Lessons from My Father-in-law: A Story of Farm Animals and Utter Gentlemanliness

This Thanksgiving we’ve been blessed with a visit from Dick’s dad. We haven’t seen any of Dick’s family since we moved from Florida last August, and we miss them all, almost as much as the beach and Habana Cafe.

Dick’s family was not the big Mormon family I’d always hoped to marry in to. They were better than what I had imagined, just as Dick turned out to be better than I expected. Probably I should be disappointed to have so little in-law angst as fodder for the blog.

Grampa is smart, interesting to talk to, a good guest, well-read, and totally incapable of surviving a Utah winter. We’ve adjusted our thermostat so that he feels better about getting out of bed in the mornings.

At restaurants, Grampa talks to the waitress and tells the hostess as we leave that Mallory sure was friendly and helpful today.

When a clerk finally finds the jarred mincemeat pie filling for us, Grampa thanks him effusively, and regrets not getting his name so he can praise him to the manager.

Grampa bought the girls a trampoline for their birthdays and Christmas. It came with all the safety features, and the girls are pretty excited.

Though they might have been satisfied with a large plastic bovine and some chocolate rice cakes.

Some of the things that I’m most grateful for are things or people that I never anticipated would so important to me. My father-in-law, and my relationship with him, unexpectedly make my life much richer in ways that I never imagined.

Jane

Have we met before?

When I was a little girl, I wanted to marry a good Mormon boy from a large Mormon family, and in the summers, we would flit from one large family reunion to another. Instead I got Dick, who, after surviving my dad’s family’s reunion, wanted to know whether family reunions were a common thing in Utah.

You know the Christmas letters that sound as if you’re trying to pimp out your kids? Family reunions can be even worse — a full-color, animated Christmas letter you can’t tape to the refrigerator door and ignore.

If you’re in the market for a career, or have children who need a swift kick in the rear career advice, you might want to keep in mind that the bar for bragging has been raised in recent years. Where once it was enough to graduate from a respectable college and enter a respectable profession (engineer, doctor, engineer, lawyer, dentist, engineer), now you need a little something extra to get respect around the family reunion campfire.

My sweet cousin Peter, who’s number 30 of 57 first cousins or something (I lost the cousin chart they handed out the second night) is not someone I’ve talked to much before (I hang with numbers 10-20). He’s returning to college this fall, and it’s a safe guess that his major is chemical/mechanical/civil non-disobedience engineering.

Peter, who knows that I am a stay-at-home mom like all the other female cousins my age, said to me, “You studied at BYU for awhile, right?”

That night around the campfire, we had family sharing time, where each of my dad’s three sisters and six brothers (except that one brother who’s always “busy”) introduced their kids, beaming proudly if they’d managed to produce their kids in the flesh, hoping to produce adequate excuses if their kids couldn’t make it. Being out of the country on a mission for our church earns a pass, barely.

Occupations and recent accomplishments were mentioned, as were their children’s children. My oldest cousin is turning 40 next year, and he and his wife have adopted several — my three girls are a small, if glittering, contribution to the family tree.

So what’s the most coveted bragging point for mostly-Republican, highly-religious, mostly-high-achiever families? (And an automatic get-out-of-family-reunions card?)

Highest honors around the campfire go to those who have at least one child working in a top secret job for somebody like Lockheed or the NSA.* Then you get to say that you’d like to explain what Johnny does, only he can’t tell you because then he’d have to kill you. Or as my dad’s next oldest brother’s wife says her son says: “I can’t tell you or I’d have to do a lot of paperwork.”

Several of my dad’s nine siblings have sons who have every reason to view more paperwork as the kiss of death.

After my grandparent’s youngest kid told us about his youngest kid’s bluegrass band, my dad said he needed to amend his progeny spiel.

Turns out he has daughters, as do all his brothers and sisters, and, though they are not secret undercover operatives, or even doctors or lawyers or engineers, or MAYOR OF WASILLA, they are doing something wonderful: raising children to become secret undercover operatives or doctor or lawyers or engineers.

