Also, I do not Respect My Elders
I just finished the (wonderful) The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.
One of the characters – Alice – is not sufficiently deferential to her husband’s father. Alice’s father in law wants her to quit her job. When she refuses, the FIL tells his son to deal with Alice, threatening to hit her.
My father in law was like that.
What is it with men who think they get to control women? What is it with in laws who hate their children’s spouses?
My FIL hated me for the way I ate bacon.
(Although at least he never suggested – that I know of – that Mr T hit me.)
“You’ll hand in your notice….”
There was a silence. And then Alice heard her voice.
Van Cleve [the FIL] looked up. “What?”
“No. I’m not leaving the library. I’m not married to you, and you don’t tell me what to do.”
“You’ll do what I say! You live under my roof, young lady!”
She didn’t blink.
Mr. Van Cleve glared at her, then turned to Bennett [Alice’s husband and Mr. Van Cleve’s son], and waved a hand. “Bennett? Sort your woman out.”
“I’m not leaving the library.”
Mr. Van Cleve turned puce. “Do you need a slap, girl?”The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes
Mr T’s dad – let’s call him Mr B for Bully – did want Mr T to sort me out. He told Mr T to “get [me] in line.”
I had angered Mr B by defying him.
He did not like that.
I usually kept my mouth shut around Mr B.
No, this is not my way. Nor is speaking tactfully. As my former boss put it when I was talking to him today, “You are not a politician.”
But I had learned not to challenge Mr B because he took his revenge not on me but on Mr T’s mom.
Mr B and I had a history. He had taught me to keep quiet after an episode over, of all things, Alex Trebek.
Mr T and I were visiting his parents. We were watching Jeopardy when Mr B mused, “I have always found Alex Trebek to be pretentious.”
The words flew out before I could stop them. “Pot, meet kettle,” I said.
Mrs B started laughing.
Mr T started laughing.
For Mr B was indeed quite pretentious.
(Although he never insisted I call him “Dr” B, even though he held a PhD. So there is that. He never went full pretension on me.)
Then Mrs B stopped herself and whispered to me, “Uh oh. You’ll pay for that!”
Mr B glared at me. He glared at Mr T. Then he snapped at Mr T, “You’re pretentious and SO IS YOUR WIFE!”
Well, I thought. You told me. You told me.
(Except – neither Mr T nor I are particularly pretentious, I don’t think, so – the shoe didn’t even fit.)
An hour later, Mr B had Mrs B sobbing as he yelled at her about something inconsequential, called her names, and insulted her parents. He outweighed her by over 100 pounds. He stood over her as she cowered.
“If they had given grades for ‘stupid’ when you were in school, you would have gotten an ‘A!'” he shouted.
The message was clear: He might not punish me personally – he couldn’t, because I already didn’t care what he thought about me, but he would punish somebody.
I had learned not to defy Mr B, but I had also learned not to care what he thought about me.
It had taken years for me to reach that point.
After all, when someone tells his son not to marry you and that he’s going to boycott the wedding, you take it a little personally.
But a year after we got married (Mr T ignored Mr B’s instructions not to marry me and Mr and Mrs B, to my dismay, did not boycott our wedding but they did not add joy to the day), Mr T came slowly down the stairs after his weekly phone call to his parents.
“My dad is upset,” he said.
So what else is new? I thought to myself.
Those of us with good parents – rational, loving mothers and fathers who did not torment us emotionally – have no idea what it’s like to deal with narcissistic, selfish, alcoholic parents.
Those of us lucky enough to have been surrounded with a loving family – who have never encountered mean and narcissistic – assume that if someone treats us badly, it must be because we did something to deserve it.
Shortly after Mr T and I married, Mrs B wrote me a letter.
I think we need to start anew after I offer our read on how the tensions began. You should tell us your recollections.….It took me a long time to build a relationship with some of Mr B’s relatives and the initiative was all mine.Mrs B
Let’s deconstruct this, shall we? This is but a snippet of her letter. I will offer details.
She offers her “read” on how the tensions began.
She listed the things they did not like about me – my religion, my politics. How I was closed and guarded at their house. How I spent time on the computer instead of watching football with them.
Although not listed, they also didn’t like how I use cabbage, how I offered (or did not offer) oatmeal, that I dry clothes on the clothesline, that I wash and re-use Ziplocs, that I use cloth napkins.
She asks me to tell her what I didn’t like about them.
My recollections? My recollections are that I am not a stupid person and I had nothing to gain by listing all the things I did not like about Mr and Mrs B.
I was and still am grateful that they brought Mr T into being. He is an amazing man and a far better son than they deserved. But who among us would say yes, I think I should write a letter to my in-laws and tell them every single thing I don’t like about them?
