Saturday, January 23, 2010

In which we try to de-escalate the gift giving but just offend Doris

September 2009 A huge box arrives via UPS. Primo opens it. Oh Lord. It's three pressed wood nesting tables. With hummingbirds painted on them. Ugly as sin.

Bless her heart, Doris has sent us an anniversary present. As far as I'm concerned, the only ones who need to recognize an anniversary are the persons in the marriage, so it is very sweet of her to send us a present at all.

But could these things be any more not to my taste? Hideous.

I call the vendor. Can we return them for cash? Nope. Only exchange. Rats. Double rats because our options are other hummingbird type options. I am not a painted hummingbird type person. At all.

I am thinking perhaps we just put these in the Goodwill pile, even though Doris paid $100 for them - on sale! - when she starts pestering Primo about my October birthday. Would I like this or this or that? She emails him links to various items, none of which he knows I would like.

We decide to address this issue, which has been festering for a while. Doris and Sly send us expensive, yet tacky, presents we neither like, need, nor want, then expect us to spend like amounts on every gift-giving occasion for them.

Indeed, they do things like send us a link to $99 outdoor lights and say, "Give this to Doris for mother's day." $99 for mother's day?! I send my mom a card! Yet they expect $100 for every occasion. That gets expensive and we cannot afford it. I'd rather pay off our mortgage, thank you very much.

I must say in Doris' defense that she has for years asked Primo what he wants and he won't tell her, so he has only himself to blame for a lot of the crap he has gotten. We can send her a list of stuff we want, which she will buy, but we don't need stuff. I would be thrilled if they would chip in for our plane tickets to their place, but Primo doesn't want to do that. What I really want is a moratorium on expensive gift giving. Stop the madness.

Primo writes a thoughtful, tactful email in which he tells his parents that although we appreciate the sentiment behind the gift of the tables, they really do not fit our decor.* He says that we also are not comfortable accepting expensive gifts from them given their financial situation** and would rather see them spending their money on themselves. He says he and I have merged two complete households, we really don't need any stuff, that maybe if they do want to give us presents, they could get us restaurant coupons or pay for our tennis classes.

Doris' response?

"I'm sorry my taste isn't to your standards."

When I tell Primo that his mother is passive aggressive, this is the sort of thing I mean. But maybe I am using the wrong terminology. Perhaps passive aggressive is not right. Manipulative? Martyrish?

Doris continues. "Your brothers liked the tables."

Ha. That's a lie. I ask Stephanie if Doris has given her or Jack the tables and she says no and that she hasn't seen them at Jack's. She also says that Ted's wife, Maura, would have just given the tables right away to Goodwill and not said anything.

So Primo has to have a long, long phone call with Doris and Sly about presents. And why we are So Hard to Shop For. He is exhausted by the time it is done, because of course the conversation has to expand to Why Don't You Visit More Often and Why Are You Married To That Woman Anyhow and You Don't Call Enough.

He does, however, emerge victorious with an agreement that we will return the tables for cash that will be used to pay for our tennis classes next summer and that my birthday present, even though I kept waving my hands mouthing, "No presents! Let's agree to NO BIRTHDAY PRESENTS FOR ANYONE!" will be a set of cloth napkins from Crate and Barrel, even though Doris the environmentalist thinks cloth napkins are unsanitary*** which I suppose they would be if you never washed them.

And we think things are fine.

Until Christmas.

* Which they have seen because they stayed with us for NINE DAYS when we got married. I assure you there is absolutely nothing in our house to indicate a liking of items with hummingbirds painted on them. Or of pressed wood. Nothing.

** They made a business investment that did not end well.

*** I think paper napkins are wasteful for me but great for everyone else because I used to work for a paper company and will someday I hope have a defined benefit pension coming to me so use paper, everyone.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In which Primo is barred from Claudia's wedding

June 2008 Claudia, Primo's older stepdaughter, is getting married in August. We have been waiting for the invitation, but have not gotten anything yet. Odd.

