In the Land of the Schustermans

“Let’s never keep secrets,” Annie’s future mother in law whispers to her at the bottom of the stairs in their house in Wynnewood,  two hours before Annie’s wedding to her only son Jack. Annie has not been able to eat in two days, her stomach all nervous energy. The first time was nothing like this; she names this nausea love.


“Good.”  Raquel tips her water glass. Her mother-in-law swears by drinking eight glasses a day, a habit Annie has promised herself to pick up. That and never eating before noon. “To total honesty.”

Everything about her mother-in-law to be is dramatic, thrilling and  exciting. Bright crimson lips, swipes of bronzer on her cheekbones and fingers ringed with diamonds. Annie has always been a sharp, fast learner, and from the moment she met her, she knew Raquel had things to teach her. She was a woman worth paying attention to.

Reaching across the space between them, Raquel grabs both of Annie’s hands. Her rings bite into Annie’s palms. “We are going to be such good friends.”

Annie nods. No one in her family spoke such truths out loud; it was all she could do not to cry in gratitude. There was so much Raquel had to teach her – things about entertaining, decorating, and the finer arts. The woman had been a violin player in her youth and had perfect pitch. She owned a sophistication that her mother did not know.

“I know,” Annie tells her. They remained like that for a minute, neither speaking until Annie breaks the silence.

“Better get dressed,” she says.

“Yes,” Raquel agrees. She drops her hands. “You go.”

“Did she trap you again?”

Annie’s older sister Lily stands at the bedroom door where the bridesmaids and bride are changing for the ceremony. Instead of her usual artsy black turtleneck, black jumper and  black tights, Lily is dressed in a fitted yet flimsy violet dress that Jack’s mother had selected especially for the bridesmaids from Neiman Marcus.

It  cost three times more than Annie’s own dress, which she had bought back in Iowa City, where she had finished graduate school  only two months before. Jack’s mother had given her inexpensive wedding dress a certain glance, but unlike Annie’s mother, who was hurt Annie had not waited until she came back East to pick a dress with her, Raquel had held her tongue.

What both mothers had been most concerned with was whether Annie planned to wear white, given the fact that this is Annie’s second time around.

“It’s 2001 for Christ’s sake,” Lily told Annie. “You can wear any goddamn thing you like.”

But Annie, who so wants to please Raquel and her own mother, wonders if she made a mistake.

In the bedroom, Annie settles on an overstuffed chair and takes up the gin and tonic Jack’s best man had left for her on an ornate carved side-table. The cocktail is  much too strong; the gin burns the back of her throat but she drinks it anyway.  One of the things that has her on edge is the house itself: Jack’s childhood home is a virtual museum, filled with Chinese vases and fat ivory Buddha’s; an entire art deco Parisian opera stage set has been plastered to the dining room walls.

Though Annie has been here several overnight trips with Jack before the wedding she cannot get comfortable here – she worries she might break something or that someone will quiz her about what she is staring at. Plus, it’s difficult to keep focused: everywhere she looks, something else threatens to pull her attention in another direction. And yet she wants to learn about everything, from the miniature pieces of cloisonné to the huge  messy abstract oil paintings along the living room walls. Happily, she envisions the years that such study will take, glamorous Raquel patiently taking her through piece-by-piece, provenance through provenance, until she knew them all.

“Oy,” her own mother rules during her one visit to the house for a dinner before the wedding. “Completely overdone.”

In the car on the way home, her mother started up on how Mrs. Schusterman was a climber, how she made too much fuss over a dinner, how all of those teacups and miniatures were a sign of insecurity. Annie and her mother had a long history of such post-mortems, starting when she was a small child after dinners with their extended family, but this time, when her mother started in on Raquel’s raucous lipstick and ostentatious namedropping, Annie said, “Enough.”

And to her surprise, her mother shut up. At once.

She knew her mother was sulking because of how Raquel had taken over the wedding after it became clear that her own parents couldn’t afford to throw a second one. More than once during her weekly phone calls to her parents from Iowa, her mother suggested that if she and her father couldn’t throw the kind of  wedding Raquel wants, then Annie and Jack should elope. Annie knows that this is simply hurt talking and that her mother thinks she has changed, that she has crossed over to the land of the Schustermans’.

