At first, I liked my mother-in-law. That was before I married her son. She was on good behavior. She was civil to me, at first, after our marriage – until I refused to name our first daughter Laura. She always wanted a daughter to name Laura. I don’t like the name Laura. I came up with a compromise middle name of Lorraine. I was on her enemies list forever.
I try to practice compromise. I try to practice compassion. I try not to carry grudges. I wish I had known her better. But when I think of her, my chest tenses, my arms get ready to push, I take a deep breath, storing up energy so I can survive.
I’m not sure it will help to list the ways she frustrated my life, but I’m going to list some anyway.
She smoked. I do not allow anyone to smoke in my house – not nobody, no-how. My husband quit smoking. I do not demand that people quit. But they may NOT smoke in my house! I explained that I particularly did not want her smoke near my children, her grandchildren.
She would invite my children onto the porch with her and then light up her cigarettes and blow smoke at them. She was following the letter of my rule, but not the intent. She loved telling me she was doing what I had asked even though it was unreasonable and unfair. My girls loved her. She could be fascinating when she wanted to be. I was the baddie when I told them to come in and get away from Grandma’s smoke.
She knew that I don’t let people read my rough drafts when I’m writing. We talked about art. She liked to paint. She also didn’t like to show people her unfinished works. I would leave a story I was working on in my typewriter. When she visited, a story disappeared. Not just the page in the platen, but all the typed pages stacked beside the typewriter, too. I asked everyone in the house – had they seen it? Had they borrowed my typewriter? My mother-in-law lectured me about what a suspicious person I was and how I must have misplaced my manuscript. I found the pages later in the sheets of her bed, when I stripped the bed to do the wash. She denied having taken it, and insulted me for suspecting her. And the story wasn’t good, anyway.
She moved things around in my kitchen and claimed I had simply forgotten where I put them. I guess she was a fan of “Gaslight.” When she wasn’t visiting, she would call me up at odd hours and tell me she was going out with a motorcycle gang, or she was buying a wig for her pubic hair. She sent me a photo of herself excreting in public in a park.
Once when I had no idea she was cooking anything, she put some dough in my oven in a plastic bowl. Since I was cooking, I turned the oven on to warm up. The plastic bowl (my bowl, not hers) melted and her dough was ruined. Years later she was still angry with me. “Is that how your mother raised you? To ruin other people’s things?”
She told me lies about other people, hoping to start arguments. At first, I would question people about what she’d told me, and some arguments did start. Then I caught on. She started telling friends and relatives lies about me. When somebody would say, Lillian told me you... I’d just say, “I don’t want to hear it.”
So, why am I writing this now? She’s been dead over 20 years. As she requested, her ashes and those of her sister and brother-in-law, are scattered beneath my rose bush. A plaque in their honor hangs at the local funeral consumers alliance office. But mostly I don’t think about her.
I’m writing this because the last time I saw a friend who has recently gotten in touch was when I was cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house after her death, giving away her things to anybody who might enjoy them. My friend told me I really shouldn’t have been so mean to my mother-in-law. And even more than 20 years later, I have to ask myself – was I mean to her? (Not the lies I’m sure she told, but in actual fact.) In my thoughts, in my heart, yes I was mean. I did not like her. I did not welcome her into my home. I limited her visits to 3 days at a time. When I was in labor with my 2nd daughter, I didn’t want her in the room, so I sent her out to get a camera. (I figured that was better than asking her to boil water.)
I also was not curious about her. I wanted more than anything to avoid her, except when her requests were reasonable, which most of the time, they were not. I was angry with her for risking my children’s health. I did not show her compassion for being a tobacco addict. After she died, I got her FBI records. She did some things interesting enough to get the attention of J. Edgar Hoover.
She painted a picture of Nixon naked and glued on a jelly bean for a penis. She invented a tactile alphabet to teach kinesthetic learners how to read. She had a houseguest who sent lists of the books on her shelves to the FBI. She was a member of the Communist Party for 4 years. If I hadn’t married her son, we might have liked each other.
I do wish I could have liked her, or at least gotten along with her better. I was afraid of her, rather than curious about her, even in my 40's. In fact, when my newly reacquainted friend mentioned her, all the fear responses kicked in again – the tight chest, the quick inhale as if I’m about to be pushed under water. Disliking her had become a habit that I didn’t question. In retrospect, that was my biggest mistake.