Marriage is a package deal. You open the package—you deal with the in-laws.  No exchange policy, no returns, no satisfaction guarantee, and if you’re lucky, no Marie Barone from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” You know, the stereotypically judgmental, overbearing, and meddling mother-in-law who often barges into daughter-in-law Debra’s house and sniffs around for trouble.  It’s enough to make a glowing bride do a U-turn down the aisle.

So it’s no surprise that when I was invited to meet the in-laws, I was anxious.  Not only did I worry about whether I’d like them, I worried whether they’d like me. Would they like my personality? Would they like my outfit? Would they like to have curly haired grandkids?

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On a summer afternoon, my husband Chris and I set off for my first visit to my in-laws’ house. We headed south to the Jersey shore, which felt like another country to a girl like me, fresh from urban Los Angeles.

Chris pulled into the driveway of a new colonial home. A welcoming wreath hung on the front door. I stood quivering on their front stoop, chewing down my carefully manicured nails and ordering myself to relax.  Chris knocked on the door.

A petite, smartly dressed blonde woman wearing bright pink lipstick and a turquoise blouse swung open the door. “Hello!” Her eyes shined brightly as she smiled widely and embraced me in a tight hug.

This was either the greatest hug I’d ever received or her python-like grip was going to kill me.  Fortunately, it was the greatest hug of all time. My mother-in-law, Joyce, radiated so much warmth towards me we could have hatched a brood of chicks between us.

From behind her a man emerged, my father-in-law, Bill, wearing kaki slacks and a short-sleeved collared shirt. He hugged me warmly too, but cautiously, so as not to crush the baby he held in his arms—Peanut, their longhaired dachshund. They ushered us inside.

Joyce sat me at a table laden with enough food to feed an entire wedding party. Wanting to make a good impression over dinner, I tried to remember my basic table manners. I placed my napkin on my lap, kept my elbows off the table, didn’t slurp, chomp or belch.

Yet when Joyce brought out four 2-pound lobsters and saucers filled with melted butter, I couldn’t bring myself to ooh and ahh like the others. My mouth had gone drier than a twice-baked biscuit.

In my L.A. world, lobster came pre cracked, along with a bowl of warm lemon water for hand washing, and a plastic bib that said “Red Lobster.” How would I protect my new white linen pants, purple silk blouse and coordinating floral scarf from squirts and splatters?

I inventoried my lobster tools. Stainless steel lobster crackers: check. Lobster mallet: check. Tiny fork: check. Taking hold of my lobster crackers, I broke open the shell and used my tiny fork to poke and pull out juicy morsels with the fine precision of an open-heart surgeon. I had just graduated from the claws to the tail when I looked down to see a hideous glob of lobster fat oozing down the front of my shirt.

I silently gasped and scanned the table to see if anyone had noticed. Fortunately, my husband and in-laws were too busy laughing and talking.

I excused myself and headed for the bathroom, where I scraped off the fatty globs into the sink. But I couldn’t erase the greasy stains that trailed down my chest like the Florida Panhandle. I wanted to cry.

On the way back to the table I stopped to pet Peanut. With one innocent stroke of his back, I kicked up a storm of black dog hair that latched on to my butter infused outfit and clung like magnetic powder to Wooly Willy’s face. I looked like I’d been tarred and feathered. My efforts to remove the fur balls scattered across my body only made things worse. All I could do was return to the table and hope that the sun had set.

It’s then that I noticed while everyone was talking and laughing, they were carelessly squirting and splattering at the same time. It was all part of the fun. And it was at that moment that I realized—I had gotten a pretty good package deal.

Since that day, our marriage has seen dozens more messy lobster family dinners. The difference is, I no longer worry about being judged for grease stains.  My mother-in-law has never criticized me for my cooking, clothing or housekeeping. She has never barged in on me. It was my husband, our three kids and me who invaded my in-law’s house when we stayed with them for a few months while our house was under construction.

Twenty years of marriage has taught me that not all mothers-in-law are Marie Barone.  Sometimes all it takes is a lobster mallet to smash a stereotype.

 

When Jersey Girl Lisa Tognola traded her job as freelance writer for that of full-time mother of three children, it didn’t take long before her writing was reduced to grocery lists, notes to school nurses excusing her kids from gym class, and e-mails to her husband reminding him to call his mother.  Daily life as a suburban mom was fraught with challenges and unexpected dangers like adult dinner groups, town hall meetings and home shopping parties.  Rather than fight her fate, this mom embraced it by unleashing her inner columnist.  Her monthly column, Main Street Musings, reflects on life in the suburbs—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Visit her blog http://mainstreetmusingsblog.com/  Follow her on twitter @lisatognola