My mother-in-law Barbara playing corn hole on the FSU set she gave me for my birthday, she of the Go Gator UF fandom.
Who says you can’t enjoy your in-laws?
I liked my mother-in-law Barbara from the first time I met her. She listened to my boring stories and laughed at the appropriate places. She didn’t want my help in the kitchen, instead allowing me to read or write, things for which I have less time at home. She brought me drinks, something I have yet to train my wife to do, and even let me bring my dog Stinko Princess into her immaculate home. My own house is a mess and I never wanted Stinko inside, so that shows the extent of Barbara’s graciousness.
The Juliano family came from up north, specifically from a place Barbara still calls Lowang Ahland 30 years after immigrating to Florida. I adjusted quickly to their three-food-group diet of meat, pasta, and guilt, but I must admit their family’s relational style took some getting used to. They brought with them that loud, boisterous Italo-Catholic-New York sensibility that says feelings are good and should be shared, especially feelings like disappointment (“You’re doing that all wrong.”), honesty (“It’s not what I wanted.”), helpfulness (“Tsk. Here, let me do it.”), and empathy (“You’re a pain in the ass.”). These are typically directed at my wife Aimee and her sister Alyson who give back as good as they get. In their family yelling, cursing, and hanging up on one another are just means of message clarity. At the same time, Aimee and Barbara speak on the phone almost every day, even if briefly, and obviously love one another; those white-hot emotions run both ways.
By contrast, I was born to a pair of WASP-y intellectuals who value respectful, quiet dialogue and vegetables. I have never raised my voice to either of my parents and cussing at them is unthinkable. I have heard my father yell exactly twice in my life, once at me and once at my brother Paul, but I think dad hollered at him just to keep it even. After I was arrested for smoking pot at the high school talent show, my parents did not speak to me about it for a week. I think they needed the time to calm down so we could have a rational, level-headed conversation. It ended with that lone outburst from my father, but up to the point when he hollered, “Now that was stupid!” they both were the picture of placidity and moderation.
When I joined Aimee’s family Barbara welcomed me warmly, showered me with affection, gave me great presents on my birthday and at Christmas, continued to bring me drinks and never gave me a tongue-lashing. Clearly she had not really accepted me.
But something changed when my son was born. In the Hollywood version of childbirth broken water, heavy breathing, and a screaming mother-to-be set up the hilarious climax before the father, in the touching denouement, is handed his first born. Peace and calm are restored. In my movie the quiet, sterile environment of the operating room was shattered by a screaming blue demon that was as confused as I was. After the ceremonial cutting of the cord—that metaphorical parting from my carefree past—I was handed a bundled and very angry little child, the full implications of my forgetting to pick up the birth control suddenly becoming clear.
Already in the most bewildered moment of my life, the first face I saw coming out of the operating room was that of Billie, Aimee’s sexually inappropriate colleague from the hospital where she worked. Her presence was at once inexplicable and appropriate to the dreamlike quality of my son’s first day. Then Barbara came into focus, joyous, teary, and relieved. I was thrilled to see a familiar face and calmed by her. I had produced Barbara’s first grandson and together we admired him in his first few minutes of life. Sure, Aimee had helped but she was in the back spending some quality time with the OB and his little helper morphine while I secured our inheritance from Zander’s grandma.
I remember the first time I told Aimee I loved her. It was exactly a week after the moment I should have told her, when we were walking under a starlit sky to the tattoo of the surf hitting the Atlantic beach. I looked her in the eyes, kissed her, took a deep breath, and said, “Let’s get some cheesecake.” It took another week for me to complete my emotional inventory and realize that the feeling I was having was not a budding stomach virus but really that crazy little thing called love. I told her, “I love you,” the following Saturday, standing on the corroded deck of her apartment with an unobstructed view of the storm water retention pond behind. The timing was poor, but the words came easily enough.
A man can say, “I love ya,” to his male friends, to a stoic father, to a linebacker, or even his mother-in-law as I did after Aimee and I got married. Ironically, “love,” the emotion that both gives and needs courage, is the easiest part of I-love-you to say; it is the “you” that elevates a jocular phrase of affection to one of exposed intimacy. After Zander’s birth I felt that Barbara and I had been through a crucible and a relationship that had started well enough had progressed to a new level. Now I feel comfortable saying “I love you,” to my mother-in-law, and for her part she feels equally comfortable calling me a pain in the ass.
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