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So Much for Sparring Sisters-in-Law, I Love Mine

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Rear view of group of senior women at beach
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The battling sisters-in-law trope made famous by sitcoms and Jerry Springer segments is alive and well, thanks to the royal family, with Kate vs. Meghan making headlines since well before the latter’s 2018 nuptials.

Whether their family feud is real, embellished by the press or out-and-out made up does not matter. These stories perpetuate the concept that people (women to be exact) who marry into the same family will have to swallow hard every time they’re in the same room together.

My husband, Neil, and I have been married for 33 of our 40-year relationship. In the hierarchy of his Irish Catholic family from Queens, he has two younger sisters and four younger brothers, three of whom have wives. This means I have five sisters-in-law. If sisters Eve and Mary, and wives Maureen, Kathy, Joi and I can embrace each other as family by marriage, surely the double duchesses can step up their social skills.

I am an only child from the Bronx, so marrying Neil not only brought long-term love into my life, but also what my Italian single mother assessed as “my dream family,” aka The Brady Bunch, of which I had become Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, but in a good way.

As the majority of my brothers-in-law eventually followed in Neil’s marital footsteps, Maureen, Kathy, Joi and I became a subgroup unto ourselves, but no less important. Our mother-in-law, Jessica, would buy us an equitable and unifying gift at Christmas — one year it was gloves, another year, robes — the same style in each daughter-in-law’s signature color, mine being black. She did the same thing when the boys were little and she’d get them the same shirt, each in a shade he’d wear without issue.

With Jessica’s yearly thoughtfulness as inspiration, this past holiday, via a design-it-yourself website, I created for our club-within-a-club an ornament that depicts each of us with exact hairstyles and colors, as well as our names.

Not only do we celebrate holidays and milestones together, but sometimes we simply hang out. The more the merrier works in the converse, as well. We were stronger together when we mourned our beloved father-in-law, Neil Sr., as well as our gone-too-soon unmarried brother-in-law, Tom.

One could surmise that Will and Harry’s better halves are too different (the British one-time marketing officer for her parents’ event-planning company versus the American movie and TV actress) to find common ground.

There are no people more different than the Merkl “sisters”: an educator, an insurance executive, a lawyer, a legal assistant cum realtor, a retired school administrator and a writer. In fact, sometimes it seems the only thing we have in common is our collective last name.

Perhaps that’s how we make it work. We are each unique with no need to compete; everyone brings her own thing to the party.

Lest I give the impression that when we get together our sextet sits in a drum circle and sings “Kumbaya” — during a group outing to a Broadway show, I became so engrossed in an email during intermission that I kept reading while the Act II curtain began to rise. Joi elbowed my upper arm so hard to indicate I needed to put my phone away that I thought I’d need physical therapy.

After becoming a newlywed, Eve had a painting party to spruce up her new digs. I thought Neil was going to call to say we were unavailable. He assumed all RSVPs were my job. The next day, Eve called to let me have it for being a no-show.

When our entire family, including brothers, sisters, spouses and children, took a cruise to celebrate my in-law’s 50th wedding anniversary, I fancied myself the Ken Burns documentarian of the trip. By the end of the nine days and eight nights, everyone, especially Mary, had had it with my “lights, camera, action” shtick.

I actually caught her “enough-with-the-camera” scowling tirade on film. I got her back for yelling at me by editing it into my cinematic masterpiece as the last scene followed by the words, “OK, Mary!” At my mini-movie screening weeks later, a good laugh was had by all.

You don’t have to be blood to be related; sometimes all you need is to end up coincidently with an adopted surname to enjoy the good, the bad, the ugly, and as is more often the case, the ridiculous things that make a family. In some cases, like mine, this also includes a new set of female friends.

Kate? Meghan? Or any of you sparring sisters-in-laws? Really ladies, you don’t know what you’re missing.

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