I’d been dating the man who’d eventually become my husband for about a year when my grandmother sat me down for a heart-to-heart.
“I saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!” Then came the truth bomb: “She told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, he’s going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.”
I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadn’t been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didn’t actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasn’t the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.
“He seems very nice,” she said of the love of my life. “But that’s just how they do things.”
They. She’d never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.
My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we weren’t some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.
In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.
“Jess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys. Monkeys.”
“Jess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, you’ll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo. On your face.”
Super, super false (and racist.)
Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.
And here’s where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.
As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful things—art, music, even fashion—and were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didn’t hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb—and could confidently describe an ugly dress as a schmatte or flowery piece of music as schmaltz. He literally and figuratively spoke her language.
Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.
“The colors. The lines. It’s so…sensual!” I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word “sensual” (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husband’s taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.
Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the ‘70s and Coney Island in the 40’s. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interest—me—and to her delight, she’d finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.
My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren who’ve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him a mensch of the highest order.
From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eye—we even joked about their rocky start.
Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didn’t. Not by a long shot. The older generation—my grandmother in particular—held longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within one’s community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach a point of acceptance.
There’s that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, it’s just the cost of entry. It’s what we need from the people we care about to maintain the status quo in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.
That love grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.