When I first met him, I thought he was harmless.
Gray hair atop his ears, circling skyward in thin lines leaving a shiny silver dollar gleaming off the top, overalls without a shirt, a bit of a belly, and Velcro strap shoes on his size twelve feet, my father-in-law appeared the poster boy for NRA card-carrying southern Illinois backwoodsman, housing chickens, tractors, car parts, and a small arsenal on his ten acres of wooded property only fifteen minutes from my parents’ suburban spread. Along with my teenage romance with his son, I felt intrigued.
Over the years, he schooled me in a new lifestyle, one far removed from my immensely liberal upbringing. I learned to shoot guns with precision, even better than his youngest son. I hatched a duckling after his mother tired of his slow pursuit to break free of his crackling cage. I listened intently to his rants of all the “goddamned liberals” that were ruining our society, challenging him to debate though I secretly admired his passion.
Of him, my mother-in-law always claimed, “You’ll never find another person more loving and more forgiving than that man I fell in love with. Devotion to his family. It’s what he’s all about.”
Existing in my life as another father, he teased me when I walked in his house with a new swimming suit, readying myself to plunge into the snake-infested waters on his property.
“Don’t let those cottons bite ya in the ass,” he teased, his strangely southern accent bordering on J.R. in Dallas, though he’d grown up only a hundred miles south in a place he referred to as “Bone Hollar”, Missouri.
He doted over his grandchildren as they entered his life one-by-one, repeating utterances of killing anyone who dared mess with them. He firmly supported the death-penalty, private school vouchers, and the right “to bear arms”, whatever that meant. And he told me that he loved me.
A college education and graduation into the real-world, however, skewed my view of my father-in-law. Ages-old arguments between him and my father re-erupted, forcing me to choose sides. My father was right, my father-in-law was wrong, and this I still believe. For a while I came to loathe my father-in-law, refusing to accompany my husband to his parents’ farm unless forced due to a holiday. I relentlessly chastised the ugliness of his new mule, a baby he’d helped birth on a stormy night and cared for as a child.
“You’re making my dad mad,” my husband whispered. “Stop.” I narrowed my eyes and sought new disturbances, picking fights about anything political or school-related just to goad a rise out of that man I’d once admired, one I now viewed as a selfish bigot.
After having a child, his grandchild, I silenced a little, choosing bygones and such in honor of my daughter’s love for all her grandparents. And so we fell into a comfortable, if not close acquaintanceship shared by in-laws who really know nothing of one another.
Years later, my father-in-law allowed a homeless woman looking for work and a clean home to stay in his recently remodeled apartment house. He’d worked tirelessly to restore the house after the beatings it received from his own family only to allow some strange woman to stay there only in exchange for painting the baseboards. She also agreed to look for work.
My mother-in-law felt suspicion. My husband expressed concern. My father-in-law had, it seemed, willingly and personally extended that condition unbeknownst to so many of the conservative persuasion – welfare.
I was ready to canonize him.
“Good for your dad!” I exclaimed at my husband’s quizzical outbursts. “Don’t you ever read stories about society’s last saviors? Wow, your dad’s one of them.”
It was only a month after allowing this mystery woman to set up shack in his apartment that the rug slipped out from under him. He’d shown up early to drive her to her job orientation only to find her hung-over and unwilling to go. Why was he driving her? Well, it seems she’d been “unfairly” issued a DUI, and my father-in-law, this once too trusting, felt necessary to give her a break and take his own personal time away from work to help her to her feet. He told her to be out in an hour.
Mere hours later, he stood ankle deep in concrete sludge in my driveway, helping pave out the rough surfaces. I slowly approached him, gauging his mood, struggling to find the right words.
“You still did the right thing,” I finally said, scuffing the landscape with a worn sandal. He stepped out of the sludge and prepared to move our fence.
“Throwing her out.” He said it as a statement rather than a question. Watching him jerk on the fence, jamming in the screwdriver, I felt his anger. Anger bubbling because his son wasn’t here, anger bubbling because he knew he’d go home to hear a dozen “I told you so’s”, anger with himself for being so gullible, once again.
“No,” I said. “For helping her. You can’t go through life thinking everyone’s bad, that everyone’s out only for themselves.”
“You think so.” He was angry, still stating rather than questioning. But his anger derived from pain, a pain I recognized from knowing this man since I was really only a child.
“Yes. Not everyone would do what you did, but they should. You did the right thing. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
“Okay,” his face softened, giving me a sidelong glance. He was absorbing it, all of it, I knew. “I’ll be back.” Walking to his truck, his stride was a little stronger, his swagger returning.
Yes, you will, I thought.
I believe that so many of us lack the courage, yet yearn to bring out the best of humanity, though some hide it more than others. I believe in karma, or fate, or maybe both, and that my father-in-law will reap the benefits of his actions, sooner rather than later, I hope. And I believe that in family, even that which is extended, we often spend so much time mulling over our hurts and needs fallen unmet that we forget to support one another. And familial support exists essentially alongside food, clothing, and shelter. Give, and such shall be received.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.