SUNY Jefferson

In Defense of Mother-in-Laws: Ode to Bonnie

Shawna Spencer
In Defense of Mother-in-Laws: Ode to Bonnie

               My mother-in-law, Bonnie, is a peach. She is slightly demanding, forgetful, spontaneous (AKA she shows up to my home uninvited ALL THE DAMN TIME), and she insists on buying a ton of toys for my girls.
               I subscribe to the idea of love languages, and I try to take into account that Bonnie’s is clearly giving gifts. She likes receiving them, and she likes to give them. I am ultra-practical, so this trait drives me to the edge. I always get the “But grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandchildren” line. I asked if they would just start spending that money in the form of grocery gift cards, diaper funds, or future college savings, so now she brings cheaper gifts because the underlying signal I was apparently sending was that it was about how much they were spending. Oy. So now, the “gift” is usually handed to my kids while she leans over to me simultaneously and whispers with her cigarette and spearmint-scented breath, “I only spent $2.99,” as if it didn’t have the Kinney Drugs tag still hanging from it as proof.
               My first Christmas with my husband’s family (though we were still dating at the time) consisted of two large baskets of cucumber-melon scented lotions, soaps, sprays, and anything else Bath and Body Works had with that particular aroma. This was a result of me being asked which scent I preferred. Seventeen years later, I still receive cucumber-melon in some form. Over the years, I’ve received so much that I believe I could restock the mall shelves at Christmas time. I don’t have the heart to tell her them that I’ve moved on since my seventeen-year-old self chose that particular fragrance.
               My mother-in-law’s gift giving has varied a bit more as I’ve stuck it out. One Christmas a few years back, I received a package of Hormel precooked bacon. Not as a gag gift, not as an inside joke, but she gave it with complete sincerity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of bacon. But imagine my freaking surprise as I smelled something slightly smoky in the tissue-paper-lined bag. I believe I got a small cast-iron skillet with cookie mix for one that same year. As someone with body issues, I can’t say that was helping. And, as I count myself a true female in my ability to hold lifelong grudges, I won’t ever forget it.
               When my in-laws leave my presence, I launch into a tirade to my husband. I talk of how ridiculous it is that they popped in at dinnertime without calling (AGAIN). I then growl about the armload of tiny Chinese-made plastic toys from the local dollar stores. I am convinced that either their intent is to make my daughters’ wishes come true through the magic of lead paint or to drive me completely insane in some twisted, vengeful plot where toys equal painful midnight surprises on my trek to the bathroom.
               Although I am saying all this, I one day hope to be a mother-in-law. And, with that realization, I recognize that I don’t want to be the butt of the joke for society. My dental hygienist, of all things, said that she never speaks ill against her mother-in-law. “Utter crap,” I thought (because I couldn’t say so with her hands messing with my mouth). How could someone not have negative utterances under their breath at the holiday table? Aren’t all mothers-in-law, in existence to now and forevermore, to be overbearing and difficult, particularly if you took away their baby boy?
               But then, I started considering how my regular barrage affected my husband. Granted, he thinks his family is crazy too. However, there is this unwritten rule in our family, and presumably others, that says you can talk all you want about how bat-shit crazy your own family is, but when someone else joins in, you are ready to cut them in defense of those same relatives you were just complaining about. I have two friends who are sisters. I hear them complain about one another all the time, but I know never to cross the line of saying anything that dishonors the other, so why am I doing it to the woman who bore my husband?
               In fact, I owe my mother-in-law a measure of gratitude and respect that many others may not earn. I have only known her since after her stroke. In fact, I attended her benefit with my family where I met the Spencers for the first time. I don’t really know who she was before that tragic event besides through what she and her family share. Sitting in her wheelchair, paralyzed on one full side of her body, I hear that she was a bit wild, wearing the tightest jeans her petite frame could fit into and dancing to oldies music. She also survived life with her first husband, who was physically and emotionally abusive. In that horrible marriage, she lived on after bearing and burying not one, but two stillborn sons. With her second, and current, husband, she had a baby girl who broke the evil spell of her womb and went on to have Travis, my husband.
               Why does my mother shower toys upon my girls? Why does she show up when we’re about to sit and eat? Why does she grumble about my practical requests? Because she’s lived a few lifetimes worth of pain. She understands the amazing blessing family can be. She doesn’t want to take her beautiful granddaughters for granted. And, despite cursing her situation of being permanently wheelchair bound, she presses on loving us all. Why should I start showing my mother-in-law more respect? Because she put up with my husband for more years than I have, for one. Because, without recognition, she exemplifies a resiliency and strength that I covet. I feel it is my duty, as daughter-in-law, to shut my mouth about this woman, invite her in for dinner when she shows up unexpectedly, and accept my cucumber-melon whatever while keeping in mind the hell her heart has been through and how my family, in some capacity, helps mend those missing fragments.