The tea sandwiches should have been my first clue.

Invited to brunch with my future husband’s family in New Orleans, I expected bagels and lox, smoked whitefish, coffee cake and sliced tomatoes. Instead, the spread included jambalaya and petit fours, cucumber sandwiches and mid-morning cocktails – delicious, but nothing I would have found on my grandmother’s dining room table in Detroit.

It’s never easy joining someone else’s family. Seventeen years into this adventure, I sometimes still feel as though I’ve landed in a foreign country, surrounded by natives speaking rapidly in a language I’ve studied only in books. It’s not simply because my California-bred husband has his roots in the South. I hear the same thing from friends whose husbands grew up in the town next door.

Thank goodness for sisters-in-law. Oblivious to the inner workings of his own family, David is very little help in this area. His sisters, on the other hand, patiently offer insights into the dynamics of their nuclear family, clueing me in to the history behind choosing a particular restaurant for dinner or planning an afternoon outing.

Now that my children are old enough to have independent relationships with their aunts and grandparents, I better understand my role in this family. I am less outsider than facilitator, the person who brings the children to visit, rested and relatively clean, then steps aside so they can enjoy their time together. Sammy and Josh play endless games of cards with their grandfather; Miriam appreciates table settings and floral arrangements in a way that makes her grandmother proud.

Last night we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday with a dinner party at an elegant Los Angeles restaurant. Surrounded by her dearest family and friends, the birthday girl positively glowed. Everything was perfect: the orchids in simple vases at each table, the pre-dinner cocktails and eggplant hors d’oeuvres. The children smiled for the camera, Miriam chatted up her second cousins, the boys (mostly) ate their buttered pasta in peace.

The photos show a relaxed and smiling group. I’m the only one in the immediate family wearing a patterned top; everyone else is dressed in solid colors. But it doesn’t matter. Bring on the watercress sandwiches. All things considered, I finally feel like I belong.


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