A visit from the mother-in-law

The phone call that came Thursday afternoon announced every husband’s worst nightmare.

No, it wasn’t an alert that the Earth was about to be crushed by a giant radioactive asteroid but first, here’s a new episodes of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Instead, it was my mother-in-law, telling us that she was going to visit on Saturday.

It’s a cliche that mothers-in-law are the eternal bane of husbands. That doesn’t make it any less true.

My own personal mother-in-law is a kindly lady in her eighties. Widowed for almost 20 years now, she lives on her own in rural Charleston County, getting by on the kindness of friends and the occasional visit from one of her two daughters. She’s always been very nice to me — when she can track me down — though I can’t say the same about how she treats my wife.

Beth has to endure constant pleas from her mother to give up her sinful ways of living and find Jesus. And not just any Jesus, mind you. This is the Jesus that has revealed himself only to the small storefront church operating next to a Ravenell Domino’s, established after it split with other members over some obscure issue of doctrine, like the inerrancy of the Bible or maybe it was too much meat loaf at the potluck suppers.

In any case, of all the thousands of religions in the world, this small group of evangelical Christians are the only ones who have got it right. Everybody else is going to Hell.

This kind of perfunctory condemnation from one’s own parent can be a bit unnerving. Beth has developed several defenses against these proselytizing  phone calls, the most effective of which is to dangle the phone down her back and call out the occasional “yeah” or “uh-huh” over her shoulder to make it sound like she’s listening.

The other fundamental tenet of my mother-in-law’s belief system is that she needs to unload a lifetime’s worth of possessions on her children. Unfortunately, we’re not talking here about the savings bonds and T-bills and real estate she and her late husband accumulated during 50 years of frugality. (These have gone mostly to the greater glory of God, in the form of rent on the former Blockbuster’s that is home to her church). Instead, we’re talking about old furniture and knick-knacks.

The purpose of Saturday’s visit was to deliver a possibly-antique-but-more-likely-just-decrepit bookcase and a Sleep Number bed.

So when I got a phone call from the office Friday evening recruiting volunteers for an emergency work session the next day, I was more than happy to say “count me in!” No frenetic drafting session could ever be as unpleasant as being told I’m carrying the burden of a lifetime of sins and ultimately burning in Hell, while hauling a 70-pound bookcase through a 110-degree heat index.

My son, like a hostage with a cellphone, kept me posted on how the visit was going with furtive texts sent out during the day.

10:17 a.m. — SHE’S HERE

12:37 p.m. — SHE’S STILL HERE

2:12 p.m. — SHE SAID SHE’S LEAVING THEN SHE SAT BACK DOWN

3:08 p.m. — PICKING UP HER PURSE!

3:17 p.m. — SHE’S GONE!!

With the all-clear given, I was ready to head home and face the mound of discarded possessions that likely accompanied the bookcase and bed. These visits never end with the few items we were promised. There’s always a little something extra thrown in — National Geographics from the Nixon era, photographs of long-dead pets, a monkeywood carving of monkeys that Beth’s late father brought from the Philippines in 1948.

Initial indications were positive as I rolled into the driveway (I was able to roll into the driveway without crashing into a collection of avocado ottomans). I could see through the sunroom window that the hulking bookcase had been delivered. Walkways in the living room were still clear, or at least clear enough to allow the “Hoarders” camera crew enough room to operate, should they want to film a special about us.

Beth and I chatted about how the visit went as I scanned the room, looking for any new junk that appeared since I left that morning. They’d actually had a relatively pleasant time together, going out to brunch before settling in for an afternoon of reminiscence, health updates and bizarre interpretations of the metaphysical world. It looked like we had indeed escaped being used as the Greatest Generation’s dumping ground.

“Let’s go look at the Sleep Number bed,” Beth said.

In my son’s room sat what looked like the kind of bedroll you might see at a camping site. From what I know of the Sleep Number bed, it’s a pretty sophisticated system. Through a collection of electronic controls, you’re supposed to be able to adjust the firmness of the mattress to your desired sleep number. Those who want to doze on a slab of granite select 100; those who prefer a waterbed filled with pudding select zero.

We pulled the bed out of its container and read the label. It was the Coleman 202869 air mattress.

“Oh, no,” said my wife. “We don’t need one of these.”

“Do you think because it had ‘202869’ on it that she thought it was a Sleep Number?” I asked.

“I bet she did,” said Beth.

“And what’s this?” I asked about a serving tray that lay next to the bed.

“Oh, it’s really nice,” Beth said. “It’s something my father brought back from Rio de Janiero when his Air Force group was stationed there.”

The tray had a colorful inlay featuring a placid beach scene under a set of strangely iridescent clouds.

“I loved this when I was growing up,” Beth said. “Guess what the clouds are made of.”

I guessed seashells but I was wrong.

“No, they’re butterfly wings,” Beth said.

“Butterfly wings?” asked my son. “Isn’t that a little barbaric?”

“At least we didn’t get the lampshade made of human skin,” I cracked.

“Did they kill the butterflies just to get their wings?” asked Daniel.

I imagined they did, but instead concocted a story about how the artist must’ve waited patiently for the beautiful insects to go belly-up, then rapidly harvest their wings in the few moments before they’d turn brown in the hot South American sun. Instead, they now were forever fresh under a layer of protective sealant, eager to edify humanity one last time by letting me put a glass of Pepsi on them.

All in all, I had survived the mother-in-law visit quite well. I didn’t have to see her, talk to her, or acknowledge her presence in any way. I didn’t have to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, just to get a bookcase. And I didn’t end up with a lifetime full of detritus being passed off as some priceless legacy.

Thank you, Val, for showing us mercy. If only the same could be said of that Vengeful God of yours hanging out next to Domino’s.

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