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The In-Law Switch

And what had she so quickly done with all the family pictures? The years of celebrations, birthday parties, cocktail-hour-and-cookouts at the lake? With barely time to grieve the departure of a woman she’d cherished, she’d seemingly put it all away, then opened the front door to welcome me, my kid, and our history. If she winced, I didn’t see it; if she complained, I didn’t hear it. If she doubted what I could give her son (or feared what I might take from him), it never showed. However much her heart ached and her brain protested (like a Super Bowl Klaxon, I’d guess), she opened her arms and drew us in—graceful, courteous, and warm. Her son loved us, and that, it seemed, was good enough for her.

Happily for me, it still seems to be. Not long ago she was cheerfully wallpapering in my house while I made an overcomplicated stew, and we giggled like sorority sisters at the messes we were making. But she lined up the seams perfectly. No one else I know could’ve done that.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my moments with these two women, muttering about their issues, their interference, or their insistence that the holidays be conducted just so, because “we’ve always done it that way.” “Damn woman,” I’d think. “Damn girl,” they’d think. Days, even weeks, went by when nobody spoke to anybody, while the men looked increasingly alarmed, waiting for one of the women to break the impasse.

“How do you do it?” I asked my own mother after she’d slowly hung up the phone one cold December afternoon. She’d just negotiated a who-goes-where Christmas schedule with my brother’s sweet wife, and I watched as her face first crumpled in disappointment, then softened with acceptance. “How?” she asked me, then gave a rueful half-smile. “I just do the best I can. And try to keep my mouth shut. I love my son, I love his wife, and she makes him very happy.” Then, fiercely: “But don’t forget to have a life of your own! Make plans, take trips, and don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring.”

Leah came into our lives when her little boy was two. My husband and I recognized all the signs—our son had been hit by lightning: this one was his One. Tall, with long legs, long hair, and shining black eyes, she had her own history, an admirable spine, and a temper to equal mine. Karma, I thought, recalling that long-ago day when I drove into that driveway, fretting about my hair and my raggedy fingernails and my boy in the backseat. “It doesn’t matter what his mother thinks,” I’d told myself then, knowing full well that it mattered as much as air and water did.

I think I love this girl; I think that she loves me. On the other hand, whole weeks go by when we wonder if we even like each other. The thread that holds us is the man she lives with; she is the tender heart to his rough-around-the-edges soul, and the reason a child calls him Daddy—surely, a music of the highest order. So for that, we negotiate the terms of endearment. Sometimes, it all goes well. Other times, not. “She thinks I’m the Dragon Lady!” I wail to my husband. “Well…” he says, weighing his response. Then he grins, and it saves him.

So now it’s my turn with the control issues and the holiday menus. Now I’m the one who’s learning to step back and wait, puttering around the Toys “R” Us, or sneaking extra ice cream to the kid. It’s my turn to sweat through the phone call that says yes, we’ll see them this weekend, or no, inexplicably, we won’t. I’m learning to count on nothing more than the way my heart lifts when my son laughs, or when the little boy does, with that wide, summertime smile that echoes his mother’s.

The truth is, I would throw myself under a train for her (although I hope that won’t be required); for her part, she has pledged to care for me in my old age (I hope that won’t be required, either). Ultimately, though, we often have more in common with each other than we do with our men, so sometimes they give us a wide berth—not such a bad thing, really. Especially when we’ve scheduled a trip to the mall, or a manicure and pedicure together. It’s not seamless wallpapering, but it’s not a bad place to start.

Larkin Warren, a Connecticut freelancer, is at work on a novel.

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