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Breaking a Generational Curse

Shattering bonds that constrict the mind

By Meredith HarmonPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 18 min read
Space shuttle night launch. I made sure we had that awesome experience.

When I'm driving, my mind tends to wander.

This can fall into the category of “a dangerous pastime,” as Lafou says, especially since I tend to reach into the past and try to figure out what the heck people's problems were with me. Obsessive? Perhaps, but I do try to improve myself, and I firmly believe in doing post mortems of relationships, no matter what kind. If I'm going to make mistakes, I want to make new ones, not repeat past screwups.

One of those relationships that was foisted on me was my father-in-law.

He was part of the husband's extended warranty package. I didn't exactly get buyer's remorse, but I was certainly not thrilled with the extras that did not fit with our new life-merging choices.

Was he a bad person? No, but he did enable one who was, and that's where the problems started. He married a narcissist, he himself was passive-aggressive, and thus began yet another round of the evil yin-yang that is a bubble world with those particularly toxic nuclei. In his world, nothing bad ever happened, because that's not the way the world should be. So it didn't. What's for breakfast? Problem, what problem? There's no problem.

Must be nice.

Normally, I would use initials to protect the guilty, but I won't do that, for two very good reasons; first, they've been gone for over a decade, and secondly, the TV show Malcolm in the Middle is well known, and I can't watch more than five minutes before I run away screaming. I am firmly convinced, and you will never tell me otherwise, that the parents of that show were named after my in-laws. Too many coincidences. That show was my husband's childhood exaggerated a little for comedic effect, but very much based on their personalities. Trigger alert, anyone?

They were uncomfortable to be around. They were insufferable. My husband had a panic breakdown whenever we were preparing to visit them, and deliberately sabotaged my packing efforts for years.

But one thing became quite clear yesterday, and I was stunned by the simplicity of one fact that has such a profound cascade into my father-in-law's personality:

Hal had no creativity. None. Not a trace.

For an engineer who helped build one of the safest jet engines ever manufactured, this might be a surprise. In retrospect, it makes sense – he was almost autistic in his approach to engineering. If there was a choice between using an off-the-shelf component or a piece that had to be hand-machined each time, he'd go with the hand-machined if he calculated that it would be more efficient. Final cost? What's that? Does it matter? It's 0.93% more efficient!

I should have known from the first moment I met him. Our Christian college drama troupe was going to each home church of our members, to do a performance of themed skits. And we arrive – it's four hours on a good day, if you go straight through the Big Apple. We chose the route around the city, which of course adds time. It took us about eight with stops and snacks. Because college students.

Now when meeting your son's new girlfriend, after they've both just hit solid, unmoving terra extra firma, for the first time, after eight freaking hours being driven through some hairy traffic by your fearless (not anymore!) leader, who's looking forward to meeting their host and getting some good rest to be refreshed for tomorrow's rehearsals and show, what do you do?

Hey, you're right, you take this person you just met on a convoluted tour of your state's capital city, to show her the sculptures and statuary!

Now, hubby and I just went to a museum today. I do like a good tour of the cultural aspects of a place, really, I do. NOT at night, in a strange city, in the cold, after a hard day, when I need to freaking SLEEP.

It makes sense now. Hal loved living in what he described as a “happenin' place.” He would delight in reading the paper, describing each and every event coming up in the area in the culture section. Would he go? Uh, no. He never took us to the attractions in the area, though I asked repeatedly. I even offered to pay. Nope. I was seriously ticked when I found out a dinosaur museum was less than a half hour away, and I was married a decade before we were told about it. He got his kicks from telling us all about the things we could have done, if we were interested, if we had been there the week before. Because he had no interests, he never went, and didn't understand those who would want to go.

And would also get righteously indignant when we cut the visit short to go to said attraction.

This also translated into decision making. He couldn't come up with creative answers to problems. The few times he'd confide his problems to us, or his daughter, and we'd toss out three or five suggestions, he'd freeze up. Couldn't make a choice to save his life! And usually Lois would swoop in with some harebrained idea of her own (selfish, self-centered, and completely unaware of how that decision would affect others), and he'd immediately take that one over any sane and rational choice. Or he'd take the ONLY thought he had on the subject and implement it, even if the evidence pointed against that decision, because if he thought of it, then it must be what's right. Oy. And vey.