I met Claudia for the first time that March. I wanted to hear all about the wedding but she seemed reluctant to talk about it. I couldn't figure it out. Finally, it hit me: Claudia is a lovely young woman. Well mannered, sweet. Probably because Primo did most of her raising.*

"Claudia," I said. "It would probably be uncomfortable for your mom [Isabel , Primo's ex] for me to be at your wedding,** so I certainly don't expect to be invited. But I love to talk about weddings, so please tell me what you have planned."

Ah. That was the key. She spilled, in her quiet, timid way. The wedding was to be at a winery. Primo loves wine. Lots of friends and family Primo hadn't seen in a while. Isabel's mother, who loooooves Primo, would be there.

So. We are waiting for the invitation. It hasn't arrived. "Call her," I urge. "Maybe it got lost." We know Claudia wants Primo there. A year ago, when she and Steve got engaged, she asked Primo to walk her down the aisle.

He calls. Comes downstairs.

"Isabel doesn't want me there."


"Isabel. She's mad at me. She told Claudia not to invite me."

This is the Isabel who got probably one of the most generous divorce settlements evah.***

Why is she mad at Primo?

Because Isabel, who married her first husband in a Catholic church, then got a divorce, then married Primo in a Presbyterian church without getting her first marriage annulled because she cared that much about being Catholic, saw that I had her marriage to Primo annulled. Which took about two weeks because 1. she married Primo without getting her first marriage annulled and 2. she married Primo in a Presbyterian church. So it wasn't even the hard kind of annulment, for those of you who know anything about annulments.****

Basically, her marriage to Primo was declared invalid in the Catholic Church, which was something that she obviously hadn't even cared about to begin with.

And she was mad about it.

And willing to punish her own daughter to get at Primo.

What a lady, huh?

The good news is that her little stunt kills Primo's lingering guilt about the divorce. May it rest in peace.

* More about all that later. Primo and I have just completed the negotiations about what I can talk about with respect to Isabel and Le Divorce. Not that there is any love lost with Isabel , but Claudia and Chloe are sweet and Isabel is their mother. You know.

** Primo and I met at our 20 year college reunion, a few years after he and Isabel split. I am not a homewrecker. But that doesn't mean Isabel wants to see me.

*** Rule 1 of divorce that we learned way too late: Get the baddest, meanest lawyer you can find. Do not have a mediated divorce.

**** They can drag on for years and go into every detail of your married life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In which Sly tells Primo to Keep Me In Line and I Win

December 2009 but not Christmas because remember we are not spending holidays with Sly and Doris and I mean it. Doris and I are having a conversation about her favorite foods when she was a little girl. I try to find neutral ground with her. She is a nice lady when we avoid politics and when Sly isn't around and she doesn't have to take his side.

Not that I would ask her to take my side against his. That's not fair. She has to live with him. She would pay the price for my small victory. If we lived down the block from them*, I would have it out with Sly, but for an annual visit, I do what I can to suck it up and keep the peace. As excruciating as that is.

I don't always succeed.

As you shall see.

So Doris is telling me about what her mother used to cook and Sly, even though he is in the other room, is interjecting his unasked for opinion and I am doing my best to ignore him. Doris cannot say one sentence without Sly correcting her. She says "bring" and he yells, "That's 'take,' honey," and she restates her sentence using "take" instead. Somehow, Senator Coburn comes up. Doris mentions that he is an OB. Sly yells, "He's a GYN, honey!" Oh, how I want to say, "Sly. He's both. He's BOTH." But I do not.

That evening, we go to Stephanie's for supper. As is his wont, Sly corrects the kids' grammar. Constantly. It's not like the kids sound as if they have never been to school. They are not saying, "ain't." Some of the things that Sly corrects are style choices. He is a retired English professor and is pickier than most. They are teenagers and speak slang. We all understand what they are saying.

It's when he nags Maria about saying the word "extract" as she is telling the story about making pizelles with Stephanie and how they made some with anise seed and some with lemon EXtract that I lose my temper. First, he says that she pronounces it "exTRACT" instead of "EXtract," which she did not, but second, even if she had, SO THE HECK WHAT?

We have this exchange:

Me: Stop!
Sly: You’re not the boss of me!
Me: You’re not the boss of her!
Sly: I’m her grandfather.
Me: I’m her aunt!
Sly: I’m a blood relative.
Me: I don’t care. Leave her alone.

