Growing up, my mother used to tell us about The Three Questions, a series of queries that would reveal great wisdom about a potential suitor, to be posed to a young woman by her parents.  They are:

1. What church does he go to?
2. What does his daddy do?
3. Who are his mother’s people?

Understand that my mother was speaking with her tongue firmly in cheek when she brought these up, and my sister and I often laughed at them as we grew older.  Still, it became an easy template for the conversations which began with, “So I met this guy…” and always involved butterflies in my stomach (and, in retrospect, probably my mother’s as well).  It’s more specific than a general, so tell me about this boy, and enough of a family legend not to feel like the third degree.  I admit to using them on my sister, as a matter of fact, for exactly that reason.

Knowing that, though, one might be able to see why I waited a little longer than usual to tell my parents about BWB.  Aside from the fact that there was something different, deep, and a little intimidating about our relationship right from the start, something I wasn’t ready to explain and didn’t want to jinx, there was the fact that I knew with one hundred percent certainty that the first question out of my mother’s mouth was going to be, “What church does he go to?” and then it would be out there on the table where we’d have to discuss it.

BWB and I had been discussing it already, of course.  We laughed about it a little, in that nervous way one laughs when it’s not really funny but the options aren’t all that great, but within the first three weeks of dating, we had established that neither of us intended to convert, baptism of my children was non-negotiable for me, and that we both could at least potentially see a future in which we managed an interfaith life together.  BWB acknowledged the necessity of these conversations, as he said he’d had friends who dated Christians for years in serious relationships, only to come to stunning revelations like, “what do you mean you aren’t planning to convert” when marriage entered the picture — needless to say, those were not stories that ended well.  Two and some change years later, I think it’s hysterical that we thought we had it figured out at that point, but I have to admit that the foundations of what we have now were established in those first few tentative conversations.

Still, despite those good intentions, I was still figuring out how I felt, what I felt, and what I intended to do about it, and so I waited to tell anyone, especially my parents.  Especially my mother, who was going to ask The Three Questions.

And she did.  It went something like this:

Me:  So there’s this boy…
Mama: I thought there might be. (I am guessing this was based on my sudden radio silence.) So tell me, (I could hear the smile in her voice as she entered into our familial litany) what church does he go to, what does his daddy do, and who are his mother’s people?
Me:  Well, his daddy is a cop, his mother’s people are from Chicago, and he goes to synagogue because he is Jewish.
Mama: Oh Jesus.
Me: …well no, actually, that’s kindof the point.

I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation. I am fairly certain it was awkward for both of us, as she worked on recalibrating for the new information and I tried not to sound defensive or let on to my own uncertainties.  In the weeks that followed, she asked a lot of questions which weren’t part of the big three, and weren’t ones either of us ever expected to have to be asking.  Are you sure this is something you want to do?  Have you talked to him about all this?  You know your children won’t be Jewish unless you convert — he doesn’t expect you to convert, does he?  Does he know you go to church, really go to church? I was hurt, not because she asked the questions, but because they were all questions I was already asking but hadn’t completely settled on answers for.  Time, I needed time.  We needed time.  Of course, that last question of whether he knew I went to church ended up being a little more prescient than I’d like to admit, but that’s another story for another post.

I know why my mother reacted the way she did, and it doesn’t have anything to do with BWB being Jewish, per se.  It has everything to do with a phenomenon she noted in a conversation with me many years ago when one of my dear childhood friends came out as a lesbian.  I was, at the time, startled by her mother’s cool reception to this information, since this woman was a vocal supporter of the gay and lesbian members of our church community.  When my mother explained her feelings on the matter, I understood a little better:

As a mother, you want your child’s life to be easy.  You don’t want them to have to struggle for anything.  You don’t want them to have to fight for what comes easily for other people.  You want to keep the sharp edges away from them, protect them, keep them safe.  When something happens that keeps them from having that smooth road in life, your heart just aches and you want to grab them back and keep them from the pain.  It is hard to accept that you can’t make it easy for them anymore.

I suspect this was at play in those conversations two years ago.  Many people do not approve of what we are doing, do not think this is an acceptable option, consider neither of us to be true to our religions.  One need look no further than the Amazon reviews of interfaith marriage books to find vitriolic attacks on interfaith couples as being disgusting and cowardly.  This life is not easy, and we don’t even have children yet.  I expect we have a bumpy road ahead of us, and I know that if my mother had the ability to do so, she would run out in front of us and kick all the rocks out of the way, hammer the lumps out of the cement, and personally berate any naysayers into a whimpering pile of jelly.  I love her for that.

By Christmas 2007, I knew I was in love with BWB (although I was waiting — agonizingly, painfully waiting — for him to say it first) and brought him home to meet my parents.  My mother gave me A Very Short Introduction to Judaism and my family fretted over whether we could have bacon with our eggs in the morning, or if it would upset my boyfriend.  Everything was fine, and BWB said later that he didn’t know why I was so worried because my mother was really a kind, lovely woman and a gracious hostess.  (He was right, of course.)

Sometimes when I tell people about The Three Questions, they get this horrified look on their face, as if I have just spewed some kind of antiquated, anti-feminist claptrap designed to preserve the sanctity of the class system and the fashionability of the corset.  I suppose in some sense, they could be viewed as such, but I don’t see them that way at all.  To me, the questions are a door being opened for dialogue; although I dreaded that initial conversation with my mother, it helped enormously to be able to prep a little, knowing what she was going to ask and that I wouldn’t have to bring up religion spontaneously.  It may sound peculiar, but I look forward to telling my children about the three questions as they grow up, and some day many (emphasis on MANY) years hence when they have to start a conversation with, “So I met this person…”, I will smile and reply with the questions they expect.

The answers, of course, may surprise me.

Advertisements