58. The Middle Child

58. The Middle Child

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Middle Child

All negativity is an illusion created by the limited mind to protect and defend itself.

~Ambika Wauters

My mother-in-law’s mouth twisted with the sudden taste of vitriol. “We never had Don’s IQ tested.”

I leaned forward, my fingers strangling the couch cushion beneath me. “But you had your other kids tested—why not Don?” “Didn’t see the point.” She eyed me critically while her mint green nails ticked against the glass she palmed. And as quickly as her venom set in, she rose from her seat across from me and shuffled into the kitchen for more iced tea, fungus-colored toenails leading the way.

A couple of months prior, my husband, Don, beamed when his parents phoned with the news they were paying us a visit. He had invited Mike and Karen several times, but in four years they had yet to come. This time they were attending a wedding in nearby Arizona and wanted to see their two sons who lived on the West Coast. Because Don’s brother, Jim, was renting a room in another family’s apartment, our house had been chosen as the meeting place.

Don’s initial enthusiasm soon melted away as backhanded compliments filled any pauses between complaints. My in-laws had been in our house for a torturous twenty-four hours before Jim made an appearance. Cheers erupted as the golden boy strutted through the front door on his mission to demand everyone’s attention. To my husband’s parents, Jim shone as the epitome of all things witty and brilliant. Don, on the other hand, had been branded the “brainless” middle child.

While Jim passed gas in his mother’s face en route to grab the remote control, Don tried to make conversation. Stories about Jim’s life watching sports from his couch abounded betwixt burps and huge handfuls of chips. No one cared to hear about Don.

I escaped to the kitchen under the guise of dinner preparation, but mostly to ensure my tongue stayed safely in my mouth. To my dismay, Karen followed. No offer to help, of course; she was just looking for something worthy of complaint, namely my cooking.

“What’s in the stuffing?” she asked while sliding her glasses back up the bridge of her shiny nose.

“Uh, sun-dried tomato, mozzarella, feta…”

“Oh, I’ve never liked the feta in anything really. But, I’m sure it won’t be that bad.”

She swallowed a gulp of her tea and refilled the glass for the tenth time. I returned my attention to the task at hand while she waddled back to the family room. I may have stuffed the chicken with more vigor than required.

Dinner consisted of open-mouth chewing peppered with laughter at anything Jim said. Don’s attempts at conversing were rebuffed to the point where only I interacted with him. Meanwhile, Mike and Karen continued to dote on their older, jobless, unwashed son, Jim.

The rest of the weekend continued with more of the same, including jabs like, “Don’t worry, we won’t steal the silverware,” when Don had to run to the store for more tea bags. Their youngest, and only daughter, called every couple of hours to check on them, effectively depriving Don of any leftover attention.

When the nightmare intrusion, I mean visit, ended, Don’s mood remained sour. He asked a few days later, “Why are they so negative?”

“They’re miserable and will always be. You don’t need their approval.”

His brow twitched as I took his hand and said, “I’m proud of you.”

I often wonder how my in-laws can be so blind to the unequal treatment of their children. Perhaps they see it and just don’t care. Whatever the case, I’m glad my husband was the middle child who had to work harder to be noticed. It’s made him a wonderful man. And if they don’t see it, I do.

~Avery Shepard

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