This carried over to excuses. Once, he fell while outside, couldn't get up, lay there for at least an hour. Lois only found him while wandering, because her seeing-eye human was missing (dementia). She had to roll him over and help him inside (fused spine). He casually mentioned it to his daughter weeks later in a phone call, who immediately blew up and asked him why he didn't go to the doctor? Because he didn't want to bother the doctor. His daughter persisted – why did you fall, was it this reason, do you think, or that reason, or the other thing? His response? “That must have been it.” Chock full of details, that one. He could never think of a creative cover for his foolishness, except to downplay his actions beyond the point of absurdity. He couldn't even figure out what to do when real problems cropped up, so he dithered. Waited for his wife to swoop in when she was in her right mind, or the pastor to tell him what to do (or how to think, I'd guess). Or for someone to yell at him so he could rush around doing nothing but look real busy. He was rather annoyed when we told him repeatedly that we wouldn't solve his problems for him – and he'd also pooh-pooh our suggestions, because we weren't an expert in that field. Nice way to weasel out of any responsibility.

They took the same family trips. Over and over and over. Never went anywhere else, never looked for different places nearby. Same restaurants, over and over. Same family pictures, at the same exact places, over and over and freaking over. Suggestions for deviation were completely ignored as if you'd never said anything, or slapped down so hard you'd wonder what the issue is. (The issue, it seems, is that he couldn't deviate from the known path.)

He squealed with delight when he informed us that they took a side trip to Sydney, Nebraska, when they went on their last Epic Grand Tour of the country. Visiting family members, but of course didn't call up said family members and ask if it was okay. Complained when people said they had plans already. Complained that people didn't vacate their bedrooms, and they had to sleep on pull-out couches. What's the big deal about Sydney? Nothing, nothing at all, and I mean no offense whatsoever to the people who live there. My then boyfriend, now hubby, and his Crazy Friend John (famed in song and other stories I've posted) got stuck there for thirteen days when traveling in a 1969 hearse to California when the engine cracked. Completely blew their budget, staring at prairie dogs and renting every movie the poor dinky Blockbuster had, twice. Boring as bleep. Complained about it for years. And Team Hal and Lois decided THIS would be a fun side jaunt? They arrived right after a twister had torn up a chunk of town, and wondered why people were short with them. They actually expected to get Royalty Vacationer treatment. While locals were cleaning up. The catty remarks got drowned out by chainsaws.

For the record, they didn't even tell the two of us that we were supposed to be the last stop on said Grand Tour, though they'd told us all about the trip they were planning over ten months before! We had plans we certainly could not cancel on their date of imminent arrival, so the attitude was all “well, be that way, leave the key under the mat for us.” Um, WHAT? In our neighborhood? Where your klepto wife can have free run without our watching her like a hawk? I think not! They drove to the next relative, who'd already conveniently left town oopsie, so they had to drive home. They were unhappy. Cue the eye rolls. I'm lucky I can still see straight after that fiasco. They left bunches of unhappy relatives in their wake, which they were completely oblivious to, as usual.

This is how bad it was: they were vacationing down in Florida when the two Viking rovers went up. BOTH. Did the engineer think to take his son, who was already showing an interest in science and space, to see it? Nope, went to Mouse House yet again. Didn't mention how close they were staying to the launches till they were leaving the state. Their son, now my hubby, flips a lid, Hal expresses surprise at his vehemence, Lois snarls about ingratitude for their generosity for the Mouse trip (um, sleeping on yet another relative's uncomfy couch, eating cheap meh grocery food), hubby sulks for months and they don't get it.

I only had to hear this story once for me to determine we WILL be seeing a shuttle launch. I'm pleased to say I got him to two. The look on his face, watching them go up... Yes, I treasure that. What makes me sad, through - all of those moments I've had with him, watching his face light up, is because I was the one that cared enough about him to make certain-sure he got those experiences. His parents couldn't care less. It showed. Makes me furious at their casual negligence.

