When my father-in-law Greg passed away last week, I was inevitably drawn back to the first time I felt we really got to know each other: in a remote cottage near the edge of a lake, late at night, playing game after game of German dice.
It might be more accurate to say I was losing at German dice, a game I’d never encountered before and which I’d struggled to understand even as we sat down at the checkered tablecloth and began rolling.
You might think I was deliberately letting him win to curry favour in some way, but no — this was just my sheer inability shining through.
As I made one mistake after another, I began to see a look in Greg’s eyes I’d already come to recognize in my future wife when we played Scrabble: a competitive glee that was somehow so charming you almost didn’t mind being beaten.
Only now that he’s gone do I realize how much I had noticed those kinds of details. It’s got me thinking about the role of father-in-laws in our lives and how, willingly or not, they can become an influence on everything from what we wear to the style with which we live our lives.
The Father-In-Law Relationship, Examined
In a 2017 study published on Psychology Today, less than half of men surveyed described themselves as close to their father-in-law. Tellingly, however, 56 per cent said they felt they could ask their father-in-law for advice, and even more (58 per cent) said their farther-in-law was someone they admired.
These findings ring true for me. Greg and I would not have described ourselves as close friends, but we loved each other as family, and liked each other as men.
We were both aware, I think, of our similarities: a certain reserve in social situations that stems from a particular species of shyness. But also a deep desire to explore and engage with the world through travel and learning by doing.
As the captain in a fire department, he could have been intimidating, but he transcended the stereotype of the father-in-law in pop culture. Instead of acting judgemental or suggesting he disapproved of his daughter’s choice, he acted as though it was obvious she should be free to marry whomever she chose.
Rather than disparage my utter ineptness in things he had managed to do through sheer determination and self-reliance (like repair the cottage’s water system), he patiently tried to show me the ropes.
Conversations with father-in-laws we seldom (if ever) have
In other areas, father-in-laws may not directly teach us, but they can reinforce what we feel to be true, or standards we would like to maintain ourselves.
Greg would fearlessly sport florescent colours I would never wear, but he never looked less than his best, or anything but at ease in his attire. On our wedding day he didn’t rent a tuxedo but wore his own, and the fit (yes, I noticed) was perfection.
Most of us meet our fathers-in-law when they are near or already in retirement. Greg spent his retirement creating spaces to make the most of life, whether it was a trailer in Florida, a house next to the river with his wife Sue, or in those last years at the cottage.
Where I have tendency to get lost in a book or my own thoughts, I recall him being always present, always with people, always active.
As is often the case with our own fathers, the relationship with your father-in-law winds up being a sort of mirror, a comparative view of what it means to be a man. And perhaps even more than with your actual father, it’s not always easy to say things you would like to say, or would like to have said.
Greg would have been surprised, to say the least, that I wrote this. But I owed it to him to find a way to say it.