My grandfather-in-law turned 85 last year. His is a spritely 85: plays daily golf, entertains girlfriends in three time zones, drives his own car, lives in his own, manicured, two-story house in Arizona. For his birthday, his adult children gathered with their spouses and kids in a beachfront San Diego villa for a week of patio lunches, Mexican Train games, seafood feasts, reminiscing, and general family time. I am the newest addition to the family, and the only “in-law” in the third generation. Still, I’ve known my husband’s family for a number of years and so, for the most part, felt right at home.
But it is a curious thing: to become part of a family (in this case, called to celebrate a particularly significant family event) that is at first only technically “yours.” Marriage is one, but not the only, way to effect this initially forced inclusion. Only after years of shared meals and games and phone calls does the technical give way to what seems to have always been—the organic transformation of in-laws-into-family to which most of us aspire.
During this time, before you are naturalized into your chosen family, you might miss a few inside jokes; your spouse may feel the need to translate family humor; you haven’t yet heard the stories they’ve been groaning over for years. You learn too late which cousin is allergic to nuts. You make an autumn salad for Thanksgiving only to find that half the group won’t eats greens. You come down painfully from a sugar high, after a week with a family that subsists on sweets. You are a tourist, a traveler, an anthropologist who must grow too close to her informants. You are here to close gaps—not to assert them.
At Grandpa’s dinner table sat his two sons and his daughter, their two wives and husband, four of his five grandchildren, and me, the grand-daughter-in-law. His wife passed away a decade ago, but we saw her in the photos of his birthday slideshow and the faces of their children. As we ate dinner and clinked glasses, as my father-in-law roasted his father in four pages of verse, it seemed like Grandpa was with everyone he loved—everyone he could want to be with. His offspring told tales of childhood trips to Atlantic City; his grandsons teased him for telling yet another corny joke. Blessed, Grandpa sat to a full table with all his children and theirs, at 85 years, with grateful expectation of other happy times to come.
There were twelve people at Grandpa’s table, and I was one of them. As I sat there, pleased to have heard certain stories before, proud of myself for catching the old laugh lines, I nevertheless felt that mine was a remarkable, audacious entry into that most intimate of territories: the family reunion. Grandpa didn’t make or choose me; one of his grandsons did.
And as I looked around, contemplating the familiar and less familiar faces around, the little cousin who looks just like my brother-in-law, the aunt who shares her brother’s eyes, it dawned on me that I could not yet, and for years would not be able, to construct my 85th table.
As a Keralite, mine would of course be an 84th table, for we celebrate the 84th birthday as the point at which one has lived through 1,000 full moons. Called the sathabhishekam, it is a particularly auspicious birthday. Neither of my grandfathers lived to see their 1000th moon.
My grandmothers still have years to go. It is impossible to say if I or anyone else will get there. But if I do, I wonder, who will come to dinner?
Grandpa’s wife wasn’t there. He didn’t have his siblings at the table. He didn’t have aunts or uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. He didn’t have his grandparents. He didn’t have his parents. As I looked around the table, I realized that I wasn’t the only one to have made a “sudden” entry. For the first three decades of his life, Grandpa didn’t know any of these people, not a single one of these people who, decades later, would comprise his closest circle, his nearest and dearest, the loved ones who would celebrate his greatest milestones.
I tried to imagine my 84th table, with children I don’t yet know, and grandchildren I can hardly contemplate, and spouses of theirs whose origins are as unknown to me now as the origins of the universe. I visualized myself sitting to a family table without my mother and father, my brother, my grandparents, my husband, my aunt, my cousin brothers, and the word “family” faltered.
Grandpa’s life, like many of ours, has been lived in thirds: a third for his parents and siblings; a third for his wife and children; a third for his grandchildren and the great-grand-children he will soon have. There is necessarily some overlap, but those in the final third can only come on stage when the first act is long over. There are certain people we are never to meet, except in the eyes of those who, one day long in the future, can conjure them for us in a word or smile.
After Grandpa’s birthday celebrations, I took my husband to India for our version of a family reunion (something closer to a pilgrimage than a vacation). He fit right in with my parents and brother, endeared himself again to my grandmother, whose groceries he carried and chai he shared over morning newspaper, and smiled sweetly during extended conversations in Malayalam, not a word of which he could understand. One morning, I came down the stairs of my ancestral tharavadu to find him sitting to breakfast with my ninety-six-year-old great-grandmother. Wordlessly they dipped into the same bowl of coconut chutney, and I watched her press a butter-soft idli into his hand.
Biting my tongue, I tried to slip away—to give them the moment. Who could say when this table would sit together again?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.