816 North

Proximity to mother-in-law a mixed blessing

“Stop the car!”

My mother-in-law, Betty Lou, and I were driving around town on a casual mission. She was in the initial stages of moving. Not full on Urgent House Quest mode, but, casually seeing what the housing inventory in our small town looked like. That day’s method: drive around, see a for-sale sign, stop in front, grab a brochure from the sign box, drive off. Repeat. It was so casual our longest discussion was where to have lunch.

But we didn’t even get out of my neighborhood when a house that was almost completed caught her attention.

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Yes, it is, I’ve been watching this one go up, It’s special, different,” I told her.

Then she said the four words that changed everything: “Look, there’s someone inside.”

She hopped out and minutes later she was waving for me to follow her and, by chance, the builder. Betty Lou is one of those people who will search for the perfect anything…but once she recognizes it, she zips into goal-driven, focused action.

She prayed about it.

She talked to her son, my husband, Brian, and he prayed, too.

She made a decision.

Within days the house was hers.

Within far less time than anyone could imagine, she had moved in.

That’s when I began to say the eight words that gets one of two responses.

My mother-in-law lives three blocks away from us.

When I say those eight words the facial expressions I see are either a look of panic that says either “How horrible,” or “Awwww, how sweet!”

I know what both groups are thinking. The panic people think it’s too close, that we have no privacy. They’re thinking of their own families and an unannounced mother-in-law visit and the matriarchal chemtrail of perfume in her wake.

The awwww folks are thinking how nice it is to have familial generations living so closely and sharing their lives daily. They think Grandma can just stop by anytime she needs some family love and imprint the scent of Channel on grandkids’ shirts so that for the rest of their lives they will smell that scent and think, “Grandma!” and that we can do the same at her house, minus the perfume.

And I would agree with both.

The fact is this wasn’t a huge change. She didn’t move halfway across the country to micro-mom us; we had lived across town for nine years. We already saw her at the grocery store, the post office, the kids’ school events and sometimes she would come for dinner. Or we would bring her supper…or visa versa.

Our 20 year history was split living states apart, then only a few miles apart. Families are an organically moving relationship that is sometimes connected closely, sometime farther away. Families aren’t a stagnant entity, they are ever-morphing.

Within a couple years of moving, Betty Lou re-married. Now they both live three blocks away. This man we had never met until one awkward Superbowl party at our house is now the only grandpa my youngest son knows. He makes the kid breakfast and fishes with him, he helps me garden and is now part of our ever-morphing family.

So where do I stand? Am I a panic person believing that all this physical closeness is a bit too close? Am I an awwww folk who thinks that this is the sweetest, most perfect way for generations to be able to support and love each other?


And no.

I strongly suspect my in-laws feel the same way, and I strongly suspect this ever-changing, good and complicated relationship is the kind most families have no matter how you define “family.”

Susan Vollenweider lives in the Northland not far from her in-laws. To listen to the women’s history podcast that she co-hosts or to read more of her writing visit www.thehistorychicks.com or www.susanvollenweider.com