AK Reader: I lock horns with my father-in-law (2004)

I keep thinking about all the dramas that take place during the Christmas holiday, wondering how we are all faring during them, hoping for the best. When else are we confronted with our past, forced to recognize that no matter how much we think we have left our childhood behind, it seeps back in at Christmastime, with all its unhealed wounds, and triggered by the presence of family.

In my own case, I had experienced a difficult and demanding father, with whom I did learn to hold my own, but it took many years. 

Then, in my 40s, I married a man with an equally difficult father. 

 I had forgotten about this experience, which rang very loudly at the time. My husband Jeff Joel had died the year before, at the age of 55, of a heart attack. For my account of our experience together, see This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation.

This was the first of four years that I would make an annual Christmas pilgrimage to New Jersey to see Amos without Jeff. I would drive from Massachusetts, where I was visiting my son son Sean and grandkids. The situation, that first year, was fraught. As you will soon see. 

Amos Joel, “famous Amos,” we called him, four years later would have his obit published in the New York Times.

Amos E. Joel, Jr. Cell Phone Pioneer, Dies at 90

As you can imagine, Amos was a proud, difficult man, who had received many national and international awards. Naturally, he always got his way. 

So, from my journal:

February 23, 2004: Trip to New Jersey.

For the past six months or so, I have told Amos that if we drive on the highways, I will have to be the driver. But he just didn’t seem to hear me. Told him that again the day before I left to go see him last Friday. Had a slight feeling of apprehension as to whether or not he would put up a fuss, but even more apprehension at the thought of him driving. Had talked with Andy [Jeff’s sister] the night before leaving, and she said she had insisted she drive to some dinner with him and Kay [Amos’s lady friend, also 86], and when they got to Kay’s and he said, petulant but joking, “Andy doesn’t think I can drive,” Kay said “Oh hush!” to him. So I assumed Kay would support me.

The evening I arrived, I told him, in Kay’s presence, that I wanted to drive. That I had talked with Andy about this, and that it was fine for him to drive around town, but that at his age, his reaction time was slowing down, and it was too dangerous on the highways. He dismissed me once again, “No, I’ll drive. I’m used to the car. You’ve never driven it. I’m looking forward to the trip [down to Princeton].” And, to my complete surprise, Kay agreed with him, acted incensed that I should think he couldn’t do the driving. But I came right back at him. “Amos. I’m driving. This is non-negotiable.” “Nawww… I’ll drive.”

He and I got in the car in front of the building (where he had parked it to go to dinner) to go around the building to the side where Kay lives. [The two of them are residents of a large fancy retirement complex.] Inside the car, I brought the subject up again. Again he demurred. This time I got quite sharp with him. “Amos, this is nonnegotiable. Either I drive, or I don’t go. It’s fine for you to drive in town, but not on the highways. You’re too old.” Etc. etc. When he dismissed me again, saying I didn’t know the car, etc. etc., I said, “Amos, I will wrestle you to the ground for the keys. And you know who will win.”

We start yelling at each other….

“No you won’t.”

“Yes I will.”

“No you can’t!”

“Yes I can!”

“No you can’t can’t can’t!” said now to the tempo of the song from Annie Get Your Gun…

“Yes, I can, can CAN!” I sang out merrily, and we both dissolved laughing.

But the issue was clearly up; he wasn’t willing, and I was going to force the issue.

That night, and the next morning I was worried that we would struggle again, and just kept telling myself that I had to be willing to not go to Princeton at all. That I would not compromise on this issue. In the morning, I brought it up with Kay [I was sleeping in her apartment] again:

“I wish you would support me on this issue.”

“No I won’t support you! She said, heatedly. Amos is a fine driver. I trust him. You don’t know the car.”

“This issue is non-negotiable. I have talked with Andy about it and we agree.”

“I don’t care. I will not support you.”

“Okay. But will you buck me on it?” I asked her.

“I’m going to stay out of it, “ she answered. Which is what I wanted, and what she needed to do to not have him blame her for it, as well as she needed to realize that she had no jurisdiction in this area, if the directive was coming from not only me but Andy.

But throughout this situation, I was highly aware of not being the daughter, only the daughter-in-law. And I was taking on more authority. Did I dare? What was appropriate? All I knew was what was appropriate for me. I was not going to be in the car with him driving on the highway.

This all happened after Tai Chi, during breakfast. Then I took my usual long walk down to Maplewood village and drank tea in a coffee shop and walked back, the whole time dreading the time when Amos would come pick us up for the trip to Princeton and we would deal with this issue once and for all. Again, I told myself that I was willing not to go at all, and plotted out what I might do instead (which mostly involved reading a book, and walking more, and staying in at Kay’s, since his place is such a mess.)

When I returned to her apartment I told her that this issue was bothering me a great deal, that I did not want to argue with him, that I wished I could think of a way that we could have a win-win situation without butting heads, but that I was willing not to go if he didn’t agree.

Again, she said, “Well, I’m staying out of it.” And added, “You’re going to have an argument with him.”

“So be it.”

When the time came, and we walked down to the first floor side door where he was to pick us up, there he was, exactly as I had imagined in my worst nightmare, idling the car, waiting for us, in the driver’s seat.

I walked around to his side of the car. “You’re my navigator,” I said, mildly.

“I’m going to drive through town, until we get to the highway,” he said. “But why?” I asked. “Because I want to drive through town,” he said.

I suddenly realized that he had figured out the win-win, so that he could give me what I wanted and still save face. Fine. I walked around to the other side. Kay was in back. We drove uneventfully through town, with me somewhat tense, wondering when he was going to release the car to me. Then, all of a sudden we were driving up a ramp, and he was saying, “Here’s where we get on the highway.”

