In-Laws, Out-Laws, and By-Laws

Audrey Thompson

When Ivan returned from the Diana Kennedy cookbook signing at Sam Weller’s yesterday, I was on the phone. Ivan looked at me inquiringly. “It’s Joe,” I told him.

“Who?” he asked.

“Joe,” I repeated.

“Joe who?” asked Ivan.

We really just know one Joe. Ivan knows a Joe at work but I’ve never met him. There is only one Joe I would be laughing with on the phone on a Saturday night. “Joe your brother-in-law,” I said.

“I am not his brother-in-law,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

Ivan smoking a pipe

Ivan and Joe in my apartment in 1980

I thought maybe Joe was miffed at Ivan’s not remembering who he was, but it turned out that Joe just wanted to quarrel about terminology. A woman Joe knows from work had told him that, in her country, distinctions are made between types of in-laws. The sister of her husband is not in the same category as the wife of her brother, and the wife of her husband’s brother is in a different category from either. They are not lumped together in the category “sisters-in-law.” “In India,” said Joe, “there is a different term for every kind of relationship.” He paused to reflect on this categorical statement. “According to this one woman,” he amended.

This hesitation to attribute one person’s statement to the customs of an entire race, sex, culture, country, or subcontinent is worth noting, because you don’t run into it every day. Typically, if someone has met even one member of another group, they feel that they can speak authoritatively for the group as a whole. This holds true regardless of how fleeting the acquaintance might have been. A few years ago, in a class studying the Jim Crow regime after Reconstruction, a white student told the rest of us with an air of finality, “I once met a very articulate African-American man, and he told me that he did not mind segregation at all. He said that it was no big deal to drink out of separate water fountains.” It is possible that the man really didn’t mind separate-but-equal laws. It is also possible that he just wanted to see how gullible this woman was. The more pressing question is why this young woman thought that if she personally had met someone who claimed that he did not mind dealing with American apartheid — and it is touching that she believed that a stranger would confide in her like that — then that personal testimony trumped anything you might read in a book. Many people like to hear such personal testimonies, although there is no shortage of research on how African Americans felt about separate-but-equal laws. It is not necessary to go up to strangers to ask them for the inside dope.

Setting aside the question as to whether all people in India do in fact rigorously differentiate between types of in-laws — and I am not sure even about this one woman, because Joe’s information was sketchy in the extreme — it does raise the question as to whether we might need better relationship categories.

My mother has developed scrupulously distinct categories for friends and acquaintances. “A warm acquaintance and someone I saw every day for years but not someone I could ever call ’Du’,” might be one category, for example, and “an ex-friend who is now a cool, nodding acquaintance, although actually I wouldn’t mind spitting at her,” is by no means an empty category, along with “someone I like but Tom hates her husband.”

My father has more sweeping categories than my mother does. People he has known since birth are good friends even if he does not particularly like them; other people are never more than pleasant acquaintances.

Marian, Tom and friends
Marian (front right) and Tom (standing) and good friends

Friends from Germany and Brazil are the exception — they are like family.

Pfeiffers, Thompsons, and Schattkes in Worms, Germany
Pfeiffers, Thompsons, and Schattkes in Worms, Germany

Audrey with Ute Schattke
Audrey with Ute Schattke
Schattkes and Thompsons
Schattkes and Thompsons
Maggie Schattke with Audrey and Chuckie
Maggie Schattke with Audrey and Chuckie
Maggie with Tommy Gilray
Maggie with Tommy Gilray
Schattkes and family, with Marian
Schattkes and family, with Marian

I am not going to try to explain this rule, because I don’t fully understand it myself. It is just one of those rules, like cat rules, that no one who is not a cat or my Dad could possibly understand. I understand why the Schattkes are like family. That part is easy. What I don’t understand is how you can know someone intimately for more than half your life and still feel that they are new acquaintances.

One of Mom’s closest friends has known my parents for close to forty years. She sees Mom twice a week and Dad every Sunday. After talking with Laurel recently, Dad said to Mom thoughtfully, “I realize we don’t know Laurel all that well, but I sure do like her.”

“Laurel is one of my dearest friends in the world. I know her well. Exceptionally well,” said Mom.

“Don’t you agree with me? Isn’t she a nice person?” said Dad.

