I was a very little girl when I first heard the term sister in-law. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant. Somehow when my brother got a wife, I would get another sister, and the law was going to be involved.
I wondered if she was going to give me the same bossy big sister attitude that my other three sisters already enforced? “Rosie, bring me some water.” “Rosie, subele al la tele. I can’t hear it” Rosie this, Rosie do that. (How many big sisters could a 8 year old handle anyway?)
Just as I was wrapping my head around the idea, I was informed that I was to be a flower girl in the wedding. Ugh! A flower girl! What was that? It didn’t sound good, sounded like a sissy-lala girly mess and I wasn’t going to have a choice in the matter! Yikes! This in-law thing was heavy.
My soon to be sister…inlaw….was uptight, I wondered what life was going to be like with her in the family. Of course I didn’t know then, what I know now and that is, almost every soon to be wife goes through with another ceremony known as the Bridezilla metamorphosis. I did, my bestie/maid of honour will confirm it without hesitation. My own sweet sweet daughter scared me at one point, but I’d never admit that. (She was a beautiful Bride but ‘Zilla’ affected her quiet nature.)
Pretty can be painful
The day before the wedding, all the girls in the wedding party were giddy with excitement as they were primped and prettied. I was miserable and uncooperative. Cual fue mi pecado, that I should have to endure such silliness? Then it was my turn, everyone was excited to see how the hairdresser would transform my thick wiry long hair (BTW, long hair was my moms rule) into a beautiful hairdo.
I was mad, my lips stuck out, my eyebrows knitted together and I squirmed with every pull of my hair. She gave me gum, which helped distract me as she pulled and separated strands of my hair and rolled them in the curlers. If my chewing annoyed her, she didn’t show it, but of course my big sisters warned me when I would pull the gum out and stretch it as thin as I could, then pop it back into my mouth. I chewed that piece of gum all day long, took it out to eat then back again. At one point in the busy day my almost sister in-law warned me about not going to bed with the gum in my mouth. I kept getting in trouble every time I itched my head because of the curlers in my hair.
Everyone was busy, I was tired, so I was sent to bed to get me out of their hair. The gum was forgotten as I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up with gum stuck on the curlers through my hair! Everyone panicked and I was rushed to the hairdresser. (I can almost hear the siren of their distress). They all watched in suspense as she carefully clipped the gum out of my hair and released my hair from the curlers and pronounced in victory, I would still be a pretty little flower girl. ARGH! I felt like I needed another gum.
Walking down the aisle
I walked down the aisle, in my white poofy dress and big hairdo, tossing flower petals to the ground. I heard a lady say, “Que bonita esta!” (I was very self controlled with a pasted smile and no rolling of the eyes- I mean, how could I not be with my big sisters watching me) the bride was behind me, stepping on my petals, radiant and beautiful. As I tossed rose petals to the ground I walked into in-law-ness and it seemed kind of bleak to me.
What else would this sister-in-law make me do? Relatives by marriage were to be handled with special care and somehow I already knew it. So I practiced the new role to a fault, saying the wrong things, not understanding the family connection and pretty much dismissing it, I had too many people bossing me around already and I only had one little brother to boss and he wasn’t letting me.
Becoming the In-law
Then at 22 it was my turn to become an outlaw. That’s what my husband’s family call the relatives who connect through marriage. I felt especially outlawed since I thought, that they thought, I was way out there from different land. A Mexican-American from the West Coast who met their son in his Pentecostal church! (How much more convoluted could this get?)
In-law, Outlaw, Gringo-law?
I was kind of used to in-law-ness from a little sister perspective, now I was facing brother-in-laws who were gringos and I was the first brown Greene. They were nice, polite and quiet. (hmmm why was that?) My bottom line, they were sangrones. Stuck up, keeping me at arms length was their way of letting me know my place.
I can see my bestie, throwing her hands up in frustration at my interpretations and all I can say today is that, that I was wr…wrong.. But those kind of thoughts are real, they will can take you for a roller coaster ride if you let them, unfortunately, I did go on that ride a few times and after 32 years of being Mrs. Greene I still get that invitation for that nasty ride sometimes.
Could our worlds come together?
