On Being Licked to Death

A few years ago, I admitted to my husband that had I known we’d have to spend this much time with his Mom, I would never have married him. I think he loved me a little less after that, but I don’t care; I still mean what I said.

My Mom says my irritation is just an in-law dynamic. Should your Mother-in-law or daughter-in-law be perfect you still would find her irritating. I mean Mom can reorganize my spice cupboard without permission, send me sixteen articles about how to parent, nag me about haircuts, and all just washes right off me. I love her that much. But should my MIL bake me a batch of macaroons. . .try to give me a magazine subscription? I’m rubbed raw.

My mother-in-law is sweet, generous, outgoing. . .a woman who gathers friends like lint. She’s NICE, GODDAMNIT. However, also needy, passive-aggressive, and dishonest, she is a stress-inducing conundrum I can’t solve. To make matters worse, she wants to be around me All. The. Time. If it were just that she wanted to spend more time with her son, fine. I’d be happy to send him over every so often. But no, she has to win me over, and no matter how nice I am to her, she knows she hasn’t.

My husband? He doesn’t fully understand my annoyance because their relationship is so profoundly different from mine with her. When he visits her or she visits us, he quickly disengages in some manly way, getting involved in a handyman project, or disappearing into a sports broadcast. She is sensible enough not to bother him then. So she turns to me. . .

Let me begin with an analogy. We recently got a puppy, a sweet submissive female. We already have a grand Alpha Male, a Picardy Shepherd who struts around the house showing off his regal mane. Well, the puppy , being submissive, wants to lick his face. He can’t stand it for more than a second or two. He growls at her, sometimes nips her. This only makes her want to “submit” even more. Now she’s jumping, and licking, pawing and licking, grabbing his face with her paws and licking. He’d probably have to kill her to stop her.

My Mother-in-law is licking me to her death.

My birthday was earlier last month. A few weeks before, my MIL called me late one afternoon. I was napping and didn’t catch the call. Tony came home from work. HIS cellphone rang.  His sister was calling to confront him about how their Mom had been trying to call me, and why haven’t I called her back. See. . . MIL called only once, waited less than an hour and then drew my sister-in-law and husband into a triangle to discuss not only why I am avoiding her callS, but what they are planning to do to me on MY birthday.

MIL wanted to drive over and get me, take me to SIL, and then to Tony’s job site to lunch, a thirty mile tour. SIL thought it would be better to come to me, leave my husband at work, and do lunch from my house. At no time did any of them ask and include me in the plan. I was just the bad guy in the back ground avoiding (supposedly multiple) phone calls.

I handled it by letting them know that I had other plans.   His family thinks birthdays are national holidays. Should we need to do anything else on “their day”, we are committing a family crime, even if it is OUR birthday. His mother pressed on, so Tony decided I was going to her house later in the week for dinner. (We’ll address his decision making issues at another post.) So to make them all happy, I complied.

She wasn’t going to relent.

Driving home after my birthdaty meal, Tony said, “Well. . .don’t you think that was a nice visit? I think it’s more relaxing when it’s just us and her.”

I wish I could blow steam out of my ears for real. I finally said, “I really think you don’t get it. She simply doesn’t treat you the way she treats me.” (His sisters once told me that my MIL had issues with the fact that my husband looks so much like his Dad, my MIL’s long gone ex-husband. Maybe this is why she handles him with more distance.)

“She pretty much leaves you alone or you disappear.” (This time he found that her new satellite radio system needed tweaking.)

“Me, she just can’t fucking leave me be. Everything is complicated. Everything is a push to hear praise or to insert herself. . .” He seems to only know I’m serious when I trot out the F word.

I go on to describe this: Upon arriving she always, ALWAYS tries to kiss me on the lips. I’m fine with the hug. But even the kiss on the cheek seems pushy to me. When did Americans get all lippy? Some men can get away with it. But my MOUTH? That’s reserved for my husband and, for a time, my sons when they were young. Once the boys were uncomfortable, they stopped. But no matter what sort of deflecting I do, head ducking, arm blocking, my MIL is going to land that kiss on my mouth or at least near it if she can. I am not exaggerating. And not a quick peck. A full, lingering smooch.

Why don’t I tell her to stop? Because I once told her something along those lines years ago, and at the next gathering all I heard whenever someone else arrived was a loud repeat of my “directions.” The passive aggressive wench. I don’t need her to yell out to everyone who meets me: Don’t kiss her on the mouth, she hates that. So instead I deflect and hope she will catch on. Eventually.