There may be something of a gender divide at work here.

Tom and Marian in a Cat Hat
Tom and Marian

Some years ago, while golfing, Mom and Dad ran across another couple whom they knew slightly; they talked for a while about people they’d happened to run into recently, and the woman asked Mom what she thought of someone I’ll call Deirdre. “I really don’t know Deirdre very well,” said Mom demurely. After the other couple had moved on, Dad asked Mom, “Why did you say that you don’t know Deirdre very well? You’ve known her almost since we got married.” “I know her but I don’t like her, ” Mom explained. “When a woman says that she doesn’t know someone else very well, that means she doesn’t like them.”

It is not impossible to be someone my mother doesn’t like and still be on her Christmas card list. The Christmas card list is a whole category in itself; it plays by separate rules.

One category, Mom invented especially for one particular family — I’ll call them the Martins.

That was the I-like-them-but-no-more-gift-exchanges-because-I-can’t-stand-any-more-of-this-junk category. Between tennis matches at the country club, Mrs. Martin would drop by warehouse and going-out-of-business sales where she could buy two dozen plastic horses with clocks in the bellies at a dollar apiece to give away as Christmas gifts. The Martins gave horse belly clocks even to their own kids. To each other, they gave ski trips and antique furniture, but they seemed to truly like the junk that they gave the rest of us. Mrs. Martin told me that she was just sorry that she hadn’t been able to find more plastic horse clocks, because she would have liked one for herself. Since she had four kids, there were already four horse clocks in the house, but I guess if you really like something you can always use more.

The year that the Martins gave me an old bedspread they had found in the attic and gave Chuck a life-size poster of Archie Bunker that they’d found at a sidewalk sale turned out to be the final gift-exchange year.

Friends like the Martins require special categories. A category implies that there is more than one family in it, but most people are not lucky enough to know people like the Martins. Larry Parker used to beg me to tell him stories about them. “Tell me about the Martins! Tell me the one about the wallpaper again!” he’d plead.

The wallpaper story is a story about half-baked plans. Most stories about the Martins were stories of half-bakedness. The letters I sent my grandparents when I was ten years old are full of reports like, “We went skiing yesterday but it did not work out very well. Mr. Martin’s car got stuck in the snow. He had chains on his tires, but all of them broke.” The letters were very earnest, as if this sort of thing might happen to anyone, though it never happened to anyone but the Martins.

Chuck, Tom and Audrey in Verbier in 1967
Chuck, Tom and Audrey in Verbier in 1967

Chuck skiing

About once a month, Barb and Chuck would be invited over to the Martins’ house to play; when they got there, Chuck and the Martin boys would be told to paint the outside of the house or mow the lawn before they could play, while Barb and Susie Martin would be told to dust and vacuum before they being allowed to go outside to play. Once while Barb was helping Susie clean, she noticed a square patch of wallpaper torn from a wallpaper book and glued crookedly in the middle of one of the walls of the den. She asked Mrs. Martin about it. “Oh that!” said Mrs. Martin merrily. “Mr. Martin just wanted to see what that wallpaper would look like in here, so he glued it to the wall. Now we can’t get it off.” Four years later, the swatch of wallpaper was still in its haphazard place of honor.

As the friendship dwindled over the years, Mrs. Martin slid into the fake recipe category of friendship. Bare acquaintances who asked Mom for a special recipe would be told, “I’m sorry, that’s a family secret.” Good friends, though, would be given the recipe. Fair-weather friends would get the modified recipe — minus a little salt, minus the mustard, minus the basil. Mrs. Martin was not a very good cook; she couldn’t tell the difference. But being put in the fake recipe friendship category meant things had changed.

Mom’s relational categories are as finely calibrated as any neo-Kantian category in the philosophical literature. Neo-Kantian philosophers painstakingly determine exactly when you should allow your drowning wife to die because there are other people dying closer to hand that you should save first as opposed to when you should really pitch in and try to help your wife. There is a whole literature on this kind of thing, if you care to consult it. It is not a lot of help in real life.

