Posted by: Kate | June 22, 2009

A Step in a New Direction

It’s too soon to hazard a guess about the long-term effects of Saturday’s insanity. It was certainly a big, dramatic event, by family standards, and has created any number of new hurts and scars – and not all of them to people living in my house. I can see it as a viable possibility that we might never be in the same room as my mother-in-law again. We’ll certainly never be able to think of Norman’s memorial without thinking of the sturm und drang of the day.

So, from that perspective, it was not a good thing. But, on the other hand, for the first time in ten years there was an honest expression of anger from my in-laws. Not directly from my mother-in-law to me, but from her sister. It was tense and uncomfortable, but it also felt more real than all of the years and years of strained smiles and stilted conversations. Perhaps not such a bad thing, after all.

But enough with the distant references. Here’s what happened, from my perspective:
As previously blogged, Willem’s mother never bothered to call and let him know about the memorial. This was hurtful from the start, and only got more and more unpleasant as the day approached. We talked it over, and agreed that the best approach would be avoidance at all costs during the family-gathering portion of the day. Willem even rehearsed on the way there, because he has occasionally been known to move into explanatory mode when the other person is Just Not Listening: “I’m very upset with you. I will not talk about it now.” (Her excuse, by the way? “Well, I knew that you had talked to my mother, so I didn’t need to call.” Her mother, who is sharp as a tack, but whom C has persistently been trying to force into a nursing home on grounds of senility. Here’s a hint, C: you need to pick a thread and stick with it; either she is too senile to remain at home and care for herself and be trusted to give messages, or she’s with-it enough to handle her own affairs and manage effective communication.)

Because we had these bad feelings, and because we try as hard as we can to be (age-appropriately) honest with our kids, we sat them down and talked to them ahead of time. No gory details or ancient-history explanations, just a simple, “Grandma C did something that hurt Daddy’s feelings. He’s still feeling very sad and upset about it. So on Saturday, you can go say hello to her and give her a hug, but we won’t be sitting with her during the day, and we want you to stay near us. We just can’t trust that she will be nice to us all right now, because she did this thing to Daddy.” To the inevitable what-did-she-do question, we just replied, “That doesn’t matter. Just know that she still loves you very much, and we just need some space right now.” They accepted this, and we got ready to go.

It ended up that the entire day was spent at Cousin A’s house. We were the first to arrive, around 10:30. Slowly, the rest of the family trickled in, including C and her sister D. C never came near us, and the sum total of her words to Willem were, “Hi, Willem,” from 30 feet away. She went so far as to ask me how I was and how was the drive, but I think that’s because there were more people around me and she does have some small inkling of social propriety. I answered with minimal politeness and she moved on. She never made any attempt to approach us again, and while that seemed odd, we weren’t going to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

After they said their hellos, I called each of my kids over to remind them to give Grandma some space. They nodded, and went back to playing with A’s big goofy dogs and climbing trees and swinging in the hammock.

Then, just before lunch was served, Jacob was sitting in a chair, giggling at one of the dogs. C went over to him, and stood in a way that made it impossible for him to get up. I watched, from perhaps 20 feet away, just curious to see how he handled it, and to be sure that he wasn’t distressed; I certainly wasn’t going to go chase her away, because our main goal for the day was to Not Create A Scene. Jacob looked at C, looked around at the rest of the family, squirmed, shifted a bit, and then said, “My mom told me not to talk to you today.” Blunt and perhaps not the very best way of wording it, but he’s 4. My overriding reaction was one of extreme pride: he was trying so hard to do what I’d asked, and in the process he had to say words that must have been very difficult to say. Of course I would have vastly preferred that the request for distance came from myself or Willem, but circumstances dictated something else.

C immediately went into the house, and didn’t reappear for quite a while. When she did, she went immediately to her sister D, and held an intense, whispered conference in a corner of the party tent. Willem, the kids and I served ourselves lunch and were starting to think that maybe we would be able to leave without there being a big scene.


