Monday, March 10, 2008

Navigating the in-law waters

Families are a package deal, so along with my Turkish husband, Evren, I got my Turkish mother-in-law, Gülcan. Of course I had heard all the stories, even from my best friend, and they all came down to one thing -- the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can't be a good one. Yet I showed up two years ago ready to be the exception, after all when I had first visited before moving here we had gotten along great.

But then in the first week after my move, I realized that things were already gettin' strange. While I knew that many Turkish women, especially in her age range, were extreme clean freaks, her level of clean was something completely different. Our washing machine was going 24/7; when she ran out of clothes, she moved on to curtains (that already seemed quite clean to me), rugs, basically any textile that could fit in the washing machine. And if it couldn't fit in the machine then it was washed in the tub. I was relaxing with Ev at around 1am when Gül summoned me out to one of the balconies to help wash windows.

I wanted to understand where this behavior was coming from. I keep my house pretty clean by American standards, and I was feeling pretty insulted by that point. So I plied Ev for background info. He explained that she is O-C with cleaning and that she does this even at her friends' homes. I was over at one of her closest friend's homes in Bursa, Sevil Teyze (Auntie), when I found out that this was absolutely true. Sevil told me she does this pretty much everywhere she goes and as her friends, they've mostly given in to it.

Over the last few years I've learned more that has made me understand her better, and she has eased off the cleaning frenzy while visiting us, at least a bit. She is a naturally energetic, or more accurately a WIRED person that needs to be moving almost constantly. Added to that, she retired from her primary school teaching job when she was only 35 (don't wonder why the Turkish social security/retirement system is collapsing), so has had to occupy herself for almost 20 years now with. . .

She came over last week and while the washing machine was still running quite a lot, it wasn't running at unreasonable hours that would make our neighbors consider doing voodoo on us. Oh yes, and the bleaching of the floors that used to go on (inciting asthma attacks in me) no longer happens, thankfully. She apparently saves that for the two elevators in her apartment building.

In an incident unrelated to cleaning that simply amused me after pissing me off briefly, she tried to plug an American adapter for my mp3 player directly into the universal power strip without the necessary converter to charge her cell phone (despite the fact that we had 4 Nokia chargers around the house that would've fit the bill perfectly). Result: the adapter blew and is now unusable, leaving my mp3 player powerless. The thought of being without music on the bus commute was almost unbearable, but then I'll be heading to the states in a week and will get to gift myself with an upgraded player.

Turks have two words for mother-in-law. One for if you don't like her -- kaynana (even sounds bad doesn't it) -- and one for if you do -- kayınvalide (rather unwieldly). But I haven't really used either, perhaps because of my dislike for such black and white labels. We are just navigating the waters of this relationship as best we can, quirks and all, trying to understand and be understood, trying to find our commonalities and accept our differences.

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