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The In-Law Switch

It really was a glorious day. The scent of new-mown grass blended with the perfume of white roses as the bride and groom spoke their vows in the shade of the old gazebo. As mother of the groom, I felt entitled to be a little weepy. My husband squeezed my hand, the music lifted, and the sun poured down like butterscotch…uh-oh, wait a minute. Like a hammer to the kneecaps, the thought hit me: I was now a mother-in-law. Mother. In. Law. Read: gorgon, dragon, harridan, witch, radioactive thermonuclear bitch from hell.

What a stunning concept. No more snarky mother-in-law jokes. No more rolling my eyes in the universal sign for “Yeah, that’sjustwhat she’s like!” Struggling for Zen calm but breathing as if someone had just thrown a bag over my head, I looked at my beautiful new daughter-in-law. I wondered what she saw when she looked back at me. I wondered who we were to each other and who we might become. There was a time, years ago, when I was this girl. If there was a punch line anywhere in this scenario, I guessed I was it.

I probably wasn’t anybody’s idea of the ideal daughter-in-law, back in the day. My first mother-in-law—a cultured German refugee—was somewhat alarmed when I first arrived in her son’s life, just minutes out of high school. After the obligatory waitressing summer, I’d be off to college, with no idea of what I’d do once I got there. My mother, a secretary in a local insurance agency, kept five children and a husband clean and well fed; she introduced us to theater and vegetable gardens, and made sure we all knew how to boil water, scramble eggs, and keep our promises. But (since it was never her plan that I’d wed in my teens) she had not yet prepared me to be a wife, much less a daughter-in-law to a sophisticate who’d envisioned a glossy name-brand wedding and a commensurate dowry. Instead, they got me: a girl who flunked out after freshman year, got pregnant and eloped, and became pathetically eager to know which fork was which and what color wine went with what, long before I’d learned to make a bearable pot of coffee.

I looked at my beautiful new daughter-in-law. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me.

My groom was headstrong (not to put too fine a point on it), and I was naive, even stupid, about what was important to him. But as the mother of the first grandson, I was granted some stature, and more than a little slack. Slowly, my mother-in-law and I made our way to each other. By the second winter, we skied together once a week, calling down from the chairlift to the people we knew. One hot spring weekend we planted more than 300 bedding plants together, laughing and dirty and sunburned. She introduced me to soft Brie and hard Parmesan; I introduced her to waterproof mascara and held her hand when she had her ears pierced. She was dismayed that I didn’t iron the sheets; when I offered to let her do it, she declined. She insisted that it was a wife’s job to forgive all husbandly trespasses, even (or perhaps especially) infidelity. I disagreed.

And when, inevitably, her son and I separated, she howled like a she-wolf, then offered me money to stay. When that failed, she offered me continuing friendship instead, a bittersweet gift that I still proudly own. How arrogant I was, how chaotic. How slow to learn my lessons and take responsibility. And how tolerant she was—as well as hopeful and critical, loving and mercurial, and, ultimately, forgiving.

Years later I fell in love again. There was an I’M PRO-CHOICE AND I VOTE! bumper sticker on my car that first time I drove into my conservative, not-quite-second mother-in-law’s driveway. She was still reeling from her son’s divorce, so she couldn’t have been thrilled to see me. She’d dearly loved her son’s first wife, and the first wife’s parents, sister, aunts, and uncles. Now, they’d all gone from her life, to be replaced by me, plus my lanky, 12-year-old boy, sporting serious attitude and a mouthful of glittering orthodonture. What must she have thought?

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