After arriving, I find a spot on the sofa that is comfortable for me. With my disability, I cannot sit just anywhere. I’m happy where I am. MIL pushed me to try this pillow, that pillow, this chair, that chair. No matter how many times I said that I am fine, she found something else to suggest. Finally, she asked Tony to go upstairs and bring down the chair that. . .Tony told her no. She shut up.

She served Tony some iced tea as I poured myself some water, which is what I always drink. Tap water and ice cubes, perfect. She jokingly asked if I had something against her special water that she filtered and refrigerated just for me so it would be cold. (That’s fine.) I dump out the tap water and reach for the filtered. She then stopped me. . . “Or did you want bottled water?” (No, whatever). “You do. You want the bottled.”  I told her to just give me whatever she wanted to give me. (Jesus! I think in my head.) I finally received a glass of water and returned to my spot on the sofa. Again I get a push to at least use this special pillow that she retrieved from her bedroom. Then when I said,  “No, no, that hurts,” as she was shoving it behind my back against my will, she asked if, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to use that pillow at home. I told her no, but maybe Tony could, throwing her a bone. She set it aside for later.

She began her typical peppering of questions for which she rarely waits any answer before the next query. And her questions always go toward the negative. WHY? Not because she is negative, but because if you answer the personal negative things, then well, she must be close to you; she is in “the know.”

Did my son finally get a job, did my Dad let my Mom come over alone like Mom wants, or did he have to accompany her, is our friend still dating THAT woman?   Tony puttered away in the back ground while I was on the hot seat, not wanting to share any of the answers with her. The information was not her business, and it makes her feel unnecessarily close. If you ever mention a struggle with your boss, it will be a question she asks you forever. . .and she will repeat and twist what you have said. Silence is the best option, but an impossible option.

She served us an appetizer of exactly seven wings to share. . . From this new place she discovered. She went there earlier today to pick them out just for us. Just a little something. . .How are they? (Good.) Really? It wasn’t a lot of trouble, she admitted. She just thought it would be a nice change. What did we think? (Yummy.) Are you sure? Mom did a good thing? (She talks about herself in the third person.) There are some spicy teriyaki, a few lemon pepper, some garlic basil. . .what do you think, a good selection? (Oh, yes. You done good. Really.) A friend of hers suggested the place, and MIL just thought perhaps a quick run over there that afternoon was a good idea. We were worth it. Yummy? Yes, yummy? (Sigh).

I kid you not. Every kindness she performs is met with a neediness that no amount of compliments can fill. I once thanked her eight separates times because she bought me a taco at Taco Bell. Tony has tried to teach me to say thank-you once, and let her just hang there when she asks for more. That’s tough when someone asks you a direct question. I’m still learning.

The worst part was that we all knew that these were probably wings that some neighbor had brought over the night before. She and her local retirees like to gather for drinks, lots of drinks, and a little food. These were some leftovers she served rather than thinking about an hors d’oeuvres, which is fine by me; I don’t care if you serve me peanuts or nothing. My complaint is the lie she tells so she can seek the praise without the work.  I mean: who goes across town to select seven wings for three people?  But we all have to act as if this is exactly what she did just for us.

She realized suddenly that she has some sparkling water. She pushed this on me, though I verbally doubt that what she is showing me is water, and I remind her how satisfied I am with simple water.. The bottle she found looked like artificially sweetened, flavored soda water. And after she happily served me some, that is exactly what it was. Some sort of diet soda, which I hate and she knows this. I try to drink it. (Sigh.)

When she wanted to make “whatever you want” on my birthday, I relented and suggested Linguini with clam sauce. She had made it for me before. I love it, I knew hers was good, and I thought it was cheap and easy. I was wrong.

When I make it, I use two cans of chopped clams, Olive oil, a few cloves of chopped garlic, the juice from the cans, and if I need, milk. I might add lime, or parsley or basil, or parmesan, should I have some on hand. She however met me at the door already telling me that she had been prepping this since yesterday. She bought a special kind of clam (still canned, just much more expensive), bottles of clam juice, the expensive kind of linguini (?), fresh this, fresh that, cream, and, as she explained, “hand shredded artisanal parmesan”. What should have cost her 7 bucks for an entire meal, probably was forty bucks, and I better know it and acknowledge it, by God. She pressed me to follow her, and notice all the stuff she is “trying” this time. Her meal was tasty, but I would have been just as happy with something less complicated and costly.

