Oh Susannah

Today on Alphabet City: After a rocky start, Jon Paul’s relationship with his Mexican mother-in-law improves.

Chef with his parents

Barely two minutes after my arrival at Chef’s home in Mexico City and already I had lost a bet thanks to his mother.  In the taxi on the way from the airport, Chef and I laid down our wagers.

“I’m thinking she might wait to ask until lunch,” I said.

“Nope, sooner,” Chef replied confidently.

A half hour later, on a sweet street just steps away from Chapultepec Park, my Mexican mother-in-law Susannah embraced me warmly, then eyed me seriously.

“Ay, mi hijo, how come you aren’t staying longer?  5 days isn’t enough for a proper visit!  Now come inside and eat.”

Chef laughed as I handed him 200 pesos.

We’ve come a long way, Susannah and I.  Our first meeting nearly eight years ago filled me with terror.  Chef came out to his Catholic parents when we fell in love and decided to live together.  At first, his mother refused to meet me, but over time as I got to know other members of the family, her defensive barriers wore down.  Chef’s parents make an annual visit to New York City and stay with their son.  Now that we were living together, that meant me, too.

My nerves were fried during the weeks leading up to the encounter.  And my Condé Nast Traveler boss Publisher wasn’t making it any easier.  We were on week-long cross-country trip, traveling back from Los Angeles, when she asked about my apparent agitation.  I gave her the background, and told her that by the time we arrived in New York City, my in-laws would be asleep in my apartment and the first time I would meet them would be in the morning.

“Oh that’s a big deal.  Big, big deal.  What’s your plan?” Publisher asked.

“What do you mean plan?” I replied sheepishly.

“It’s the first time you’re meeting them.  You have to have your game face on.  You don’t want to meet them in your robe and bed head!  Gotta beat them to the punch.  Get up, get ready, get the upper hand.”  She advised ominously.

There was a reason this woman was one of the most successful executives in magazines.  So far, she hadn’t steered me wrong.  Seemed like this was shaping up to be a showdown at the Alphabet City corral.

All was quiet on the East Village front when I arrived home at 1am.  Chef roused from his sleep to say his parents liked the apartment and were looking forward to meeting me.

“What kind of under handed attack is that?  Thanks for making me even more nervous,” I complained.

He rolled over and started to snore.  I laid down and stared at the ceiling, plotting my counter attack.

By 5am, I couldn’t stand it anymore.  Publisher was right—get my game face on.  I showered, got dressed, made coffee, and settled into a seat at the dining room table with a clear view of the guest room door.  I couldn’t hear anything.  6am.  7am.  8am.  I was in full panic.

Chef appeared dressed and ready for work.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.  You’re leaving me here with the enemy?” I whispered loudly.

“Look, there’s no way my mother is getting up before 9.  Just go to work.  You’ll meet her later,” he laughed.

He gave me a peck on the cheek.  But there was no way I was leaving now—I was prepped for battle.

I piddled around the apartment, but by 9:30am, I realized that I couldn’t be late for a morning meeting.  I rushed back downstairs to change my shirt—having nervously sweated through the previous one—and when I re-emerged, there she was.  My mother in law nemesis was barely 5 feet tall, in a house dress, with mussed up hair, sitting at the dining room table—in my spot.

“Buenos dias,” she offered, not moving from the table.  “Is there coffee?  And maybe some cereal with fruit?”

“Absolutely!  Of course!”

I sprung into action bringing to her all the breakfast fixings.  She smiled as I placed the coffee cups, bowls, cut up fruit—the works.  Wait a minute.  What was I doing?  I didn’t do this for my family or Chef for that matter, let alone an enemy combatant.  She touched my hand and smiled.

“You’re going to fit in just fine,” she said.

All together at Chef's citizenship ceremony

In that moment, I knew she had the upper hand and held all the cards.  If my own mother was the unassuming Miss Ellie/Barbara Bel Geddes of TV’s Dallas, my mother-in-law was more Angela Channing/Jane Wyman of Falcon Crest—the undeniable matriarch of her clan.  She wasn’t going to be just an occasional guest star in my sitcom life, I was auditioning to be a regular in her telenovella—and I had just gotten the part.

Over time, we’ve developed an easy rhythm.  While at first I felt like the quirky Gringo character, now I’m just like my fellow sisters-in-law married into this tight knit clan.  I bring her hotel shampoos and soaps from all my travels for her guest bathroom.  She brings me elaborate mirrors, pewter trays and a dramatic Arbol de la Vida on display in my Mexican-themed living room.

This year, we even conspired to throw a 40th birthday fiesta for Chef at the family vacation home outside Mexico City.  Unlike me, Chef prefers to ignore his birthday.  But Susannah and I weren’t having any of that.  And when the two of team up for battle, there’s nothing we can’t do.

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