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What Did you See?

by Meredith Harmon 7 months ago in Family · updated 7 months ago
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Getting back at a petty thief

Not the meal or the fork in question, but I'm certainly not going to take pics of the other articles in this story!

I've been asked to tell the story of freaking out my mother-in-law. And since the 27th anniversary of this story is coming up, it's a good time to re-tell it.

True story.

My mother-in-law was a classic narcissist. The world revolved around her, and other people only existed to make her look gooooood. If you failed at your her-appointed job, you were punished. But we didn't catch on to that for years, we didn't have the internet and common psych terms to describe what was happening, so we bumbled around looking for good solutions. We did eventually find them. This story happens at the five-month mark into the marriage. But first, a bit of backstory:

At that point, the in-laws were on their third visit to our humble abode - from SIX HOURS away.

The first visit was when we were on our honeymoon. MIL found out that my mom had a key to the house, and apparently freaked out about it after we left the wedding (and couldn't shut her down). "Why does SHE have a key, and *I* don't??" And telling her that my parents were just dropping off the loot at the apartment wouldn't do, oh no no no. She DEMANDED to go along, with THEIR present for us, and proceeded to snoop in every cabinet and closet and corner, tried to open the presents, was thwarted, sulked, then DEMANDED to set up THEIR present for us as a "surprise," shrieked at FIL the whole time under the guise of "supervision," shrieked again when he knocked over a soda while doing so (which was only partly cleaned up, I learned to my pain later), and freaked out that we left a dirty pot in the sink which she proceeded to wash all wrong under the guise of "helping." And of course, without asking us, they set up the furniture in the wrong room, at the wrong place, so we had to dismantle and move it. Where we found out it was a shoddy piece of furniture, and reassembling it only gave it a permanent wobble when we did it right.

I was already beginning to grasp the fact that they were only coming to feel better about ordering others to do their bidding, since once they got here, it was "Well, entertain us!" and "Ugh, I don't want to do that stupid thing, what else do you have?" And on our shoestring budget - hubby was hunting for a job in his field, and I was paying the bills with burger flipping and a meager savings account, slowly draining dry - they demanded restaurant food for every meal, on our dime of course. And paying for entertainment, whenever they demanded it.

Ten at night? What can we do? Uh, movie (Boooring!), walking the mall (Boooring!), miniature golf (Nope, booooring!) Well, them's your choices, it's that or we got back to the hotel. Which is what we did, with her sulking the whole way.

Speaking of....the second trip, they demanded to come down a particular weekend. Okay, we had nothing going on, sure. They show up, with their luggage! No mention was ever made of them staying over, so I think, well, maybe they were just bringing it in to keep it safe, thinking our neighborhood was dangerous enough to not keep it in a locked car? So we talk for a while, with MIL getting more and more restless....finally, I politely mention that it's getting late, hadn't you better check into your hotel? And MIL declares, with a toss of her head, "We're staying here!"

"Um, where? We don't have any room for you."

"Of course you do! You have that second bedroom upstairs!"

"Um, the thing we've always referred to as the library? With all the boxes that you insisted on lugging up there, heavy as they are, labeled 'books'? And no bed? Only a beanbag chair, for reading? That one?"

"You have a sofa bed, we know you do, we moved it in!"

"Yes. You're sitting on the sofa part. The mattress, thin as it is, we removed and it's in our bedroom, and is all we have to sleep on ourselves. And, thin as it is, we would NEVER have you sleep on it, considering father-in-law's condition." (He had ankylosing spondilitis. His spinal column was permanently fused in a curved shape, giving him brittle bones and painfully thin skin and a hunchback look. We would NEVER put him in that kind of condition, no matter what kind of jerk he was to us.)

"Well, where are we going to sleep??"

"Considering you never asked us if you could stay, and just assumed, I can get you the names and addresses of some hotels in the area."

Silence. As MIL vibrated and fumed, FIL finally quietly said, "We'll get a hotel room." And grabbed the suitcases, and dragged them out to the car, with MIL following behind complaining bitterly.

The next day, after they left for good, I went into my underwear drawer. It was completely rearranged, and a particular pair was missing. It was a love token from my then-boyfriend, now hubby, and I always kept it in one particular spot. And it was gone. I recalled a time when she went upstairs to facilitate, and I heard the toilet flush, but she didn't come down for a good ten minutes afterward...

I was angry. My husband was still under the spell of "but they're my parents, they wouldn't do anything like that," so all I got was gaslighting. "You must have misplaced it, or they're in the wash, or something." Despite the fact that I never wore them, I just kept then in a place of pride where I could see them every day. But not today, apparently. Sarcastic comments about fairies, ghosts, elves, and nonexistent pets that must have moved them, were blissfully ignored.

Fine. (For those who know me well, my saying "fine" and dropping the subject is your only warning to grab popcorn, and a comfy chair, and opera glasses, and move to a safe spot outside the blast radius. 'Cause something's gonna happen, and there will be 'splodey 'splosions.)

Autumn rolls around. With only two weeks' notice, my MIL calls up and demands to appear...on Halloween.

Now, I loathe Halloween. I won't get into the many ways various Halloweens of the past have been ruined, but I absolutely hate it. So I made it clear that there would be no visitation on Halloween. I like to keep myself to myself, so as not to spoil it for anyone else with my rotten mood. Friends and family all know that this is not a day to visit, we've made it Quite Clear.

