My father-in-law, Marty Morgenstern, died on Saturday. I can’t believe he’s gone. I know the unreality will fade with time, but I will keep on missing him. Marty was very special to me, and although I’m glad to say I had many opportunities to say why before–such as at his “I’m really, really retiring this time” parties, his 80th birthday party, and each time I saw him–I want to say it here, for all to read.

The single best thing Marty ever did for me, it goes without saying, was to be the parent of the child who would become my wife. He and Joy’s mom divorced when she was very young, and times being what they were, she was raised mostly by her mom, but by the time I met her, she and her dad had the close relationship of adults who trust each other and love being in each other’s company. In him, I could see so many qualities I admire and love in her: their honesty, their open affection, their commitment to public service and making the world better through their jobs, their trustworthiness, their humor, and of course their incisive intelligence. Marty was a big fan of our family, openly admiring our child (who is indeed the most terrific child ever) and the relationship the three of us have, and yet he seemed not to realize how much of it was due to his influence on Joy.

Father and daughter, reunited after a year’s
COVID-forced separation (photo by Joy)

I’ve often joked that I was in Marty’s good books before we met. On my account, his only child relocated from the East Coast to within easy visiting distance of him. Not only that, but thanks to our relationship, she was planning to give him a grandchild, something for which he had probably long since stopped hoping. (In his toast at our wedding, he said, “I always thought Joy was never going to get married, because she told me, ‘Dad, I’m never going to get married!'”) So although I was nervous the night we went to Rose Pistola (alas, now permanently closed) in San Francisco for our first dinner with him and Joy’s stepmother Sylvia, I figured I had a lot of points in the win column already. They both proved to be easy to talk with, easy to love. I really won the in-laws lottery with Marty (and the whole family): he accepted me into the family without hesitation or judgment, celebrated my relationship with his daughter, and showed me unfailing respect and kindness. As recently as the past year, when Marty ordered branzino at a restaurant where we were having dinner, he reminisced that that was what he’d had that night at Rose Pistola. I was touched that he recalled that evening as an important moment, as I did–and more vividly, since I don’t remember what I ate.

Marty would scoff at the idea that he could be anyone’s hero, and I’m not given to having them, but he had one remarkable, rare quality that I particularly long to emulate and will probably never achieve: although he was firm and passionate in his own convictions, he could engage with people with whom he strongly disagreed, listening and speaking respectfully. If he felt hot and flustered the way I do at such times, it didn’t show. No doubt that was part of why he was so successful at labor negotiations. He was unswervingly in workers’ corner, but I can imagine all parties in a conflict being confident that he was paying attention to their needs and treating them with respect, because he was.

The beginning of a wonderful relationship: Papa holding Mookie,
age one day (photo by Joy)

So it was utterly unsurprising, but deeply gratifying, to listen in on his conversations with our child as she got old enough to talk politics with him these past few years (she is almost 15). Not that she was arguing with him; she was just learning and asking lots of questions. She, Joy and I talk plenty about social problems and public policy over the dinner table, but of course when one of her questions came up when we were at Papa and Grandma’s house, we would say, “That’s a question you should ask Papa.” She would, and he would engage with as much seriousness as if she were a Berkeley graduate student. He was delighted to learn that she planned to take journalism next year and write for the high school paper; he was looking forward to reading what she wrote, he said.

One of those Wednesday play dates, in 2008

Marty and Mookie started spending a lot of one-on-one time together when she was a toddler. Joy and I both worked at home one day a week, the only problem being that when you have a toddler at home, any hope of doing actual work goes out the window. So on Wednesdays, Marty would come over from Oakland to our home, which was in San Mateo at the time, and take care of Indi. Their usual routine was the playground, then Junior Gym, then lunch or something special like frozen yogurt. I’m pretty sure it was Marty who treated her to her first ice cream cone: chocolate, at Donut Delite in downtown San Mateo.

When Mookie was three, Jerry Brown returned to the governorship of California and Marty came out of retirement to work for his administration again, as he had done in the 1970s. We were delighted that Brown had won, but a bit sad about the personal impact. With a demanding job and a commute to Sacramento, Marty would no longer be able to spend Wednesday mornings with his granddaughter. The job and commute were demanding, but Marty found ways to compensate. For example, although he didn’t spend a lot of time in his department’s San Francisco office, he did have it as a kind of Bay Area base, and to boot, it was in the same building as Mookie’s preschool (we had moved to the city), so he made the most of it. When her group was exploring the cooking and serving of food, they made appetizers and planned a field trip to Papa’s office. Mookie was thrilled to be able to introduce her teacher and friends to her grandfather; the state employees were charmed to be served appetizers by a group of three- and four-year-olds; and Marty was a very proud, happy Papa to be able to show them all his adorable grandchild.

The two Shakespeareans, with Grandma Sylvia, after Mookie’s performance in Hamlet at Shakespeare camp

He continued to be just as doting, attentive and admiring as she grew up. They didn’t remain officemates for more than a couple of years, but soon she was going to Shakespeare day camp for a couple of weeks each summer, and Marty, the English major, Shakespeare lover, and Indigo fan, was always in the audience. Theater wasn’t easy for him because of his severe back pain, but he got there. When three summers ago, he had to miss her performance because the drive to and fro and sitting in the theater for an hour were too much for him, we knew his health must really be declining.

I so loved the sound of his delighted voice saying, “Is that my grandchild?” whenever we entered their house, and my heart aches that we won’t hear it again.

I can’t handle the pressure of trying to put everything into one blog post, so I’ll stop here and post more when the memories overflow and leak out my eyes. I love you, Marty. Thank you for being a wonderful father and grandfather to my family, and the best father-in-law I could ever have wished for.