Now that we’re home, I feel clarity moving into my mind again, at least a little more than I’ve had for the past month. It’s time to start debriefing and detoxing from the vacation. The inevitable result of this process will be some guilty feelings and fresh grumpiness, but I’m okay with that.
After a mostly delightful week at the beach with a gaggle of friends (four other breeding families and a single male), we headed north to New Jersey for a few days at my in-laws’ home. The kids call them Big GrandMa and Big GrandPa. Contact with them is always extremely stressful for me.
Some years ago when I was pregnant with Nick, there was a big blow-up at the home of the BGs, mostly relating to Jesse’s behavior and their inability to cope with a challenging and free-spirited child. BGP blew a gasket and made all sorts of inappropriate comments at dinner one night about our parenting, and both BGs made a painful stink about accommodating Jesse’s egg allergy, and they were generally nasty. It was just another blow-up in a long string of blow-ups over the years, but this time it was about my child. That was truly intolerable. I swore I would never, ever, everrrrr return to their home.
But the kids always want to see the BGs, and I love Anthony, and life is short and full of regrets, so fuck me and my promises to myself. I voluntarily visited the BGs last year, and again this year. I’m a willing participant, but still it gets me all anxious and angry. With last week’s encounter behind me now, I’m realizing that for the past few weeks I’ve been doing exactly what any infantile, poorly-socialized parent would do in my shoes: taking my stress out on my kids.
* * * * * *
The BGs don’t like me. Anthony would beg to differ, but I don’t think this is an issue we’ll ever agree on. They undoubtedly “love” me — because what choice do any of us have after all these years? — but at best they tolerate my presence. Also Anthony’s brother appears to hate me; he behaves in a way that suggests utter disdain for me.
I’m sure the culture gap has something to do with it. When I was getting to know Anthony’s family in my 20’s, I had no conception that “English” is an actual ethnicity. They just looked like white people to me. But they’re definitively not white Americans, and I had no idea of the unspoken, essential strictures that apply to girlfriends and daughters-in-law, or of the bold emotional repression that appears to define the boundaries of relationships in an English household.
Some many years ago, before Jesse was born, the in-laws found the opportunity to tell Anthony (and then eventually me) that I’m an awful person who has hurt their feelings and offended their sensibilities repeatedly. One important example BGM shared with me fits in the story like this (and I swear I’m being totally objective in the telling here):
Years before Anthony and I were married, while I was still in law school, BGM started talking about children. She wanted grandkids so she could be a better grandma than her own mother had been to Anthony and his brother. She would love to be a grandma. Soon. Before she’s too old to be a good grandma. Like, now. She would like to be a grandma now. Which means her sons need to have children. Soon. Now. ASAP.
After a while it got to be pretty offensive to me, especially since I had already told BGM I wasn’t planning to have kids. But what could I do? I tolerated it.
One Mother’s Day weekend we visited the in-laws. As we were heading back home on Sunday afternoon, BGM hugged me at the car door. I said “Happy Mother’s Day!” one last time.
She answered, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too!” Then she pulled back and chuckled, “OH I suppose I can’t say that yet, can I!”
I took a deep breath inside and answered with my own chuckle, “You better get used to it.”
And that was my great offense. Those six words apparently ripped a hole in BGM’s heart and stewed silently inside her for years and years, until they exploded all over Anthony and me.
Well never mind. I finally gave her grandchildren. My purpose in her life is complete.
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Last week’s visit went surprisingly well, at least if you’re evaluating the BGs’ behaviors.
There was only one classic moment, when Anthony showed BGM a photo of us from about 10 years ago. BGM examined it and declared cheerfully, “Oh what a lovely photo! Look how lovely you were, Cahla, back when you were so young and slim.”
And there you have it. BGM in a nutshell. Lovely, lovely. After 30 years of cheap shots at me, I guess I can’t blame her for slipping just one in.
One day we went to a lake in the New Jersey Pine Barrens to frolic in canoes. Anthony’s brother met us there. He behaved exactly as I anticipated, disdaining to engage in conversation with me, barely saying hello or goodbye to me, and largely ignoring Jesse and Nick and Anthony. He is entirely self-absorbed. But I think I was polite. If I wasn’t, I’ll probably hear about it in ten years, after it has plenty of time to fester.
We had to sideline Jesse for a lot of our time at the BGs’ home, because she was so out of control. I had prepared myself for the worst — grumpy BGs being grumpy about kids doing exactly what kids do, getting nasty about potential harm to all their precious household goods, and being weird tight-asses about eating schedules and tea. But instead the BGs were pretty delightful with the kids, and they were earnestly sad about how discombobulated Jesse is right now.
One day, Anthony and BGM took the kids to the active-adult-community pool down the block. I stayed in the bedroom sulking and being depressed about Jesse. I heard BGP’s quiet voice from outside the door. “Cahla? Ah you theh?” (You get the idea — do the English accent thing.)
I gritted my teeth, opened the door, and stepped out sheepishly, mumbling about having some down time. BGP fell to tears as he spoke. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about how hard things have been with Jesse. I had no idea, and I am so, so very sorry. We’re so worried about you, Carla.”
I nodded through my own tears as my father-in-law, who I believe has held me in contempt for all these years, took pity on me. “Carla, can I just give you a hug? I want to give you a hug.”
I could hardly bear it. Why does humanity always surprise us with cruelty and kindness at all the oddest moments? An emotional dissonance brayed short and loud in my heart, and then my own contempt for the man — masked for so long by my belief in his contempt for me — took a step back. I accepted his hug and his love, and something long broken was mended a little.