Annie draws another  long sip of the drink. She knows she should not be drinking, not on an empty stomach, not on such an important day, but her nerves demand calm.

Her sister buttons the tiny silk covered buttons at the back of her wedding dress, then wraps a towel around Annie’s shoulders. Annie sits to let Lily paint her with lipstick and blusher and to curl her hair, but though she tries to enjoy her unusual ministrations, Raquel’s words flutter back to her like a gilded dream – secrets and honesty.

“Lily,” she asks. “Did you ever want a different life?”

In the mirror Lily’s face is flushed. Five years older and a therapist, she has a husband named Del who may be running around, a dog that has a brain tumor, and not much good advice. But whom else can Annie consult? Certainly not their mother, who in addition to her troubles with Raquel and her furnishings nursed a vague hope that Annie might return to her first husband, Max.

 “Max was a rock,” her mother said, a description that Annie found perfectly apt and that explained more than her  mother knew.

“How can I answer that?” Lily asks now.

          A burst of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sounds outside; the procession will soon begin. Below the bedroom windows guests mingle; it is a picture perfect sunny August  afternoon. From the kitchen there is a clash of utensils and a call for additional wine. It was Raquel who insisted on cocktails before the ceremony; Jewish people did not do such things, according to her mother.

Dressed, topped with a flounced hat swept in chiffon net, her hair in slightly uneven curls, flanked by ornate vases and a unicorn tapestry, Annie feels as though she is caught in a diorama in the Museum of Natural  History—the bride in her natural habitat.  In the full-length mirror she admires herself; maybe, she thinks, she belongs here, after all.

“You’re in love,” Lily says. “You aren’t thinking straight.”

The room smells of  gin and sizzling hair. Lily leans towards her ear, and Annie is swept by a clear sense of dread, that her sister might be about to confess that she has finally decided to leave her own husband, that her dog has died, but instead Lily simply asks, with only a tinge of bitterness. “Isn’t love enough?”

          Downstairs in the marble hallway, ushers and bridesmaids are lining up, readying for the procession to Rabbi Silver, the least religious rabbi that Jack could find on the Main Line. Though everyone in the family was born Jewish, Raquel and his father had raised Jack as an agnostic, and Jack, to please his mother, had tried  to find a rabbi who might be similarly ambivalent about  God. Annie – who insisted on having a Chuppa and breaking a  drinking glass at the end of the ceremony to please her parents – told him he was on a fool’s quest, but at last he had dug up Silver from the an back page advertisement in the phone book, an itinerant rabbi with sparse facial hair and ruddy cheeks.

“Gambler’s choice,” Silver had answered to Jack’s questions about his involvement with the Almighty. He was hired.

          Among the questions that Raquel had put to Annie during their little time together had concerned her religious upbringing. And though Annie had not exactly lied to her, she had abbreviated the impact of her Modern Orthodox Sunday school education and her extent of identification. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of her religion; in point of fact she had never thought about it or questioned it; it simply was a much a part of her as her freckles or her long fingers.

She had left out certain details – how she had been president of the B’nai Brith girls, how she had been the fastest Hebrew reader in her Sunday school class. She didn’t exactly lie, but she had a sense that if she had told the truth, Raquel might have liked her less. She tried not to think about her omissions too much, just as she tried not to think about what her father might think of Jack’s anti-religious quest.

          From the top of the stairs, Annie watches people mill back and forth.  Lily and their cousin Debbie have linked arms and are giggling about something that she can’t hear. Like her religious training, Annie knows that half of the people out on the lawn have no idea that she was  married before: Raquel insisted that the past was the past. Her mother didn’t disagree: once, early on, she had introduced Jack as Max to her next door neighbor, much to the woman’s confusion. She had met Max before.

“Not everyone needs to know everything,” her mother said.

Nausea filled her throat; she swallowed hard. She concentrated on Jack – his face, his fingers, his hands. Everything about him surprised her: she had never expected to drop into love. In Iowa for two years to get her MFA degree, she had promised Max that she would return home. But even as she promised it, she slipped her wedding ring off her finger as she talked to Jack. A professor of English literature, he’s quiet and deep. He’s hard to reach, something she likes about him. After Max, a glad-handing real estate lawyer who adored her in ways that made her want to escape,  the fact that Jack can go off to his office and stay in there all day with his books and papers and  without needing her makes her inexplicably happy. She knows it’s not to everyone’s taste – her mother has already complained that he’s self-absorbed  – but it’s that very absorption, that secret life, that Annie finds so intriguing.

