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Tradition of mother-in-law friction comes full circle

After my mother-in-law died, the task of cleaning out the home she’d lived in for over half her life fell to me.
After my mother-in-law died, the task of cleaning out the home she’d lived in for over half her life fell to me. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

I was not the worst daughter-in-law, but I’m probably the last person my mother-in-law would have chosen to paw through her private papers and possessions. Like almost everything else about her death and its after-mess, however, my mother-in-law had very little control.

She tried though. Even at 93, she kept meticulous financial records. She had a legal will, and she secured it in a safe deposit box at her Michigan bank. She even remembered to send the key to her one and only child, my husband, in Los Angeles.

What she didn’t anticipate was that even with her death certificate and the safe-deposit-box key, her son would not be allowed near her will until he’d performed a variety of tasks involving bank rules, probate court, blah blah blah and power of attorney.

That took time, which had something to do with how she came to be cremated weeks before we discovered she’d wanted to be buried.

Because my husband had a job he had to return to and I didn’t, and because there was no one else to do it, clearing out her house fell to me.

I started as soon as we arrived: Faced with the contents of the two-story house (plus basement) where my mother-in-law had lived for over half of her life, I thought about that book that suggests we give the heave-ho to any possessions that don’t bring us joy. But my mother-in-law’s things did bring her joy – they just didn’t for me.

I didn’t share her taste for things frilly and was flummoxed by her fondness for those beer steins with faces – Toby mugs. It’s fair to say that I didn’t share my mother-in-law’s taste for … well, anything, except perhaps her son.

Were any of us to imagine the scene, we’d certainly prefer to picture our belongings cradled in loving hands by family and friends who give careful thought to their future. Anything but the hasty mercies of an irritated, sleep-deprived, dry-eyed daughter-in-law seething with resentment for being stuck with sorting, donating and pawning.

The moral of this cautionary tale is don’t alienate or outlive your friends and relations, or maybe, get rid of your stuff while you still can.

When I was a young bride, newly annoyed by my mother-in-law, my father told me friction between mothers and daughters-in-law was timeless and innate. He said I wouldn’t understand until I was a mother.

That irritated the crap out of me and I said so.

But he insisted no one loves anyone as much as a mother does.

Then he said: “Let me ask you this. If you found out that Mitch (my husband) was a violent pedophile who raped little children, would you visit him in prison?”

“Pfft, no way!”

“Ah!” My dad held up his drink in victory. “But if it was your son, you’d visit, and bring him a cake!”

I remembered this conversation as I made my 700th trip upstairs to bring down another dusty carousel of old slides. My mother-in-law gave birth to my husband. She loved and raised him. These slides were – I assumed, I still haven’t looked – mostly pictures of him. She did not store these slides on the top shelf of the furthest closet just to torment me. She did so because they were precious to her and gave her joy.

I knew she was still waiting her turn at the crematorium. The idea of simply adding everything she owned to the funeral pyre was wildly tempting. Why not call and ask if I might include a few mementos? Then sneak in the entire contents of her home?

I did not make that call. And I didn’t torch her house or dump her slides and doilies and Toby mugs into the local landfill. I just packed them into her car, along with her cremains, and drove back home to LA to tuck everything away in a closet for my own daughter-in-law to deal with when the time comes.

Amy Goldman Koss is the author of many books for teens.

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