And although I would not tell them, I will tell you.
- They told Mr T not to marry me and told him they were going to boycott our wedding
- They called me a golddigger (if I am one, then I am a very bad one because Mr T did not have money when I married him)
- They did not treat Mr T well. One year, when we went to Spain over Christmas instead of going to their house, Mr B called Mr T a “bad son” and Mrs B threatened suicide. She then sent an email to Mr T on Christmas Day in which she wrote, “Everything sucks and I get despondent.” Which – merry Christmas to you, too.
- They gossiped horribly about Mr T’s half brothers and sisters in law and nieces and nephews to Mr T, telling him things that were none of his business and were just mean.
- And lots and lots more but my reasons for disliking them are not the point of this post. (What was the point again?)(Oh right! How men try to dominate women by threat of physical violence!)
And she says bitch, I had to suck up to my in-laws and now it’s your turn.
She told me that when she married Mr B, she had to build the relationship with Mr B’s relatives. Which – honestly, was not fair. Yes, Mr B left his first wife for Mr T’s mom, but that was on Mr B, not on Mrs B. I mean, it was on her as well – she knew he was a married man with children, but why was Mr B’s family angry at Mrs B? They should have been angry with Mr B – he’s the one who abandoned his first family.
Mr T did not abandon anyone to marry me.
The default is that in laws welcome their children’s spouses.
Your children’s spouses are not supposed to have to grovel to earn your approval.
I refused to share my recollections. I refused to grovel.
Mr T came downstairs after The Mandated Weekly Phone Call That Had To Be Initiated By Mr T And Initiated Before 4:00 P.M. Eastern Time Because That’s When Mr and Mrs B Started Drinking.
Any phone call from Mr T to his parents that started after they had started drinking did not count. If he called them after 4:00 eastern, they would be angry and send him emails telling him he had abandoned them and was ignoring them.
“My dad is upset,” Mr T said.
So what else is new? I thought.
“About what?” I asked.
“Remember the first time you went with me to their house?”
“The first time? You mean years ago?”
“I remember they wanted us to sleep in the same bedroom even though we weren’t married, which I thought was weird. And that even though we had flown all morning, rented a car and driven an hour, and arrived at 1:00 p.m., not only did they not offer us anything to eat for lunch, they didn’t even ask if I wanted water.”
I started to get indignant all over again. I might not feed every person who crosses my threshold, but if you walk into my house, the first thing I will ask you is if you want something to drink.
WHAT KIND OF MONSTER DOESN’T OFFER A GLASS OF WATER TO A WEARY TRAVELER?
“I had to ask for water! Yes, I remember.”
Now I was cranky.
“Well, my dad is upset about something that happened when we visited.”
“Is he finally upset that they were such horrible hosts? That he offered the master bathroom to us so we could shower together like he and your mom did? Has he realized that his son’s girlfriend really does not want to think about her boyfriend’s parents naked together in the shower?”
He laughed. “No. He’s mad about the breakfast he made for us that Sunday.”
“What’s there to be mad about about breakfast?”
“He says you insulted him.”
I dug back into my memories. I am not the most diplomatic of people, but I can usually be on decent behavior, especially if I am terrified because I am surrounded by hostility and seething clear dislike.
As I had been.
“What did I do?”
“He didn’t like how you ate your bacon. He says it was an insult to the chef. Who was him.”
“He didn’t like how you ate your bacon.”
(I still can’t believe those words were ever said out loud. Or even thought.)
“He didn’t like how you ate your bacon.”
“What’s wrong with how I ate my bacon? I eat it properly.”
Mr T sighed. It’s hard to explain one’s parents when one’s parents are irrational. “You tore off the fat and ate only the lean.”
I waited for him to get to the part about how I had done it wrong.
He said nothing.
“That’s it? That’s what upset him? Here we are, four years later, and he’s still stewing about this? This is what he wants to talk to you about?”
“Your parents. Do not like me. Because of the way I eat bacon.”
He shook his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No. No. This is good. This is great. For years, I have thought they had a good reason not to like me. I thought if I just did it right with them – if I behaved properly, they might like me.”
Narrator: We know the truth: Clearly she didn’t care enough to grovel as Mrs B had asked.
“They have no rational reason not to like me!” I exclaimed. “They’re making crap up! Their dislike cannot be resolved! I cannot fix this! They don’t have a good reason not to like me – they just don’t so they are grasping for objective reasons – stupid reasons but objective – so they can justify it to themselves. I win! I don’t have to try anymore. Because there is nothing I can do – nothing! – that will make them like me.”
I no longer cared what they thought about it. I knew they would never like me and it wasn’t about me.
I stopped trying.
I was free.