How to Stop Your Mother-in-Law from Drowning

from Granta 88 Winter 2005

This is one of those stories about she and you. She is the mother-in-law. You are the man who duped her daughter, or the woman who ensnared her son. Or stole or deceived or sidetracked, or diminished or corrupted or hardened, depending on how stereotyped either you or she find the relationship to be.

Two women appeared before King Solomon, dragging between them a reluctant young man. ‘This good-for-nothing promised to marry my daughter,’ said one.
‘No! He promised to marry my daughter,’ said the other.
‘Bring me an axe,’ the king said. ‘I shall chop the youngster into two pieces, and you shall each receive a half.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ said the first lady.
‘Oh, your highness,’ protested the second. ‘Don’t spill innocent blood. Let the other woman’s daughter marry him.’
The wise king had heard enough. ‘This man must marry the first lady’s daughter,’ he proclaimed.
‘But she was willing to have him hewn in two!’
‘Indeed,’ said wise King Solomon. ‘She is therefore the true mother-in-law.’

The she is a woman, and always more than a woman: a mother. In this case, the you is a son-in-law, but you can also be a woman, a daughter-in-law. It’s no easier either way, because the problem of the mother-in-law is universal, and universally thought to be funny.

Abu El Abed’s mother-in-law died. Abu Staeif went to offer his condolences and ask him how it had happened.
Abu El Abed: She was leaning on the balcony when she flipped over and—
Abu Staeif: She hit the ground and died?
Abu El Abed: No, she hit the electricity cable and—
Abu Staeif: She got electrocuted?
Abu El Abed: No, she got deflected to our neighbour’s swimming pool and—
Abu Staeif: She drowned?
Abu El Abed: No, she hit the diving board and bounced all the way back to the balcony intact—
Abu Staief (confused): How did your mother-in-law die then?
Abu El Abed: I grabbed my rifle and shot her.

Why was El Abed so determined to see her off? What made her so intolerable? For me, it was her intrusive anxiety. My mother-in-law had no doubt that anxiety was the correct response to life. Her timidity was therefore very assured, almost aggressive. She seldom liked the gist of the weather, or an undated yoghurt, or the Albanian look of a waiter (they spit in the soup, you know). She insisted on locked top-floor windows and boiled meat and toilets buffed with Windowlene.

Doctor: I’m sorry to say that your mother-in-law has had a heart attack.
You: That’s impossible!
Doctor: What do you mean that’s impossible?
You: She doesn’t have a heart!

Often fluttering with terror because the world in which her only daughter was making her way was full of haste and recklessness and danger. At first, this militant vulnerability could seem amusing, an ongoing joke. I used to tease her by arriving in T-shirt and shorts on my motorcycle, or preparing conspicuously for a swim in the local fast-flowing river. She’d plead with me not to risk my life, and I’d laugh and go anyway. Back safe and sound, I’d apologise. Then spend the rest of the day intercepting her unquestioning motherly love as it flooded across rooms at her child. Her only child. I’d attach to that certain love my own less conclusive emotions, and feel them nourished.

Even so, we never managed a lasting compromise. Taking her daughter on the bike became the most solemn secret of the engagement. The roads were lethal. People get killed. Of course, I nodded, I’d never dream of riding us over the Alps to Lake Como where the water is cold and blue.

‘You hear terrible stories.’

‘You do.’

‘Quite dreadful.’

She simply couldn’t help her anxiety on our behalf, while I preferred to believe that nothing could touch us because we were young and special. And I was doing the driving.

Later, and I can’t say exactly when (perhaps when I sold the bike), it stopped being funny.

Mother-in-law: If you don’t like me, why do you take me on holidays?
Son-in-law: So I don’t have to kiss you goodbye.

After several years of marriage, you go on holiday with your husband or wife’s parents. In this case, counting the children, that makes four against two. Or four against one, because my father-in-law remained a figure in shadow. In his favour, I hoped it was reassuring and even inspiriting nearly always to be in the right. To live for years and travel for miles with someone whose next idea or instinct was always more ridiculous than his own. Must make a man feel needed, I’d reasoned, and useful. So then, four against one, though my wife couldn’t be expected to take sides against her own mother (three against one), and the children loved their grandparents. Which made it one against one, single combat, in July 2003 on the Atlantic coast of France.

We were arriving from different directions by road, because she distrusted air travel. She also avoided motorways, for reasons of speed, and it once took us two days to drive safely from Paris to Strasbourg. She was a very attentive driver. Leaning forward over the wheel, she rarely even blinked.