I was astonished. Tricked! “You said you would give the car to me on the highway. You are not following our agreement!” Really pissed, and showing it.

“I’m just going to go up here to where we enter Rt. 85.”

“But we are already on the highway, please follow our agreement!”

There were no really wide places on this very busy highway to pull over, though I would have done so easily with anyone but him to change drivers. But Amos is frail, walks slowly, carefully. I was concerned, but still determined.

Finally, after three or four miles he did pull over. Kay was upset. “What are you doing?!” “Pulling over for Ann to drive,” he answered. I got out and came around to his side, with cars whizzing by at great rates of speed. Opened the door, helped him get out, and watched in alarm as he inched his way around the car and finally got in.

Then came the three or four minutes of me trying to figure out how to get the seat up, the mirrors adjusted, etc. He was right, I didn’t know this car! Finally got it going and we eased out into traffic.

I had worried that if he did relinquish the car to me that he would be nervous, and constantly bark instructions as to how I should be driving, causing me to get nervous, and getting us into an accident! But the strangest thing happened. As soon as he agreed to give up control, everything was fine. The three of us had a lively conversation, and then, whenever he did need to say something to me (better change lanes here, or take 295, coming up on the left, etc.) he was low, quiet, calm, as if he and I had always been in this duet, and him always my navigator.

During dinner, after the service [we were there to attend a memorial service for Jeff and other Princeton alumnae who had recently died], I had to put more quarters in the slot, since we had parked on the street with a two hour limit. When I stood up to go, Carol [Jeff’s friend, whom I had invited to be with us for this event] said, “Do you have the keys?” with a sly grin on her face (I had told her about our struggle). “Oh I have the keys alright, I said, glancing at Amos, grinning. “The keys are MINE.” The three of us shared a laugh which I don’t think the others at the table were aware of.

After we returned home, as I was getting out of the car, I came to kiss him on the cheek, and he said, “Thanks for driving,” to which I answered, “Thanks for letting me.”

The next morning Kay said to me that when they to go plays in Newark, she has convinced him to go a back route where they don’t have to go on the highway….

I was mildly surprised to hear that she felt that way; that she actually agreed with me but that she couldn’t buck him, on her own, and had to wait to see how it turned out. But we all got through it. I told her that I was very proud of him. That he had internalized the shift overnight, and found a way to save face, too. And that I see now that his nature is essentially very sweet.

My friend Claudia pointed out to me this morning how much like his son Amos is. Both with their controlling aspect, and their sly, trickster aspect. And, she pointed out, this was a continuation of my work with Jeff. So many times I had to get mad at him, to directly contravene his stubbornness. Now his father proved that, like his son, he can shift too, and that in the car when he was, in a low sure voice, giving me directions, he was in his essence. His trickster receded, once he relinquished control.

That whole weekend shifted my relationship with him. We can now trust each other on a new level, having gone through that drama and come out the other side without turning into enemies.

In fact, tonight he called me, wanting to know if I got home okay. This was the first time he has done that. I told him I would call him after this, when I arrive home, the way Jeff used to call him after a trip, to let him know I was okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to AK Reader: I lock horns with my father-in-law (2004)

  1. Anthony says:

    Hi again, I just read this (and haven’t gotten to it in your book yet), but it reminded me of a similar thing that happened with my paternal grandfather in the 80’s.

    He was over 80 and nearsighted, and he *refused* to wear glasses (except to read). He had been driving my dad’s old truck (which he inherited after my dad died), and the only way he could follow the road was to *drive on* the white line on the side of the road, or the reflectors in the middle – “driving by braile”, they call it. And he did this with his grandkids in the car, with not a care in the world.

    Finally fed up with their kids being too scared to ever visit their grandfather for fear he would drive them around, and right after he drove the truck INTO THE HOUSE while trying to park it, my mom and my aunt confronted him and told him in no uncertain terms that he was NEVER going to drive again. My grandmother just stood by and watched the scene, but secretly she wished her kids good luck as he really was a ticking time bomb. But this was different; this was an attack on his personal sovereignty as he saw it, and…

    …they tried to take away his keys.

    BAD MOVE.

    I stood by (I was about 20 then, with no license myself) and watched a struggle that I just could not comprehend then. My grandfather stood up to them like he was their younger father rather than an 80-ish overweight old man with extreme high blood pressure issues and he fought them both off like he was going to corral them and spank them…

    …until he slipped and fell backwards into his chair, hitting the wall so hard that he put a HOLE through it with his head. He was concussed, and my aunt grabbed the keys.

    That was the last time he ever drove, and the LAST time all of us ever congregated together at our grandparents’ house (which had been “holiday central”). He died just a few years later, a year after my grandmother died; and after he died I only saw my aunt one more time, even though we had all been very close up until then.

    That really was a “changing of the guard” moment. After reading your essay it reminded me of it; something I had forgotten long ago. I am glad that your struggle had such a positive, feel-good ending. But so many older people put so much of their sense of self-worth in their ability to get themselves around…it is always a very hard thing. Always.

    • Ann Kreilkamp says:

      Oh my! Come to think about it, I’ll bet everybody has at least one of these stories of elders needing to learn how to let go of that symbol of freedom, the keys to one’s car. I don’t know when Amos actually stopped driving. Most likely Andy was the one who took his keys away. My Dad was also difficult, I hear from siblings. Mom decided not to drive when she accidentally rammed her car into her son-in-law’s car when, instead of going forward, she slammed into reverse gear. Then his car backed into another, that backed into yet another. Truly a momentous occasion! Luckily no one was in any of the other cars.

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