If Hal stated something as fact, and you proved him wrong, what happened? Not an “I'm sorry,” or even an “I seemed to have been mistaken.” We would have even taken an “I was misinformed.” Nope. None of that. Just “How about that.” And the subject would never be brought up again.

He bragged about the most stupid things. “My son plays the trumpet!” Um, yeah? So? “We have a LADY pastor!” Again, so what? And he'd harp on it and harp on it, and not give up on that line of information. Why? Because it wasn't normal in his world. It was unusual and showed creativity, which he didn't have. He sang in the church choir, and they only sang old-style hymns, nothing newer. Why? Because he was on the committee, and refused to allow any updates to the hymnals. The old ones were “still good.” Published in the nineteen forties, with all the racist stereotypes baked right in. Then wondered why they couldn't keep a congregation, when all the new families were POC, and scuttled out faster than they arrived. And he'd never miss a choir practice, because he treated it as a sacred duty. Get in a car accident on the way? Nope, had a scratch and a bump, let's sing, why is everyone trooping out to my car and freaking at the major damage? Sick? Nope, hack cough sneeze, gotta go, get in the car! Blizzard and lost power? Road's not plowed? What do you mean pratice was cancelled, WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? No, why would I call my daughter and tell her I'm okay after a three-day ice storm? (He actually said that last one to a police officer that his daughter sent to do a wellness check on the third day. Officer reamed him out for it.)

As far as he was concerned, EVERY person in his family thought the exact same thing as himself, because that's how you should be. Show a sign of individual thought? That's not right. Do something different? “I'm disappointed in you.” Advise him to be smart? “You don't have a degree in that, so I'll go with the experts.” Um, Hal, darling, those aren't experts, they are shysters who claim they have a degree, coupled with smooth doubletalk. Yes, it got him in financial and other difficulties, and he was annoyed when we refused to help bail him out, citing his complete denial of our advice.

He was absolutely enamoured of our adventures – whether it be SCA events, vacations, or our travels to take in other parts of the country. I used to write up a “blog” of our adventures, and we'd give him a printed copy, and he'd devour it and tell everyone he could get ahold of about it. The fact that everyone he told was already on the email list and read about it in real time, instead of months later when we handed him the copy, was completely irrelevant, and impossible to stop him once he started. Now I know why – he could imagine it for a while, and it excited him.

Would he attend an SCA event with us? Oh no, no no no. We invited them many times, Lois would turn us down flat. Even coming down for Thanksgiving to sample traditional Penna Dutch foods? Nope. No, every single freaking visit, we had to sit on the hard, uncomfortable chairs in the kitchen, entertaining them with the stories of what we'd done recently, not even in the living room with slightly better upholstered chairs, because That's Where Important Guests Sit. Not good enough for even their own living room. But good enough to entertain you with stories. We had to bring our own food and drink, too.

I'll take a small break while you unstick your eyes from rolling back into your head. Look, I can hear it from all the way over here. Eye drops help, trust me on this one. Even if I'm not an opthamologist.

So, what do any of these vignettes have to do with the challenge prompt? When you're supposed to take one event and how it changed your life, and explore the changes?

Because when you're dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, and a passive-aggressive father-in-law, and the years they spent draining the fight out of a kid who didn't understand why they hated him and wouldn't fight to protect him, it's the little events that piled up and turned me into the fierce proctector of my husband / life / privacy that I am today.

My husband is freaking brilliant. They didn't see it. All they saw was an energetic boy's spirit they had to crush, because it was inconvenient for themselves.

Too bad. My gain!

It took time. It took effort. It almost broke us both. But we grew, we adapted, we realized things about them and us. And we survived. Hubby is less than four feet away, giggling at the latest posts on Not Always Right.

Flexibility. Creativity. Spontaneity. A spirit of learning new things. Rules for how to live our lives, separated from their madness, discussed and vetted and OUR choices of how to live, not theirs or anyone else's.

We go places that sound fun, just for the heck of it. We've learned lots of arts and crafts – I make glass beads, he's a pewter caster, but we can switch and teach each other's specialties if needed. (Hubby just assisted with a drop spinning class, where I was also an assistant to the teachers. On Black Friday! Fuzzy awesome way to avoid the mall chaos!)

