Twelve years ago my best friend Troy, who is African American, married Maria, an Italian American woman. It was a small wedding with close friends and a handful of family. After the ceremony and everyone was enjoying the reception, Nina, Maria’s older sister, arrived unexpectedly. She walked past the guests and stood before Maria. Nina slapped her and hissed, “I can’t believe you went ahead and married that nigger,” then stormed out.
Maria’s immediate family never approved of the marriage. Her mother, who was Italian and came to the U.S. before any of her children were born, refused to recognize her daughter’s relationship and made it so that no one else would support it as well. Consequently, no one from Maria’s family came to her wedding except for her sister who spoiled what should have been the happiest day of her life.
The following years were equally as difficult as I watched Troy’s struggle to deal with the family’s refusal to accept his marriage to Maria. Holidays were spent with only Troy’s mother, his cousins, Maria and me – no member of her family would visit, call or send a card.
It wasn’t until the birth of their first of three children, that Maria and her mother would begin to talk briefly on the phone. Eventually that led to short visits, but the mother still would refuse acknowledge Troy. A second child was born and soon Maria began to visit her family but not with her husband. The holiday routine was this – we would have an early Christmas dinner in Manhattan, then Maria would load the kids up in the car and drive to visit her family. This routine would continue for eight years and I remember sitting with Troy and listen to him vow he will never have anything to do with her family until they apologize for their behavior.
A third child was born and there were medical complications that required major surgery soon after his birth. Though it was considered routine by the doctors, he did have to spend several days in an incubator with IVs attached to his arm. We were sitting in the hospital room shortly after his operation when out of the blue, the mother showed up. She gave Maria a kiss, said hello to Troy, took one look at the baby and started to cry. In that moment, everything changed and soon we slowly became one family. We started having meals at the mother’s home, and even celebrated part of the holidays with Maria’s mother, siblings and their families. Two years ago, after having an Easter dinner with the family, Nina handed Troy an envelope. In it was a card with a handwritten apology for everything she had said and done over the years. “I am so ashamed of myself and I hope one day, you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.” Eventually, he did.
Now it’s my turn to get married. It will be an interfaith, interracial ceremony. And guess what: everyone will be there, including Nina, her mother, the other siblings and their families. Word has it they are all excited about coming to my wedding.
So whenever someone says, “that’s just the way they are, they’ll never change,” I say “yes they can, but only if they really want to.”
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