29. What Families Do

29. What Families Do

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

What Families Do

Be kind to your mother-in-law, but pay for her board at some good hotel.

~Josh Billings

My family has a dirty little secret. It’s not something we share with other people—ever. Each of my siblings married their spouses without letting them in on the secret. They just let them marry into the fold and hoped for the best when they found out. And it wasn’t an especially fun discovery for them to make. Probably a bit like finding out they had leprosy or maybe just a really bad case of hemorrhoids. Either way, the newcomers to our family weren’t always happy when they realized that their new mother-in-law has a tongue sharper than those knives they advertise on infomercials. (You know the ones. They can cut a Volkswagen in half in seven seconds flat.)

When I first met my husband, my siblings urged me to do as they’d done: Minimize the potential spouse’s exposure to our mother, lest he disappear into some dark abyss, like so many boyfriends before him. “Don’t let Mom talk to him,” my siblings warned me. “Especially without you there to monitor the conversation.”

I followed their advice to the letter. I kept Eric away from Mom as much as I could. And it must have worked. Eric proposed to me just five months after we met. All was going as planned. Eric might have thought Mom was a little rough, but just a little. He was clueless, and I wanted to keep him that way until after we’d made things official.

But that was not to be. Just hours before our wedding, a freak cell phone accident messed up the plan, nearly costing me years of wedded bliss.

The morning of the wedding, my parents drove in from out of town and couldn’t seem to locate the church, so my mom called Eric to ask for directions. He gave her the information, they chatted for a moment, and then my mom hung up the phone.

Or thought she did.

Eric was just about to hang up on his end when he heard my mom’s voice. He put the phone back up to his ear and soon realized that she wasn’t talking to him. But his curiosity got the best of him and he listened in.

“I told you to turn back there. You never listen to me, but you’d be so much better off if you would. After this many years of marriage, I would think you’d finally learn to do what I tell you to do.”

Eric heard my father sigh and mumble something under his breath.

But Mom wasn’t finished. “What did you say?”

“I said I just missed a turn. I don’t think you need to make a federal case out of it.”

“A federal case? A federal case? Are you kidding me with this stuff? You have not seen a federal case, mister. And if you would have just listened to me in the first place, none of this would have happened. You’re not a very smart man, you know, and if you’d just do what I tell you…”

Eric gulped, then realized they might be able to hear him and quickly hung up. And, predictably, he called me.

“Hi, honey! Happy Wedding Day! I can’t wait to see you!” I said in lieu of a simple hello.

“Um, babe,” he said nervously, “how often do people tell you that you’re just like your mom?”

Instant sinking feeling. “What happened? What did she say?”

He relayed the story to me and then said, “I have to be honest. I’m freaking out a little. You’re sweet now, but after forty years of marriage, are you going to talk to me that way?”

“No, never,” I said emphatically.

“But how do I know? Sometimes people change after the wedding.”

Was this actually happening? I was sitting in the chair at the salon, and the stylist was pinning my veil into my up-do… the up-do I might no longer need.

Thanks to my mom, my biggest downfall.

“Eric, I’m sorry you had to hear that. My mom can be a little…”

“Demeaning? Condescending? Evil, even?”

I sighed. “I know it sounds crazy, but she really does mean well. Our wedding is so important to her, and she didn’t want to be late.”

“But the way she talked to your dad was terrible. I’m worried that you might turn into her some day.” He swallowed hard. “And I couldn’t take that.”

I felt tears spring into my eyes. Was Eric considering calling things off? I wanted to ask the question, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer.

Eric interrupted my thoughts. “Oh, my gosh, I have another call—and it’s your mom. What should I do?”

“Answer it, but act normal. She doesn’t know you overheard her yelling at my dad.”

Eric sighed and said he’d call me back. Then he answered Mom’s call. “Hello? Martha? Did you find the church all right?”

“Yes, we did, but the flowers are all wrong. She ordered lilies; she told me that last week. I called the florist, and he said that he had a mix-up. We’re on our way to the flower shop to pick up the right flowers.” She seemed on the verge of tears as she added, “I just wanted everything to be perfect for her big day. She’s my only daughter, and I love her so much.”

“I know, Martha. We all love her. Thanks for fixing her flowers.”

“Well, of course,” she said. “It’s what families do.”

Mom’s words echoed in Eric’s head as he called me back. It’s what families do. And families also overlook one another’s faults, he realized.

I answered the phone, sure I hadn’t breathed since Eric and I had hung up a few minutes before. “So everything’s falling apart, isn’t it?” I said, near tears.

“Nothing is falling apart,” he answered calmly. “She’s fixing the flowers as we speak.”

I exhaled. “So you’re not calling off the wedding?”

He chuckled. “No, of course not. Why would you think that?”

“Because my mom is horrible, and you’re worried I’m going to turn into her some day.”

“Your mom’s not so bad.”

“Not so bad? Are you kidding me?”

“Your mom was practically crying because your flowers were messed up. She’s got a good heart, honey, and she really loves you.”

“But the way she talked to my dad earlier, well, it’s not exactly an isolated incident.”

“Nobody’s perfect, and she’s part of my family now. So let’s cut her some slack. After all, it’s what families do.”

I sighed. Eric was right. Mom had a heart of gold, despite having a tongue that sometimes went into slice-and-dice mode.

“So everything’s okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, we’re good. But, babe,” Eric hesitated, “please, please, please don’t ever turn into your mother.”

“I promise.”

“And one more thing: That woman is never, ever living with us.”

I laughed and said, “You’ll get no arguments here.”

An hour later, Eric and I tied the knot surrounded by our families, friends, and dozens of simply perfect lilies, thanks to my less-than-perfect, but somehow still lovable mother.

~Marie Wells

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