But My MIL has a reputation for making things so much more complicated than they need to be. Of course, she then offended me by serving me about a half cup, and my husband a mounded 3 or 4 cups. Did I mention how passive aggressive she is? Then later, when my sister-in-law called, MIL again detailed the meal she cooked and asked SIL if she can bring some of “Mama’s special homemade linguini with clam sauce” over to my SIL’s husband. No. “ReallY?” she said, “Well, I guess I can send it home with Tony for his lunch tomorrow. How disappointing.” See, she had already scored with us. She was hoping to score with the other in-law, too, off the same meal. And of course, she did not send any leftovers home with us.

I noticed several books, each with book marks on her coffee table. (She has a tendency to purchase the recommended things, place book marks in them as if she is currently reading all of them, and then never break the spine open, ever.) There was one I was interested in. Here’s how the conversation would go with my Mom or any of my friends.

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?

Someone else: Yes. When I finish do you want it?

Or

Someone else: Yes. I’m finished.

Me: Do you mind if I borrow it?

Someone else: no problem.

Then It would go into my purse  to be returned later with a warm thank-you. Instead this is how it goes with my MIL:

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?”

MIL: What? That? Oh, are you interested in it? I thought it would be really good too.

Me: Can I borrow it when you finish?

MIL: Um, do you want to read it?

Me: Yes. Are you finished (I mean there is a bookmark half way in it.)

MIL: Do you want the other one, too, look at this one? (Holds up another)

Me: No, no, just this one, I’ll take it when you are finished if you don’t mind.

MIL: I just had heard such good things about it.

Me: Yes, have you started it? Do you want to finish? (I really don’t want her to give it to me if she is actually still reading it.)

MIL: Oh, take it now. Take them all. Here. . .(and then led me to review the books lined on her table and then in the guestroom. I’m encouraged to take any of them.)

MIL: I’m so glad that we can now exchange reading material, that I can give back to you, too. It’s nice that I have some books that you want to read instead of the other way around.

Me: (Thinking) huh? (Awkward).

I guess I have given her books. From the looks of it, my Mom has also given her books. But really, what is going on in my MIL’s mind isn’t about reading. It’s about sharing. It’s about having one more thing inserted in my life where I am obliged to thank her and lean on her. And I still don’t know if she started reading that book or not.

She remembered to ask about my painting, as she always does. Oil painting is something I do to relax, to feel productive and creative. It is personal. But she tries to save jars for me, and then constantly asks me how “her jars” are doing, like they are former pets. Has she been Helping? She demands to know. Uh, sure, I guess.

She found a used canvas for me. I think she did. For all I know she bought it to put up in her house and then suddenly thought, hey, she could give it to me. She buys framed artwork (prints or old office décor) with a compulsion, so it is hard to know. But that’s fine. Free canvases are good. But they aren’t really free. They come with the price that she can now tell everyone how she helps me with my art. She has inserted herself here.

Meanwhile, Tony was still puttering with the radio.

I glanced in a House Beautiful magazine while MIL was in the restroom. I found a roasted carrot recipe I’d like to try. Anyone else, I’d say, “Can I copy this? Or can I tear it out?” End of story.   I told Tony later that I actually considered ripping it out when she wasn’t looking and stashing it quickly in my purse, so I wouldn’t have to go through the inevitable push and pull.

When I asked, she joked about how the recipe was too important, she just had to keep it because of the Tide detergent ad on the back. Haha. Then she ripped it out, placing it in front of Tony’s eyes. “See? This Ad. I have to keep it. Haha.” Then she agreed that I could have it if I invited her over when I cook it, “Promise? Promise?” She wouldn’t hand it to me until I promised.. Then she begged to give me a subscription to that magazine, which I don’t want. I’m not an interior decorator. At all. She dragged out old copies for me to take home, and tried to push ANOTHER subscription on me. . .for a completely different magazine.

Aren’t you tired for me, yet, Readers?

I’m exhausted by now and just want to leave. And on top of all of that, she is always very handsy, especially if she has had cocktails, which she was enjoying that night, hiding in her “tea.” She will rub my shoulders, caress my arm hair. Kiss my cheek again (only because I won’t give her my mouth) or the top of my head when she walks by. Hug me spontaneously with a full bodied approach that is too familiar and sexual for me. Again, she barely touches Tony.

Tony finally stopped puttering. She pushed coffee on us. Dessert. We go through the same complicated dance. Rejecting the cup of coffee is as difficult as getting one.  Tony finally said, “Mom, forget it. We don’t need any coffee.” She then made a big production of giving me my birthday present, a gift card to a store where I like to shop. She spent waaay too much money on me, more than she can afford, denting her limited savings for retirement. I worry. Then she flourishes dramatically when adding a bag of macaroons on top of my present. (They aren’t my favorite, but somewhere she got it in her head that I like them and thus, she bakes them all the time in huge batches. ) I was happy, but again, I had to acknowledge all the hardwork she put into them first, before she actually let go of them.

