It is an understatement to say my mother in law did not like me when she learned I was dating her son. “Oh, I’m sure she doesn’t hate you,” one of my bridesmaids reassured me in the middle of my mental breakdown that occurred during my bachelorette party. “Lots of brides think that. What would make you think she actually hates you?” I suppose the part where she said, “Hate you!” instead of goodbye the last time she saw me.
From the moment I laid eyes on the 4’11” iron-jawed, hot-headed Filipino woman, who birthed my husband, I knew her hatred for me ran deep. I was the antithesis of everything she wanted for her son, being white, Southern and fat. Despite her immediate orders for him to stop dating me, our relationship progressed swiftly to a flowered covered gazebo facing the ocean where we said our “I Dos.”
“What does it matter if she likes you or not?” my friends would ask. “You’re marrying him, not her.” Well, aside from just generally wanting to be liked, the extent of her hate really bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure I have been hated at some point in my life. Let’s face it you can’t please everyone, but up until meeting my mother in law I had never been openly hated. Secretly hated, I am certain, but openly hated was brand new and boy did it hurt.
I became determined to win her over. I lost weight. She reminded me I was “still fat.” I worked tirelessly cleaning and packing the weekend she moved her family into a new house, stopping only to prepare and serve food to feed the family and tired movers. I was informed I was behaving like a servant whose status was far beneath that of her son’s. Nevertheless, I had hoped after being joined in Holy matrimony my mother in law’s resolve to hate me would have lessened. It did not.
As the last of our wedding guests made their way out of our reception I found myself face to face with this tiny person I was now expected to call “Mom.” I approached her, still dressed in my ivory gown, which she pointed out was ivory because I was too slutty to wear white. I looked deeply into her eyes wanting her to see the sincerity in mine, when she spoke the two words I will never forget. “You won.” This was not a “You won,” as in you won me over and now I love you. This was the “You won” spat from the lips of a bitterly defeated adversary fresh from the fight. I told her that I wished we could think that we both won, that I had won a wonderful husband and she had won a new daughter. She turned her back and growled, “Hoy!” under her breath. Being the kindest words she had ever spoken to me at that point in time, I considered it a minor victory and began my life with my new husband.
Distance can be a newlywed’s best friend and it certainly was mine. Directly out of grad school my husband was offered an excellent job working for Hewlett Packard in Idaho. Nearly three thousand miles from my MIL nemesis in New Jersey, we set up shop in a lovely little ranch style house which I adoringly decorated and transformed into a home. In Idaho I felt safe and aside from accidentally answering the phone to her on occasion, she had no daily effect on my life. That is until Christmas 2003.
My husband announced in November of 2003 that he was missing his family. Due to budget restraints we had not seen members from either of our families since moving to Idaho two years prior. My husband felt it was time to bring his family to the land of potatoes and show off his wife and new home. I felt I had been punched in the stomach. I had grown accustomed to her hatred but I wasn’t sure if I could tolerate it under my own roof. Not wanting to be the wedge between Mother and Son I reluctantly agreed and went to work making everything ready for his family’s arrival.
On Christmas Eve night my husband proudly escorted his mother, father, sister and nephew across our threshold. I do not know what her expectation was but it was evident by all who entered that night that love lived in our home. Photos of our lives adorned the walls as did artwork I created. A fire in our fireplace burned brightly, customized stockings for everyone swayed on the mantle and a massive tree equipped with glowing lights and dozens of presents filled the room. She did not speak, but for the first time in my presence she didn’t frown.
In the days that followed I focused on being a good hostess. My mother in law was quiet but quiet was a vast improvement on hostile. My husband acted like a used car salesman attempting to sell his mother on all my attributes. “Did you like your gift, Mom? Tristan picked it. How about dinner, don’t you think Tristan makes a great dinner? Look at the two Mrs. Mercados.” “Stop shoving me down her throat,” I hissed through a clenched jaw. “I’m even beginning to hate me.” “But she’s not being warm with you,” he insisted. I was fine with indifference. I can do indifference all day.
The day before she was scheduled to leave I overheard her asking my husband if he knew of an Asian market in the area. She was about to leave her first born child but not before she cooked for him the food he was raised on. To know my husband is to know he is the Caucasian Asian. First American generation raised by Filipino immigrant parents he never learned Tagalog, wasn’t attracted to Asian girls, and had a hatred of Asian markets because as he puts it they always smell like fish and white people always assume he works there.
“I know of one,” I told her. Before I knew it we were in the car in route to the one Asian market in all of Boise. We walked through and made our selections. I asked a million questions, happily chatted with other Asians there and retrieved all the items she needed located on the shelves too tall for her to reach. Once home we worked for hours in the kitchen as she walked me through making all my husband’s favorites. We stood side by side as we offered up the fruits of our labor to the rest of the family. The dining room table stretched out for days filled with hand rolled lumpia, pork adobo, pancit and pan fried tocino.
Morning came and we packed up the family and headed to the airport. We had arrived early due to falling snow and my husband took pleasure in spending the final minutes before departure joking with his sister and three year old nephew. I was surprised when I heard my name fall from his mother’s lips.
“Tristan, can I talk to you?” she asked. I don’t think I responded right away because I don’t think I had ever heard her say my name out loud. I had been grumbled at and gestured to but never addressed directly by my name. I nodded eagerly and stepped aside.
She seated herself across from me and began slowly. “The thing is,” she said, “you cannot just come to a country like America. When you come you have to have a sponsor, a family member, someone who has come before. My husband’s sister was our sponsor. She is much older and not like a sister but more like a mother. On my first day in America she brought me upstairs in her kitchen and told me to cook an egg. That I needed to show her that I could care for her brother. I felt so mad at this woman demanding me to cook for her brother. What did she know of being a wife? She had never been a wife. For years she shook her head at me and always made me feel very bad. I never feel very good about myself or about my children. Even now,” my mother in law said motioning towards her small grandson, “she has something to say about him.”
She stopped speaking as if she had run out of words. Reaching over she looked me straight in the eyes and placed her hand on top of my knee. For the first time I could see her, not as the small angry woman filled with hate, but as a wife, a mother, a person, who had just realized she had made a mistake. I heard every word she said and all the ones she couldn’t say. We sat there in silence till my husband called out that the flight would be boarding soon. She patted my leg and stood hugging first my husband goodbye and then me.
I stood there staring at the gate long after they all disappeared through security and for some reason I just started crying. “What did she say to you?” my husband demanded. “Nothing,” I said. “Did she at least apologize?” “No,” I said, smiling through the tears streaming down my face. “I think she owes you an apology,” said my husband growing frustrated. “She didn’t need to give me one,” I said, “She gave me something better.”