Sly gets all mad and huffy, but we retreat to our respective corners and drop it.

On the drive back to Sly and Doris' house, Primo gets mad at me. "You didn't need to yell at my dad," he says.

"He started it," I say sullenly.

"You could have calmly said, 'Sly, is it really necessary for you to correct the kids' grammar like that?' or something. You're the one who escalated it right away."

"He's the one who was being a jerk first," I maintain stubbornly.

Primo sighs. "There will be a price for this."

I don't know why we have to walk around on eggshells all the time just because Sly is a big bully.

When we get back to the house, Sly summons Primo into his room. When Primo returns to our room, he tells me that Sly told him that he better keep me in line and that I should respect my elders and asked him why he let me boss him around.

"Did you tell him it's because I'm good in bed?" I say.

Primo sighs. "Just cool it, OK? I'm the one who's caught in the middle here."

I say, "Wait a second. If your dad has a problem with me, why doesn't he just talk to me? Wait! Wait! Your dad won't talk to me because he knows he can't push me around! Wait! Your dad is scared of me! OMIGOSH! I've spent all this time scared of your dad and he's scared of me!"

"Yeah, whatever," Primo says.

"No! This is good! I feel powerful! I feel great! I win. I win!"

And I do feel great. The next morning, my 12-day migraine is gone.

And Primo is happy because Primo?

Got a little reward of his own. If you know what I mean.

Power. Is an aphrodisiac.

* Not that that would ever happen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In which I meet Sly and Doris for the first time

October 2006 Primo takes me to meet his mom and dad. I don't know they already dislike me because of our political and religious differences. And because I am not comfortable sharing a bed with Primo under their roof. And because I am not good enough for their son. Nobody is good enough for their Only Joy.

We arrive, greet each other, sit. They focus immediately on Primo. Ask me not a single question about myself, my family, my life. It's not as if I'm a dull, unlikeable person. (Am I? Maybe I am. Oh no.) I've lived and traveled* all over the world. I have a family. I've done cool things. My family has done cool things.

They're not interested.

Almost immediately, though, I hear about Stephanie, who is married to Primo's brother half-brother Jack,** who is not yet my sister in law but will be eventually. What a bad mother she is: She feeds her kids white rice instead of brown rice! Her grammar - atrocious! She doesn't take the children to museums but watches TV with them instead! Worst of all, though - she's FAT.

Yeah, well. Glass houses, Sly. Glass houses.

But my first thoughts are these:

1. This is how they talk about their own family in front of strangers?
2. This is how they talk about their own daughter in law in front of their prospective daughter in law?

Lord have mercy what am I getting myself into?

Let the record show that Primo is wonderful enough that I stick around despite everything.

After more of the fat talk (as if fat is a character flaw), I ask Sly why Stephanie's weight is any of his business.

He sighs. Isn't it obvious? Why must he explain everything? How will they save Primo from making yet another marriage mistake?***

"Because her mother died young from heart problems and Stephanie has heart problems and if Stephanie dies young, then we will be raising those three children."

I bite my tongue rather than ask the obvious questions, which are, "Don't they have a father?" (they do - Jack) and "Why are you so sure that you would be their guardians?"

I asked Stephanie last month who would get her kids if something happened to her and Jack. "My brother," she said.

I told her the story about Sly.

"Omigod no!" she said. "Nonononono. My brother. I made sure about that."

* To this day, they have never asked me a single question about 1. growing up abroad, 2. my Peace Corps experience, 3. any of my travels to four continents. Never.

** A distinction that is not important to me, because family is family, but matters for this story because Primo is his mother's only living child and it makes a difference in her attitude to him versus her attitude toward Ted and Jack and the grandchildren. She does love them, but they are not hers in the way that Primo is hers. Which is fair.

*** How can Primo be so brilliant and yet make such Bad Decisions About Women? Where did Sly and Doris Go Wrong?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In which Doris alienates her neighbor and we can't borrow a turkey baster

December 2009, but not Christmas because we are no longer visiting Sly and Doris over the holidays. Doris is telling me about her next door neighbor, who no longer speaks to Doris. I have heard this story before. It all started two years ago when Doris wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper proclaiming that the people of the Polka Dot Party were absolute flaming idiots.*

The neighbor, Elsie, read the letter.