Or, as in my case: raising mothers. Mothers who will become governor of Alaska, if I and my studying for awhile at BYU had any confidence in the current fairy tale.

Dad even said that his oldest daughter does the blog, and boy! does she post often.

Then, since I am a supportive wife, I pointed out that Dick also has a top-secret, classified, vital job, and since he works for our church, he answers to a higher power. So there. Your sons might be keeping the free world safe, but my husband? He’s protecting God’s secrets.

And I am raising kids and doing the blog.

*My cousins don’t actually work for these people. I’d tell you who they work for, or where in the world they’re deployed, but then I probably wouldn’t be invited back next year . . .

I’d gaze at my navel, but have you seen that thing?

{Back to HELP WANTED.}

A few weeks ago my aunt and uncle unsubscribed from my blog’s email updates. Which is like saying “I think you suck, and your writing does too.” Ouch. But it was fine, because I’m a grown-up. Though I may have yelled at Susan to JUST EAT YOUR DING-DANG MACARONI when she asked why I was hunched over my computer instead of coming to the table.

Self-worth comes from God, after all, not readers or comments.

But I did want to find out why they’d unsubscribed, so I’d know whether to ignore them at family reunions or to start dropping subtle hints about blogging being thicker than water.

That irresistible need to know warred with the ignorance imperative — the only thing worse than unsubscription would be for them to know that I knew about it. Or for them to feel bad that I felt like sticking my head in the oven when I found out. Still, I had to know why.

We don’t keep secrets very well in our family, so I’m not sure why I entrusted this delicate mission to my mom, beyond the fact that she could bring it up casually to my aunt. Just find out why, I said, but don’t let them know that I know. Of course it’s not a big deal, AT ALL, it’s just that I’ve been thinking about it anyway. Trying to figure out how much Spot Can Talk! and how much Equal Parenting: Neither Equal Nor Parenting and how much Molten Lava Cakes my blog should be.

People tell you to find a niche, a voice, a hook, a style, and to stick with it. This is harder than it sounds (at least it is for me — not the voice part, but the niche part). And whatever you write, the more some people like it, the more others won’t. In fact, if no one hates a post, you can probably guarantee that no one loves it either.

The great thing about blogging is that you can write whatever you want. Which is the terrible thing about blogging: you can write whatever you want. If I write a post called Awkward, Like Steve Carrell, Only Not As Funny, Carolina will say “Great post -– it’s like all my life issues intersected in your post!” and Aaron will complain that it’s “all over the place.”

Good writing is like porn. Hard to define, maybe, but you know it when you see it. And it’s like sex. You might be technically competent, or have all the working parts, but if there’s no chemistry, no catalyst to jumpstart a connection between you and your audience, you’re gonna stall.

When I asked my mom to reconnoiter the relatives for me, I was hoping she could get a feel for which sort of writing/blog would appeal to them. Not that I would ever cater to such disloyalty, but in the name of market research, I explained my Unified Theory of the Personal Blog. Which is basically that many good (mommy) blogs fall into one of four categories: Mundane Olympics, Nostalgic/Exotic, Unexpected/Humor, and Sweet Family. Which kind appeals to you?

Mundane Olympics

The original Mundane Olympics blog is Dooce. At the risk of turning into a Dooce-fan site, I am IN. AWE. Yes, I wish she wouldn’t dog on my church and use shocking! language. BUT. Anyone who can complain about a four-year old’s propensity to ask Why? without making me want to reach for a sharp implement for my own frontal lobe should just be enshrined already.

Nostalgic/Exotic

Here we have stories from places appealingly different from our own, like The Pioneer Woman‘s. Her photographs are beautiful, her recipes are mouth-watering, and her middle-child angst is endearing. But would she be taking over the world if she didn’t live on a real-life ranch in the middle of virile cowboys and wild mustangs? I wonder.

