My new father-in-law was not a talker. This was a good thing. The first thing Jay said to me was a horrified “no!” when I tried to hug him. He followed this warm welcome up a half-hour later with a Cantonese joke about giving his son a hand job. Four days later I got a long lecture, and understood none of it. (Andy says thank God, because if I had heard the religious, misogynistic instructions, I’d have thrown a drink at his dad. Also the glass. And possibly the table.)
The other seven times Jay had spoken to me in the last two years consisted of complaints. Or grunts. But I couldn’t take it personally. The man’s interaction with his entire family could be described as “mutual silent treatment.”
And then Oldest Niece arrived. Oldest Niece was three-and-a-half. She wanted playmates. Andy was her first choice, and an excellent one when she needed a horse. But when she brought out stuffed animals, Andy fell short.
Oldest Niece handed Andy a koala. “You’re Koala. I’m Flamingo. Let’s play.”
Andy, waving Koala: “Uh…do you like X-box?”
Oldest Niece, bouncing Flamingo around: “I love boxes! How do we play?”
Andy: “We sit and stare at the screen. Only our thumbs move.”
Oldest Niece: “…”
Andy: “Isn’t this fun?”
Oldest Niece: “No. Let’s play something else.”
“Okay.” Andy smashed Koala into Flamingo. “Ha! Ha! I broke your neck and will eat Flamingo wings for dinner!”
Oldest Niece: “You can’t do that!”
Andy: “Nom, nom, nom…why not?”
Oldest Niece snatched Koala and threw him at the wall. “You aren’t playing right!” She flounced off and found me.
I played “Koala & Flamingo Go on Safari” for an hour. Because I didn’t get to play pretend animal games enough with my 5 younger siblings and 52 babysitting clients growing up.
Andy’s sister and husband finally took Oldest Niece to the beach. We escaped to our hotel.
The next day, Oldest Niece pounced on me the minute I walked in the door. After Flamingo & Koala went on a cruise, got shipwrecked, and found a clothing store on the deserted island, I finally persuaded Oldest Niece to try the board game Sorry!
I let her win one game, and then brought in Andy to join us. With strict instructions for him to let Oldest Niece win. He was game.
Oldest Niece won. And not gracefully. “I’m the best! I am such a much better player than you!” She danced around the room, impervious to the glowering Andy.
He whispered, “This sucks! You never let me send her back to start!”
Me: “Not yet! She has to win a few games before she loses one.”
Andy: “You can’t coddle her forever.”
Me: “It’s not coddling. It’s variable conditioning. She gets a couple wins. We throw in a loss. More wins. A loss. If she wins all the time and then loses all the time, she won’t play. If she wins too much, she’ll get bored. But if she wins more than she loses, she’ll be hooked and then I won’t have to play ‘Flamingo and Koala Go to the Mall’ for five hours.”
Me: “No. That’s the plan. Stick to it, or you can be the cheetah running the smoothie shop.”
Andy and I Sorry-ed the crap out of each other for several games. Oldest Niece emerged unscathed and victorious. She was hooked, and made us promise to play again the next day.
But she couldn’t wait. When Andy and I arrived the following morning, Oldest Niece had already roped Jay into playing Sorry! with her. They barely noticed when we walked past them and into the kitchen. Jay had three pieces safe at home. Oldest Niece only had two.
I muttered, “Oh, no.”
Andy said, “What? This is awesome. Someone else is finally playing with Oldest Niece.” He chatted with his mom until a wail erupted from the living room.
Jay announced, “I win.”
Oldest Niece responded with and emphatic, “I don’t like you!”
Jay answered with an even more emphatic, “I don’t like you, either!”
“Waaaahhhhhhh!” Oldest Niece ran to the bedroom, slammed the door, and howled for at a half-hour.
Andy thought it was hilarious.
Until I handed him the stuffed cheetah.
Jay’s utter lack of awareness of his impact on others was more unsettling to me than it was to anyone else in the family. Andy’s Sister said nothing to her father about behaving like another three-year-old. Neither did Eastern European Brother-in-law. Sunny also said nothing.
When I asked Andy about Jay’s immaturity, he just shrugged. “That’s just the way he is.”
Great. No social skills and no empathy. Not even for his three-year-old granddaughter. I wondered if Jay had any feelings at all. I watched him for our last vacation days.
There were no kisses.
There were no hugs.
There were hardly any words, let alone kind ones.
Not even when we left Hawaii. During our airport farewell, Andy hugged his mom. She kissed him and stifled a sniffle. I gave her a hug as well.
Andy and Jay nodded at each other.
I was tired of this manly bullshit. I gave Andy a shove. “Go hug your dad good-bye, damn it.”
Andy rolled his eyes at me, but stepped forward and put his arms around Jay.
Jay said, “No!” Too late. Andy squeezed his dad.
I said, “You’re not getting any younger, Jay. Might be the last one.”
Andy snickered and stepped back. Jay narrowed his eyes, raised a hand, and pointed his index finger at me. Like a warlock about to hurl a curse.
I raised my chin and stared back. (I get brave when I’m about to jump on a plane and not see someone for a year.)
Jay only said, “Take care of my son.”
But with that one short plea, the man told me everything.