The daughter in-law role was especially scary for me. Just thinking of it made me awkward and nervous. Of course I was on a one track mind, she knows I’m Mexican! (You can take this Mexican out of the barrio, but you can’t take the barrio out of this Mexican)
Soon after we got engaged my mother in-law introduced herself in a letter, since I wouldn’t meet her until the day before the wedding. Through her letter she welcomed me into her family. I’m sure she did this to put me at ease, to break the ice maybe, but instead it added to my anxieties about having a mother in-law that was another color, another economic status and she was so cool and calm. Scary.
In her letter she said she looked forward to meeting and knowing me; I was to be her first daughter! What?! I couldn’t be another mothers daughter!
What’s in a name?
How was I supposed to address her? She wasn’t my mother, or my peer, and she certainly was not my friend. (Was that even allowed anyway?)
In my world, my sister-in-law simply called my Mom, Suegra, or by her nickname Dona Chuy, short for Maria de Jesus. Can you picture me calling my quiet poised white mother in-law suegra? Or worse, greeting her with, “Hello mother-in-law.” After we were married I avoided calling her anything, in fact I just avoided her! I was super thankful that she lived clear across the country. I did ask my husband what he thought I should call her and he suggested I ask her, as if it was easy (he didn’t know I was practicing social distancing). She graciously said to me “You can call me mom, or Nancy, whatever you’re most comfortable with.”
Well, I was most comfortable with not addressing her at all!
She is clothed in strength and dignity
She was quiet, and serious looking. Quiet people tend to make me a bit nervous and I end up talking too much. (Which is crazy or providential because my husband, my daughter, my daughter inlaw and my bestie are quiet, calm people. Thankfully, God arranged enough crazy and loud friends in my life to keep me in reality.) Of course I analyzed her quiet nature through my brown shades and also judged her as sangrona, imagining her to be stern and not wanting anything to do with the likes of me. My mother in-law was gracious and kind to me. She had once been a new daughter in-law and was now navigating through her own new mother in-law role.
I was the new Mrs.Greene who was too careful and worked too hard at being a mature wife. I was hoping that I looked pretty and poised next to her son. I practiced what my Ama had taught me, and took care of my husband, serving him first. Inside I felt like a lost little Mexican girl amongst all the white folks, all 4 of them. My mother in-law graciously let me find my place in my new family.
Nancy, is what I settled with. I wasn’t comfortable, but it felt better than anything else. I eventually learned that my mother in-laws’ mannerisms were, just that, her mannerisms, and not a judgment against me or about me, (as my dear friend would say, “it’s not always about you Esa!”) What she gave her son, she gave also to me. At Christmas she gave me gifts just as thoughtfully as she gave to her son. Then soon after, she thoughtfully gave to our kids, her grandkids and reward.
In the few short years of our relationship she wrote me letters and sent birthday cards. In her non-intrusive way she demonstrated her care and her confidence in us. My mother taught me how to make tortillas and my mother in-law taught me how to bake bread.
Nancy was a Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart, very creative and artistic. I’m grateful that our children got those genes. I still have the lovely painting she made just for me when I was just a wee little bride; Posies for Rosie.
Crowned a Mother in-law
Now I am a mother-in-law. I can almost walk back into my mother-in-law’s shoes and clearly read the caution signs she must have seen. What a minefield this relationship can be and seeing all the explosives doesn’t make it easier. Once I had questioned every move or look from my mother-in-law and now, I’m aware of every tone I use and every look I give.
My personality is outspoken, when needed, I can be aggressive, and a momma bear. My daughter in-law is quiet, sometimes timid and soft spoken, she has an air of sweetness about her that adds to her natural beauty. I look past her timidity and see how graceful she can be and am not at all surprised at how very much my son loves her.
I wanted to embrace my daughter in-law and welcome the newest Mrs. Greene into the family but I truly felt that I would suffocate her, (hugging is something I already do very awkwardly). I didn’t want to scare her, anymore than she already was. I had been in her shoes, so I didn’t do much at all, except smile in my gruff Zepeda way, because I needed her to know I wasn’t angry, I just looked it sometimes.
God seems to always connect me with opposites. My daughter in-law and I have come a long way, as we’ve worked out our relationship, we’ve discovered that our vastly different personalities and generation gap can still manage to produce good family ties and wonderful friendship.
I thank God always for these incredible opportunities and connections in the in-law world.