My mother-in-law, Mary Evelyn, had the coolest retro kitchen with bright red linoleum countertops, a big enamel sink, and a 1950’s stove with curvy lines and big plastic knobs. It was always perfectly clean and tidy because she had a secret method for cleaning her kitchen — she refused to cook. She grew up in the 1930s and 40s when a woman was expected to slog over a hot stove. Then she discovered canned soup.
On holidays she ordered a ham and potato salad from the deli. Week night dinners were serve yourself. She lived on cheese and crackers and diet soda. Every once in a while she had a burst of culinary inspiration and made her special Bologna Ring, which was pink sausage boiled with canned string beans.
I learned a lot from her, but not about cooking, about setting boundaries. Once she sat down on the couch there was no moving her. She felt no obligation to wait on her family. She watched her mother slave her life away raising chickens, baking bread, and sewing clothes for her children. No way was Mary Evelyn going to do that.
On summer mornings she sat on her porch swing in her nightgown and rocked in the shade. If she was feeling ambitious, she might get a bottle of weed killer out of the garage. Then barefoot, with a cigarette in one hand and the squirt bottle in the other, she’d walk up and down the driveway and the sidewalk, squirting poison on anything green that dared poke up from the cracks in the cement.
If my father-in-law happened to see her through the kitchen window, while he made his morning Sanka with hot tap water and drank it over the sink, he would yell at her through the window screen, “Mary, get in here and put some damn clothes on. You look like a damn hillbilly out there in your damn nightgown.” And she would yell back at him, “Oh, Maurice, shut up. You’ll wake the neighbors.”
Mary Evelyn was solidly middle class and intentionally uneducated. Her main interests were sports and shopping for things on sale. Her basement shelves were lined with incredible deals she got on baked beans and tuna fish, paper towels and plastic cups. She stockpiled rows and rows of canned food in case there was another Depression or a war shortage.
Her whole family tried to change her, but her ways were set, and trying to talk to her about her unhealthy diet, or the expiration date on the cans in the basement, could get your eardrums blown out by a sudden increase in volume on the TV. Mary Evelyn didn’t want to change. It was just that simple. She got married, had kids, kept a nice house, and made sure there was always plenty of lunch meat in the fridge for her husband. After that, she was entitled to do whatever she pleased.