I just sent my former mother-in-law a birthday present, over a month late. I don’t know how I forgot her birthday this year, but I did, and though I know she won’t hold it against me (and, in fact, I seem to remember she forgot my birthday last year and sent me a book late, with profuse apologies which I waved off when I thanked her), I still feel a bit guilty.
My mother-in-law and I got along decently for the eighteen years her son and I lived together. Which was good, since we went to graduate school practically in her back yard, and saw rather a lot of each other. Does anyone besides me consider the whole in-law juggernaut deeply, fundamentally bizarre? Consider: you tie the knot, and you’re immediately plopped into the cozy bosom of a bunch of people you hardly even know. The biggest thing you have in common is the person they begat and you fell in love with. You think you know him better than they do; they think you’ve come late to the game, and couldn’t possibly know him. During the holidays you’re honor-bound to spend together, you cast upon each other a slightly jaundiced eye.
Time marches on, and you go on vacations together. You do time in each others’ weddings and baby showers, and you make each other grandparents and uncles and aunts. Your relatives have a connection to your spouse’s relatives, your siblings and your spouse’s siblings are co-aunts and uncles, your parents and his share grandparent duty. Everyone’s connected. You’re the grafting points for whole new limbs on each others’ family trees, until the day you split up. Then you’re snapped off neatly, like twigs.
Since my divorce, I’ve been astonished to discover how fragile the in-law bond turns out to be. Even if you like your in-laws enough to still exchange birthday presents five years later, it’s amazing how quickly the we’re-all-family pretense gets unceremoniously dropped. And somehow, neither party seems to mind. All breakups should be this simple! Still, it leaves a strange aftertaste. Is it really possible that all those polite interactions–years and years of polite interactions!–could add up to so little in the long run?
Of course, the alternative is worse.
I’ve written before about my mother’s supremely irritating habit of sucking up to my ex-husband. (Actually, it’s not the sucking up that infuriates me. I couldn’t care less if the two of them ride off into the everlasting sunset together. What bugs me–what really, really bugs me– is the way she apparently feels compelled to report back, all proud and defensive, every damned time he crosses her mind.) “I miss him,” she told me tearfully one day last fall. For the love of fuck, I thought. “Well, you shouldn’t,” I snapped. “He’s right here. You can see him or talk to him any time you want. In fact, I wish you would! He needs more people in his life.”
(I thought that was a nice touch. He certainly does need more people in his life, though I’m willing to bet my mom is not going to go too far out of her way to be one.) “Invite him and the kids to your house!” I said, going for broke. “He always did love South Carolina.”
My mother cut me a sideways look–she is, after all, the very person who taught me how to call someone’s bluff–and muttered something indistinct. We let the topic pass. But I stayed mad for a while, because I’m petty and have nothing better to do. It struck me that my mom was a very bad person, going out of her way to stir things up just when I’d finally stopped thinking so much about the divorce. Then it struck me that I was a jerk for getting upset. Then my dad, who lives halfway across the country and had no idea any of this was on my mind, called. “I sent the boys’ father a birthday card,” he announced. “I hope he gets it.”
God damn it. “Great, great, you should have him come visit you or something, he’s right here, and he needs more people in his life,” I spluttered. “In fact, why limit it to birthdays? Why not write him a heartfelt letter every fucking week?” After a startled silence, my dad burst out laughing. “You’re a little touchy about this, aren’t you?” he said. I admitted I was. “You know, I stayed in touch with your mom’s mom,” he reminded me. “Your mom and I were only married for a couple of years, but I wrote and visited your grandmother right up to the day she died.”
This is true. He even came to her funeral, last spring. I’m an ass.
When my grandmother died, my ex-husband called my mother especially to tell her how sorry he was. This shocked and surprised me–I had underestimated him–and it made me happy, even after the fiftieth or sixtieth time my mother brought it up within my earshot. His mother called me, too. She even called my mom.
