Saturday, August 08, 2015

Long, striated and with sharp edges

We have a pot bound tub of mother-in-law’s tongue in our back yard, which has toppled over in the wind. 

Strange, given the plant is so heavy that the wind has dislodged it or maybe its upended state has more to do with the number of fronds.  The pot has lost its centre of gravity. 

There it sits on its side like a beached whale or a creature otherwise out of its natural habitat. 

My husband tells me they named this plant after mother in laws and their tongues because each leaf is long and striated with sharp edges.

Why do mother in laws get such bad press? 
Why does the term itself evoke a shudder? 

Maybe it’s the ‘in law’ quality of it that adds to a sense of distance, a sense that mothers in law are difficult people, people to keep at a distance, people with sharp tongues. 

Fathers in law don’t cop it in the same way.  There’s no plant called father in law’s tongue.  Why then this generalised expression to evoke criticism and awe? 

Mind you, my mother in law left me cold. 

The first day I met her, I was in my early twenties, not long after I had met my husband to be.  In those days it was still considered risqué for young people to share a bed before marriage and my husband and I began sharing our bed from the night we met. 

After a week, my husband to be asked me to spend a few days camping with him in Mansfield.  His uncle owned a farm there, and attached to the farm in some outer field there was an unoccupied shepherd’s hut, which this uncle had said we could use instead of tents. 

I had so enjoyed the company of this young man, my husband to be – though I did not know this then – it seemed a reasonable proposition we go off camping. 

My husband to be in those days lived in a share house in Camberwell. I lived with my sister in Caulfield. 

On the day of the trip, I drove my car to my husband to be’s house with my bag of clothes and together we collected bits and pieces from his shared house for the three nights of living it rough. 

On the way to Mansfield, we took a detour through Croydon to collect some pots and pans for cooking from my husband to be’s family home. 

We did not discuss beforehand the notion that I would meet my mother in law to be for the first time and I wandered into the house, unprepared. 

Perhaps my husband to be had hoped his mother would not be home – an unusual expectation given she rarely moved outside of the house.

Sure enough, there she was at the kitchen sink, her favourite place, near to the stove where she spent her days cooking biscuits and cakes, which she piled into tins and stored in the fridge for whenever visitors came by. 

My husband to be introduced me as a friend to his mother.  She put out a thin hand and offered a half smile.  She seemed to size me up and down, perhaps pleased to see her son in the company of a young woman.  He had been in the company of other women before me and these relationships had not worked out. 

‘We’re going to Mansfield to camp in Uncle Joe’s hut,’ my husband said to his mother.  He might as well have told her we were off to rob a bank. 

The look on her face, and I knew it instantly.  Her face became that of a mother in law in stereotype: slits for eyes, a knitted forehead and clenched chin. 

She said nothing, as she dragged out the old pots from the back of her ovenware cupboard, but it was clear she disapproved. 

To the day she died, her disapproval continued, but it was met with my own, given I took sides with my husband who had not had an easy time with his mother.  This woman who burned her son’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover; this woman who told her son he would never be as good or as great a man as the parish priest; this woman who told her son he was too difficult by half. 

No wonder then, my mother in law should disapprove of me, too.  My husband to be and I were accomplices in crime who lived in sin.  

Today, I am the age of my mother in law when we first met.  I have one son in law already and another joining the ranks next year.  Two other potential sons in law hover on the sidelines. 

What sort of mother in law will I make? 

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