Shortly thereafter – Willem was mid-bite and Jacob was munching away next to me – D came over and started speaking. At first, I couldn’t quite hear her, and then when I could hear her, I couldn’t quite believe what she was doing. She told me that she had stumbled onto my blog, and she found it offensive and vile. “Don’t ever put me in your blog again,” she demanded, and she made some other statements that sounded as though she expected me to edit the old posts that she disliked (the main offenders, apparently, were the ones written at the end of November 2006) or delete the whole damn thing. Twice, I said to her, “Now is not the time for this. I will happily talk with you about it at any other time, but not at Norman’s memorial.” Both times, she ignored me and kept talking. In front of several family members, in front of Jacob, and generally in an unpleasant and wildly inappropriate way. She tried her best to look intimidating. Then she said, “And you won’t let my sister talk with her grandson.”

After my second request to hold the discussion for another time, I stood up and walked away. Only a few feet, but enough to get the point across. The adrenaline jolt was instant and intense. I swear, for a few moments there, I could see smells. But I took a few deep breaths, and did my level best to maintain a benign facial expression and not swear out loud.

Willem and I had one of those moments where discussion wasn’t necessary. A few seconds of eye contact, and then he said, “OK. Time to go.” We gathered up the kids, and said good-bye to Grandma Ann and Cousin A. I saw Willem talking to his grandmother, and then I saw him walk over to his mother and Aunt D, and I decided that now was a good time to take the kids and wait in the car. He came out a few minutes later, and we drove away. Caught a much earlier ferry than expected, and made it home for a relatively normal bedtime.

Willem exchanged a few words with his mother and aunt, things I can’t report accurately because I wasn’t there. But the important part was, he stood up for me. He was clear and concise with them, and he refused to get sidetracked by their accusations and guilt. He told them that they had never respected me (“I’ve been nice to her!” exclaimed C, which is debatable on its own and very different from respect) or welcomed me into the family. He never raised his voice or lost control. And, once he said what he needed to say, he left. Calmly.

So there was motion. I just don’t yet know in what direction.


  1. Motion is so much better than standing still, in my opinion. I hope good things for you and your immediate family come out of this, and at the very least that you’re left alone. And how nice to be able to see Willem stand up for you and his immediate family. It’s a nice reminder for you and him about how important you are to each other.

  2. That’s awful. I can’t imagine having this kind of scenario in my family–I mean, we’ve got issues like everyone, but she just takes the cake.

  3. I hate family drama and try to avoid it at all costs…. I am VERY proud of Wilem for sticking up for you. Way to go. That was tough – not many men will do that with their mothers.

  4. Wow. Good for you both, because it must have taken an awful lot of control to do what you each did.

  5. Wow.

    I have to agree with jmlc, motion is always preferable to stagnation. It will be interesting to see how all of this is resolved … or, knowing the prime players, how it isn’t. Hang in there – you have every reason to hold your head high and continue crafting the entertaining blog we’ve all come to love!

  6. Really, thank G-d he was adopted.

  7. Holy crap on a stick. Yay Willem.

    I guess I should count myself lucky that the worst that has happened with a week of my in-laws living with us is that MIL insisted that Lane got sick because she was walking on the tile floor in our kitchen with bare feet because, “sickness goes in through the feet”.

  8. Bravo to you both! Well handled, I reckon. All the best for a decent resolution to all of this one way or another.

  9. Willem you ROCK!!!! I am so glad you have an intelligent husband who can see that HAPPILY FUNCTIONING PEOPLE just don’t behave the way his mother and aunt do.

    Lisa :I love ‘Holy Crap on a Stick’ can I borrow that?

  10. Willem makes a strong case for “Nature over Nurture”! Love you guys!

  11. Oh totally got the wrong end. Thought it was the MIL who was accusing you. Ah well, still out in the open it is. Mine one stood up to his mother on my behalf as well . . we’re now the best of friends (not sure that’s going to happen for you!).

  12. […] Glutton for Punishment We’re sneaking up on the six-month mark since things went so horribly bad at Willem’s grandfather’s memorial, with his mother and aunt on one side and Willem […]

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