Elsie and Doris used to be casual friends. When Elsie's grandchildren would visit, Elsie would bring them to see Doris. Doris would get them small presents. Doris can be very sweet.

When Elsie saw the letter, she told Doris, "I'm a member of the Polka Dot Party!"

"Well Elsie I certainly didn't mean you!" Doris said.

Too late. Sometimes the words are out and you can't take them back, not that Doris necessarily wants to take them back. I don't know. Maybe she does. I do not know Doris' state of mind. I do know she just wants Elsie to understand that she means the other Polka Dot people. Those idiots. Not Elsie. Me, probably. But not Elsie.

Primo thinks Elsie is being unreasonable. I think Doris didn't think through what she was doing. If you stand in the middle of town and shout your opinion about a group of people, especially if you are name calling, there will probably be some repercussions.

If someone writes a letter saying, "I disagree with the stance the Polka Dots have taken on the Great Lakes Compact because I don't like the impact it will have on the sport fishermen," that's one thing. Disagreeing with someone on the issues is not the same as calling someone a poopyhead and probably won't lead to your neighbor never speaking to you again.

The grandchildren come to visit and Elsie shepherds them into the house. No visit to Miss Doris. That's what hurts Doris the most.

Last year, Thanksgiving. Doris is basting the turkey. The baster melts. I didn't even know that could happen. Well, OK, let's just borrow one from the neighbors. Oops. Can't do that. Doris isn't on speaking terms with Elsie and doesn't know anyone else to ask. After how many years? After I was in my house for eight months, my neighbors were shoveling my sidewalk. Just saying.

We have been at the house for a few hours. I am resolved not to argue with Sly or Doris. Keep this visit pleasant. No fighting. No tension. I will do my part and more to eliminate the stress. My response to everything will be, "Hmmm" or "Well." Neutral, non-agreeing responses.

Doris is telling me again about Elsie and how unreasonable it is that Elsie will no longer talk to her. Maybe Elsie did overreact, I think. Maybe she took that one sentence against months of knowing Doris. Maybe that wasn't fair.

"Hmm," I answer. "Indeed."

"I just want to ram a pole up her ass!" she almost shouts.

"Oh!" I say. "Well. Excuse me. I'm going to the bathroom."

I end up peeing a lot during that visit.

* These might not have been her exact words. Maybe she just said "stupid."

Monday, January 18, 2010

In which - Wait! Who's Nancy?

I've been holding out on you. I didn't tell you about one of the main characters. Knowing about Nancy might change your impression of Sly and Doris. Might put you on their side. Make you forgive them of everything. Because after what they've been through, they are allowed to be complete jerks for the rest of their life, right? They are allowed to wallow in grief and bitterness and anger and to drag everyone down with them.

Nancy is Primo's younger sister.


She died of a heroin overdose about three years before I met him.

She was mentally ill, or so they say. Borderline personality disorder? Who knows? Whatever she had, it couldn't be fixed. When she was committed, she would emerge angrier than when she had gone in, which is not surprising, because Nancy was no idiot and being condescended to by county social workers just ticked her off.

Based on Primo's description of her, I don't think she would have been my favorite: tattooed, pierced, purple haired. Hooked for booze and drugs.

But my sister in law Stephanie liked her. Said they would hang out, laugh, do their nails. Nancy was funny, artistic, smart as a whip. Said that it was Sly who set Nancy off and having spent time with Sly, I can sure sympathize. Stephanie says that when Sly was around, Nancy wouldn't come out of her room.

I'm not quite sure what the mental illness did because it doesn't seem that Nancy wasn't in control of her actions. She knew that if she was going to flip off a cop, she should wait until she was inside of a bus pulling away from a stoplight when the cop could do nothing.

She either couldn't or wouldn't hold a job. Got disability and housing assistance. Got pregnant more than once. Doris took her to get her abortions. Doris will never have any grandchildren of her own. I wonder if she regrets those abortions now.*

Primo maintains Nancy's death wasn't a suicide - that there were several heroin deaths that night from a bad batch.

