Not Your Average Mother-In-Law

WBUR Cognoscenti, April 10, 2013

I don’t remember my first actual meeting with Eleanor, my mother-in-law, but I do remember finding out she was gay. My husband — then my 20-year-old boyfriend — had brought me home to their apartment in Manhattan. Typical of Ned, he had not told me much about his childhood; he’d barely even mentioned his parents’ early divorce. He did tell me that his father worked on Broadway and that his mother was a radical feminist, but I just thought, “Cool, I’m a feminist, too.” But standing in the living room scanning the bookshelves, I noted the word “woman,” on many of the spines and I think I may have seen a button that read, “Better gay than grumpy.” Ned stood quietly nearby and let me take it all in, and at last it gelled into one messy thought: my boyfriend’s mother is a lesbian.

I had met gay people before, but they were all college friends of mine: outrageously flamboyant, and crazy fun. Prior to my more open-minded time at Penn, however, I’d come from a high school where there were no gay people. At least that was the story we all believed. At any rate, I’d certainly never, ever met a gay parent. A gay, regular adult. I’d like to say that I shrugged and said, “cool, Ned’s mom is gay!” But I didn’t. In fact, I was — no other way to put it — grossed out. My boyfriend’s mother?

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked Ned, when he confirmed my suspicion.

“It’s not something that most people can handle,” he said. Boy was he right. My relationship with Eleanor pretty much went downhill from there. Eleanor and I were like oil and water. She scared me a little. Up until then I thought I was socially liberal, but she drove me crazy with the things she would blurt out about sexuality and gender politics — in front of my kids. I’m not a prude, but I wanted to be able to control sensitive topics like this while the boys were so young. I also remember her visiting our first apartment, looking at a picture of my parents together, smiling, and she remarked: “scary.” And then there was the time she commented disdainfully about “the kind of woman who wears skirts,” and there I was, a few feet away, dressed in a skirt. I never knew what kind of startling thing I would hear next. And there was always my embarrassment about her sexual orientation, lurking around the edges of every visit, unseen but still very present. It was horrible for me to realize that progressive as I was, I wanted my husband’s mother to be more like a normal mom — meaning, straight.

Over the next two decades, I tried to avoid visits with Eleanor, and she obliged by asking very little of us. Ned and I became occupied with raising our three sons, and only heard from her from time to time. Oddly enough, the only times visits were easy were when Fumiko, her lover, was with her. I liked Fumiko a lot. A weaver and artist, she was almost 10 years younger than Eleanor, sweet and quick to laugh. I could talk to her easily, even though we had somewhat of a language barrier. Once we were joking together about relationships and I impulsively asked, “How do you deal with Eleanor, you know, those things she says?”

Fumiko understood immediately and replied, smiling: “Erase, erase, erase!” And we laughed.

Shortly thereafter, in the mid 90s, we started to see less and less of Fumiko. She needed a visa to stay in the country, but since she and Eleanor could not marry, and U.S. laws prevented Eleanor from being able to sponsor Fumiko on a family visa — even though they’d been a couple since 1986 — they were stuck. Even though I recognized the injustice and the loneliness of the situation, I was mostly relieved when they finally moved to Canada. I had problems of my own and still carried some pretty ugly baggage about Eleanor.

I thought this would be the end of the story, but right around this time, Ned’s sister had a baby. To my surprise, Eleanor came back to the states often to stay with Sarai and help with the baby. I was a little jealous about all the love and attention she gave this new grandchild, which she had not done with my boys, but of course I never let her. Then again, I had never seen this softer side of her. She had always seemed so prickly. I wondered would things have been different — if she had been free to be who she was, would it have been easier for me to connect with her, despite my initial moments of revulsion? If I’d experienced her like this, happy and with Fumiko by her side, all those years ago, would our relationship have been different?

Whatever it was, Eleanor had made a fresh start for herself. Life was clearly easier for her now, because she was finally living with the person she loved the way she’d wanted to for years. And before long I found myself cheering them on, along with the rest of the family.

And so last summer, when Eleanor and Fumiko came here to Massachusetts to be married, I felt excited and eager to be a part of it. I wanted to throw them a party, but to my disappointment, there was to be no fuss. Instead of being irritated though, I decided to do something celebratory anyway. We baked them a fabulous and funny wedding confection: a two-tiered lavender-frosted layer cake, propped up on rainbow-twist lollipop columns, festooned in rows of colorful M&M’s. Best of all, my youngest son, a genius with Legos, created two tiny white-haired Lego brides for the top. It was perfect for them, and it was perfect for us: a gay, happy wedding cake.

It looks to me that we are all finally moving forward. All I can say is, thank goodness it’s never too late to erase, erase, erase.