We go to concerts. It always amuses me, that he says he doesn't know the songs, till they start singing – then it's a constant stream of “Oh, I know this song! I didn't know this was the artist!” It's adorable. Well, except for Ed Sheeran, he knows those songs since I play the albums all the freaking time. One may be playing right now. He knew Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Straight No Chaser though, but Barry Manilow and P!nk got the delighted mutters going.

I mentioned the Florida trips to see the space shuttle launch. We're old enough to remember the Challenger disaster, so it was poignant as well as exciting. We got to talk to many of the NASA retirees at the park, some who butted heads over specs and weight limits. We got to talk to the person who last spoke to the Challenger team face-to-face as he sealed the cabin.

I like finding activities, foods, and gifts he likes. I won't tell him, but I love to see that look on his face – that someone cares, someone was thinking of him, knew him well enough to go hunting for that thing to get That Look. Sometimes he tries to hide it, and I remind him, ANYone can feel their sensitive feels in our house. And I've kicked out the “family member” who came stomping, raging, and tried to take away our sense of safety and sanctuary. No, he's not allowed back in. Not into our lives as well as our house, and the raging jerkwad has the audacity to be butthurt about being called out on his behavior. Too bad, me bucko, you abuse us, yer out.

I saved my hubby's life once. Well, once that we know of for certain. It was back when we were still dating, and I lived six hours away by early seventy's Dodge. He'd mentioned he was getting over a cold, but when I got to the door, he was nowhere to be found. And his mother was washing dishes, and didn't want to let me in.

Well, I got in, and opened the door to his room. It was dark.

“Honey? I'm here.”


“How are you feeling?”


“Okay, I'll let you sleep.”

I immediately turned around and grabbed the phone, started scanning the refrigerator. They had Every. Single. Phone. Number they had ever used, all over scraps and bits of paper completely covering the side. This was right before the 911 system was installed. Lois finally noticed, and asked.

“What. Are you. Doing?”

“Looking for his doctor's phone number.”

“He's fine.”

“If he were, he'd have met me at the door. He's really sick.”

“He's faking it.”

“Do you call the doctor, or do I?”

“If he's not well enough to come out, I won't feed him! He hasn't been out in three days.”

This “woman” had starved her own sick kid for three days because he was too sick to get out of bed and eat at the table!

I stared at her. You know that look? I'm good at it, but I don't use it often. It was the look of “if you don't do what's right in the next nanosecond, you're gonna pay. If you're lucky, it's ONLY jail time.”

I stared at her more. My voice lowered to a dangerous gravelly tone. “Do YOU call the doctor, or do I?”

She ripped the phone out of my hands, and dialed. I sat in the kitchen and stared at her to make sure she didn't fake it. Sure enough, I saw her face change. She slammed the phone down, scurried to her husband, Hal carried my boyfriend out and to the emergency room.

I waited. Lois vanished. Guess dishes weren't so important when there's a very angry lady there as well.

Eventually the guys came back, and I could tell they'd gotten fluids into future hubby. I spent the next four days feeding him broth and watching him sleep, while his chicken-totem idiot of a mother clucked to everyone within earshot (and on the phone) of how SHE saved her kid's life. I didn't care, honestly, who took the credit, he was going to live. That's what I needed. I didn't leave till I knew he was on the mend.

But at that moment, I knew she was an enemy. Not a good one, not a smart one, but an enemy nevertheless, because she almost neglected something incredibly precious out of existence.

We have survived, and thrived. We laugh, we cry, sometimes we fight, but then we calm down and talk it out. We experience life, side by side. We help each other at our weak spots. We cuddle. We cook together, take trips together, meshing in ways that have put the jealousy into mutual friends.

We're alive. Not just living, but seeing a sunset, almost having birds crash into us, raising monarch caterpillars and releasing them to their dangerous journey south.

We experience the joys and pains, but together, on a path we've chosen for ourselves.

It's the best revenge ever, but we certainly don't do this for spite. We don't think about them. We focus on each other. We do this for love.


About the Creator

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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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock3 months ago

    Those are some amazing stories, Meredith. The mother-in-law from Hell & father-in-law forever stuck in Purgatory. I'm glad you found each other. I'm glad you saved him. And I'm not so very sad that they're gone. Go figure.

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