The Continuing Saga of Life With a Crazy Russian Mother-in-Law


Until my mother-in-law lost her mind, I hadn't even heard of a "Sandwich Generation" - the people who are taking care of both their parents and their children at the same time period. 

Then Air Force Guy and I got shoved firmly (and with quite a protest, I tell you what) into Sandwich-hood with a bang. Air Force Family does everything with a bang, though, so that's not unusual. 

What is turning out to make our Sandwich Generation experience a bit unique, though, is the fact that we're a military family sandwich.  A military family sandwich with  foreign parents.   RUSSIAN foreign parents.  Crazy Russian former parents.  And the fact that we're 3000 miles away from her and moving every few years makes explaining the strange things that come up and the cultural idiosyncrasies of her friends just a bit more involved and difficult than if we lived close enough to do real damage control.

Case in point - our conversation last night with my Father-in-Law.

My MIL and FIL have been divorced for about 25 years.  They keep in touch, though, because after living through Stalin's Russia together and emigrating to the United States, and after lying about their ethnic background to get an exit visa, they have a connection.  There's some comfort there.

Before I get any further into the story of what happened last night, I should probably explain a very common Soviet-Russian state of mind.  To put it most succinctly - there is a love of tragedy.  EVERYTHING is a tragedy to my MIL, and everything was a tragedy even before her senile dementia started making serious inroads.  We're talking about a woman who believes that Anna Karenina is an uplifting story.  When my MIL was well, it was not unusual for her to announce that she should kill herself because someone didn't like her soup. 

[insert deep Russian accent here]

"Och, you hate my cooking.  You hate me.  I should run away and die on the tombstone of my Mother."

[Distinct pause as she waited for someone to "convince" her not to run away and die]

Her psyche is very different from the Western Psyche we are used to, and she used, "I should just die" as a method of conversation rather than a threat.  Everyone in the Russian community she was a part of understood this, and most of them did it, too.  A dinner with them often turned into a kind of Jerry Springer True Confessions, with vodka y seloitka (vodka and sardines) at every plate. 

This turned into a problem when my MIL had to go to a nursing home because she was no longer able to care for herself.  I found myself trying to explain what a Soviet Russian woman with dementia was like, because culturally there is a big difference between what we are taught as the norm in all the manuals on caring for elderly parents and family members. 

"Be careful," I warned the assistants.  "She bites."

They didn't believe me.  Until she bit them. 

"She likes to give long speeches about how she's going to just go die," I warned them.

Two years later I'm still getting calls about how she's suicidal because they forgot to put the Orange Juice on her breakfast tray.

"She's happiest when she's unhappy," I told them.  "And she enjoys exerting control on her environment by tweaking people."

At this point she's gone through four room-mates.

And I'm not even going to start on her penchant for walking around naked during prime business hours.

The best case scenario for my MIL would have been to find a facility that primarily cared for Russian-emigres, but such a thing was just not in our budget.  So, she's at a very nice place that is just one side of assisted living, with multiple daily activities like concerts, yoga classes, movie nights, and food even I enjoyed eating.

Now, all this eventually works itself out - the nurses and staff get used to my MIL's proclivities and I'm only a phone call away for them if they don't understand whether or not something is a big deal.  The other problem that occurs is when her friends and my FIL, with their Russian cultural background and the inability to explain to staff, get involved.

Last night my FIL called our house because he was quite concerned about my MIL.  Specifically, he was concerned that she is "suffering."

In true typical Soviet Russian man fashion, my FIL felt that as she is so unhappy, perhaps she should just be "put out of her misery."  In fact, he had even mentioned this fact to my MIL, and told her that he would call my husband and discuss the possibility of finding someone to do this for her. 

So, now we're 3000 miles away from my MIL, who is complaining in her usual way about life to my FIL, who is sick of hearing of it and now feels like the best thing to do would be to off my MIL. 

He doesn't really mean it, of course.  There's no danger of Russian Mafia guys in track suits and sandals with socks busting into the Nursing Facility to put a pillow over my MIL's face as she sleeps.  Really - my FIL informed us in the same conversation that he is not Russian anymore, he's Philipino.  He offered to speak a tortuous Russian accented Spanish with my husband (as he realizes that AFG is not "up" on Tagalog).  The man is obviously just thinking aloud, and it is normal for a Soviet Russian man to yell, "Well why don't you!" when a Soviet Russian female proclaims that she should go die because her foot itches and no one will scratch it for her.

But YOU try explaining all this to the nursing facility people and the Social Workers.

Let me tell you, I enjoyed "sandwich" far more when it was ham and cheese on rye.   

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