Good Walls Make Good Families

The poet Robert Frost famously quoted his New England neighbor saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost had misgivings about the absolute truth of that saying commenting, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” The truth and wisdom of wall making is still open to (sometimes heated) discussion even at national levels.

Like neighbors, families also have fences, or walls, and 24 Christmases ago I was trying to keep ours intact in the face of an emotional earthquake we had gone through seven months before. Diane, my beloved wife of 26 years, the mother of our 15 children had died of cancer. This would be our first Christmas without her.

Further complicating the situation, we were about to receive a magnificent Christmas gift, another wife and mother. Like the verdant coastal plain of Israel from which her name is derived, Sharon would bring new life and beauty to our family. I was overjoyed and grateful. Some of our children were not so sure. Two of our daughters said, “Dad, you don’t need to get married again. We’ll take care of you.”

I reminded them that they had their own lives to live, and when the time came for them to start their own families I didn’t want to be an obstacle in their path. Or maybe I said, “Sure you will until some handsome young man sweeps you off your feet, and then it’s ‘hey dad call if you need something.’”

I reminded them that their little brothers and sisters needed a mom, and I needed a wife. While I valued their input, I felt the final decision should be mine. But I wanted to launch our new family life with a clear understanding of our relationships.

I had prayed and pondered and felt guided in my decisions. My conviction was strengthened when a young woman I had never met came to my office. I don’t know how she found out about my marriage consideration, but she said.

“Let me tell you my story. It’s your situation only looking from the children’s perspective. Our mom died of cancer like your wife did. Almost immediately our dad went out looking for another wife. He dated a lot, and we missed having him with us.

One day he came home with a woman and told us they were getting married. They did. We didn’t get along well with his new wife. When we crossed with her we often went to dad. Dad usually sided with us. This left her alone. Even though I didn’t agree with her, I felt sorry for her situation. My point is when we needed dad he wasn’t there. When we didn’t need him he was. Their marriage didn’t last very long. My advice is don’t let that happen to your family..”

I thanked her. She left. I haven’t seen her since.

Later I called a family council and said,” I love each and all of you more than I can tell you. Next to Jesus and Heavenly Father, you and your mom are the most important people in my life. We have been through hard things together, especially the passing of your mother. I appreciate your being frank with me on your feelings, and even your fears. I will always support you and love you.

But there is something you need to know. If there is ever a conflict between you and your mother, I will be on her side. I will do this so we can build and maintain a strong marriage. You need that, so do I.

Sharon and I married, and our family is in the process of living happily ever after. We did hear some “new family blending” talk. “You’re not my Mom. I don’t have to do what you say. You haven’t paid your dues.” I don’t remember any of the children threatening Sharon with, “I’m telling Dad on you.” Sharon tells me she always felt my support. She also strengthened our marriage by not only loving and caring for me, and my family, but also for Diane’s family. To do so sometimes she had to ration the time and attention she gave to her own family. It was a conscious decision she made, and a powerful subconscious magnet pulling us together.

Sharon and I expected and were not disappointed when the children wanted to bang against the walls of our marriage and family. They have since told us that they were also secretly glad they couldn’t knock the walls down. Their world had been unraveled by the passing of their first mom. It was a source of security to them to know that this new family was as solid as the one they had known before.

Breaking down barriers between neighbors may well be a good idea. Building strong and loving walls around families always is.