George Burns Had It Right


I was shopping for a card a few years ago and saw a great one emblazoned with a quote by George Burns on it:

Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.

Of course, this quote is the preface to yet another story involving my mother-in-law.

Now, there are many times when I truly regret living so far from family. For one, if I'm working, Air Force Guy is gone, and a kid gets sick - I can't call my family 3,000 miles away and ask them for a day of babysitting to fill in the gap.

That stinks. It causes some problems.

Also, with family thousands of miles away, our vacations are not spent going to neat vacation spots but instead we go to visit family.

On the other hand, we don't have to deal with the day to day family politics of who isn't doing what, whose house isn't as clean, who is overstepping, ad infinitum.

Plus, you know, I have a crazy Russian Mother-in-Law. And she didn't particularly like me when she was mentally all there, either.

Anyway, after AFG and I had our first PCS, we came back home for a quick visit. Upon entering my MIL's house we noticed a huge bowl on her dining room table with unsavory looking brown water and a slimy kind of grayish white thing floating in it. It was very curious, because it looked quite nasty and yet was in a place of prominence on her table. And it had never been there before.

Anyone who has had to deal with a Russian MIL will tell you that you don't ask questions. Most of the time you REALLY don't want to know. Knowing opens too many doors that require some kind of action that you probably don't want to take. It's better to have a zoo full of elephants in the room than to ask a Russian MIL why they do something. Trust me.

So we didn't. We pretended it wasn't there. Nor was that pretending particularly easy, either, because we slowly became aware of a kind of a rotting yeasty smell that was issuing from the bowl on the table. It was faint, but it was particularly unpleasant.

To our horror, after we finished (or pretended to finish, in my case) some kholodyetz my MIL had made (kholodyetz is a kind of meat flavored jello with pieces of fat floating around in it and my MIL claims it is a specialty of hers), my MIL dipped cups in the sewery looking water and handed them around the table. It became clear that (a) she was getting ready to launch into a long Russian soliloquy and (b) we were expected to drink this poo looking water.

As it turns out, the poo looking water was created by the floating dead looking thing - which was a mushroom. The traditional Russian tea is called Kombucha - and if someone reading this has tried Kombucha and loves it, I'm sorry in advance for my descriptions. Feel free to make fun of Diet Mountain Dew if you wish and I will promise to take that in stride.

Anyway, My MIL started her story about how many generations this particular poo-water mushroom had been in her family and every time someone moved out of the family house they would peel off a layer of the mushroom and start their own Kombucha factory at their kitchen table. Everyone had a genetic clone of the same family mushroom from hundreds of years ago. What a beautiful story of family.

Except that none of it was true because this was the first time that AFG (then in his mid-twenties) had ever seen that mushroom. Also, it's highly unlikely that my MIL had managed in the excitement and danger of their escape from the Soviet Union to remember to pack a mushroom with an ample supply of the dirty water surrounding it. Not to mention the questions about clearing customs...

So, a discussion about the origins of the mushroom and the dirty water ensued, with my MIL getting increasingly louder and more insistent that we "drink of the family mushroom."

I was not going to drink that mushroom water. I was not. It smelled. She was not going to give in until either I did as she told me or AFG denounced me. Neither of those things was about to happen, and finally in utter and complete frustration my MIL picked up the bowl of dirty mushroom water, drank directly from it, and then yelled at us, "WITH THIS, I CANNOT LEGITIMATELY GIVE YOU A PIECE OF THE MUSHROOM!"

The house was totally silent. She had spoken. We were not getting a piece of the "family" mushroom.

Sadly, the mushroom in question never managed to survive even the ten days we were visiting the family. Within just a few days, it was completely covered in mold, and after a few attempts to cut the mold off and save her Kombucha factory, one morning when we woke up the bowl was off the table and freshly washed in the sink.

However, the mushroom was not forgotten, and every time we have seen my MIL since - and also in letters, cards, and through word of mouth when her Russian friends contact us about something - we hear about our refusal to accept the family mushroom. In fact, I shudder when I meet new Russian people, no matter where they are from, because I'm just SURE that the story about the family that was so horrible the mother had to refuse to give them their piece of the mushroom has probably circulated through Russian communities the world over.

And every time I hear about the mushroom, I think about how George Burns had an excellent point.

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