Saturday, March 26, 2005

Lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's . . .

The in-laws came to visit yesterday. To be precise, Wife’s father and stepmother are staying with us for nine days. You may have misread that, so I’ll repeat: staying with us for nine days. Nine days.

This is not an uncomplicated situation.

On the one hand, they can be overwhelming guests. They are socially dominant people, highly intelligent, highly opinionated, and very likely to be at the helm of any conversation or social situation in which they find themselves. When they’re in the house, it’s kind of hard for anyone else to pay attention to anything but them. In addition, they require a great deal of logistical support. Things like daily trips to the dry cleaner required by Father-in-law, food cooked just so, and an almost comically exaggerated ice consumption. When they’re here, I lie in bed mentally counting the ice cubes in the freezer, hoping I can keep up with demand. Plus, they’re both highly accomplished family therapists. I feel like a bug under a microscope every time I say something to one of my kids. Nothing escapes their notice, and few things escape their comment. Finally, these people drink A LOT, so sometimes getting through the evening intact feels like navigating a large ship through the iceberg-rich waters of the North Atlantic. Tricky, and exhausting.

But there is an other hand. These two people, who we will call Leonard and Joan, are endlessly fascinating. They have the two most agile, active intellects of anyone I know, and they are interested in everything. Old and cantankerous as they may be, their attention never fails to be engaged by whatever is going on around them. Just today, even though I worked pretty much all day, the conversations I heard or was part of included the following subjects: the Dreyfus affair in France at the turn of the century (with a digression into Emile Zola’s life), the character in one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays who claims to be able to summon the dead, the life and works of J. M. Barrie, the Normandy invasion during World War II, our daughter’s social situation at school, the methamphetamine addiction crisis in their corner of the Olympic peninsula in Washington, a talk they attended by Sherman Alexie (writer of the movie “Smoke Signals”), and the lingering effects, in our increasingly urban society, of the centuries of agricultural thinking and mythology that dominate so much of our cultural legacy.

The chief pleasure I derive from these visits, however, is the chance to sit around telling family stories, both the old ones we all know and some new ones. A few old standards have already come up. Here’s one of my favorites.

This episode involves Leonard’s brother Mike. Mike is a labor lawyer, a tireless champion of the disadvantaged. Look all you want, you won’t find a man with a more finely developed sense of social justice. He’s also a patient man, with loads and loads of classic Irish wit to him. When Mike’s daughter Susie was a little girl of about 7, she liked to amuse herself by seeing if she could get him riled up. One day while he was watching the news she needled him and harassed him so persistently that he finally lost his temper, jumped up from the couch, and chased her upstairs. Susie ran into her room and slammed the door. He went in right after her, but she said,

“Hey, you can’t come in here.”

“What do you mean I can’t come in here, I’m your father!”

“Well, I have to knock before I can come into your room, why should you get to just walk in my room? You have to go outside and knock.”

This logic worked on him sufficiently that he backed out, closed the door, and knocked. Hard.

“Who is it?”

“What do you mean, who is it, you know perfectly well who it is.”

“Who is it?”

“It’s your father! May I come in please?” [through gritted teeth, no doubt]

“No, you may not!”

At which point he took a deep breath, recognized that he was beaten, and went downstairs laughing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Visitors can be *very* exhausting, particularly when they are as verbose as it sounds like yours are. Best to your family - Rachael

3/26/2005 8:23 PM  
Blogger Moreena said...

I once had a (serious) boyfriend with parents *just* like this. They were both writers, and they were great and wonderful and terrifying all at once. Did the possibility of in-laws like this keep me with him longer, or hasten our breakup? I really don't know, but it's hard not to think that people with personalities this big didn't figure into the equation somehow.

3/28/2005 2:22 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Nine days is a long time. Just this weekend I cut a scheduled four day trip to Minnesota short by a day. I was there visiting a friend, and three days was plenty. And this is someone who I get along with just fine, there no strong personality issues to deal with.

But I had the luxury of leaving whenever I wanted. I can hardly imagine feeling trapped in my own house for nine days. Yikes.

4/04/2005 12:59 AM  

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