Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 28: The War of the In-laws

The tension between mother in-laws and daughter in-laws has existed for centuries all over the world. Movies and books have been written based on this unique relationship between two women. These stories can be comical, depressing or even horrifying. And everyday, the same drama is actually happening in somebody’s family somewhere out there. Perhaps the tension is created because somebody has to accept a stranger into the family and share her son with this person, and somebody has to treat a stranger like an elder and respect her wishes just because she is related to her husband.

When I stepped into the house after work and saw just my dad alone at the dining table, I knew that something was amiss. It was unusual for my dad to take dinner alone.

“Dad, where is mom? Has she gone out?”
“No, she’s in the bedroom. She has got no appetite for dinner.”
“Is she sick?”
“No,” my dad put down his chopsticks and continued. “Her old school mates called her up today for a chat, and they asked about Ah Hao.”

That was a very valid reason for my mom to lose her appetite. It was a taboo to talk about Ah Hao, her youngest grandson. It never failed to sadden my mom and made her cry upon the mention of Ah Hao. At the beginning of the year, my younger brother had walked out of my mom’s life, taking along his son Ah Hao, under the command of his wife.

My younger brother Charlie had met his wife Alice in his first job and she became his first love. Alice was a very independent gal with a strong character. She had left her family after she graduated from the polytechnic, due to some disagreement with her father. Since then, she had not been visiting her family except for the Chinese New Year. On the other hand, my younger brother Charlie was a quiet guy with a soft character. Among the three of us, he was the most pampered since young and my mom would always give in to him. With such combination, Alice was destined to be the one who dominated.

Alice was never willing to share Charles with anybody else. Even before they were married, Alice had restricted the amount of outings that Charlie had with his friends. Eventually, Charlie lost contact with most of his friends, even his good friends since secondary school times. After they were married, the couple got a flat at a distance away from our flat and Charlie shifted out, out of my mom’s sight for the first time in his life. Becoming Charlie’s wife had caused Alice to be increasingly possessive. Whenever Charlie was not working, she wanted him to spend all his time with her. Their weekly visit to my parents became monthly, then eventually quarterly.

Then one day, Charlie called my mom up and told her that Alice was pregnant. My parents were exhilarated and they tried to help out in any way that they could. Those were the happier moment that my mom remembered because the couple would pay a visit almost every month. My mom would then brew some herbal soups for Alice, hoping that the soups would make her and the baby healthier and stronger.

Nine months later, Alice gave birth to a baby boy who was named Ah Hao by my dad. Alice was very weak after giving birth and her legs were so swollen that she could hardly walk. Although Charlie took annual leaves to take care of her and the baby, he was not experienced enough and it was also too knackering for him. To help out the couple, my dad traveled everyday to their house to cook lunches and dinners for them. As for my mom, she stayed at their house to take care of Ah Hao. She would wake up and feed him at night so that the couples could sleep. It was a very tiring task but she did it without complaint.

Eventually, Alice’s leg was not swelling any more and she recovered adequately to take care of Ah Hao. One day, she suddenly remembered that Charlie and Ah Hao only belonged to her and nobody else, and hell just broke loose.

My mom was preparing lunch in the kitchen while Ah Hao slept in the baby cot in the living room. Suddenly, he woke up and cried. My mom rushed out to the living room and saw Alice holding Ah Hao, trying to calm him down with a pacifier. However the pacifier did not seem to work as Ah Hao only cried louder.

“Come, let me hold him,” my mom stretched out her hands to take over Ah Hao.
“No!” Alice shouted at her and held Ah Hao back. “Ah Hao is my son! Why should I give him to you?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not trying to take him away. I’m thinking of calming him down and stop him from crying!”
“I can stop him from crying! I’m his mother!”

My mom was stunted. But she was even more shocked when she heard the next sentence from Alice.

“Please leave my house. You’ve been too busybody and influencing Charlie too much. I want you to stay away from my husband and my son! I don’t want to see you anymore!”

And that was the last day that my mom had seen her son and grandson. Charlie had not been calling my parents, let alone visiting them. When my dad called him and asked him to come back with Ah Hao, he refused and said that he did not want to agitate Alice. When my dad suggested that my mom and he wait at the void deck below their flat and Charlie could take Ah Hao downstairs for them to take a look, Charlie refused and said that Alice might not like the idea. Since then, my parents had lost a son and a grandson.

Rose had another different sad story to tell. She met her husband in their university times back in India. Eventually they fell in love and he proposed to her. In India, both couples are required to have the same social and financial status before they could be married. Both families must be as rich, or as poor. In Rose’s case, the two families were as rich and well respected. Thus there was no opposition to the marriage and the both of them were married under the consent of both parents.

After they were married, as a traditional India wife, Rose stayed at home as a housewife. And because it was a traditional Indian family and her husband was the only son, her in-laws stayed with them. There was a honeymoon period when everybody appeared to be friendly towards each other and quarrels were unheard of. Then one day, Rose’s father in-law passed away, leaving her mother in-law behind. That was when Rose’s nightmare began.

Since her husband’s death, Rose’s mother in-law became cantankerous and thoroughly disagreeable to live with. While her husband was at work, Rose would prepare lunch for her mother in-law and herself, just like what she did when her father in-law was around. However, though her cooking skills had not changed, her mother in-law had.

“What is this?” Rose’s mother in-law asked as she stirred the bowl of red substances with her spoon.
“Vegetable masala, mom” Rose replied as she put the next dish on the table.

Her mother in-law took a sip of the vegetable masala then spited it out on the table. She then took a morsel of chicken from the chicken bemisal that Rose had just put on the table. After a few bites, she spited it out too.

“Your masala and bemisal taste so terrible! How do you expect me to eat these kinds of food?” she berated at Rose.
“But mom, you used to like these dishes!” said the shock Rose.
“No! I didn’t used to like these dishes. I just didn’t want to let you know.”

Rose’s mother in-law then left the house, probably to have her meal outside, and returned about an hour before her husband returned from work. During dinner, her mother in-law complained to her husband that Rose was so lazy that she did not cook lunch for her and did not do much housework as well.

The same drama repeated almost everyday, but luckily for Rose, her husband chose to believe her. Though he just nodded his head when his mother raged on and on, he apologized to Rose privately and told her to hang in there.

A few years later, Rose’s mother in-law passed away. Till the day that she died, she still disliked Rose and did not stop complaining about her to her son. Rose was glad that it was finally over, but she was also sad that her mother in-law still had not accepted her till the day she died.

On the other hand, Ju was a very fortunate woman. Because her husband was the eldest son, her mother in-law was staying with them. They had been living in harmony and arguments were few and easily forgiven. Though they had a maid to take care of the house work, her mother in-law would cook occasionally for the family. During Ju’s pregnancies, her mother in-law even brewed expensive bird’s nests and herbal soups for her. Similarly, Ju treated her mother in-law with respect and care. When her mother in-law was sick and weak after a surgery, Ju applied for a month’s leave to take care of her personally.

Once, Rose asked Ju how they managed to love each other.

“Hahaha… it’s actually very simple,” replied Ju. “The two of us treat each other as friends more than the relationship of mother in-law and daughter in-law. In this way, we are both more forgiving to each other’s mistakes, and we respect each other’s opinions.”

Just as Ju had proven, it is not impossible for a mother in-law and her daughter in-law to live in harmony. They just have to understand that one is not there to snatch away the son’s love and the other is not there to possess the husband’s time. Hopefully one day, Alice could understand this theory.

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