Wednesday, June 02, 2010

you cannot put a fire out

You cannot put a Fire out --
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan --
Upon the slowest Night --

You cannot fold a Flood --
And put it in a Drawer --
Because the Winds would find it out --
And tell your Cedar Floor--

Emily Dickinson

At 5 foot 11 inches and well over 200 pounds, she is a force to be reckoned with--despite the fact she can only manage to walk the length of one block and that with the help of a walker. She has a round face and beaming, child-like countenance, cropped dyed red hair, and wears colorful flowing clothes. She claims to have not worn a bra since her early twenties, undaunted by the fact that a bout with breast cancer seven years ago left her only one. A child of the 1960s, she finds it liberating to speak of sexual and gynecological subjects in unflinching detail. Yesterday was the last day of her 10-day-visit to us here in New York City and I am greatly relieved that my mother-in-law's visit is over.

Often when I am with my mother-in-law a tidal wave of anger surges through me, I want to yell or  smash dishes: my arms long to heave something spectacularly shatterable across the room. As this is not a reasonable choice, a sulky and peevish mood instead takes hold and I begin to speak in monosyllables. I am soon overcome by a vague tiredness, finding any excuse to sneak off to my bed. But my mother-in-law doesn't particularly notice any of this, a bafflingly obliviousness to social clues is another of her signature qualities.

I do not get angry because my mother-in-law is mean, or purposely cruel. Nor is she manipulative or ill-willed. She is, in fact, quite generous and generally good-willed. I feel like throwing things because her curious inability to respond to me as me is nothing other than oppressive. (Well, that coupled with the fact that she is extremely demanding and assumes that we will rearrange our schedules to accommodate her without ever saying thank you.)

My mother-in-law's presence is a prodigious regime: she is a totalitarian country occupying my 12-square-foot living room. From the throne she's made of my antique oak chair (breaking under her immense weight) she issues decrees about what is best for all of us--when we will eat and what we will eat, where we will go and when we will go, what we think and why we think it. She manages this while unaware of any desire but her own, often without any actual supporting facts, and--bewilderingly--with complete sincerity. She repeatedly disregards Ike's sleep schedule, assuring me he can just sleep in the car, which particularly irks me.

Her regime thrives on popular novels and dramatic television re-enactments where poor minority women succeed against great odds. Thus, I exist for her as an idea of a daughter-in-law, and the idea of pregnant daughter-in-law is particularly compelling. Her compassion is roused, her sympathy lies entirely with my condition. My husband--her incredibly dutiful son--is transformed into the male oppressor. Suddenly there is a passionate drama taking place in our home and justice must prevail. She will overcome, a triumph for women victims everywhere. We will eat ice cream and burn our bras. Children will no longer hang from us crying for lunch. We are strong and beautiful and brandish our canes at honking taxi cabs.

By day two of her visit I had read every magazine in our apartment from cover to cover, mostly in the bathroom, where I found myself much more often than physically necessary. By day four all the waning symptoms of my first trimester had returned full-force. By day six, I began heading to bed directly after dinner offering no explanation. On day eight I burst into tears after a particularly excruciating meal with her. At this point my husband stepped in, and my time with my mother-in-law  dramatically decreased.

I admit, my ability to handle my mother-in-law is diminished by my pregnant state. I am hyper-sensitive to everything. All my carefully thought-out attempts at compassion and largess dwindle after five minutes in her presence. In the past, I've been able to keep my sense of humor while with her, and even enjoyed gathering good story material from all the odd and preposterous things she did or said. (Too bad I wasn't blogging last time she visited, the ridiculous events of our night out at the Broadway production of Billy Elliot are well-worth the telling.) But now that she is gone I vacillate between great relief and disappointment in my handling of the situation. Primarily, though, I am in awe of my husband, he sees all her faults and yet always treats her with kindness and respect. In spite of her obvious rudeness toward him, he remains calm and engaged with her. He takes care of her without complaining and defers to her wishes whenever reasonable. I cannot fathom his patience. During my crying outburst on day eight, I sobbed, "It's a good thing she wasn't my mother, because I would have abandoned her to the wolves long ago."

{ P O E T R Y  W E D N E S D A Y }


Julia said...

Amber, you must be so relieved to have your space back! I cannot imagine ten days of this situation. I would have been hyperventilating by the end. I love the Emily Dickinson poem and it's a very clever and funny complement to the way you describe your mother-in-law-- a force of nature indeed.

Kris Livovich said...

A force of nature! Immense force. A gift to have a husband who is calm and helpful, who (hopefully) does not reproach you when you are unable to handle the stress. Although even if you would have abandoned her to the wolves, you still welcome her in your home, which is a good thing.

Molly Sabourin said...

You cannot fold a Flood --
And put it in a Drawer --

I am in awe of this line.

I am wishing for you, Amber, some quiet and rest.

This post was beautifully written.

Beth said...

I am with Molly. I too was struck by this line and am sure it will pop up unexpectedly in my head. Perhaps it can be part of my new survival mantra, up there with "children do childish things."

Peace to you. And strength. And rest.

Jenny Schroedel said...


You are hilarious in your description of this force, this flood, this fire. But also in your humility as your describe the person you intend to be in contrast with the way you actually are. I can totally relate to this! I love your description of Charles: grace under fire.

Bethany Patchin said...

A) CONGRATS on your pregnancy, B) I needed to read this post tonight. It was so well-written and core-honest. It brought back memories of my previous MIL, helped weed out feelings about future experiences I may find myself having (I have this idealized dream in my head, which my current boyfriend's mother does not compute with, but I'm afraid no woman on earth would - excluding myself in 30 years). The key part is Charles' treatment of her; that there is psychological and marital Gold. Primary relationship from childhood = how he will love you.