And, now here's MIL demanding to come on Halloween.

I didn't take the call; my hubby did. And when she demanded, he said, "Sorry, you can't come on Halloween, we're busy." A bit of silence. "Oh, on Monday instead? Sure no problem, see you then." And he hung up.

I came downstairs and got the story. And I went over to the calendar....only to discover that MONDAY WAS HALLOWEEN.

I frigging lost my stercum. I was abso-fricking-lutely LIVID. While hubby gaped at the deception, I could see his mind start to already paper it over with "oh, it must be a mistake, she would NEVER intentionally do that to us," so I picked up the phone to cancel the "mistake."

And hubby leaped across the room, screaming, and knocked the phone from my hand.

I just stared. (The Reasons became clear, two years later, but for now, it was a shock on top of deep rage.) He was panicking. So, I quietly said, deadly quiet, "You're fixing this, or I am." And picked up the phone, and held it out to him.

He grabbed it and slammed it in the cradle.

He refused to let me re-schedule. He refused to re-schedule. He refused to talk about it, or why the sudden panic attack.

I was an angry camper. And I hatched a Plan.

Two weeks rolled by. On the day of The Great Visitation, I was upstairs "cleaning." So when I heard the door open, I shooed hubby down to greet them - "Your problem, your parents, you caused this, you're on duty the whole time they're here, suck it up." Because even then, he'd had a slight suspicion something was up, and was hovering.

I got to work.

I pulled out my props - a few teddies and skimpy lingerie, a length of chain (don't ask, please), whips, some fur-lined handcuffs I borrowed, dug into the wastebasket and strewed saved-up used condoms all over the bed. See, it was the best I could do at the time; I now have many more friends with very eclectic tastes, and could *really* make the place look like a BDSM bordello. But I made do. I mussed the bed covers artfully and suggestively, and threw some pairs of lacy underwear around for effect as well.

Then I went down to greet the invaders - er, in-laws, for Halloween.

They demanded takeout - on Halloween. We had an Italian place three doors down, so we obliged, though the food was late because they were slammed. As expected. MIL complained about the lack of service. The next three hours were spent with me getting quite a workout, because in between bites, the doorbell was ringing. We were right on Main Street in a kid-heavy town, and every single one of them wanted candy! I'd get one morsel down my throat before the next wave hit, again and again and again.

MIL was having none of it. She screeched about the lack of courtesy as I kept getting up and down from the meal and didn't even excuse myself. I finally had enough. "Look, YOU are the one who INSISTED on coming for Halloween. Lord knows why, but THIS is why we told you not to!" It shut her up into sulky silence. She was a champion sulker, I'll give her that.

The meal was winding down - I was still not even halfway through - when she huffed upstairs to use the bathroom. I knew what would happen, so I calmly waited. Hubby chatted with his dad and they ate slowly, giving me time to catch up. I heard the flush - and waited. And waited...

She finally came down the stairs. White as a sheet (appropriate for the holiday), jerky movements, arms rigid at her sides with balled fists. Shivering, whole body shaking, eyes darting everywhere. I smiled to myself as I ate. Her whole body was saying I CAN'T UNSEE WHAT I JUST SAW.

She flopped heavily in her chair, staring into space. Hubby and FIL were still chatting pleasantly between bites, and I was eating quietly and heroically refraining from laughing hysterically. Eventually, hubby finally noticed. "Mom, what's wrong?"


For someone who was "fine," she was sure breathing heavily, and bug-eyed staring. Even FIL put down his fork. "Yeah, MIL, you don't look so good, what happened?"

At this point, I couldn't resist. "Yes, it looks as if YOU SAW SOMETHING YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE."

Her head snapped around to stare at me, smiling sweetly but a touch evilly. I stared right back in direct challenge. She garbled something inarticulate, grabbed her husband by the collar as he was still trying to eat, and dragged him out the door! The poor fork was left hovering in midair. I couldn't help it, I started laughing as soon as the door closed.

My hubby was having none of it. "This isn't funny! There's something very wrong with Mom!"

"Nothing she didn't deserve. Take a look at our bedroom."

"Why? What does that have to do with Mom?"

"Humor me. Go. Look. At. Our. Bedroom."

"We don't have time, we have to-"

"Shut up, and go look at our frigging bedroom."

I still had to push him up the stairs, and he protested the whole way. I even had to open the door for him, but seeing the look on his face - a mirror of his mother's - was worth it. He took in the panorama, gaping. Finally, he gasped, "WHAT HAPPENED HERE??"

"I decorated."


"Excuse me, Mister Where's My Love Token? What was she even DOING in our bedroom, where she has no business being, ever?"

"But you can't just - ... ... ... - waaaaaaait a minute. What the heck was my mom doing in our bedroom??"

And hubby was enlightened.

It still took a few years to get him lovingly detached from her controlling batstick behavior, but that was the beginning of the end. It took time and effort to get him to understand that you can't reason with a narcissist, you can only set up firm boundaries and hold to them, because the narcissist will try everything to break them and regain control. We eventually succeeded.

But I'm still very proud of the moment that she learned it was very unwise to steal from me.


About the author

Meredith Harmon

Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.

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