The Ties That Bug
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.