There’s no way to spin this as anything other than kindness. Still, I bet it bugs my ex-husband that his mother keeps in touch with me. I bet she rubs his nose in our semi-friendship without meaning to, out of some vague feeling of guilt crossed with loyalty. I bet he grits his teeth and curses below his breath whenever his mother brings me up. I bet he wishes she would never talk about me, just as I wish my parents would never talk about him, and I bet all of them, on both sides, always will.
Once a year I fly down to South Carolina to attend a board meeting for my family’s shared business (a country house and garden now turned tourist attraction, basically). We all converge on the property in question, and those of us coming from out of town stay in a little cabin my uncle built off in some woods on one edge of the property. The house my grandmother lived and died in is down the river a bit, about half a mile from the cabin, on the far side of the gardens and petting zoo and snack shop where the tourists mill about. This particular meeting was doubly fraught; on the one hand, my mother and uncle and siblings and cousins and I were hashing out the end of various unnecessarily contentious and prolonged estate issues that go all the way back to my grandfather’s death a decade ago; and on the other hand, we were all back there and back together for the first time since my grandmother’s funeral.
I dreaded the meeting. I didn’t want to face any family upheaval and fighting. And I couldn’t imagine being on that property without the magnetic pull of my grandmother’s house, down a dirt road I know every inch of. I assumed I’d ask for a key at some point and wander over and let myself in and, I don’t know, just feel what the house was like without her inside. According to my mother, no one has sorted through or catalogued or sold or boxed up or given away any of her things. Apparently the house is exactly the way it was the day my mother and uncle paid someone to come change the locks the very week she died.
Last spring I went through all the letters she’d ever written me, boxes and boxes of them. Then I read my journals, looking for stories about her, and finally I read all my letters to her (snitched from her desk the week she died) that she’d saved. I looked at her pictures in all my photo albums and I tried to find the books she’d given me over the years so I could read the dedications she’d written inside. I was greedy for every tidbit I had of her, and there were many times I wanted to go back to her house, the one house that never ever changed throughout my entire childhood, no matter how many times my parents moved and I switched schools, no matter how much I grew up.
And then I got there and I couldn’t even fathom it.
I was too scared even to go near her house. I didn’t once set foot on that dirt road I’ve eagerly trotted or biked or driven down for my entire life. The thought of going inside, of walking through room after room, terrified me. Did I really read dozens and dozens of letters last spring? The very thought strikes me as superhumanly courageous, or possibly insane. The letters are boxed back up now, and I’m scared to open the boxes. I’m even scared to look at them. The thought of accidentally glimpsing her handwriting makes me queasy and afraid.
My sister drove by the house, she said, late one night. I didn’t dare ask her if it looked exactly the same, or whether she peeked through the windows, or what it felt like to be right there and know there was nobody living inside.
For months I’d been imagining what it would be like to walk through her house again, with everything so familiar and yet so empty and strange. Now I wonder whether there’s any point at all, or whether I ever will. Several close friends have lost parents this year, and all of them have told me both how wrenching and how cathartic it was to go home and clear everything out, divvying up some of their parents’ possessions, selling or donating or throwing away the rest. It does seem like a necessary rite of passage, and I assumed my family and I would talk about it at some point, would decide how we’re going to undertake whatever difficult tasks come next. It pissed me off that my mother and uncle hadn’t dealt with it already, truth be told. It seemed like they were neglecting their filial duties.
But now I realize I can’t really blame them. After all, I myself was too chicken even to go near the place.
My ex-husband moved. Dear readers, those of you who assured me that the Cottage Formerly Known as Dream was not the answer to all my prayers were absolutely correct. Had I gotten what I wanted back in 2010, I would have been out on the street in 2013. “The landlords need me out by July, so their daughter can move in,” my ex-husband told me back in May, sounding a bit frantic.
