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My Smother-in-Law

She taught a critical lesson: Where we come from isn’t always where we remain

“I’m the alpha bitch,” my boyfriend’s mother announced over my cell phone as I stood on a street corner in my native New York City. I was late, and my feet hurt from hustling my cheap heels around the Garment District, previewing spring clothes when it was 20 degrees outside. I was an independent young woman, a fashion journalist, and my boyfriend’s mother had called me from Orange County just to talk. Again.

“Yup. You’re the alpha bitch,” I said, wondering if this was a trap.

It was a new thing, talking on the phone with Tracey. She called my boyfriend and his sister, Whitney, dozens of times a day.
This was not how I related to my own mother, to whom I spoke by phone mostly when a Jewish holiday rolled around. Maybe it was a California thing. I had seen those TV shows. But what kind of mom calls herself an alpha bitch?

“I’m the alpha because everyone listens to me, and I’m always right. But I’ll let you be the beta bitch,” she continued. “You’re in training.”

“To be like you?”

“Yes! You and Whitney are the betas.”

“Tracey and the Beta Bitches?” I said in disbelief.

I didn’t appreciate what I was getting into at that moment five years ago. But Tracey saw clearer than I did that I was headed for marriage to her son. It didn’t occur to me that she was marking her territory, because in the house where I grew up, there was never unclaimed territory to mark. We were a family with clear, unspoken, and non-negotiable boundaries.

Tracey, on the other hand, claimed she was the top dog, and in the same breath called us a team. I couldn’t figure her out.

Hand me any glossy women’s magazine advice column, and I promise I will win the most-in-your-face mother-in-law contest. Yours tells you how to run your house? Yours nags? Please. My mother-in-law doesn’t tell me how to run my house; she reminds me that, because she helped with the down payment, she owns it. And, as for nagging, she knows I’m writing this essay—because she ordered me to. 

My mother, by contrast, respected my boundaries. She never hunted for my diary, never pried into the private realm of my adolescence, at least as far as I know. We spent many peaceful afternoons together when I was in high school watching movies in her bedroom or sitting across from one another at the nail salon, exchanging glances and contented smiles. When I was home from college, we took yoga classes together. We treasured spending short amounts of silent time with one another. It seemed to me then, and still now, that there was something pure and impossible to replicate in this kind of knowing love.

Tracey doesn’t care if I consider something private. Her questions ignore any difference between us and assume my feelings always match hers. She even had a hard time understanding why she couldn’t come shopping with me for wedding-night lingerie.

But she also showed up at 6 one morning to clean a grimy bathroom in my new Harlem apartment. She bought me my first suit for a job interview—over the phone—while I was uptown at Bloomingdale’s and she was downtown in Huntington Beach, demanding I go to the first floor and buy a scarf, too.

At first, I bridled at Tracey’s brash, uninvited closeness. But there was a moment, as I prepared to move to Southern California, when I realized I needed someone to push my boundaries. I needed someone willing to cross a line or two or three to make me feel that I belonged in Surf City, as if I, too, had made a Spanish mission out of sugar cubes in fifth grade instead of an Algonquian wigwam out of bark.

The day before my New York wedding 2½ years ago, I underwent the traditional ritual bath a Jewish woman takes before she is married. This symbolic act of making a new home, of purity, and of love, was one I wanted to experience by myself. A mother typically accompanies her daughter, but I felt I had made myself into the woman I was, and I wanted the moment of prayer, water, and rebirth to be mine alone.

Of course, Tracey wanted to join me. I vowed that when the time came to enter the private room with its small bath for one, I’d ask her to wait outside. 

We got to the elegant, staid bath on the Upper East Side and the attendant sent us into the dressing room. She instructed me to shower, to make sure I was perfectly clean. Tracey sat outside the shower door. Every once in while she knocked to show me another crazy, luxurious thing she’d found in the gilded marble room.

I sat at a vanity table, wrapped in a plush white towel, and Tracey helped comb my hair. She looked over my neck and shoulders, her eyes a little wet, and made sure there were no stray hairs, not a speck of dirt. She checked my fingernails because we knew the attendant would. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and stood there, not saying anything.

When the attendant opened the door, I looked back at Tracey, who remained, respectfully, a few feet away. She was not pushing her way in. She was willing to let me take this step alone. Suddenly, independence was no longer what I wanted.

I held the door open for her. “Aren’t you coming in with me?”

As I made my move from the traditional East Coast to the bold West, and traded the patterns of my childhood for the chance to begin my own family, I learned that love is all about crossing lines. It’s best when it’s unconditional, uninhibited, and all-encompassing. My mother-in-law has shown me that love can be boundless—as forever as the ocean seems from PCH, as endless as the traffic at the Orange Crush­­—and that where we come from is a part of us, but it isn’t always where we remain.
 
Originally published in the October 2010 issue

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

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