Tuesday, December 26, 2006
A Rare and Noteworthy Experience
We made it through the Christmas chaos... and guess what? This is wild. And a potentially one-time-only event; it's certainly unique in the greater scheme of things. So I'm marking it in the spirit of being fair and generous, as well as sliding a little snark in along the way... my mother-in-law behaved beautifully.


I was amazed. She was quiet most of the time, and when she did speak she said nice things or she was out of earshot. She didn't whine or bitch in my presence. It was almost like being around a socialized, adult human being.

Now, the snarky side is, I believe she's worked herself into a clinical depression, what with all this woe-is-me'ing and obsession with my father-in-law's death. It's not that I don't think she deserves to have grief or even that you're only allowed to have grief over the loss of people you have positive regard for... but you have to understand the ridiculousness of the contrasts here. When my father-in-law was alive, she complained about him con-stant-ly. Every day. Speaking with strict honesty and accuracy, I cannot remember one single instance in which she said anything nice about him that wasn't at least qualified by a snotty, resentful statement. And most of the time, she didn't bother with the nice part. She was just so constantly negative and bitter, I truly can't come up with words to express how unpleasant and angry her words and attitude were. Always.

So, now, suddenly, for her to be unable to speak about him without blubbering, to gasp adn clutch her heart at quiet moments when no one is paying attention, to drop phrases - daily - such as "the love of my life" and "totally devastated" and "floored by how upset I am." Of course, even now, she makes sure to qualify every statement with a negative slam on his character... "Even though he had such a thorny personality, I still loved him." "I'm totally devastated by his loss, despite our relationship." And so on, and so forth.


The point is, she has worked herself around to a full-on depressive state, complete with closed-up body language and a tendency to withdraw... but I make a living being around people in a bad way, mentally. I'm pretty comfortable allowing people to experience their emotions without jollying them out of it or brushing it aside. It's very natural for me to let her sit there quietly on the couch and stare at nothing, and when live-and-let-live converts to don't-get-insulted, well, sign me up!

But even more exciting, she had behaved nicely even before coming out. Granted, she was flaky and annoying in her refusal to make specific plans for when she would arrive, but that was more a glimpse into old habits than an enduring theme for the visit. For the first time ever - in ten years of our being together, seven Christmases as a married couple - she treated Willem and I equally in the gift-giving regime.

Now, this is noteworthy. Personally, I don't worry about whether my kids get equal numbers of presents, or equal dollar-values of gifts. I make sure I think of each of them and what they might like, but if I end up spending more hours on one or more money on the other, that's okay. Christmas ain't a competition.

But in my mother-in-law's world, you're darn right it's a competition and the only way she can smooth things out is to make sure that her sons get precisely the same amount of presents. To the point where I have seen her go out and buy bags of M&Ms to even it up to the dollar.

That way, when she turns around and gives me a $15 watch alongside Willem's several-hundred-dollar gifts, I get the message. It's never been about the money for me, but since it is about the money for her, then I understand when I'm being put in my place. That wasn't upsetting to me, so much as confirmatory. I understood where I fell in the food chain.

So this year, she gave Willem and I nearly identical gifts. I don't know whether that's because she's actually coming around and planning to treat me like family, or whether she just doesn't want to make Willem mad again after the Thanksgiving snottiness, or whether she just lacked a high enough motivation level to bother shopping for effectively communicative gifts and it was just easier to buy two of everything. I don't care. The motivation behind the act isn't any of my business. What matters is, she treated me a lot like Willem, and she was generous, and I appreciate that.

Which gives me the willies. It's very weird to have warm, positive regard for my mother-in-law. But, you know what? If it happened that I had to spend the rest of my life dealing with her being nice to me... I could cope.

I won't hold my breath.