A happy, self-actualized, independent ex-wife would have left him to sort the particulars of his own life out. A happy, self-actualized, independent ex-husband would have been capable of sorting his own particulars. I wonder, sometimes, whether fucked-up marital relationships are doomed to persist, forever and ever, as long as the ex-spouses continue to interact. I bring out the worst in my ex-husband, I fear, and he brings out the absolute worst in me.
So, and predictably, I became obsessed with his move. I scoured Craigslist and the classified section of our tiny town’s tiny weekly newspaper, which he stubbornly refused to look at. I found him a house nearby. I found another. I found a third. Some he looked at, some he ignored, all were unsatisfactory. Eventually, he found a house in a town half an hour away–a town where he knows no one, a town that is moderately convenient to the children’s school and not at all convenient to my house nor to his lab. He took the children to look at it, signed a lease, and I went quietly ballistic.
What the fuck, I said to myself (and to my boyfriend, and to consoling-windows friend, and everyone who crossed paths with me, and anyone who foolishly picked up the phone when I called) was his problem? Had he forgotten that the children spend the whole summer with me, all day every day, and that our older son’s job and our younger son’s half-assed half-day camp both were located here, in my town, half an hour away from his new house? Was he planning to drive them every single morning over to me by eight thirty a. m.? Was he then planning to pick them up after work at my house, when he deigned to come and get them for “his” evenings? What about when school started? Had he forgotten that school ends in the afternoon, and he doesn’t get home till evening? What about sports? Had he forgotten that he leans heavily on the kindness of neighbors with children on our kids’ teams, who drive them to and fro when he doesn’t want to?
I raged, I fumed, I counted the ways he was an imbecile. And then I woke up one morning, after weeks of this, and thought, what the hell. It’s his stupid life to lead wherever he wants, and it’s not the end of the world
So the moral of the story is that I’m a bossy domineering jerk. Getting bent out of shape was a waste of time and energy. Besides, it probably gave me shingles.
Surrounded By Children
The kids were with me every day all summer. They talked non stop and ate like locusts and made it impossible to get work done, but I was in such a state, most of the time, that I didn’t care. I wish I could say that they were a glorious distraction, that they sensed that I was out of sorts and tense and sad, but they were oblivious, which is (I suppose) a good thing. You don’t want your kids worrying about you, tiptoeing around you.
My boyfriend’s younger daughter and my younger son flew by themselves down to South Carolina to visit my mom for a week. They marched right on the plane without so much as a backward look, carping at each other like an old married couple, dragging their wheeled suitcases behind them. (They’re now 12 and 11, grades seven and six, in case you’ve lost track.) Meanwhile, my boyfriend’s older daughter and my older son went to look at colleges with their other respective parents and ended up, at one school they visited, on the same tour. “It’s a real pain in the neck explaining who we are,” my son told me, when he got home. “So we just say we’re brother and sister now.” He has a point–“My mom’s boyfriend’s daughter, who’s here with her mom, actually, and I’m here with my dad, and they don’t know each other, so it’s a bit odd,” is cumbersome. Still, the brother/sister thing unsettles me slightly.
So now my boyfriend’s ex and mine have been officially introduced, and I wonder what they made of each other. If the kids end up going to college together–they’ve both applied early decision to the same place–this sort of thing will become commonplace.
We couldn’t manage a week away with all four kids this year–their various sports and jobs and camps made it impossible to coordinate. But in late August we drove in two cars with three of the four up to my mother’s rented house in Maine, stopping along the way to camp by the ocean near an old boarding school friend of mine. My boyfriend’s older daughter rode shotgun in my car the whole way. On both long days of driving, she talked for about six hours straight and made me laugh so hard I almost drove off the road.
For years and years–since my children were born, come to think of it–people saw fit to warn me about teenagers. Oh, you like your kids now, but just wait a few more years. Then you’ll really be in for it, these same people predicted darkly. Well, why wouldn’t they be right? After all, everyone knows that teenagers are monstrous. I never thought to question anyone. I just figured I’d deal with the problems as they came. I know I’m not out of the woods–bad things could come up at any moment!–but so far so good. And neither my boyfriend’s seventeen-year-old daughter nor my seventeen-year-old son are perfect by any standards, but my god do they ever entertain us.
