Monday, 29 September 2008

Travels with my mother-in-law

Neighbourhood Romaniac Gadjo Dilo has recently waxed lyrical on the perils and pitfalls of dealing with foreign mothers-in-law. This set me to thinking about the bond of good-natured incomprehension that exists between myself and my own mother-in-law; a lady with whom I have never had a cross word although on one occasion I came close, as I shall shortly relate.

My MiL is a lady of little education (not her fault, I hasten to add - blame it on the Imperial Japanese Army burning her school down when she was 8 and the subsequent chaos of occupation and revolution preventing any proper schooling), whose life revolves entirely around her family. She bore 13 children in total, 10 of whom are still around today, and now has a total of 17 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Mrs Byard is the only one of her offspring living outside Indonesia.

Now while I cannot claim to be a favourite in the family, having removed their beloved daughter/sister from the fold, they do tolerate me with good humour on the grounds that I at least make the effort to be a dutiful son-in-law as far as the separation distance will allow. I greet my MiL respectfully with the 'hand over fist' greeting familiar from old episodes of Kung Fu, we send money for red envelopes at Chinese New Year, we go and visit every couple of years and I speak enough Indonesian and Javanese that I can ask her about her her grandchildren (her favourite topic of conversation as with grannies the world over). There's also the appeal of the exotic. Never forget that in much of Southeast Asia, being from Dudley is exotic.

There have been but two occasions on which the happy facade cracked - once during the burial of my daughter's placenta and once over housework during her stay in England.

Now at this point, you may well be asking what on earth I was doing burying a placenta. IN my defence, it is a common custom in Indonesia and my wife's family - especially my MiL - would have been quite upset with us had we not gone through with the ritual. The idea is that the placenta represents a 'spirit sibling' who watches over the child until the remaining stub of the umbilical cord drops off (historically the most hazardous period for a newborn). The placenta is washed and wrapped in white cotton, and then placed in an earthenware pot with flower petals and a selection of items indicating the family's aspirations for the child - money for prosperity, a notebook and pencil for scholastic diligence, a mirror and comb for good grooming. Finding this rather poetic, I decided to go along with it and add a few mathematical and scientific formulae, a Shakespeare sonnet and a bit of rosin from my violin case. I then had to dig a hole in the garden, in equatorial heat, to bury the thing. Having done that, we buried the pot and I back-filled the hole. I was just treading down the last of the earth when my MiL suddenly interrupted me: "We forgot the money. Dig it up again!" It's as well she spoke no English, especially my next utterance. I did dig it up again, of course, rather than risk a major ruption.

Some years later, she and my eldest sister-in-law (the one involved in the ripped shirt incident), came to stay with us in England. Having only a three bedroom semi (one of whose bedrooms is too small to fit a bed into), we decided that the only viable sleeping plan would be for my MiL and SiL to share my daughter's room, my daughter to go in with Mrs Byard and me to sleep on the couch downstairs. (When I say 'we decided...' I'm obviously not implying I had much of a say in this). Anyway, waking blearily at 4 am and needing the bathroom, I staggered out clad only in dubious boxer shorts to find my hall occupied by my fully dressed MiL doing my ironing. She greeted me with a cheery 'good morning'. I greeted her with a wheeze of horrified embarrassment. Should I castigate her for setting to at all hours (although she had the defence that she was jet-lagged and couldn't sleep), order her not to be so daft as to bother ironing all our crapulous laundry, or just accept it graciously and make a point of dressing more elaborately for bed for the duration of her stay? Well, the only viable course of action was the last one, clearly, but I was pretty grumpy about it.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Your MiL sounds like a most excellent lady - surviving having 13 kids, the Japanese Imperial Army, and the all-night antics of the Thames Valley semi-nudist community! I'd love to write more about my MiL, but we're actually really rather close, which makes it harder rather than easier. The only thing I know about Dudley is that Lenny Henry's from there - recommendation enough for anybody. (13 kids though, eh??)

scarlet-blue said...

Tell us more about the 'dubious' boxer shorts . . . why were they 'dubious'? . . . At least you weren't wearing a fetching posing pouch . . .

No Good Boyo said...

The shorts were either too short or had entered the state of grey bobbling around the gusset that presages disintegration. That's my guess.

Or else they had some mauve Malay invitation inscribed on them in lipstick.

Gyppo Byard said...

Gadjo bor - indeed she is; although since she doesn't read English I'm pretty safe mentioning her, although Mrs Byard has read and vetted what I've said.

Scarlet - 'tis an honour to see you trolling across my humble bloggagery. Rest assured I welcome you fully dressed. Oddly enough, on the one occasion I allowed Mrs Byard to choose my underwear she went for the posing pouch option - presumably hoping I could build a side career in a BeeGees tribute band - rather than baggy boxers (which I would have thought preferable because they hide nmore of me).

Boyo - it was the second option, though the third is not unknown in our house...