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Adventures in Core-Periphery Relations

Posted on 02 October 2009 by Barbara Beckwith (2)

My son is in love and engaged to be married. Trouble is, he wants the two families to fall in love as well. He’s proposing a five-day camping trip so that we can bond “au naturelle.” In Yiddish, there’s a word, mekhutim (“mah-ha-TOO-nim”) that joins the two sets of parents of a couple getting married. In English, there’s no such word to connect us.

“It’s a marriage, not a merger,” I argue, proposing that we meet his fiance’s family in a public place — a restaurant — for two hours, max — as recommended by Emily Post. We compromise on a 3-day weekend at our family cottage in the woods of Pennsylvania, midway between the two families’ home turf in Boston and Baltimore, respectively.

Before our rendezvous, my daughter-in-law to-be takes out her photograph album to prep me. Her family is complicated. The parents have split up but stayed buddies. One snapshot shows her father hamming it up with his second wife plus their two kids alongside his first wife and her mate. The family looks amicably reconfigured. I worry: will we, who rarely ham it up, look like fuddy duddies?

Meanwhile, questions bubble up, though I know that they shouldn’t matter. What do her parents do? What are their politics? What do they want to know about us? Should we lay out our family biology, reveal to them that hayfever runs in the family, and minor thyroid problems as well — but that our cancer rates are low?

All I know about the father is that he is a university professor. I find myself searching for his name in my local bookstore’s Books in Print. I discover titles such as Core Periphery Relations in Pre-Capitalist Worlds. I ask my friends in academia, “What are core-periphery relations?” No one knows. Maybe we should skip our 3-day gathering and just exchange curriculum vitae.

A few weeks later, we do meet. I feel like a student without a syllabus. We pull up to the cottage just as the “other family” arrives in their van. A collection of people from age three to fifty-three emerges, arms full of casseroles, snacks, and desserts — enough food for three days. The father carries a backpack atop which sits a folding potty. The last passenger bounds toward me — a large poodle who, it turns out, pees on people he does not know.

My greetings are casual; I am trying to view this family-blending as no big deal. But the other family has brought a camcorder and intends to record every moment. So I gesture like Oprah, and hype up my greetings for the sound track.

I also ham around a bit — to head off any impression of fuddy duddiness. At lunch, we exchange some lively repartee, except for my husband, who is under par. He is coming down with a cold: he takes his temperature often and with alarm. I want to remind the father that hypochondria is not a heritable trait.

After an hour or two, relating to “the other family” exhausts me, and I retreat to my room to rest and read. I soon realize, however, that the novels I’ve brought with me, by Rosellen Brown and Jane Smiley, are about dysfunctional families. Chagrined, I return to the livingroom, intent on proving myself a fully functioning family member.

After dinner, we gather before a crackling fire, stepping carefully over the piles of wooden blocks we’ve laid out on the rug for the 3- and 8-year-olds’ play. Our families clearly share one priority — kids’ fun over a tidy living room. Soon, my husband is down on his knees, constructing a castle with the 3-year-old, while his builds a bridge with his 8-year old, from the castle’s core to its periphery.

The first day is a success. We may, at this rate, qualify as mekhutim. Still, every moment vibrates with significance. The sense of an agenda persists, like humidity weighing down the air.

The next day, I find myself noting with approval — but why should my approval matter? — that the father’s delights in his daughters’ each catching a trout while he, the expert, gets not a nibble. My son’s future wife also impresses me: when we emerge from a dip in the stream covered with leeches, she — a wetland researcher — calmly picks thhem off us, one by one.

Later, we go to a lake. While my son and his loved one do a tai chi routine on the grassy shore, I swim to the raft. The “other father” joins me and we drop to the hot planks. Soon, I am lulled by the raft’s gentle rocking. So I am startled when he suddenly asks: “So should they get married?” I shrug a limp shoulder: “It’s not up to us, is it?” I say.

But he, like my husband, believes in the concern-equals-love school of parenting. He requires my opinion. I sit up and we discuss the matter, seriously and at length. We conclude that yes, our children are right for each other and yes, they should marry.

Over the weekend, we swap opinions ranging from handguns, wetlands, Muslim history, co-dependency and public schools, to the Internet and how to fix roof gutters. We also jockey for status a bit — around who leads the simplest life. I let it be known that we don’t own a dishwasher. They top me: their country cottage has no toilet, only an outhouse.

Our last night, the soon-to-be-wed couple take us out to lie on the grass and look at the stars. They then lead us inside, put on a dance tape, and get everybody dancing. The 8-year-old is the star — she learned her steps from MTV. The swirling shadows of all our bodies meld in the firelight. My son and his fiancee dance fast, slow down, and then come to a stop of embrace. The rest of us — we mekhutim — cheer.

As for core-periphery relations, I still can’t define the phrase, but I think I’ve just experienced one.

[A shorter version of this essay was published in Smithsonian magazine]

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