Peter Paul and Mary.

Rebecca met my dad while he was chaplain at Camp Susque. In a way, you could say she met him while he was “at work,” teaching and preaching at a summer camp. My first impression of her father was similar—except he was crouched under a cow, rubbing iodine on a teat when I made his acquaintance. Oil paintings and rose gardens v. beaver pelts and rifles. British Canadian traditions and manners v. Susquehanna County sensibilities. Jacob v. Esau—Opposites.

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It wasn’t until we welcomed children into our own home that Rebecca and I reflected on the unique blessing that we both held in common: Both of our fathers worked at home during much of our childhood (and these were days before people pretended to work from home on things like Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and meetings a la Zoom). Our fathers were actual masters of crafts and tended shop right upstairs or down the dirt road. We were like little smithy’s kids. I remember how my siblings and I were shushed outside when Dad had counseling appointments or sensitive phone calls, and I greeted the men of session like family. Rebecca brought her dad lunch out in the hay fields and chatted with the visiting farm vet like a familiar family friend.

Our close proximities to our fathers and their domestic professions gave us each access to their persons in a wholistic sense. We knew our fathers’ schedules and obligations and needs because our own worlds orbited and intersected theirs. We watched them bear their burdens and toil against the thorns. We felt the weight of the hard times and we shared in the celebrations of their modest (but meaningful) successes. We knew our fathers because our fathers were part of our lives. They were present—more than present—they were active pillars and living fixtures of our lives.

As I reflect now on the breadth of what was occurring seventeen and a half years ago as a young engineer from northern New Jersey was asking for The Blessing of a second-generation Pennsylvania farmer before proposing to his daughter, it seems like so much more than a bestowing of permission. It was more than a declaration of intent and a corresponding assent, more than a confession of young love and a nod of an elder’s approval. I was—there at the barn in the pre-dawn light of a Sunday morning, and then a year later on a Saturday afternoon at the front of a church sanctuary—asking for permission and then later vowing to steward another man’s greatest treasure. There was in that conversation and in our subsequent covenant a transfer of headship, and an entrusting to me and to Providence the care of a good man’s only daughter.

My mind keeps coming back to that morning at the barn in these days since the death of Rebecca’s father in July. It stands now as one of the bookends of a relationship that has ended here on earth. I continue to reflect on what was asked, what was promised, what was granted, and what was given. I consider all the ways that those things have played out and have been fulfilled over a year-long engagement and 16.5 years of marriage. But I am surprised to realize that never—neither at his Blessing nor in any of the subsequent days—never did I once consider the fact that I would be caring for Rebecca after her father’s death. The shortsightedness of Youth is blind to even the most obvious facts of fate.

At 22 years old, standing before a man exactly double my age, I had no wealth or portfolio to present as dowry. I could not hang a persuasive speech upon any assurance outside of myself and my aspirations. My career at that point consisted of a summer internship and a week of entry-level orientation. My debts far surmounted my assets. I was at best earnest and honest and eager to try. But beyond my words, I offered hardly anything more than a pink carnation and a pickup truck.

Since that Sunday morning conversation with her father, I think that I have in many ways spent 17.5 years striving to—humbly, respectfully, with a good and grateful heart—be considered worthy to stand in the place of that man, my father-in-law. This is no small thing, and it occurs in no modicum of time. Both in his sight and beyond it, within his home or my own, I had aspired to earn his respect, to make good on my simple youthful promises, and to assuage beyond reasonable doubt any fears for his daughter’s condition. My wife’s hands had, as it were, always been just-received into my own from her father’s at the head of the aisle. The answer to “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” still as ardent a focus, as magnificent a burden of duty, and as joyful an aspiration to fulfill.

Under normal circumstances, from the vantage of youth, marriage does in many ways feel like standing in the place of a man—with fear and trembling at times. And Youth hardly knows any better (in fact, Christ’s rebuke to the sons of Zebedee, “You do not know what you ask,” comes to mind). But young men in ages past and present have hardly ceased to scale those mountains and to stand astride their summits. This is at least a small part of what is meant when a man is said to “leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife.” But beyond the wooing and the wedding, beyond the rings and the vows, a young man at his wedding receives a vetting and a validation. When a young man receives The Blessing of his father-in-law, he is being entrusted—invited, even—to stand in the place of his wife’s protector, provider, and primary authority. There is a real transfer of stewardship, and a profound charge of the most precious kind.

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A father-in-law/son-in-law relationship is unique in many ways. It is one of the rare instances where two men can love the same woman without significant tension (or bloodshed). It is a love without jealousy or competition, without subversion or sabotage. It is an extraordinary and many-splendored thing in the world of Men. So the death of my wife’s dad was more than the loss of my father-in-law. It is more than the greatest source of earthly sorrow that my bride has ever known.

Here we now stand together at this new threshold, Rebecca and I—the loss of the first parent between us. I am lacking the distant but affectionate approval of my wife’s father. I have lost his “Old Son…” wisdom and a seat at his hand-made table. I will miss the thrill of psyching myself up to tell him a story and the quiet euphoria of occasional successes. My wife, though, is more likened to a satellite thrown off its orbit, tumbling through the ether past the memories and memorabilia of her father’s life. It is at the loss of her father that we have truly and most accurately started to plumb his impact and legacy in our lives. It is only in his wake that we realize what a wide berth he occupied on our horizons.

Suddenly I find myself, as it were, rowing in the boat alone, my fellow oarsman no longer pulling from the other side. I may heave and strain against my oar earnestly, but there are very real ways in which our modest craft is only spiraling, albeit broadly. It is a question of balance, and the answers remain elusive. No longer does my wife draw assurance and security and affection from that other oar. My wife has lost the other great love of her life. And she has lost that special man who loved her first, as the country song says so well.

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Perhaps a young buck thinks that he is loving his girl well if he loves her better than her father did (or still does). Perhaps the ideals of immaturity can be forgiven for aspiring—innocently, ignorantly—to stand in the place of father, brother, uncle, grandpa, etc. with a love that is unique and enticing and debonair. But the humility and wisdom that only come with age teach a man that his greatest aspiration should be perhaps to only stand alongside his wife’s kin with his devotion—a love enduring and ethereal but different. He will, after all, only ever (if he does his job well and for long enough) establish himself as a primary oar on one side of his wife’s galley.

A young man does well to live a married life worthy of standing in succession to his father-in-law, be he nobleman, journeyman, hero, or hermit. It is the wise man who realizes with contentment that his wife’s heart is never really his sole possession, whether in sickness or in health, in joy or in sorrow, or “‘til death do us part.”

Autumn 2021

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