My mother is downsizing, moving from her house with too many stairs to an apartment with a doorman, so she has no room for all her plants. “I’ll take them,” said my husband last week. “We’d be happy to have them.”
“Great!” she said.
I was pleasantly surprised. Typically, Christopher finds my mother obnoxious and difficult. I wanted to believe that 15 years into our relationship, they are finally warming up to each other.
But when I come upstairs this morning to pour myself coffee, he’s furious. “Look at this email your mother sent me,” Christopher says. “She’s threatening me.”
I read the email over his shoulder. The subject is “My plants.” A neutral observer might call it short, a harsher one curt. Mom gives him instructions for watering each plant (most every other day, the orchid every four days), and then concludes, “Take care of my plants. If they start dying, I’ll reclaim them.”
I’d hardly call that email “threatening.”
“What the fuck?” Christopher says.
My theory about my mother is that if she were a kid today, she’d be diagnosed as somewhere on the spectrum. She doesn’t intend to be rude or brusque, I firmly believe. One of my co-workers is autistic, and I must remind myself not to take offense when I read Denise’s emails.
Christopher knows my theory. Over our marriage, throughout which my mother has been our biggest source of conflict, we’ve had this conversation many times. “What she means is, ‘Please take care of my plants exclamation point smiley face,’” I tell him now. “You just need to mentally edit her emails. Insert the pleasantries and niceties that she doesn’t think to include.”
He snorts. “Stop making excuses for your mother. She’s a bitch.”
I stiffen. I glare at him, but he doesn’t apologize. Christopher hardly ever apologizes, though he insists on apologies himself. Usually we only resolve a fight when I apologize, even though I did nothing wrong, even though I inwardly roll my eyes. Right now Christopher is thinking about my mother, Fuck her. I wonder if he knows I am thinking, Fuck him.
I pour myself coffee, while Christopher taps on his keyboard. I resist the urge to stand behind Christopher, to read his reply. To remind him that my mother is 72, be nice, don’t be rude, she’s my mother.
No one in my birth family apologized, except for me, and I overcompensated to such an extent that my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Metzger thought I needed counseling. “Stop saying you’re sorry!” she yelled at me once, to which I responded, “I’m sorry!” That’s a family joke, a story my mother and sister both like to tell. I’m sure Ms. Metzger thought she was being supportive or helpful, rather than unkind. Or as Christopher would say, “a bitch.”
Freud took for granted antipathy for mothers-in-law, though notably only for men. In the courtship phase, Freud contended, the future bride’s father is the natural enemy to the suitor (because he obstructs), her mother the natural ally (because she enables). However, once the couple is married, those roles reverse: the mother-in-law becomes the adversary, as well as the warning of who the beloved will someday be. That’s the true reason the man dislikes his mother-in-law, for Freud: she’s a harbinger. I know I will never grow into my mother; Christopher, I’m sure, knows that too. I suspect, however, that in spite of myself, I have married her.
Table of Contents