That and the way he reaches for her in bed with a fierce, sharp urgency.

She wishes he were beside her, that he could tell her not to worry, that everything will be fine. But at the moment, Jack has been banished with orders not to set eyes on the bride until she walks down the aisle, in this case the winding private driveway that leads to and from the house that has been transformed with festoons of streamers and huge buckets of roses and baby’s breath.

When they first left Iowa and drove up the drive to his family home to celebrate their engagement, she thought Jack had made a wrong turn. Not once in the six months that they had shared a crowded box like house in Iowa City had he mentioned his families’ wealth. Or that his mother was on the West Oak Lane Orchestra committee and the board of the Wynnewood Historical Society. Or, that his family did things like dress for dinner every night.  From the first night, seated across from Raquel, in a turquoise shirt and heavy jade jewelry, talking about Mozart, she felt her loyalty to her own family slipping away. She fought against it, but how could she not help but come under the Schusterman’s spell, at least for a little bit? They were so welcoming; so nice. At that first dinner, after dessert, Raquel had taken her aside and handed her a Tiffany box, her first. Inside lay a diamond watch.

 “Welcome,” she said, “To our family.”

Such a thing had never happened before in her life. Her parents didn’t believe in gifts exactly and  dinners were often eaten before the large TV in the den. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with it: she had fond memories of dipping defrosted French fries through ketchup and watching The Simpsons or Friends as a family. But she also liked how careless the Schusterman’s were – how alive and impromptu. They didn’t have a T.V. They took ski trips at the drop of a hat; they were regulars at concerts at the Academy of Music. Raquel served food that Annie had only read about in magazines and books —  whole artichokes, boiled lobsters, and raw oysters. Of course, when her mother asked her what they were like, she played all of this down. She didn’t mention the watch or the box from Tiffany or the treyf.


Beatrice, the anorexic-looking wedding planner dressed in a  clingy purple dress that coordinates perfectly with the bridesmaids’ color scheme, trips down the hall as if she might levitate. “Are we ready to rock and roll?”

Raquel, Jack and Jack’s father are out of view in the front of the line. One by one they line up – first the two pink-cheeked flower girls who will scatter rose petals and pieces of chopped confetti, nieces of a friend of Raquel’s, then the bridesmaids and their escorts, then Lily, as matron of honor, and Jack’s best man. Her mother wears a dark navy dress that is not in the color scheme – a clear protest against Raquel who asked her to ‘lean toward pales.’   Her father looks only slightly uncomfortable in his rented tux. He had shyly asked to deliver a religious blessing before they ate, but Annie, alarmed, said it might not be appropriate.

Staring at the top of his yarmulke from the top of the stairs, she has a sudden desire to run to him, to apologize. But for what? The blessing would not fit in here; she was right.

On the lawn, the string quartet begins. The sound of the wedding march wafts over the afternoon lawn.

“And we’re off!” Beatrice all but yells.

Upturned faces greet her as she passes by,  some familiar but most not, her oversized hat obscuring her view. Part of the issue of the wedding was that Raquel wanted to invite all of her friends, who are of a considerable number. When the guests list surpassed eighty-five, her parents gave her the news that they simply couldn’t be involved financially. Raquel was gracious and – even Annie has to admit – a little victorious.

When her father leaves her before Jack, he places a gentle kiss on her cheek and then, together, she and Jack stand before the accommodating rabbi, who smiles at them with a buoyant joy. The lawn is a splendid green, the sky a shimmering blue.  The rabbi clears his throat and they are off, the familiar words fluttering by her. By the power vested in me…If anyone should object…Jack reads her vows so sweet she feels she is on the verge of tears, happy and relieved that at last the day has come. They are rounding the home stretch, the exchange of rings, the kiss, when she becomes aware of a shuffling behind her, a whispering, then, a kind of strangled cry.

At first, Annie thinks it is a feral neighborhood cat, or a hungry baby bird. They are out in nature, after all. But as she listens to the rabbi talk about love without once mentioning God, the noise rises, a rush from the diaphragm that is definitively human. Tears at a wedding are to be anticipated, expected even, but this is a banshee call, “Oh!” the voice wails. To her horror, the noise grows louder. “Why oh why?”

