The New York Times Book Review
The Mother-in-Law Diariesby Carol Dawson
Much to the surprise of his mother, Lulu Penfield's first-born son has gotten married. It's not that she minds; she's fairly sure that he's made a good choice. What's really eating at her is the realization that she is about to become--gasp--a mother-in-law.Lulu's been around the block more than a few times. She's had more than the average number of mothers-in-law,… See more details below
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Much to the surprise of his mother, Lulu Penfield's first-born son has gotten married. It's not that she minds; she's fairly sure that he's made a good choice. What's really eating at her is the realization that she is about to become--gasp--a mother-in-law.Lulu's been around the block more than a few times. She's had more than the average number of mothers-in-law, and she's found herself more than once figuring out how these women manage to embed themselves in her marriages. As mothers-in-law go, she's had some real doozies. There was the Budgeteer, who insisted on teaching Lulu how to squeeze every penny out of her measly salary, how to keep her house spic and span, how to give birth, and of course, how to nurse her baby. There was the witch, who was skilled at casting some rather damaging spells. Try crossing that mother-in-law. There was the cool and poised New Zealand mother-in-law, whose son slandered her at length, leaving Lulu to wonder just how true his stories were. And there was the ghost of a mother-in-law, who lingered in Lulu's husband's study and had a word or two for Lulu herself.Now there's Lulu, about to become the sacred mother to whom the daughter-in-law must bow, about to become the source of wisdom about the son--his sins, his past, his potential.
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You Americans! You think if you sleep with them, you gotta marry them.
A friend of Lulu Penfield's
April 1, this year
Good God, Treatie. What have you done?
Ever since your call I've been so upset I can hardly think, although the whole time we were talking I was trying to corral my feelings so that you wouldn't guess how wild they are. Over the phone that wasn't so difficult, since the only expression you seemed to expect from me was stun. Which is what you got. You can never know how much consternation lay dammed behind it. It'll be over my dead body if you ever do know.
Of course the minute I write this, wondering if you will ever read it, I keep feeling I should be addressing you as my dearest Tristan. Dear son. My sweet boy. Your little surprise has triggered so many emotions that I've simply got to talk to you somehow, write what I would never dream of saying out loud, and how could I possibly call you Tristan for that? That name was your father's idea anyhow. Well, maybe it was both of us, being the romantic students of literature we were, but at least you've never complained, being the brave stoic you are being, in fact, the treat God misdirected to me in a fit of absent-mindedness and then failed to cancel despite my many follies. So how in the sam hell could you have committed such a folly yourself, without telling me first?
I'm sorry for the scream. Right now I'm praying you took it for shocked delight. I hope your earache's better. It's too bad it was the holey one. But that's another thing: that eardrum should never have been on a jet flight to San Francisco not with acold coming on after ten hours Alitalia from Rome. Did you know six year olds have no business as stoics? Or were you just too tired to cry? Whatever was your mother thinking of that she didn't pay closer attention?
But you got me now, haven't you?
Marriage! Elopement!! Treatie, I don't understand. We've been so close. We've been through so much together. Living with Swalla was one thing, but this!!! Besides which, I have to confess to feeling deeply hurt by your silence. Couldn't you have at least called and told what you were planning to do even if you wouldn't extend an invitation? Only one other time in your whole life can I remember you deliberately hiding your purpose from me. And when I think of how much you've confided, sharing minutes and thoughts and epiphanies, I'm struck dumb. Your blueprints for tattoos and orifice piercings. Your Twisted Sister tapes. Your crush on that cold little Mill Valley girl when you were thirteen. Your poems. Your desire to join the Special Forces. Remember the time you described getting stoned on the mesa and falling facedown into a compost pit? And the Saturday morning that I took one look at you and knew like lightning "Treatie," I said, "I've never talked with you about sex much, have I? We've not yet had a proper little chat?" and your face convulsed involuntarily into that sheepish grin "Mom, too late." And later when girls started phoning and I relayed the messages and Heather who'd just graduated from Princeton with an honors degree in economics fell in love with you? "But honey," I said, "he's only fifteen years old "I don't care" she said. "He's man enough for me" And when you finally told her, "No, Heather, we'll have to break up, I've already got a mother," she came and sat at the kitchen table while you were at school and cried and cried while I patted her shoulders, thinking, Poor thing. Poor thing. Thank you, Lord.
And now what?
You've gone and changed a major life condition secretly. And it's the big one. You may not realize it, but short of birth and death, this is the SS Lusitania, Treatie. Well, if you can't trust your own parent with a sacrament, whom can you trust? For goodness sake, look at me! Didn't I show you by example? Didn't you get it? You weren't even baptized. How many sacraments are left, besides Extreme Unction? What do you need this one for?
Maybe it's your No Rites History that actually prompted you to hire the hearse to drive you and Swalla in her funeral veil and matching gown to the judge's chambers sort of a "This isn't really happening, ha ha" and "Just covering every step at once" grab-bag. Not that I'm knocking judge weddings, God knows. Yours probably sat behind his desk the way mine usually did, in his robe colorcoordinated to the bride's outfit; perhaps a white boutonniere for contrast. Swalla holding a lily. I'm glad that Swalla's got an interesting sense of style, but what an occasion to show it.
Oh, my Lord. Swalla, I've just realized. Treatie, on top of everything else you've changed my life condition. You have actually reached across two thousand continental miles and tampered with my life condition. Do you realize what this means?
You've turned me into a mother-in-law.
Copyright © 1999 by Carol Dawson
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Author of The Lunch-Box Chronicles
Meet the Author
Carol Dawson was born and raised in Texas, and has since lived in a variety of places --California, England, Italy, New Zealand, New Mexico, and Washington. During that time, she published three novels (The Waking Spell, Body of Knowledge, and Meeting the Minotaur) and a volume of poetry (Job). Dawson recently returned to her home state, where she is currently writing a history on the Maori people of New Zealand and is at work on her fifth novel.
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I saw Carol Dawson in New Orleans at the Pirates Aleey Faulkner Society 'Words and Music 2000' in September. The Mother-in-Law Diaries, like her, is intelligent and funny. Every woman contemplating marriage needs to enjoy this funny tale.
I am just now finishing it. It has taken quite a while for me to read as it not really to my liking. Not terrible, but not what I would call out to friends to "read this!" It was something to read.