Three friends were discussing the possibility of sudden death. Everyone dies someday, but if only we knew when, we could make a better job of preparing ourselves. The friends nodded in agreement, and considered what they’d do with two weeks left to live.
‘Go out and have as much sex as possible,’ said one, and the others murmured in agreement.
‘Give all my possessions to worthy causes,’ said another.
The last of the friends then spoke up. ‘For those two weeks, I’d stay on the Atlantic coast of France with my mother-in-law.’
The others were puzzled by this answer. ‘Why would you do that?’
‘Because,’ you say, ‘It would be the longest two weeks of my life.’

More than once, as we moved fast down the bright straight roads of northern France, I flirted with disaster by driving on the wrong side of the road. I was remembering childhood holidays with my own parents, strictly no in-laws, when these routes nationales were shaded by glorious avenues of plane trees, providing shade and a dappled vanishing point. Most of the trees are gone now, in the interests of safety. ‘Make an effort,’ the daughter of my mother-in-law said. ‘The two of you may even get on.’

We’d never physically fought, though I feel she sometimes wanted to hit me. Mostly, we avoided looking at each other, and failed to communicate directly for days on end, especially around Christmas. I’d occasionally flounced out of a room, apparently to stop myself doing something I’d regret. Of course we didn’t get on well. If we had, it wouldn’t have been funny.

Murphy’s mother-in-law was walking round the farm, when a mule attacked her and she died. Five hundred married men turned up at the funeral, and Father O’Toole said to Murphy, ‘I never realised your mother-in-law was so popular.’ Murphy said, ‘Father, they’re not here for the funeral. They’ve come to buy the mule.’

We were involved in a universal conflict. The earliest recorded mother-in-law jibe is Juvenal’s from the first century AD, showing that along with hair-dressing and a liking for fresh flowers, the tension between you and her is a feature of every culture at all times. It’s inevitable, biological. It’s human nature.

Abu El Abed and Murphy (and Aaron and Piotr and Li Po Chu) fantasise the early death of their mother-in-law to put an end to the otherwise endless contention over who’s right, what’s best, and, ultimately, the correct way to live. The universal complaint is that she thinks you’re not good enough for her child. If you have any self-knowledge, and you adore the person you married, you’ll know she’s right. This makes the situation worse. On this one vital point you can agree, but that doesn’t mean you need to be reminded. You therefore disagree about how to roast a chicken, the definition of smart-casual, and the itinerary for a visit to historic La Rochelle (which you didn’t want to make in the first place and, lest anyone forget, you’re actually paying for).

She and you squabble, fall out, and we were no different. Before long, disagreeing in itself became a habit: the date of the wedding, where to live, the children’s names. She didn’t like the covers of the books I read, or the boots I wore around the house. I didn’t like the way she ate with her mouth open, usually while speaking, as if there was never time for considerate chewing. She might choke before she’d get the words out, when what she had to say, invariably, was death and disaster. In reply, I could indulge my instinct that nothing I said or did would matter very much. I could therefore say what I thought. She would always be my mother-in-law and she would always visit. Later, I’d gripe in private to my wife, I’d whine and roll my eyes, but not too much, because that’s not a good idea in any relationship.

You’re trying to be adult, having babies, working hard, moving into the attempted universe of marriage. It’s important not to be childish, and instead to behave as if you know and are more than you once were. Back in the days when you were still a child, say, and visibly needed a mother. Then this woman arrives, she eats with her mouth open, is present, and she is all mother, even more so than a natural mother, your own mother. She is related to you entirely by her motherness, because how else would you have met? What other reason do you have for keeping in touch? You’ve shared no experiences, nor seen her in any other context save as the mother of the mother of your children. In a charmed future, she may one day become the mother of the mother of the mother of your grandchildren. My own mum can’t do that, however hard she tries, however many cakes she bakes.

‘I don’t dislike all mothers-in-law,’ you say. ‘I like yours much better than I like mine.’

You have loads of excuses, and some of them may even be reasonable. You love her daughter or her son, who is good and strong. They must be, because you love them. So how can the mother be so difficult? And if she is impossible (and tremulous too), maybe your wife or husband isn’t good and strong, except by some miracle which defies genetic inheritance. In the absence of miracles, you’re therefore living with an impostor who is in fact aggressively timid, and who will one day speak while eating.

Try another possibility: no-one is loveable all the time, especially not the person you married. You may not want this to be true, but bring her into it, bring in your mother-in-law, and it’s a safe way of deflecting the temporary dislike you feel for your wife, your husband. Transfer the annoying characteristics to your mother-in-law, and if this positive displacement works for you, then thank God she’s still there. This could be what mothers-in-law are for.