She gripped them firmly, asking, “Isn’t it nice that I can do this for you now and then?” And though she made it sound like they just came from the oven, there was a freezer burn to them that lingered. I don’t mind that at all. I do mind pretending that they were just made. For me.

Finally, we prepare to leave, and Tony and she did a dance over the weird pillow she wanted me to take. Tony finally realized it was one she currently uses and said, “No. No, you use it, you keep it.” She shut up.

She made a big production of enumerating all the things we are taking with us. Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you.

So when driving home, Tony said, “That was relaxing”, I nearly punched him.

Mom tells me it drove her crazy when her own mother-in-law-my Nana- would stand waiting for a pot of water to boil when Mom made spaghetti. “Like I might miss it or something. . .” says, Mom. Or when Nana, while eating a piece of mom’s cooking, would tell Mom how she would teach her to make a pie crust “right” one day, a crust you could chip a tooth on. Maybe Mom is right. In-laws are naturally grating.

I wish, like my shepherd, I was allowed to bite my mother-in-law on the nose.

Thinking of Love: Nonverbally

I recently had an epiphany about romantic, expressive men.  And for a bonus, I also got the elusive relationship closure that so many of us seek.  It was a surprise gift from the universe. . .and my unsuspecting husband, Tony.

On New Year’s Day, I ran into a lover from my deep, dark past.  He, his grown daughter, my husband and I sat for about thirty minutes socializing, very quickly catching up. Meanwhile, Former Lover kept, as they say, making eyes at me.

This was not an affair that had ended well.  But it had ended so long ago, I no longer hurt to see him or speak with him.  We are both plumper, a tad greyer, and definitely more lined, but it felt like we had just seen each other the last week.  We chatted and joked briefly, and then my husband and I climbed into our minivan and sped away.

That was not the closure.  Former Lover had been a man who, met years after I lost my virginity, had actually woken my sex drive.  Our connection, though doomed, was immediate and ridiculously hard to define.

He was a musician and an artist.  No matter what time of day or night, he had some instrument of creation in his hands, a drum stick, a worn nub of charcoal, a guitar, maybe even a teapot.  It was not the Art or the Music that seduced me as is cliche; instead, his sheer joy while lost in his work and play was impossibly attractive. Oh, and he was.  . .is British, for all you Anglophiles out there.  I know, a sexual awakening, creative Brit?  Aren’t they supposed to be uptight and cold?  He wasn’t. Former Lover was prone to saying things about his heart beating faster or not being able to think straight when I was near.  And when words failed him, his body never did.

Much later, a short year into my relationship with my husband,  I was uncomfortable and feeling insecure.  I knew he loved me; he tells me so every day, in those exact words..  But. . .something was missing.  We had more than a few conflicts over the fact that he doesn’t give physical compliments very often.  And if he does, they come across as forced or awkward.  “Uh, well, don’t you look cute. . .”  At first, I just thought he was not verbal.  But, no, he was voted most talkative in his high school.  He can articulate. In fact, he fully compliments my cooking or my intelligence all the time. And one of his greatest assets his how much we talk, late into the night.

I then suspected that maybe, though attached to me, he didn’t really find me sexy or even pretty.  I figured, he was a practical man who had made a practical choice and had married the smart, talkative, nurturer, instead of the empty, distant model.  He would get perturbed, annoyed and then angry with me for voicing these thoughts.  But I periodically have had trouble shaking this sinking feeling.

I said to him, “There have been men in love with me before, a number of them who wanted to marry me. I KNOW what it feels like to have a man want me.”  And this wasn’t it.

I reflected back on the men who had loved me, some of whom I had loved in return.  All of them had been expressive about their love and their desire.  They would tell me how gorgeous my eyes were when they gazed longingly into them.  One man used to sigh into my then long, curly hair and go on and on about how he wanted to one day die in it.  (Not as creepy as it sounds when you are in the middle of being loved.)   One used to tell me I had the most delightful ass on the planet. Another, as I mentioned, described how pit-pattery he felt.  I believed every single word from these men. It was the passion they exuded, the eyes that seemed only for me, that made their musings true.  They openly and verbally reacted to my attempts to look nice when I dressed up, to my natural appearance, and my very smell.

NO, I am not a raving beauty.  But these were men who knew how to make me feel like I was.

