Sig Other’s mother is mean. She isn’t mean to everyone. She isn’t mean all the time. But she’s mean to him in ways that are unacceptable. For years, Sig Other and Mean Mommy maintained an air of civility and spoke daily, mostly about the health of Sig Other’s father and the well being of the children. The conversations were entirely foreign to someone like me – someone who grew up in a house where people were mostly nice to each other. It was jarring to me to hear a dialogue that began with “Hi mommy” and ping-ponged through harsh criticism, pointed accusation, ribald humor, gentle questioning and back again. It left me exhausted and confused and entertained and anxious. But to Sig Other and Mean Mommy, it was just a regular check in call, just daily routine chitchat. That is, until Sig Other’s father died. I realized then that the calls made to Mean Mommy were really calls made by Sig Other to connect with his father who had long since grown weak and mostly incapable of regular phone chatter. Once he was gone, so too was any shred of connection no matter how schizophrenic.
Thus, the approach of a weekend family wedding to be attended by Mean Mommy loomed large and dark for those of us less skilled at navigating the tumultuous waters of this particular brand of mother/son interaction. The thought of spending three days in close proximity to Mean Mommy – or more specifically, Mean Mommy interacting with Sig Other – was enough to make me want to stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head for the duration of the holiday weekend. Even if the covers were the shoddy polyblend paisley of our mid-level nonluxury hotel room.
And so I went out on a limb. I made an offer to Sig Other – a bribe really – in order to assure some familial peace (and really in order that I should spare myself a stomach ache or two). “Hold your tongue,” I said, “just bite back whatever you might want to say, no matter the provocation, no matter how nasty or vile or difficult your mother gets, and I will buy you the titanium travel bike of your dreams.”
It might have been prudent, I suppose, to do a little research on titanium travel road bikes BEFORE I made such an offer. I realize that now. I realize now, and probably realized the moment Sig Other accepted my bribe with great gusto and little hesitation, that titanium travel road bikes are enormously expensive luxury items – that the cost of my own comfort for three short days would be an item so pricey that in its stead we could have taken a lovely vacation or booked multiple therapy sessions to ease whatever pain I would have suffered during the course of the cruel three days. But I wasn’t prudent. I did no research. And in great desperation I threw out the offer.
And yet I feared that even a man as determined and disciplined and single minded as Sig Other could not survive the provocation of relentless Mean Mommy. Even Sig Other would fail, I thought, in rising above the underhanded remarks, the sly jabs, and the ever-constant criticisms of Mean Mommy. Surely there would be no way he could sustain a Zen posture in the face of such extreme circumstance.
And yet he did. Rude comment after rude comment, provocation after provocation, sly sneer after sly sneer, Sig Other held it together. He would chant his mantra silently at first. And then, when pushed to the edge, a little more obviously but still under his breath, “titanium, titanium, titanium.” And Mean Mommy would say, in her best entitled Polish Princess voice, “what is this titanium? What is he talking about?” and then continue on whatever narcissistic rant he had rudely interrupted.
The truth is, the only person who lost her cool the whole weekend was me. I couldn’t take Mean Mommy. I couldn’t take the fake niceties that permeated tense, chilly air. I wanted to punch her in the nose twenty minutes in. How dare she faun over Child One as though she had a real relationship with her? How dare she lay claim to a grandchild she barely knows? How dare she insist we drive her and invite her and include her in things? She has no right, she hasn’t earned a place, she isn’t…
Hang on – what she isn’t is my mother. What she isn’t is my problem. What she isn’t is MY mean mommy. So what am I so angry about? I’m angry she wasn’t kinder to Sig Other as a child. I’m angry that he didn’t get the kind of mother who supported him, believed in him, loved him unconditionally and enjoyed him for all of who he is. I'm angry that she makes no effort to reach out, get to know or stay in touch with her grandchildren and yet she acts as if they are very close and meaningful to her.
But the truth is, and this may sound strange, the fact that Mean Mommy is a mean mommy paved the way for me to love Sig Other all the more. The fact that Sig Other grew up with a Mean Mommy makes him the easiest person in the world to love. Because all he requires is kindness. All he requires is a person who sees him, accepts him and loves him for who he is, all of who he is at any given moment.
So I thank Mean Mommy and I feel no guilt about the bribe I offered or the bike I will buy. If all it takes to keep a little peace is to reward good behavior with a truly fabulous bike, I’m in. I will keep bribing and buying and loving and making up for all the years of damage Mean Mommy did because she didn’t understand that sometimes a little bribe goes a long way and sometimes the most delightful surprise is who people are and not who we think we want them to be.