The village where we’d rented a house was supposed to be neutral territory, safe and slow, the only possible irritation the buzz of fourteen-year-olds on their mopeds lapping the church and the boulanger via the nearest route departmentale. In the corner of the village cafe the pendulum of a tall clock tocked slowly, perhaps too slowly, because we soon lapsed into familiar stand-offs and disputes, and a running breakfast-time bicker about whether to finish the old bread before starting on the fresh. We ate many meals without once looking each other in the eye, while my wife remained good and strong by a miracle that defied genetic inheritance.

There were some problems with the house: it faced onto a main road (without pavement), and it was just conceivably feasible to walk out of the door into traffic. There was a small garden in the back with an iron table-and-chair set, and a rusted metal spike protruding from the grass of the lawn. I spent an evening trying to dig it out. It wouldn’t budge. I spent the next morning covering it over, burying it beneath a mound of earth and sand.

The more obvious danger that summer was the sea, because our two children were young and submersible. The ocean, on the other hand, was ancient and merciless. ‘Don’t worry about the sea,’ my wife said, giving her Mum a hug. ‘Enjoy the beach.’

I bought a flimsy plastic dinghy, of the kind often swept out on the tide, because it scared the living daylights out of her. Then I took the kids for rides while she looked on, inches from the last wave-break in her billowing flower-pattern sundress. She was agitated, terrified, a non-swimmer poised to save us all, and she grimaced every time the inflatable buckled on an incoming wave. It felt too late to be angry. What once used to astound me—the fear, the ineffectiveness, the kind heart—suddenly looked like old age. I started feeling sorry for her, not only at the beach but in the supermarket at L’Aiguillon, where she hunted packets and jams like a predator, shoulders hunched, nerves trembling to the underrated menace of faulty trollies and over-priced dairy products.

The secret was to watch her when she didn’t know she was being watched. I’d distanced her from her only child, just by one step, but from the centre. No wonder we should tussle, bicker, fight. It was for love, jealous love.

On her last night at the house, we celebrated our defeat of life’s many dangers by cooking a special meal. We then stayed up late disagreeing about Muslims. She insisted we promise never to live in Paris, where Muslim Arabs would rob and mug us, or worse. Adhering to the principle of disagreement, keeping her up much later than was usual, I couldn’t help but goad and provoke her. What, all Muslims? All of them?

It was easy to forget that earlier in the day I’d been pushing the flimsy dinghy with the two kids in it, up to my chin in the Atlantic, deeper than I’d wanted to be. Standing in her sundress on the shore, she was waving or beckoning, pleading with us to come back in, come back safely, and I’d suddenly tired of this unwinnable squabble. I’d wanted to escape its predictability, and spying on her from behind the dinghy, I’d thought the trick – no, the achievement – would be to look at our parents like we look at our children.  With the same love, the same gratitude, and the same precious attention to detail.

At the table later that evening she was tired, flagging, but stubborn about Paris. It took so long and came out so garbled because she couldn’t care less about Muslims. She was saying, in her ardent but indirect way: Be careful. Be very careful. Not just here and now, but wherever you go and always. I love you.

The tendons in her neck stood out, and she was so anxious for us that she suffered agonies, all the time. Her complexion was green with worry, and her eyes darted constantly left and right. She loved us, she loved us so much, and I wished just once I’d shown some understanding. From now on, I vowed to myself, from now on. Let her live, exist as more than a mother-in-law. Let the poor woman surface and breathe.

Q.How do you stop your mother-in-law from drowning?
A. Take your foot off her head.


If not in her own bed, or peacefully in the conservatory of a cool green nursing home, then your moether-in-law might go something like this: in a burgundy Peugeot 305, on a straight stretch of French road, somewhere near the ugly provincial town of Niort. 

We went to bed late and on bad terms, and woke up irritable. At our last breakfast, she chewed yesterday’s bread, because it was there (and with her mouth open). I ate the fresh bread, because it was there (mouth closed, eyes averted). I can now see both sides of this argument.

We kissed goodbye, unlike in the joke. Then I stood in the doorway for a long time waving away her car, which proceeded slowly to the nearest junction, where it stopped. My father-in-law looked back and waved. My mother-in-law kept her eyes on the road. I went back indoors before they moved off again. 

The next morning we were on the same road, in shock, worn out, with everything happening slowly and the day taking forever.  About 70 kilometres inland, at the Mercure Hotel in Niort, we found her husband, my father-in-law, in grief on the terrace under trees.

I wanted to help, because the last thing you want to do is look in the mirror and see your own dishonesty. You therefore do the driving to the gendarmerie, the mairie, the pompes funebres. The policemen said there was little point visiting the crash-site, especially with two small children, and in the heat. They said the sequence of events was clear from the markings and scars on the road.