The rabbi lifts his eyebrows to ask if he should pause, but firmly, Annie shakes her head, no.  A second shriek cuts through the air but the rabbi – clearly a pro – keeps on, and smoothly they move through the ceremony: the exchange of rings, the kiss, the breaking of the glass. Only when Jack lifts his foot, ready to crash it down does she cast a single glance at her mother, hair askew, eyes bloodshot, standing and screaming to the sky.

“Mazel tov,” says the Rabbi loudly.  “Good luck.”

“Annie,” her mother cries.

Around her mother, people are on their feet, clapping for the happy couple. Annie’s nausea has reached its peak: at once she wants to comfort her mother and tell her to go to hell. What would she say? Could she tell her that she isn’t losing a daughter but gaining a son? The words sound hollow to even her ears.

In the end, she does nothing. Instead, she takes her new husband’s hand  and hurries back down the aisle towards her new mother and father-in-law, who, dry-eyed and smiling, stand waiting to take her into their fold.

“Well done,” Raquel whispers into her ear.

At the party afterwards, no one mentions her mother’s break down. Raquel, resplendent in a tulle one shouldered gown,  stands beside Annie on the receiving line, accepting congratulations as though nothing untoward has occurred.  Annie refuses to meet her mother’s eyes. Annie is into her third gin and tonic; Jack clutches her waist and wears a blissed out smile. After the receiving line is through, Raquel grabs Annie’s elbow and moves her from table to table to be introduced to her mother-in-law’s tennis partners and committee cohorts. The small area on the right is Annie’s family and friends; women in dresses that probably cost a year of Annie’s adjunct salary dwarf them.

Raquel is laughing at something a woman with red hair and diamond earrings has said. Her head is  thrown back exposing her throat.  This is what Annie knows – that two weeks ago, Raquel had called her mother. She told her that Annie was not the sort of person she thought her son Jack would ever marry. That he had dated a manager of the San Francisco Opera company; an anchorwoman out of Chicago.  And here was Annie – an unemployed little Jewish girl, a divorced writing graduate student without a serious job.

“Whom he loves,” her mother had told Raquel, furious, before hanging up the phone.

Under the huge tent, on the parquet floor, Annie’s name is being called for the first wedding dance. At once, Jack appears beside her and takes her into his arms.

“Nothing matters,” he tells her. He strokes her shoulder blades. “I love you,” he says.

She has not told Jack about the call. She has not told anyone. Why her mother thought she needed to know, she was not sure at the time but now she knows: it was her last hope of holding on.

Out of the corner of her eye, Annie sees Raquel watching  as they circle the parquet dance floor. Behind her,  her own mother sits at the front table, her expression  unreadable. Annie knows she needs to do something to fix everything, but what can she possibly do or say?

There is a tap on her shoulder, and her father appears.

“Can I cut in?” he asks.

Jack steps back and she leans into her father’s hold. She sets her cheek on his scratchy suit jacket and for a second, wishes she were still a little girl.

“Are you happy, Annie?” he asks.

It seems the most difficult question she has ever heard. There is so much she wants to ask him, but instead she says, “Yes. ”

Her father thinks for a second.

“Good,” he decides.

“And you?”

Her father –who is a surprisingly good dancer – leads her in a careful foxtrot across the floor. He doesn’t answer her question, only gives off his familiar smells of aftershave and menthol cigarettes. He has worked all of his life in a hardware store. barely making a living.  How all of this looks to him – this  mansion, Raquel’s diamonds, and her mother’s anguish – she has no idea.  The thought that she had upstairs in the bedroom, that she somehow belonged here with the Schusterman’s, now fills her with sadness, a sadness so deep that she doesn’t know if it has a bottom. But her father is right to remind her of happiness: this is, after all, her wedding day.

In a few moments, Raquel will capture her again. She will pose for pictures with both families and cut the ornate wedding cake. She will watch her parents stand at the end of the driveway, waving a timid goodbye. She will spend the night in a hotel room with Jack, making love and opening fancy envelopes filled with cash.

And then, with any luck at all, she and Jack will be finished with honesty and driving away as far as the car can go.