I’m white woman raised by a former debutante. My racist Southern grandma ran a charm school. As liberated as my mother tried to be, she was still stuck on Rules of Acceptable Female Behavior.
One such rule was “Be an Exemplary Hostess.” When friends came over, they got first pick of snacks, toys, and sleeping bags. They chose the games we played.
When my parents entertained, we children took coats. We handed around hors d’ oeuvres. We got adults drinks. If there was a shortage of chairs, we offered our seats to adults and took the floor. We cleared the table and did the dishes, too. My mother took immense pride in the praise guests heaped upon her for her adorable little helpers.
She shared their praise with us. And since we were many, and desperate for attention, we got a little warped.
An overlooked, middle child like me may have gotten a lot warped.
My Chinese-American in-laws have a very different background. Their first visit had been…something. I still don’t know how to classify it. Adventure? Culture shock? Horror? On their second visit, I was seven months into a miserable pregnancy. I still had the house clean, the sheets clean, the dogs washed, and a vase of flowers in their room.
I was also carrying what should have been my golden ticket to first-class treatment: the number one son of the number one son.
I was sure this visit would be better.
My father-in-law’s first words weren’t “wow, look at you,” or even “hello.”
Jay told me I was fat. Then he wandered around the house, leaving his luggage for the seven-month pregnant woman to carry to his guestroom like a servant.
Which, unfortunately, is exactly what the daughter-in-law is considered in a traditional Chinese household.
Part of me was tempted to heave Jay’s suitcase at him, but Good Hostess Training remained strong. I schlepped Jay’s luggage to his room.
I greeted my mother-in-law and got dinner on the table. When I heard Jay and Sunny stirring at four the following morning, I heaved myself out of bed and helped them get tea. (This wasn’t just Good Hostess Training, this was self-preservation – Sunny’s last attempt to make tea in my house nearly burnt it down.) Jay wanted a lemon, so I went into the yard with a flashlight and picked one. I scrubbed it and cut wedges. Jay grunted at me and Sunny told me how lucky I was to have free lemons.
My husband can sleep through anything. He slept through tea and toast. He slept through his father, a retired civil engineer, critiquing the interior doors. Jay banged around in Andy’s toolbox. My husband slept on. Not until Jay began banging on our bedroom door with the various tools did Andy stagger out of bed.
Jay spent two days obsessed with our doors. When he wasn’t at Costco or Home Depot with his son, Jay was messing with the doors.
When I got my husband alone, I hissed, “What is he doing?”
Andy shrugged and said, “I don’t know. They aren’t the original doors and the stupid owners before us didn’t hang them exactly right.”
“Yes, but a good houseguest doesn’t SAY that. It’s like a coworker showing up with a new, awful haircut and you say, ‘all wrong!’ and whip out some scissors,” I huffed. “And didn’t you say you’re only good at home improvement because your dad is terrible at it. What if he breaks something?”
“Then we’ll actually have something to fix?”
Prophetic words. Unhappy with the toilet in his preferred bathroom, Jay decided to fix that, too.
Andy was at work and I was browning a pot roast when Sunny complained to me, “That toilet is all messed up!” I ditched the pot roast without a second thought, because when you are seven months pregnant, you need All The Toilets online.
Before I got that bathroom working again, Jay attacked the door to the other bathroom. In a frenzy of ineptitude, Jay wedged it shut and locked it from the outside.
Now I had no bathrooms.
To his credit, my husband came home immediately. He fixed the one toilet. I got the door to the other bathroom unstuck before I wet my pants. (Mostly. Being pregnant sucks.)
Meanwhile, Jay wandered the house, still holding the damned screwdriver. After I got the pot roast in the oven, I suggested that home improvement be put on hold. He ignored me.
Andy, sensing danger, told his parents he needed to get more supplies for the big BBQ we were hosting on Saturday. He herded them out of the house.
I went hunting for the screwdriver.
Yes, hunting. My father-in-law had hidden it in the guest room entertainment center.
So I hid it in the china cabinet.*
Because bathroom access trumps being the perfect hostess.
Especially when you’re pregnant.
*In case you’re wondering, yes, there was hell to pay later. Stay tuned for a post called “Snapped.”