The mother-in-law is a standard joke in America, perhaps around the world, for all I know, and like most old standards there is a basis in fact for this. Consider my friend the judge in Missouri. His mother-in-law lived with him and his wife, and the judge tolerated it with a commendable combination of equal parts patience and humor, seasoned with an occasional dash of homicidal longing. A few years after he and his wife got married, he came home from his annual physical and reported to his wife that the doctor had cautioned him that his cholesterol level was dangerously high, and he had to start watching his diet. The words were barely out of his mouth when his mother-in-law jumped up out of the judge’s favorite chair, marched into the kitchen, and whipped up a huge platter of fried chicken, dripping with Crisco.
I don’t have a mother-in-law. I tried it once, but I didn’t like it, and my mother-in-law showed enough good taste and sensitivity to die about twenty years ago. But it’s a standard joke, and I made use of it recently with mixed results.
I was digging out a ditch at the far end of my property, down by the road, when a neighbor and his wife pulled up and asked what I was doing. They’re an older couple, the kind of neighbors I wave to when our trucks pass on our little road, but I don’t even know their names, so perhaps I showed poor judgment, but as I leaned on my shovel I said, “I told my mother-in-law if she criticized me in front of my wife one more time I was going to kill her, and she did, so I did, and I can’t think of better place to put the body than a ditch.”
I expected merry laughter, and I almost got it from the husband, but whatever he might have felt was cut short by the distaff side who gave a gasp of horror followed by a snort of disgust. Then she turned and said something very brisk that I couldn’t hear to her lord and master. He looked straight ahead and drove on.
If I need to borrow a cup of milk, I think I’ll go to one of the other neighbors on our road.
Here is Allen Toussaint’s take on his cross to bear. The song was recorded in 1961 by Ernie K-Doe.
The worst person I know,
She worries me so,
If she leave us alone,
We would have a happy home,
Sent from down below,
Satan should be her name,
To me they are about the same,
Every time I open my mouth,
Then she tries to put me out,
How could she stoop so low,
I come home with my pay,
She ask me what I made,
She thinks her advice is a constitution,
If she would leave that should be the solution,
And don’t come back no more,
My mother-in-law, mother-in-law.