Sly and Doris are broken. They think they failed Nancy. I can't begin to understand. I have no children. I don't know. I do know that other people have had tragedies in their lives. My great-aunt Madge and her two little girls watched as her husband crashed his small plane in front of them. Madge remarried, had more children, was not a bitter, angry woman. Stephanie's great aunt buried three of her children, but did not stew in despair.

Now you know. Now you know Sly and Doris' excuse for their anger. For their demands on Primo. They are owed. They were robbed. I am sorry for their loss. I am also sorry that they choose to be bitter and angry for the rest of their life.

* Primo thinks I am making a political statement about abortion here. I am not. I am genuinely curious about what Doris thinks. Primo is absolutely positive that Doris has no regrets about what happened - that raising the children of two drug addicts was not how she wanted to spend her later years and that is what would have happened because Nancy would not have given up her chilren for adoption but she also would not have been a responsible mother.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

In which we "abandon" Sly and Doris

November 2009 We are making our Christmas plans. Well. Not really. Because our Christmas plans are to do nothing. Go nowhere. Stay home. At last, we are free. We did decide when we married that we would not travel during the holidays. Our families were welcome to visit us. A safe thing to say, given that Primo's parents do not travel. Well, they did travel to our wedding. What a disaster that was. But they do not travel now. Thank goodness. Alas, we are expected to go to them.

We have told my widowed not quite penniless but definitely not awash in cash mom we will fly her here,* but the frozen north in December is not her idea of a good time.

Here is where we plan to be. Primo travels a lot for his job. He wants to be home, not in an airport, in December.

And then he gets the dreaded question. Because we have not yet made the blanket statement to Sly and Doris: We will never again spend a holiday in your house.

"Are you coming for Thanksgiving? Are you coming for Christmas?"


Only Primo says it much more nicely than that. Primo can be tactful. When he wants to be.

Shocked, angry, betrayed silence.

A few days later, he gets an email from Doris. It starts out with a line something like, "I had written another email but decided not to send it."

Oh please.

She continues: "Dad and I will feel abandoned if you don't come for Christmas."

"Oh good grief!" I exclaim.

"Well, they have gotten used to my coming since I separated from Isabel and Nancy died," Primo says.

"You are married now," I say. "Things are different."

He calls. Talks to Sly. Tries to explain. Asks what if my mom made the same demands on our time and attention.

"That's different," Sly snaps. "That Woman's family is not close."

We're "not close?" That's Sly's excuse?

Let's define "close."

Does he mean family who see each other?

Primo has three or four cousins and two aunts. He has seen the cousins and aunts at his uncles' funerals, one last year and one two years ago. Before that, the last time he saw them was in high school. He sees Jack when he visits his parents. Maybe. He sees Ted occasionally, maybe every four or five years.

Primo has seen my mom when we have visited her (twice) and when she has visited us (twice since we married). He has met at least half of my mom's six siblings and both of my dad's brothers. He has not met all of my 24 cousins but has gotten a good start. We stop in the town where a chunk of my family lives when we drive to the cottage in the summer.

We have stayed with my dad's brother and his wife. We have hung out with my cousins A and J many times. We have shot pool with them. We have gone to family reunions. We visited M in the hospital 90 miles away. My uncle has taken us horseback riding. We have had Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle, other dinners at their house. We have visited my sister. Primo visited my grandmother in the nursing home 250 miles away several times. He has met two of my dad's cousins who live here in town.

Or does he mean a family who like each other? Because my family doesn't spend time bad-mouthing the ones who aren't there.** Oh. Did I say that out loud? Yeah, I'm talking to you, Sly, who doesn't have anything good to say about Stephanie, who is very nice, and who has been known to tell Primo that Ted and Jack are a great disappointment to him. What a generous thing for a father to say about his own sons to his other son.

But apparently my family doesn't count because we are not "close." Only Sly and Doris' wishes count; only their holiday desires are important. If my mom demanded that we be at her home for Christmas, it wouldn't matter. Sly and Doris' claim would trump hers because my family isn't "close."

Bad move, Sly. You just strengthened my resolve. If it were up to me, you'd never see your son again.

* We are also not awash in cash, but we do have frequent flyer miles.

** OK, except for my one cousin who licked Primo. We do talk about her. But SHE LICKED PRIMO.