As you know, my mother-in-law and I don’t have the best relationship. The biggest bone of contention has been the living arrangements. Growing up, I imagined myself with a husband and two kids, maybe a dog, but in my perfect little Anglo world, I never considered that I’d have a mother-in-law living with me, too. In-laws and grandparents are supposed to live in their own house, usually a few states away – not down the hallway. Random uncles and cousins also are not supposed to “visit” for weeks or months at a time. When relatives visit, it’s supposed to be for a few days and they’re supposed to use a hotel – That is what my culture told me, anyway.
Well, in Latino culture, which I married into, “family” is not limited to Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter. Besides Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, (not to mention half-siblings in some cases), there’s Grandmother, Grandfather, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins and more cousins, not to mention everyone’s in-laws. If that isn’t enough family for you, there are Godparents, and other non-blood related people who get the honorary privilege of being called “familia.”
I’ve become convinced that if Anglos have a “family tree” – Latinos have a “family forest.”
And so for years I miserably asked myself the question, “Why does my mother-in-law want to live with us?” – but I should have been asking “Why would she NOT want to live with us?” Just as much as my culture taught me that this is a strange, uncomfortable living arrangement, hers taught her that this is completely normal and so my resistance to it was incomprehensible, and even deeply hurtful.
This does not excuse any of my mother-in-laws many (many!) faults, but I feel almost like a Zen monk reaching enlightenment for all of this to make sense after so many years – and not just make sense, but to be okay about it.
In my heart of hearts, sometimes I wish I had been able to live my married life in a normal Anglo household, but I would have missed out on so much, and so would my children. My Spanish would not be near as good as it is if I didn’t have to communicate with my non-English speaking mother-in-law on a daily basis. I never would have learned how to pat a tortilla back-and-forth between my palms. I never would have heard the various childhood stories about my husband that she tells every now and then. I never would have gotten a glimpse into the psychology of what made my husband who he is due to her mothering, (the good and the bad.)
My children would never have heard silly folk songs like “Los Pollitos Dicen” – they would have only known of the Tooth Fairy and not of the Latin American equivalent, “Ratóncito Pérez”, (though my husband insists when he was a child, they were too poor to pay him for his teeth so he didn’t know of Ratóncito Pérez either.) My children never would have tasted the mangoes that their grandmother buys, which they love and I hate.
Now looking back, I realize that though my mother-in-law has caused her fair share of discord and misery at times, she also enriched our lives. I’m sure there will be days when it will be hard to remember that, days when I find cilantro leaves littering the kitchen floor that I just swept and mopped, days when I’m trying to write and she has a telenovela on in the living room at maximum volume, but in the end, I guess familia is what you make of it.