"So...you're living with her parents?"
I must have fielded this question dozens of times the year before I proposed to my wife. I had just taken a job in Boston, while my girlfriend lived and taught at a boarding school in Rhode Island. Her folks, however, lived just outside the city, and with rent so high in the region, well, one thing led to another.
Being in your twenties and living at home is sad enough in the eyes of friends. I can only imagine what the neighbors thought as I did the walk of shame every morning to my car. Jacqueline's parents had finally achieved coveted "empty-nest" status only to be saddled with their daughter's prodigal boyfriend.
Take it from someone who has been there and done that: Don't live together before you are married - with your in-laws, that is. There are some things that you will want to keep special for marriage. Like letting them know that their lasagna "isn't really your favorite." Or expressing your belief that raw hamburger shouldn't be cooked in a toaster oven.
On your first visit to "meet the parents" you do strange rituals like offer to do the dishes, dress impeccably, and make small talk about how nice the lawn looks. But when you leave your toothbrush in their bathroom, it's impossible to keep up that magical façade. Yes, they will see your dirty laundry - and you will not-so-subtly hope that they will do it, too.
Lest I appear to be a complete freeloader, let me disclose that I did pay rent.
By my landlord's calculations, the rate should have been $32,000 per month. He gave me a bill which itemized his home's advantages with language fit for the world's quaintest bed and breakfast. The well-appointed apartment included "unequaled owners," "a Jenn-Air grill inside, gas grill outside," and "cricket noises, guaranteed." A sun deck off the owner's bedroom was "available upon request." Apparently there was a $16,000 rate reduction available for son-in-laws or help with the lawn work.
I haggled the price down to $250 a month with no promises on the lawn or proposal front.
When I first moved in with my future in-laws, I conceived of it as a temporary affair. Six months, a year tops. I didn't realize that I was becoming ensnared in a lifelong commitment until my future father-in-law dug out a small spiral-bound notebook.
The real cost of rent, he told me, would be calculated in time not dollars. He explained that he was keeping track of every inconvenience I put him through, and next to each one he assigned a number of months. The time would be tallied once they sold their house, and it would represent the number of years that they would come and live with me if I married their daughter.
While I had not yet proposed, the arrangement proved to be a crucial trial period. What potential son-in-law doesn't worry about finding a place in her family? Living together did give me the benefit of being told over and over, "You fit into this family perfectly." I would hear this after declining a suggestion to trim the hedges or start my 401k.
And, naturally, I looked for hints of what the future could hold with Jacqueline by watching her parents interact. Twenty-five years of marriage is a sobering sight to a twenty-five year old in love. Would we really end up bickering about misplaced purses and cluttered basements?
However, after four years away at college and a year living on my own, I relearned why "family" and "familiar" are such similar words. Watching my in-laws, I could see that while family love may be more casual and less glamorous than young romance, trust, understanding, and humor are the fruits of love over time.
Having passed the ultimate courtship test (flawlessly I might add), I forgot all about asking her parent's permission to propose when the time came. I had to laugh when they feigned disappointment: hadn't they already made me their son?
I am sure they will have the last laugh when they show up one day with luggage on our doorstep.