The Mother In Law


When Randy and Marvelle Simpkins ate at Applebee’s last week, for the first time in years, he ordered a drink from the bar. It was a Scotch…. a double.

They were in Atlanta and had just dropped off Althea, his mother-in-law, after a two-week visit to Watervalley.

Randy had always gotten along fine with Althea. But that was based on one and two day exposures at Thanksgiving and Christmas. After two weeks under the same roof with her, Randy was beginning to feel a special bond with Jack Torrance from The Shining.

He was at a loss. Althea had always been a small, kindly woman with a sheepish demeanor. Her face was invariably framed in a cautious, frail, and obliging smile. But Randy had come to realize that underneath that benign veneer was a backlog of vicious running commentary, sitting dormant like a virus, waiting for the right moment to surface.

Althea’s husband, Frank had passed away last September. Randy had always liked Frank. He was a good man, confident, and outspoken. Marvelle had grown to feel  guilty about her seventy-five year old mother living alone. The old neighborhood in Atlanta where she had lived for thirty years had been going downhill for some time. It didn’t feel safe anymore. Marvelle had talked to her mother about selling and moving to Watervalley to be near them. She adamantly refused.

But that didn’t keep Althea from calling Marvelle everyday to complain about the neighbors, the noise, and the crime. Althea had been a piano teacher for decades but had developed arthritis fifteen years ago and gave it up. And while she could no longer play a note on the piano, she sure knew how to play or Marvelle’s sympathy.

So Marvelle had been insisting that she at least come to Watervalley for an extended visit. “She just doesn’t get out and do anything,” said Marvelle. “I think she’s mentally depressed.”

But by the time the visit was over, Randy concluded that Althea didn’t suffer from any mental diseases at all. She was however, a carrier.

So two weeks ago Randy and Marvelle drove to Atlanta and brought her mother back to Watervalley. They had planned ahead and arranged for Althea’s three cats, Inky, Stinky, and Chairman Meow to be kept in luxury accommodations known as Buckhead Groom and Board. Otherwise, Althea would insist that the cats come along, too.

Randy had driven to Althea’s house a thousand times. But from the minute they pulled out of her driveway, she began to provide authoritative play-by-play instructions from the back seat regarding directions to I-75. She also offered helpful guidelines about when to switch on his turn signal. It was going to be a long drive.

It became even longer when they got to Chattanooga. Traffic came to a virtual standstill without moving for an hour. Randy began to sigh in quiet frustration. Althea sensed this and thought that vacantly reading all the billboards and road signs would somehow be a comfort to him.

“Barnes and Miller, Injury Lawyers. We’ll make it right…..mile marker sixty-seven….. Mountain View Chevrolet. Come see the downtown difference…..You are only five minutes from Erlanger ER. Here when you need us…..Entering Tennessee River watershed…..Mile marker sixty-eight.”

After ten minutes of continuous commentary from the back seat, Randy began to slowly roll his head toward Marvelle. All he got was a frail shrug. After another ten minutes, he was hoping someone would shoot him with a tranquilizer gun.

Marvelle got out her smart phone and tried to find an alternate route. But there wasn’t one. The lanes were moving slowly, and as always, the one they were in was moving the slowest. So Randy tried to get over, but no one would let him.

“Oh, come on people. Crap,” he exclaimed.

Althea’s motherly voice lilted out casually from the back seat. “Simmer down, simmer down.” Randy closed her eyes in anguish. It was his mother-in-law’s answer to everything and he knew he would hear it at least a hundred more times before the two-week visit had passed.

They arrived home that night after nine o’clock, got everything unloaded, and the two of them helped Althea get squared away in the guest bedroom.

“Althea, do you need anything?” Inquired Randy.

“No, dear. I’m fine, just fine.”

“Do you want a water or extra covers? I generally keep it cool in the house at night.”

“No, no, not at all. I don’t want to be a bother.”

But Randy knew that tone. They had driven the last two hours in silence because he had finally had enough and politely announced that it would really be best if everyone in the car was silent so he could concentrate on the road. His mother-in-law obeyed but Randy could feel a palpable wave of indignation coming from the back seat. Marvelle didn’t say anything either but began to shoot him small darting glances of reprimand.

From the moment they pulled into the driveway Althea had spoken behind a veil of long-suffering diplomacy. Randy tried his best to be as accommodating as possible. But it was to no avail. There was also a noticeable temperature drop in Marvelle’s demeanor.  He sighed and everybody went to bed.

But the fun was just beginning.

Around two AM, Marvelle shook him.

“Honey, wake up. I think the house is on fire.” They both were covered in sweat. She cut on a lamp while he rushed toward the kitchen. But everything was quiet. That was, except for the gush of hot air blowing from the floor vents. By the time Marvelle arrived in her robe he was in the hallway, looking at the thermostat. It was set on eighty-two.

Randy gave her a wary look. She offered only a sheepish shrug. He reset it and opened one of the bedroom windows. It would be two hours before he got back to sleep.

Randy was the manager of the Farmer’s Co-op and was usually up at five. But he was taking these two weeks off in order to be a good host and a supportive husband. This availed the rare luxury of sleeping in until seven or maybe even eight. But at six o’clock a different kind of alarm sounded. It was the TV in the living room. The volume had been set to somewhere around two decibels below the threshold of pain.