And my husband isn’t one of those men.  Yet, that expressive passion I enjoyed from former beaus, even my ex-husband and Former Lover, is how I have always felt about my man. Tony.  He drives me insane with desire: His smarts, his goodness, his love making, his very being.  (To gain a picture, he somewhat resembles Clint Eastwood from the early Dirty Harry days. In fact, I had never found Clint a sex symbol until I fell in love with my husband.)  Whatever this former lover awakened in me, my husband puts to bed in the very best way.  He is the sort of lover every woman wants-gentle at times, considerate, but with just the right amount of manhandling to get his way.  I compliment him all the time.  I’d finally come to believe that inside, My husband feels the same way, when once, frustrated at my insecurities, he shouted, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Enough Said.

So. . .a few weeks after this reunion, you might suspect how I’d react to receiving an effusive email from Former Lover.  (He knows people who know me.)   In it, he expressed how much he was still feeling toward me, and easily tossed out these words:  “My relationship with you was the most honest, intelligent, intuitive, erotic, and fulfilling of my life.  You got into my psyche more deeply than anyone ever did.”  He went on to express how he wished we had married all those years ago, issues be damned, and gone and lived the last two decades together.  In less than so many words, he was secretly seeing if I was “available.”

Nice to hear 20 years later, eh?  Do you wonder if I was tempted?  He was off to Central America in a few weeks.  I could easily jump on a plane and restart my life all over again.

I was stunned.  Angry a little at the tardy sentiment.  Envious of once again hearing such fine words. Irritated that he thought it appropriate to interfere in my love cocoon.  But also tickled pink. Tickled, tickled, tickled.

Though Former Lover hoped I’d keep all this hush-hush, I immediately told my husband, full transparency.  I was uncertain how he’d take it.

In stride. His first comment: “See, you still got it, Baby.”  Well, hmmm. Okay, yes. After how many gained lines and pounds?  “This guy sees you after 20 years and thinks to himself, ‘I want some more of her. I made a grave mistake all those years ago.’”

I also told my husband how sometime earlier last year I had written an amends to this Former Lover-we both owed one to the other for blowing up quite a lot of our world when we imploded as lovers.  I had tried writing before years before, but now, in Al-Anon and working a 12 step program, I felt the need to do so, with full responsibility. I’d written a heartfelt note, but suddenly my computer frizzed as it can do.  My words of contrition all disappeared.  I saw this as a sign to keep my mouth shut and mind my business.

Tony tells me this:  “Making an amends is for you.  God knows you did so with good intent, and cleared your mind. It doesn’t matter that the guy didn’t receive it. That this guy surfaces only months later, we run into him accidently, and now he is ‘resmitten’ with you, gives you a sense that what had happened years ago was real, true emotions on both sides.  Doesn’t that feel good to know now?”

There’s the closure, especially since I can respond with an amends now.

Here’s the epiphany:  All the men who have loved me in the past have been EXPRESSERS in various ways, artists, writers, musicians, even a stand-up comic.  They dealt daily in the world of sharing what was inside their hearts and souls.  I had veered away from men like Tony-business and math-minded, practical, relatively conservative.  In college, those practical guys had been the ones who seemed too preppy, they peed in the ice machines, and date-raped women in their fraternity houses. (How’s that for a childish generalization.) I stayed away from them.  But somewhere in my middle age, I got sick of the liberally slanted men.  Getting a divorce from my son’s Dad, an artist who had taken over a decade to figure out a career where he could actually contribute money to the household had left me cold.  And all my other boyfriends-even this Former Lover in question- had spent their lives stumbling  along, too, leaving all the heavy lifting to their wives or girlfriends.

Opening my mind, once I was single again, I found this trustworthy, practical, dependable Man, Tony,( . . .and yes, a former frat boy,) who has trouble verbalizing his attraction and his love for me in more words than “I love you, Baby.”

I had sacrificed the oh, so easy sway of big, fat words, for the strength of a solid man’s man.  And I’ve only benefited.

Those loving words in the former lover’s email were very pretty.  But also extremely simple to say, and not do for that guy.  My husband finds it much easier to do than say.  He understands commitment in a way no one else in my world ever has- takes care of his part of our world and then spoons me to sleep.  He also stands in the greeting card aisle for hours, reading all the cards to find one that says what he cannot.

The other night, my oldest son met his Dad for a movie.  After the film, en-route to somewhere else, he had a crappy flat tire on a major highway, and couldn’t get the spare loose.  Whom did he call?  Not his artsy-emotional Dad whom he had just left, but his step-Dad, Tony who quickly gave him directions to wait in the car safely till he got there.

This stoic man is the love of my life; I’m his, and we both know it.