Unexpected/Humor

Two of my favorites are Bye Bye Pie and Memarie Lane, who recently warned that, as she gestates, her thoughts are turning mommy-ward. Most of her posts are wonderfully self-contained topical features and they’re often hysterical (and not in a uterus sort of way). June of Bye Bye Pie is not a mommy, except to her cats and dog, and I could read about her trips to the post office and never get bored. June usually makes the Mundane Olympics team too.

Sweet Family

Probably too many personal (mommy) blogs fall into this innocuous-sounding category. Still, blogs like Boo Mama and Big Mama are anything but blah. Instead, reading them is like curling up on the window seat with an L.M. Montgomery book and remembering that life is pretty darn good.

This was all more than Mom cared to know about the blogosphere. She nodded. Well, since we were on the phone, she made appropriate “uh-huh” noises whenever I paused for breath. So, basically, Mom, I said, find out if they’d rather I just wrote about family happenings and posted pretty pictures, or if they’re interested in book reviews and recipes and women’s issues. Please?

Mom, who had listened patiently to all my “it doesn’t matter” and “please interrogate them,” then told me that my aunt and uncle just changed email addresses. She read me their new one so I could check the feedburner email subscription list. And there, right near the top, was my aunt and uncle’s new email address.

Not that I cared, or anything.

Because I could not strangle you in person

I must warn you: This is not a funny post. I don’t even try to be funny here. But I do gain Greek-tragedy-like catharsis, and so can you!

Someone made me mad at church today. Not an uncommon occurrence, though usually I just feel sympathy for the mis-opinionated. Unlike Giselle in Enchanted, I easily recognize and feel anger, and in the past couple of weeks I’ve felt enough anger for . . . well, for myself and for someone who hasn’t felt much anger for herself.

I bore my testimony (“testified”) today, and I talked about agency (“free will”) and about how my sister is experiencing a trial worse than any trial I ever imagined she or I would go through. I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic; I wanted to express my own hurt and my admiration for her reaction to this trial. Instead of wallowing in anger and destroying things (my natural inclination), my sister has responded by reading the scriptures more, praying more, and spending time with her kids and our family.

Maybe it sounded like I would be mad at God if something like this happened to me. That’s not what I meant; I’d be angry at someone whose clothing I could shred and valued possessions I could take a baseball bat to.

A few speakers after me, a prosperous-looking, attractive young man got up and did his spiel. He said we shouldn’t get mad at our trials, and shouldn’t even be surprised by them. They are, after all, what we signed up for in coming to this earth. We knew we’d be tried and tested, tempted and tribulated. Embrace the trial! Turn to God and all will be well!

Dude! Did he think I was talking about a hangnail that’s giving her some trouble?

If one believes in a literal resurrection, and in the atonement’s power to cleanse sin, then the worst possible thing to ever happen to someone is the refusal to repent (or to be affected by someone who refuses to repent). This is not to diminish the immense pain that accompanies death or miscarriage or disease, but just to say that they all CAN be fixed, eventually. If I refuse to repent, however, that can’t be fixed.

And, for those whose religious convictions are different, surely you would agree that to break one’s solemn promises, to refuse to even try to honor one’s vows and covenants, is pretty low. And that the people affected by such broken promises are facing real devastation.

The funniest thing about that young man’s testimony was that he was so sure of these things that he has learned through “my many years of experience.” Right. Because he’s 24 and single and childless and looks like he has suffered. Oh, how he has suffered.

My mom said that maybe we shouldn’t be letting our daughters watch these Disney princess fairy tales all the time. Because what are they learning? Happily ever after and prince charming and animals coming to help you with the housework.

I’d agree with her, and I did introduce my sisters and mom to Sara Bareilles’ Fairytale, which gets more clever every time I hear it. BUT, happily ever after, that people should get married and stay married, and that families are meant to be together forever is what we believe in. It’s not just a Disney movie, it’s what we believe.