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“Don’t let Harriet catch you doing that!”
This was the warning from my future father-in-law, Christmas 2002. My engagement to his son had been announced. After the hubbub died down I rolled up my sleeves to pitch in with the dishes and laid tea towels end-to-end on the kitchen counter to increase the drip-dry acreage for all the extra pots and pans.
It was a fairly common practice in my family but in the Hauser house it was strictly forbidden—something about tea towels and not getting them wet.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Just don’t let her see it” he whispered.
The exchange taught me two things about my future mother-in-law. First, that our domestic standards couldn’t be further apart. Second, that the effects of Glaucoma, even at 80 years of age, hadn’t yet forced her to lower hers in the slightest. Blurry vision be damned, she would find out what you were up to in the kitchen.
“Let me get this straight,” I said, “you want us to live together?”
“All this can be yours,” he said, gesturing from one side of his yard to the other, pointing to the compost pile, the vegetable garden, the marigolds and the aluminium shed. In a worshipful tone, similar to the one I’m sure the Sultan of Brunei uses when surveying his empire, he said it again “All yours.”
The reasoning was this: if we moved in with them, when Joe died Mark and I would be there to take care of Harriet. The bonus was we’d never have to worry about buying our own house and stuff because their house and stuff would be part of the deal.
Mark and I were typical for young couples back then. We owned no silverware and lived in a crummy little apartment. We worked hard for very little money and suffered much interrupted sleep thanks to rumbling streetcars and the neighbour’s Rottweiler. The enormous canine would hang out the upstairs window and bark in harmony with ‘Drops of Jupiter’ which doggy-daddy blared on a continuous loop.
Considering the living conditions, who wouldn’t have jumped at a big fat slice of middle-class pie served on a silver platter? As it turns out, a vain little girl with her heart set on a castle of her own—one without parquet flooring and wall panelling. Back then I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it.
“Have you talked to Harriet about any of this?” I asked, incredulous. There was no way my mother-in-law had consented to the scheme. She was still The Queen Bee and I was far from good drone material. I also felt insulted—didn’t Mark’s dad want us to have a home of our own?
But it was impossible to be angry with Joe. He was a man feeling his mortality, fraught with worry for the woman he loved and what would happen to her after he was gone. That my Martha Stewart ambitions took a back seat to his wife’s vulnerability just made me admire him more.
Of course in another cultural setting his idea wouldn’t have seemed so crazy. In patrilocal societies, for example, a young up-and-comer is still expected to learn from her husband’s mother, which includes learning to live with her as well.
But North Americans don’t do communal living. Even with so many surplus bedrooms, it’s hard for us to imagine two women, living in close quarters, joined to one man by an umbilical cord on one side and a wedding ring on the other. It reeks of complicated.
Joe was right, in the end, about his life expectancy. He died just a few months after offering me the keys to the kingdom, a notion I quickly turned into a running joke: “Sure, let’s build a family compound like the Kennedy’s at Hyannis Port!” Of course the Kennedy’s have servants so their womenfolk never have to scrap with one another in the kitchen which solves more than half of the problems to begin with.
Three years ago when it became clear that The Queen Bee was exhausted by hive maintenance, I circled back on my father-in-law’s idea about rooming together: Our place, this time, not hers.
Harriet said “No.” She didn’t want to be a burden. But I secretly wondered if my standards were still a problem; the soggy, boggy daughter-in-law brand and all the sopping wet tea towels and sundry infractions through the years.
The past few months have been a game changer, though. It was Harriet’s first winter in a retirement home. Nothing against perch crunchies or tapioca pudding but institutional living is tough for people who are visually impaired.
About a month ago I asked again, “Will you come live with us?”
My husband returned 48 hours later with her answer: “Yes.”
The third time was a charm, apparently. Now we are four. The seed Joe Hauser planted twelve summers ago has finally found its season to blossom.