Hideously, Pointlessly Furious With Family
Here’s a dire prediction that did, in fact, come true: Families tear each other to pieces over the most ridiculous things. It’s not just money, though of course there is that, too. What has become apparent since my grandmother’s death is that she was not only the emotional center of our clan, but the ethical and moral center, too–both the glue that held us together and the whip that made everyone behave. Without her, we’re vicious and nasty and utterly adrift. I don’t know how other families cope with death. I don’t know how other families divvy up property and renegotiate their places in the hierarchy of siblings and cousins and parents and children. I do know that my family seems to be doing everything badly, with no thought to long-term harmony and a good deal of cutting-off-noses-to-spite-our-faces. It’s horrifying, and I’m glad my grandmother isn’t alive to see it.
I’m presently writing a sad piece about the marital dog, which has inspired plenty of moping about other dogs I’ve loved and lost. Fortunately, I will soon be reunited with my mother’s wonderful long-haired German Shepherd, who slept by my side and followed me everywhere when I was home for my grandmother’s funeral, to the point where my mother got a bit pissy. “Honestly, I don’t know why she’s doing this,” my mother snapped, when the dog cried to be let into the bathroom while I was taking a shower. “Maybe you have an incurable disease. I’m serious! They can sense that, you know.”
The dog that came before this one in my mother’s house was a bigger, shaggier, long-haired German Shepherd named Misha. He was best friends with my marital dog–they were puppies together, and we have a series of adorable pictures of them, including one where they are sitting side by side on my mother’s porch, holding (I kid you not) paws. Misha was so enormous that my ex-husband used to open his jaws and stick his head inside. He was incredibly sweet, though terrifying to look at. I desperately wanted to dress him up in a flannel nightgown and a lacy nightcap with holes cut out for his ears for Halloween, and dress my son as Little Red Riding Hood, but we were never with my mom for Halloween, more’s the pity. You never saw such big eyes, such big ears, such lovely big white teeth.
Misha died when he was eleven. About a month later my mother was visiting and my younger son, aged three, looked up at her one day out of the blue and asked, “Is Misha still dead?”
So, here I am at the end of the summer, having failed to write anything on this website in ages, for which I apologize. I’m fine, mostly. The summer went quickly, once it finally took off, and now it’s over and gone. The kids are back in school–sixth grade and twelfth grade, shockingly enough. I’m over the shingles. In the mornings, I drink coffee and read the paper on my porch, in the shadow of four enormous hanging Boston ferns, and I thank Zeus and all the gods for this excellent little house, which I’m always happy to come home to. My boyfriend and an assortment of our various children and I drove up to Maine to camp and visit friends and, eventually, my mother and stepfather, and we had a lovely time, and the weather was stunning. It was a wonderful summer, on paper at least.
And yet subtending everything is the simple fact that the dead–my grandmother, the beloved dogs, that Spanish dictator, all of them–are, astoundingly, still dead.
When I was twenty-one, I lived in Paris for a semester and worked as an au pair. One day, the three children I looked after spiked fevers and cried and wiggled and complained and broke out in angry red spots. “Have you had chickenpox?” their mother asked me, as we stuck them in oatmeal baths and fetched washcloths for their heads and popsicles for their throats. I told her I must have, at some point, though I didn’t remember. “You must have, though I don’t remember,” my mother said, in a letter that arrived three weeks later, just as the children’s last scabs were falling off.
