16 years ago, I wrote a letter to my mother-in-law that, in my wife’s family lore, is still referred to as “The Letter”. I’d had just enough of her completely inappropriate behavior, that always got chaulked up to “but she’s not well. It’s the medication. It’s the stress she’s under. It’s blah-blah-blah-blah” I had given her benefit of the doubt for years for inappropriate behavior, and all I got for being a nice guy about it was disrespect and boorish behavior. I’d had just about enough.
They were visiting us in Virginia from Philadelphia. We had just moved here several months before. She had kind of been in rare form the whole visit, but we were doing our level best to be accomodating and taking the nasty, snide remarks with an extra large sized pinch of salt, just rolling with it. That Monday, I was off on leave from work, but Kathy was new in her job and had to work. So, I was home with them, and with my then 6 year-old son, Jonathon (now goes by J.B.).
Jonathon had just gotten a computer game version of the “Wheel of Fortune” game, and was really getting into it. He always loved words and language, and he loved playing that game. He was 6. My mother-in-law starting going off on how the Wheel of Fortune show was owned by people who were controlled by the Mob, and on and on in this vein, typical crazy stuff that would come out of her mouth at the time. I couldn’t just sit there and let her tear down something that was giving my 6 year old son such joy playing, and didn’t care if she was “sick” and couldn’t control herself. But, I approached it in a typical easy-going manner. I just said, “Mom, he’s six years old. It’s his favorite Christmas present, and see how much he’s enjoying it? Maybe we could talk about something else, and let him enjoy his game.”
Well, you would think I had just insulted her in the worst way possible. She went completely off, she grabbed my father in law and said, “Come on, Tom, we don’t need to put up with this”, they packed their suitcases, and just left. Drove back up to Philadelphia. Me and my son had no idea what just happened. I was completely stunned. Christ, what do I tell Kathy? Leave me alone for five minutes with your parents, and I insult them out the house and back to Philadelphia? I was mortified!
Never in my 42 years, to that point in my life, had I had a guest leave any home I lived in, in such anger, spewing such venomous things as I witnessed that day. I just could no longer accept this behavior, and let it slide behind the cloak of “Oh, she’s sick. Just ignore the behavior. She can’t help it.” I was done. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I wrote her a letter.
I told her how much I loved her daughter, and how much I loved my son. I told her how much I had tried to have a relationship with her, but that, after 11 years of trying, I had come to the conclusion that I had failed. We did not have a relationship. I told her that I realized she was sick, and was struggling with a tremendous amount of stress in her life, but that no illness, and no amount of stress, justified her behavior in my home. I let her know that in all of my 42 years, I had never had someone leave a place I called home in such a manner. I was not willing to allow it to happen again.
From that point forward, I told her, until I received a sincere apology from her, and until I saw her begin to treat myself, my wife, and my son with the dignity and respect that we all deserved, she and I no longer had a relationship. I was done. I would honor her relationship with my wife, and with my son (to a point – I would not let her behave inappropriately in front of him again), but I would have nothing to do with her, as I did not have time for poisonous relationships in my life.
In my wife’s family, they talk to each other all the time. Everyday. In my family, where we’re scattered to the 4 winds, I consider my siblings and I very close, but we might talk to each other once every few months. We just live our lives, and check in with each other every now and then, and that works for us. In their family, they talk daily. Apparently, the impact of my letter to my mother-in-law, “The Letter”, was felt immediately, and my wife’s sisters couldn’t believe I wrote it and sent it to her. “He did what?” No one had ever called their Mom out like that before.
But, a funny thing happened. The bad behavior stopped. I never did receive a direct apology, but clearly, her actions spoke much louder than a mouthed apology ever could, or would. That’s all an apology really is, in my opinion, just mouthed words. The real sense of whether a person wants to change boorish or inappropriate, mean-spirited behavior, lies in their actions. And, from that day to this, my mother-in-law, who I now have no problem calling “Mom”, and I have a great relationship. It is based on mutual respect. She knows she can count on me to be there when she needs something, and she knows she can trust me. She also treats me with the dignity and respect that any human being deserves, whether or not she agrees with everything I do or say. It’s been a pretty neat thing.
Words can be very powerful things. Used inappropriately, sometimes “jokingly”, they can be very hurtful, and designed to tear others down in order to build oneself up. Used thoughtfully and judiciously, words can change the world. One relationship at a time. I truly value the relationship I have today with my mother-in-law. I admire her struggle, and how she has dealt with some of the difficulties she’s had to face in her life. I’m glad I took the time to tell her how I really felt, when I wrote “The Letter”. It changed our relationship.