CAROLE VASTA FOLLEY
“In-laws.” Ever notice how terribly close the word is to “outlaw?” Merriam Webster says it was first used in 1894, the same year as “bread-mold” and “hangover.” But alas, the denigration of in-laws seems to center around mothers. Whether Henny Youngman one-liners like, “Just got back from a pleasure trip; I took my mother-in-law to the airport,” to Doris Robert’s exquisite performance as the meddlesome Marie Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” mothers, of the in-law variety, are perpetually hackneyed targets.
This lack of respect is not solely in pop culture. In the early second century A.D., the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Give up all hope of peace so long as your mother-in-law is alive.” Seems this trope of haranguing the female in-law got an early start.
Certainly, some are responsible for giving the rest a bad rap. Like the imperious Madge Gates Wallace, who disparaged President Truman as unworthy of her daughter, and Bona Sforza, the second wife of the King of Poland in 1518, who may have used poison to rid herself of disappointing daughters-in-law.
Even mildly judgmental mothers-in-law, who don’t take care to put their best foot – or words – forward, can cause pain and discord. For them, I am saddened, for the mantle of motherhood, even as an in-law, is a power to be used with consideration and grace.
My mother-in-law fits none of the negative stereotypes – nor can I paint her a saint. She’d never tolerate such a portrayal. I’ve never met anyone else like her and doubt I ever will. She’s a woman whose identity is so singular, “Diana” is all the name she needs. Her children never even called her “Mom.” It was always Diana – a perfect moniker as she’s the goddess of wild animals. Indeed, Diana is more at home in forest than in living room. My husband grew up in a household with raccoons, hedgehogs, iguanas and snakes. Inside! Mind you, not as pets, but more like roommates.
I was in my 20s when I met Diana. How adult I felt then, and, now I see, how green. Not the verdant color of summer lawns, but more like a pastel Crayola, faint and unable to make a mark. It was years before I found my voice, and there she stood – all vivid royal colors. Bohemian and earthy. Worldly and wise. Kind and intimidating. Long hair, rings on fingers and, as always, a pair of sensible shoes, as you never know when an impromptu hike might occur. She is an author, a sculptor and a feminist. She has built houses and entire communities; created festivals and events; planned and marched in protests from the U.S. Capitol to her own Main Street. She believes things deeply, celebrates rituals ardently and … good luck keeping up with her. From my rule-following eyes, she was a revelation.
Diana has never taught me a thing about being a mother. No words of advice of how to clean house or raise children. What she has taught me, though, is how to be a woman. How to use my voice, my creativity, my fieriness. And, along the way, she’s taken me by foot on wandering trail, by kayaks on emerald-blue rivers and by plane to far-away adventures. I know I am gifted to call Diana my mother-in-law. A fact that never ceases to amaze me, because Diana never ceases to amaze me.
So, I’m left without a mother-in-law joke or quip to tread those worn boards of mockery, while I recall another word first used in 1894: martini. A cocktail that perhaps should come with every family member. Let us raise our glass to the ins and out-laws. To family.
Carole Vasta Folley is an award-winning Vermont playwright and columnist. Visit carolevf.com.