He looked over and Marvelle was sleeping soundly. This wasn’t fair. Years of his snoring had conditioned her. She could sleep through a train derailment, which for Randy seemed symbolically similar to the moment at hand. He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. But it was no use. He could hear every word.

Who knew that Jeopardy came on that early? At the present volume he could have played the game from the comfort of his bed… which, he now noticed, wasn’t to comfortable any more. Althea had paid another visit to the thermostat.

Randy dressed and went to the living room where he found Althea in the easy chair with a blanket wrapped around her.

“Don’t you have to go to work?”

“No, I’m taking some time off for your visit.”

“Oh, well that’s nice.

If her tone had been any hollower it would have had an echo. Randy smiled weakly.

“Would you like some coffee?”

Althea replied in an almost fragile, hesitant voice. “I would, but I don’t want to be any trouble.”

“Oh, no trouble at all.”

“With cream. And I use honey for sweetener.”

“Honey. Sure. We can do that.”

He got the coffee ready and after an extended search found a small jar of honey. He delivered all of this on a small tray and set it beside her. Althea paid him no attention.

“Go to Presidents for eighty dollars!”

This suited Randy fine and he began to quietly slip back to the kitchen when Althea spoke without losing her focus on the TV. “Got any toast to go with that?”

Randy stopped in mid-step. “Sure, coming right up.”

He made toast and placed them on a small plate along with some slices of butter, strawberry jam, and some silverware. He returned to the living room and placed the plate on the tray.

“Try European Capitals for a hundred!”

Randy retreated again.

“What’s this?”

Again, he paused in mid-step. “It’s toast. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I was talking about Melba toast. But, that’s okay. I’ll just pick through this.”

By now Randy was starting to perspire, what with all the running around and thermostat having been set on “Scorch.” He decided to walk out and retrieve the newspaper from the front yard and let the cold March air wash over him. He thought about reading it on the porch but it was only forty-eight degrees out. So he came in and set it on the kitchen counter and decided it was time for Marvelle to be out of bed.

After waking her up he thought it would be a good idea to go ahead and shower and shave, mainly because he felt reasonably confident that this was a safe retreat from Althea. After that he would make some coffee and leisurely read the paper while Marvelle entertained her mother. The day still had promise.

But when he returned to the kitchen the newspaper was gone. He found it in the living room with Althea who had unfolded and dissembled it and had already cut out some coupons and a recipe she wanted to keep. He cautiously retrieved the sports section. Althea noticed his interest and thought it would be nice to share. So she began to casually read the articles on the front page and adding a healthy dose of commentary along the way.

While Althea’s face was buried behind the newspaper, he held up his hands in a gesture of frustration to Marvelle. She responded with a shrug and a face of mild reproof that communicated he should be more tolerant. It was just the newspaper.

But as the day wore on, the hours were filled with one intrusion after another into the Randy’s daily life. The thermostat, the TV volume, and the paper were just the beginning. Trips to the drug store for a certain ointment, to the grocery store for a certain ice cream, and to the hardware store to find a screw for her glasses absorbed the day. All the while Marvelle and her mother were becoming more tightly huddled, whispering things when he was in earshot.

Randy came to learn that Althea had an opinion on everything. When she wasn’t watching game shows she was flipping back and forth between the news channels. Since there was little to no criminal activity in Watervalley, she now looked to all four corners of the earth as a source for her opinionated lectures about wrongdoing and crime.

But as the days passed, Randy felt like a crime was taking place under his own roof. Little by little, Althea was hijacking his manhood. The heat of Marvelle’s disdainful glances was beating him down. He began to find places to hide; doing small projects out in the garage; working on the flowerbeds even though it still March cold, or sneaking down to the basement and drinking a beer from the old refrigerator he kept down there. He did things like clean his guns, and tinker around with the car’s engine, just to prove to himself that shouldn’t go to a Wimpy Guys Anonymous meeting and turn in his man card.

Marvelle wasn’t talking to him much and he got lonely. So after his third evening alone in the basement he began talking to God, thinking he wasn’t busy and would certainly understand. He knew God needed to keep him humble, but did He have to pick his mother-in-law to do the job.

Finally, the day arrived and they packed Althea up and headed back to Atlanta. The delight of his imminent liberation overshadowed his dread of being trapped in the car with her for five hours. The only blessing of the last two weeks was that he had effectively eliminated the mother-in-law frequency and was now able to zone her out.

Except he couldn’t zone out the last thing Althea said just before Marvelle and he left her house. While standing at the front door and saying their goodbyes, Althea announced that she had decided that moving to Watervalley might just be a really good idea after all. She couldn’t wait to get the house sold and join them.

That’s why, after they sat down for a quick snack at Applebee’s, Randy ordered the Scotch along with his hamburger. He saw his world crumbling before him. It was a life sentence. His mother-in-law’s passive aggressive behavior would now be a comfort of his every day. He never thought she would leave Atlanta. Why had he ever agreed to this idea?

He took a bite of his hamburger and looked across the table at Marvelle. And there was his answer.

She was looking at him adoringly, gratefully; clearly in bliss at the prospect of her mother coming to Watervalley. She still had the same incredible smile and schoolgirl figure she had when they had met twenty-five years ago. She had been the love of his life and he knew that as long as he had her, everything would be okay.

That was, until she calmly reached over, patted his hand, and said, “It’s all going to work out fine, honey. Just simmer down, simmer down.”


I’m Jeff High, and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the high point.