Mom’s categories would be more useful than the neo-Kantian categories, except that they shift overnight. Finely nuanced though her categories are, they are not very stable. Someone Mom hasn’t communicated with in years can suddenly be recategorized as someone to whom she has always been unusually close. This would not bother me if the upshot were not that, since she and the other person are now so intimate, I am supposed to do something about it — phone the person, visit, write letters. This week I am supposed to write a sixteen-page history of my life and send it to a distant relative whom I met once thirty years ago. When Mom asks for this kind of thing — something she knows no one in her right mind would do — she adds a pitiful tag to the request, something exuding dramatic pathos, along with a little helping of guilt to add that extra kick: “Please, Audrey. I ask so little,” or “If you remember, I breast-fed you.”

Marian holding Audrey
Marian holding Audrey

Mom and Joe are chiefly interested in elaborate categories for relatives and in-laws and problematic friends. I, on the other hand, am most interested in sweeping categories for people who technically are not related to me but that I feel should be related to me. Rick has come up with one such category — the useful “out-laws” category, referring to former in-laws who are now out but that you still are close to, along with any new relatives and in-laws that the out-laws have acquired in the meantime.

It is a limited category, however. I also need categories for families of in-laws, friends, and families of friends. For example, I need a category for friends and relatives of friends who are like family — people you would just naturally go see if you were anywhere near where they live, not that we ever really leave Salt Lake, but still. I also need a category for relatives of relatives that I like. I don’t think it’s fair that Barbara gets to have the Gilrays as in-laws and I don’t. They should be my in-laws too. If I did not like them, they would not need to be related to me, of course. Categories have to be sensitive to nuance.

I am thinking of calling this new category “by-laws,” but I have to spend more time thinking about the issue. The main thinking that I have done about it so far was lying in bed this morning at 3:00 a.m. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I lie there and compose a story in my head. I mentioned this to Kris Fassio once when we were talking about writing. “If I can’t sleep, sometimes I write stories in my head; other times, I just craft and recraft a sentence. It doesn’t have to be a sentence that I will ever use. It’s just something to do instead of lying there worrying,” I explained.

“That’s a nice hobby,” said Kris.

“It is not a hobby,” I pointed out, “if it’s just something you do to settle your mind while lying awake at 3 in the morning.”

“And so cheap, too,” she said admiringly.

Kris looking at her watch
Kris Fassio

I showed the story so far to Ivan, to see what he thought. “I admire Kris’s persistence,” said Ivan. “You can tell that she is listening to you but she still thinks what she thinks. Also, have I told you that her voice is a lot like Bailey White’s on NPR?”

“No, you haven’t mentioned that,” I said. “I may pass it on or I may not. But right now I was hoping to talk about this story. Do you have an ending for it that I can use?”

“No,” said Ivan, “you will have to supply your own ending. But I can give you a fact. Two of them, really. Most people actually are pretty reliable sources about the kinship terms in their own culture. You could put that in the story. And did you know that the aboriginal peoples of Australia have the most complex kinship system on earth?”

“What about New Guinea?” I asked. I am not sure why I asked this. I did not really want to hear about kinship terms in New Guinea. It is the sort of question that somehow seems to come out, when one is talking with Ivan. My sister would have asked exactly the same question, only she would have wanted to know the answer.

“We never learned about New Guinea. We only learned about Australia,” said Ivan. He went on to explain at length about Australian aboriginal kinship codes, along with the strengths and limitations of anthropological kinship theory as practiced twenty-six years ago. Later, he looked up New Guinea and told me all about their kinship systems, as well.

After a while I said, “This is not really à propos to my story, you know. Also, you still have not supplied me with an ending.”

“I am not going to supply you with an ending. Besides, you are not nearly finished,” said Ivan. “You always want to rush the ending.”

I think it’s unfair that writers have to do all the work. Why can’t readers supply their own endings? There is no division of labor around here at all.

When I was in fourth grade, my mother started using a phrase that all the kids were using. When she wanted me to go shopping with her, she’d say, “Please! I’ll be your best friend!” I am not going to go quite so far as to call just anyone my best friend, but any reader willing to furnish their own ending for this story is someone I really trust and admire. I would consider that kind of reader to be in the willing-to-pull-their-own-weight-and-can-be-relied-upon-to-help-out category. That’s like a really warm acquaintance. Almost family, come to think of it.

Annika bowing deeply
Annika Gilray


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