The very day her letter came I started feeling woozy. Twenty-four hours later I was a mess. Chickenpox as an adult is no fun. I had horrible sores all over my face, in my throat, on my scalp, behind my ears, in the creases of my elbows, under my arms, between my fingers, on the palms of my hands. I couldn’t eat, and my glands swelled up so much it looked like I had mumps. The boyfriend I was living with (secretly, in my tiny chambre de bonne on the ninth floor) taped newspapers over both our mirrors so I couldn’t wail about how freakish I looked, and walked all over Paris looking for Cream of Wheat, for which I developed an insatiable craving. (He never found it, alas, not even in the American grocery store.) Even after the worst had passed, I had hideous scabs for weeks. (The French, when I boarded the métro, avoided me as if I were a leper, which I suppose I was, in a way.)
“Well, at least you won’t get shingles when you’re old,” my boyfriend told me. His father was a doctor. “People who get la varicelle when they’re grown-ups seldom do.”
When I was thirty-five, my older son was seven and my younger son was a year and a half old. The baby was easy-going and cheerful and gorgeous, but he never, ever, ever slept. And then one day I woke up with a bad headache and swollen glands and a weird rash on my right ear.
“Shingles,” the doctor told me. “Ramsey-Hunt syndrome, actually. You might have some facial paralysis, or chronic pain, or hearing loss, or vertigo, or all of those.” I went home a little baffled, for surely I was not under undue stress? I didn’t feel stressed. (I took antivirals right away, and the rash faded and I was basically fine, barring a little bit of deafness in the affected ear, and a little bit of tinnitus that comes and goes.)
“The good news, though, is that you can’t get shingles twice,” the doctor said. “It almost never comes back again, after you’ve had it once.”
A month ago, I got a headache. A terrible headache, a spike of pain lodged behind my right eye, which seemed to be having trouble focusing. I spent a lot of time putting a hand over my left eye, then my right, then my left again, trying to figure out what was going on. Things were blurry in a strange way–a kind of fishbowl effect, actually–and the headache laughed in the face of painkillers. I was tired, and sad, and I slept a lot. Maybe crying is making my eyes feel weird, I thought. Maybe this is some somatic manifestation of grief.
And then I got a bump–a familiar feeling bump, accompanied by a familiar burning feeling–on the side of my nose.
Shingles. “It’s the fifth cranial nerve,” the GP told me, as he wrote the prescription for antivirals. “Luckily, that’s not the nerve that affects your eye.” I went home and googled “fifth cranial nerve.” (My ex-husband is, after all, a neuroscientist, and he teaches Human Brain Anatomy to med students every fall. We’d looked up all the cranial nerves on one of his cool brain imaging programs when I’d had shingles the first time. I was pretty sure the fifth cranial nerve did affect the eye, and both Google and the ophthalmologist I called that afternoon confirmed I was right.)
“You might have damage to your cornea or retina, facial paralysis, encephalitis, or a stroke,” my mother said, reading from the internet in a panicky voice. “Oh my god! This is serious! You have to get acupuncture! I’ll pay!”
The rash never quite took off. The headache retreated. The ophthalmologist dilated my eyes, looked inside, and proclaimed my cornea and retina in perfect shape. A month later my glands are still swollen, though, and I’m tired and grumpy and my right eye still feels a little wonky. “The good news is that you can get the shingles vaccination,” the ophthalmologist said. “You might have to pay for it out of pocket, though. Insurance won’t pay if you’re under 50, because most people under 50 don’t get shingles.”
I’m forty-five. “Get the vaccine! I’ll pay!” my father said.
I’ve got an appointment with an acupuncturist next week. I’ll get vaccinated, I guess, when I feel fully myself again. It’s all quite mysterious. Has anyone else had shingles?
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
All afternoon the sprinkler ticks and sprays,
ticks and sprays in lazy rounds, trailing
a feather of mist. When I turn it off,
the cicadas keep up their own dry rain,
passing on high from limb to limb.
I don’t know what has shocked me more,
that you are gone, that I am still here,
that there is music after the end.
(I found this poem in the June issue of The Atlantic, which I was idly skimming at the pool. Yesterday’s poem came from the excellent poetry foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/, which I highly recommend you visit.)