The Mother-in-Law

(posted by Alan)

It’s approaching mid-week already and I’ve not done my guest bit yet. I had hoped to have something ready on Sunday but, like Buni, had to recover from my weekend. Unlike Buni, however, my weekend was not a long roll call of debauchery (barring Friday night) as I travelled down south to deepest, darkest, rural Surrey and saw my mother-in-law for the first time in five years.

Why would I inflict that on myself, you may all be asking? More to the point, why should I inflict it on those of you reading this? Various reasons, I suppose, the most immediate one being family obligation, one of those useless motivators very much like guilt. And, despite her being the epitome of a kugel, the South African version of a Jewish American Princess, and being stereotypically racist in a white South African way, I actually like the woman.

S is in her early seventies and has lived a life virtually free of want. She is the youngest of 8 siblings, all dead but one, grew up in a rather grand hotel in Johannesburg in the forties and fifties and was married to a doting husband for almost fifty years until he died 3 years ago. And, for the past 20 years she has been faithfully served by a very large, genial, Zulu woman, Chlorine who, in many ways, is more than capable of holding her own when it comes to verbal sparring, something that S excels at. Are you getting a picture of this rather spoilt woman yet?

S’s father was Jewish as was her husband. Her two sisters also married Jews but, unlike S, converted to Judaism. S, despite having led such a cosseted life, is very independent and strong-willed but, I suspect, the main reason why she didn’t convert was to annoy her mother-in-law, a woman she loathed and detested. So, while bringing up her family (including my wife) as gentiles, S has spent most of her life surrounded by a large, extended Jewish family and Johannesburg’s Jewish community. Now, you wouldn’t think that such a woman would be anti-Semitic, would you? Um….wrong!! Although, don’t get me wrong, she isn’t anti-Semitic in a BNP sort of way; her brand of anti-Semitism is a much more benign sort, sort of along the lines of the brand of homophobia exhibited by a lot of gay guys. That may not be the best analogy (or perhaps it is?) as gay homophobia can be pretty unpleasant at times. Another approximate analogy to describe this is how it is acceptable for Jews to tell anti-Semitic jokes, blacks racist ones, etc but not quite on for WASPS and whites to sprout such stuff. But, nevertheless, to a pale goy male like myself, initial exposure to such attitudes was all a bit shocking.

Now, while her ‘jewishness’ possibly absolves her from some of the opprobrium heaped on anti-Semites, her racism towards black people, a symptom of the time and place where she grew up, cannot be viewed with anything else but loathing, right? Wrong! Well, right, actually, but there are some redeeming features to her attitudes. I refer to her as a ‘benign racist’ but, I know, like many benign tumours, there is scope for malignant growth. Let me explain…

Having come from a particular time, place, and class in South Africa, there are many reasons for S’s racism but her racism has been informed by a certain liberalism and compassion that distinguishes her from the very ugly, naked racism exhibited by many white South Africans. So, while of course, ‘Blacks are lazy’, ‘Blacks have too many children’, Blacks can’t govern a country…look at the rest of Africa’, and a whole host of other very predictable beliefs, S will treat Black people, on a one-to-one basis, politely and with respect, and feels real compassion for people blighted by poverty and disease. To many black people, S’s attitudes are almost worse than the very obvious racism that they have experienced at the hands of some white people because they prefer the much more naked, ‘honest’ variety than the paternalistic, patronising type of liberalism that puts a façade on a mass of beliefs that would still relegate them to an inferior position in society. There is a lot of truth to that but, to me, her attitudes still show a softer side that takes off a lot of the harder edge to her attitudes.

Ok, now that I’ve put that side of her character in perspective, you must be wondering why I like the old bat? Well, to put it bluntly, she has all the incisive qualities of an iconic bitch, a la Joan Collins. She has the same sense of presence, similar good looks (although her glamour and style are much more of the understated variety), sharp wit, a loud, dirty laugh, perfect mastery of the perfect put-down, an overwhelming confidence that makes it seem that the world revolves around her, and the rest of the qualities that make a grande bitch. Oh, and did I tell you that she loves gay men? But, please, god forbid, don’t mention what they get up to in the bedroom!

This is a woman who routinely resorted to slapping her teenage daughters across the face in a fit of pique until that stopped when they retaliated one day. This is the woman that would daily retreat to the cool confines of her bedroom complaining of the agony of her migraines. This is the woman who embarrassed me by trying on every pair of frames at the opticians, leaving a mound of them before an exasperated optician, and, then using their phone, rang her detested mother-in-law to say, very loudly, ‘Doris, I’ve just tried on all the frames here and they are absolutely bloody awful, what is the name of the place you go to?’ This is the woman who, in relatively frugal earlier days, would spend most of the household budget on a new pair of Ferragamo shoes. This it the woman who, on hearing that her other daughter had been trying, unsuccessfully, for months to conceive a child with her husband, said, in reference to their large sizes, ‘Of course, it won’t happen, their bellies get in the way.’ This is the woman….

Mmmm….I think that I may still not have portrayed her with any redeeming characteristics but, really, there is something very likeable about her and she can be great fun. Oddly enough, however, despite all those characteristics that place her in the Joan Collins camp, she is a total health nut and has never smoked and rarely drinks more than a glass of wine with a meal. Ok, now I have really done it – that puritanical killjoy streak in her, coupled with everything else must be painting the picture of an ogre rather than someone one could feel affection for.

Um, I’m beginning to wonder what it is about her that I have ever liked? Is something wrong with me, I wonder? Well, I know the answer many would give if presented with that question but that’s not the point. But, really, what could it be? Oh well, never mind, it’s hardly important. However, I did enjoy seeing her again. Really, I did!

I’m sure you must all be wondering what it is that made me write about her? I suppose I could blame it on the bossa nova (does that actually mean anything to anyone these days?), I mean Buni, as he chose to prattle on about recovering from his weekend and my renewed exposure to S did require that I recover from mine. And this could be described as a cathartic purging exercise designed to rid me of foreign influences or some suchlike. Also, perhaps, as Mike suggested that we choose Nottingham themes in our guest posts, I just felt like being contrary-wise? No, no, I would never do such a thing! Well, actually, yes I would, but that’s not really what motivated me. I think it all boils down to the fact that this past weekend was almost the first one spent away from Nottingham since arriving here 8 months ago so, rather than my usual debauched blur, I was faced with a scenario radically different from the norm. Unfortunately, for those of you reading this, you are bearing the brunt of it.

So, no comments on Kevin’s tufts or lack of them but, when I next see him, I promise to report on them and give an impartial assessment. To tell you the truth, I’ve never really been aware of them but, being the unobservant sort, I’m unreliable in such things.

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