All right, kids, gather ’round… it’s time for the mother-in-law stories.
I’ll confess, I had a little bit of worry and uncertainty after the first night. She let loose with a few small annoyances, like not greeting Willem when she entered the house, and immediately favoring Emily over Jacob, and openly not liking my spaghetti sauce just because I was the one who made it (I ate it; it was fine). But they were all small and nit-picky, and wouldn’t have made a good blog post. I feel a certain responsibility to my public, here, after all. This is the woman of the plane tickets story, the one who made her own mother wait for hours before getting treated for a broken foot. There’s pressure to come up with new, exciting stories.
On Friday, there was a glimmer of hope. Emily and Willem had the day off, so we decided to go down to Toys Reverse-R Us in the morning. She loves to buy them presents as proof of her love, and of course they love to receive them, might as well skip the pretenses and make them all happy. Plus, I was a day post-anesthesia and still headachy and groggy, so a trip to the store sounded like just about the maximum level of excitement I could handle.
The mother-in-law started to show her annoying colors quickly that morning. After we sat down with the kids to count out their dimes, she offered to exchange several dollar bills for their dimes. Great, thanks, that makes the paying part much easier. But then she refused to take their money back in exchange, even when I asked her quietly to just pretend and then dump it back into the main jar where I keep them all, because “I want them to have more, I don’t want to take their money from them.” No, no, see, the whole point is to be teaching them about how money works and what it’s worth, not to pretend it’s an unlimited resource.
Then she got upset because Emily had $15, and Jacob only had $12. “That’s not even!” she cried, in front of the kids. “It’s not fair! Jacob will be upset! And I don’t have any more singles… maybe I should exchange with him for a five.” And so on. Once I was able to cut in, I explained that the kids are very aware and comfortable with the idea that they earn a dime for each chore, and therefore doing more chores equals earning more money. Emily is four years older; she should be doing more. (She probably should be bumped up to quarters soon, but not until I figure out a setup for saving/spending/donating.) Plus, Jacob’s such a calm, unruffled kid; he doesn’t get upset about things like that.
“Well, fine,” she huffed, and then turned to the kids and said, in an overly bright voice and as though they had been stricken deaf for her prior complaints, “Wow, look at all of that money! You two are rich! Rich! That’s great! Nothing like a fat wallet full of money!” Et cetera. I didn’t bother to tell her that we’ve also worked hard to emphasize things like actions over possessions, and being rich isn’t nearly as important as being polite. She wouldn’t have listened, and certainly wouldn’t have understood.
Thus, the obnoxiousness began to trickle out. At the store, she insisted that she spend exactly the same amount on both kids, even though both Willem and I reminded her, “It’s really not necessary. They’ll both be happy with their first choices, you don’t need to find extra stuff for Emily to even it out.”
She snarled a little and said, “Well, it matters to me.” I wonder if she would have put the same effort into making everything even if it was Emily that had chosen a more expensive toy and Jacob that needed to make up the difference. Given the blatant favoritism throughout the weekend, I have my doubts.
It continued through the day, a series of self-absorbed, firmly asserted philosophies and opinions, each of which was fundamentally opposed to my own worldview. I don’t need or want her to agree with everything I say, but I also don’t want my children exposed to the kind of thoughtlessness and selfishness that she displays. All low-key stuff, but it accumulates. Like a rash.
Saturday morning, though, brought the big hurrah.
This is the day that things went haywire for L, and she was bringing her girls to our house so that I could watch them while she straightened things out. I’ll get more into that tomorrow, but for now what’s important to know is that part of the story involves a lot of guns, big mean-looking nasty guns. And also, remember that L and X lived in a dangerous, abusive household. They’ve both got lingering fears and vulnerabilities, and deserve to be treated with a little extra care. Just in case my mother-in-law couldn’t remember this on her own (and because we can’t rely on her to be appropriate around strangers), Willem had spoken to her ahead of time, reminding her of their history and of what was going on, including the part about the guns.
It happened that all of us were in the living room together for a while, when L was dropping off the girls. There was a lull in the conversation, and my mother-in-law chose that moment to pick up my current knitting project – a sock, on tiny little double-pointed needles – and start to go into one of her overly cheerful, exclamation-point-filled rambles: “Oh, I could never do this! Look at how small the needles are! The work is so fine! And you don’t have to watch while you’re doing it!” Ad nauseum. But, she’s trying to be nice, right? So I smiled and said thank you, expecting the topic to end there. Instead.
Instead. I still have a hard time believing this came out of her mouth, and I’m grateful – if mortified – that Willem and L were there to hear it, so I know I’m not making it up.
Instead, she went on to say, “I really wish I had learned to knit! I could never learn it now! And if someone held a gun to my head and told me I had to make this, I wouldn’t be able to do it! They would just have to shoot me and then my brains would splatter all over the sidewalk.”
Go ahead, read it again. It really is that unpleasant an image.
The room fell silent. I know I was doing my very best impression of a guppy, mouth opening and closing but no sound escaping. L got a phone call a moment later – talk about being saved by the bell – and Willem flailed about desperately for a new topic of conversation, a diversion, flaming knives to juggle, anything.
The three big kids (Emily is almost 9, Jacob is 4 1/2, X is almost 4) sat on the floor, having swiveled their heads in unison to look at her, had big eyes and didn’t know how to act. They resumed play quickly, and to an outside observer it might have seemed like a quick, forgettable moment.
But even if L and X weren’t there or weren’t traumatized, specifically in that genre, it would have been an inappropriate comment in front of children. A joke about shooting someone in the head, with graphic references to brains splattered on the sidewalk, sure, no problem! Can’t think why everyone doesn’t say it on a daily basis, really.
A few hours later, I was driving in the minivan with Jacob, X and baby K, while Willem, his mother and Emily were ahead of us in the truck, and I was listening to Jacob and X play. They were being silly, and they really play together very well. I almost missed it when X said, jokingly, “Jacob, if you don’t stop that, I’m going to put your brain on the sidewalk!” Jacob didn’t respond – thank God for toddler tangents – and she didn’t repeat it, so I just let it slide. Besides, she didn’t use the word “splattered,” so even if I were to confront mother-in-law with it now (I doubt I will, I can’t see the point), she would deny that it was in response to her statement.
So, yeah. Vintage mother-in-law, right there. She really does have a gift for the awful.