We went anyway, and stared inexpertly at the metallic gouges and black smudges of rubber. It was so hot in the middle of the empty straight road that the tarmac stuck to our shoes.

There was a bang, my father-in-law said, white-faced, not always making much sense. I was reading from the Michelin, he said, telling her about the church at Poitiers, so I had my head down and there was a bang and my first reaction was to shout out what have you done now?

She’d fallen asleep at the wheel, drifted across the road. The chances against it were phenomenal, like any punchline, but a lorry was at that moment coming in the other direction. She must have woken up before impact, an instant before the bonnet shuddered against the leading edge of the lorry’s wagon. The Peugeot careened back onto its own side of the road, skidding round on itself, sliding backwards, ending up sizzling and crackling on the smooth grass next to tree-stumps which had once edged an avenue.

The driver of the lorry was called M. Clochard. The first medic to reach the car was Dr Camus, who examined her as she slumped behind the wheel. Her fingers were no longer closing, even faintly, as a sign that she was hearing, that something was understood. Already at the roadside, while she was still in the car, the doctor admitted or announced it was hopeless.

When the news reached us the night before, my wife had fallen instantly to the floor, crouching on her knees, head clenched tightly between her elbows. She cried out for her mother, with so much love, and love lost, which is grief. There was the past, and all its detail, but also the love lost from the future, the years of mothering and grand-mothering unmothered, the hand-holding unheld. The loss, too, of a chance to repay some of that unpriced, unconditional mother’s love: hot meals during the last days in her own home, a room at the front of the house, daily care and life-saving interventions.

And through my wife, crying out, rocking in despair on the floor, I felt the opposite of the immense rolling mother’s love I had once intercepted. Grief can suck love away and out of the world, and it’s all you can do to try and haul it back.

We went to the recovery garage to look at the car. The mechanics in their oil-company overalls stopped whatever they were doing and stared. They knew who we were, and which of their wrecks my father-in-law had survived unscathed. It was a spectacular wreck, dropped in a corner of the yard with the driver’s side detached and dumped on the roof. My wife’s father put his head inside and picked up a navy-blue cardigan with gold buttons. It was heavy with blood. He dropped it back on the floor.

All that day I drove carefully, obsessively, like she’d always wanted. From the back seat, my son asked his mother how you spell dead. He wanted to know, quite insistently, what happens when you die. As if this was what mothers were for, to answer questions such as these.

M. Terrasson of the pompes funebres directed us to a six-room mortuary at the road end of a small industrial estate. Shamed by death, caught out by it before I could make amends, I stumbled into the familiar formulas, like obstacles.

Q. Why did you go to see your mother-in-law’s body?
A. To check that she was dead.

She was unlike herself, expressionless. The left side of her face had been rebuilt and heavily made-up with brown foundation. I’d never seen her with her head still, or her eyes closed. Nor with her mouth shut, top lip stretched tight over her teeth. This was not how she was. This was some kind of joke.

Q. Why didn’t you recognise your mother-in-law when she was laid out at the mortuary?
A. She had her mouth shut.

She was dressed and had her shoes on. The kids couldn’t understand that. If she’s resting in peace, why is she lying down and seemingly asleep but still wearing her shoes?

It took more than a week to organise and route and pay for the body to leave France, by which time letters of condolence were backing up on the mat. My father-in-law said that some of them left him cold. Others, unexpectedly, moved or consoled him. I read some of the cards, full of her beauty and warmth and serenity, and I asked my father-in-law which ones left him colder, the formulaic messages or the exaggerated ones.

‘None of them exaggerate,’ he said.

There was a funeral, in a beautiful cemetery overlooking a lake. A speech was made in German, Sie war eine gute Mensch. Her clothes, her coats, her shoes were picked up by a grey-haired lady from one of the Protestant charities. The clothes have since been distributed in Africa, so she lives on under cloudless skies, her cardigans and sundresses parading through the bustle of African markets.

She lives on in memory, and in the photos we keep of her around the house, and in certain physical mannerisms of the children, who are sometimes reckless. I watch anxiously from a distance, thinking that it’s vitally important to be careful. Be very careful. Not just here and now, but wherever you go and always. More than that. Recognise the outright need to value every moment of being of the people you love. It seems an unbearable duty, an oppressive charge, and I try to keep it from the children. I don’t want to make them anxious, as she was, knowing that however much you value each moment it’s not enough, never enough, when the shock comes, the astonishing end.


In Memory of Christiane Nagy (1940-2003)