Today is Day Six of a Nine Day visit from my mother-in-law – and you know what? I am fine, really, I am. I am actually enjoying her visit.
This was not always the case.
When I first met my husband-to-be’s parents when he and I were in grad school, they were pretty sure I had just dropped in from outer space. They were welcoming and friendly but I still felt like an alien in their world. Let’s count some of the ways in which we differed:
- I grew up in a green-lawned suburb in Connecticut. His parents lived in a working-class town outside of Detroit.
- I am a college graduate (then grad and law school too.). His parents ended their schooling in 6th grade.
- My parents were born in the U.S. His parents were in their early 20’s when they immigrated, with a toddler in tow and my husband in utero, to the U.S. from a small village in the Macedonian region of northern Greece. (look it up, it exists, I had to look it up too.)
- I was (still am?) a nice Jewish girl. His parents belonged to their Macedonian Orthodox church.
The only thing in common, I thought back then, was that we both were deeply in love with the same person. My husband-to-be. Her son.
It took me some time to get used to their ways of doing things.
And it took them some time to get used to my ways, too.
On an early visit to my husband’s house, we went with his parents to visit relatives. When we arrived at their house, I saw that the dining room table was all set up with platters of food, a few uncles were already sitting around the table. I took a chair. My husband whispered in my ear, “Uh, no, you don’t sit down at the table. That is for the men. You are expected to go into the kitchen and help the women with the food.”
I bristled (Ms. magazine, I was an early subscriber) but dutifully followed my mother-in-law into the kitchen.
A few years later I went with my father-in-law to the supermarket where he was a regular to stock up on kid-friendly snacks for our week long visit (my kids were too little then to appreciate feta cheese and pickled cabbage.) When I put my bottles of Perrier water down on the conveyor belt, the supermarket check-out lady raised her eyebrows at my father-in-law, and he nodded sagely at her, “That’s my daughter-in-law, she’s from Washington.”
Yes, that pretty much explained everything. I can see now how they must have seen me – I thought bottled water was sophisticated, they must have thought I was a being a snob.
We are a Jewish family (my husband converted) so we didn’t feel right joining his family for their Christmas day family celebration. Instead we would make the 11 hour drive to Detroit on December 25th, telling his parents to please go ahead and have Christmas dinner without us. But if we arrived at 9 p.m., Christmas dinner would still be waiting as were the presents under the tree. The next year we arrived at 10 p.m., still the waiting dinner and the presents. I didn’t want his parents to give my kids Christmas gifts. I insisted my husband convey that message.
Looking back I wish I had been a little less strident on the subject. A few packages wrapped in green and red from their grandparents would not have harmed my kids’ Jewish identities.
It was also obvious from the start that my household standards were more casual than those of my mother-in-law. At her house, the phrase “it’s so clean you could eat off the floor” had real meaning. During our family visits wastebaskets seemed to be emptied hourly and laundry was done daily, with sheets folded just so.
When she visited our house, she would venture into my husband’s sock drawer to see if any socks needed darning. She would rearrange my linen closet. And looked disappointed when she learned we don’t own a mop. (Does an old Swiffer count?). After she left, I would grumble a bit when I found stray objects put away in odd places, her trying to help but it made extra work for me.
My mother-in-law has also always outshone me in the baking department (easy to do.) Her chocolate chip cookies (so much butter!) are legendary. My friends and their kids come to our house during her visits to sit and talk with her and enjoy the warm cookies.
And best of all, she makes Macedonian cheese and spinach filled phyllo pastries, “pitas” she calls them – with the phyllo dough made from scratch. That would be by combining flour and yeast for those of us who don’t get the baking thing.
During this week’s visit she made a batch of cheese pitas to bring to a family party on the weekend. 72 of them disappeared within an hour. The weekend over, my husband went back to work downtown and my mother-in-law and I have spent the weekdays together at home. We watch and talk about the news (CNN should give her a merit badge for her daily loyalty). She is fascinated by world events and asks great questions. (“Why can’t Ebola be cured?” and “How could the Secret Service miss that guy?”). We look at old photo albums and play with the dogs. She makes dinners that my husband likes to eat. While she says she is fine being at home with me, I see how her heart brightens when my husband arrives home from work each night.
At night they sit on the couch in our family room and chat mostly in Macedonian, with some English thrown in for my benefit, about how relatives are doing, who is ill and who isn’t, how could so-and-so get divorced and what her two other sons, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren are doing. My husband loves to talk with his Mom about her memories of the old days, life in the village –“and then I took the rooster by the neck, stepped on its feet and killed it. ” and she remembers that her own mother-in-law, when she met her at age 18, “thought I was too skinny; she told me that my fingers were too thin for cooking.”
We are now at ease with each other. It no longer bothers me that she can’t eat off my floor as I could off of hers. I am more patient with her questions and she is more satisfied with my answers. We have learned much over 36 years from each other. How much we really do have in common.
She makes the phyllo dough, I eat the pitas, we both her love her son.