Sympathy for the Devil

Tough week. Mother-in-law visiting from New York, daughter’s 8th birthday. House party for 100 people. Emceeing a silent auction at the school fundraiser. One must be organized, prepared. Selfless. Delightful. When the tiniest of details are imperative, niceties suffer and there’s little compassion for the hostess.

Sure, people say, “Is there anything I can do?” But it’s not like you can send someone to the ATM or have them hot-roll your hair 15 minutes before the caterers arrive.

Having your huband’s mother as a house guest during it all isn’t the best choice either. And I say this, knowing full and well that I’m extra lucky in that department. My mother-in-law and I have similar tastes, she’s lovely to everyone, not to mention, beautiful. But your MIL is your MIL, no matter how fabulous.

Trying to be the perfect mommy in my usual manner, I’d baked 72 cupcakes in the a.m. the day of the event. My crucial error was to save the frosting of them as a planned participitory activity for after lunch with Grandma and a couple of my daughter’s little friends. I reserved 4 cupcakes for the kids to “decorate.” My sly way to control the quality. (As a side note, today is my 18th wedding anniversary. After this long, you’d think there’d be few surprises, right?) Imagine my shock, when my MIL sits across the table from me and proceeds to frost, and I say this with love and admiration, like a four year old on Red Bull. Globs of the chocolate canned fluff just dumped atop, the wrapper covered with the sticky stuff.

“We’ll have to smooth that out.” I said with strained annoyance.

She stammered. “Well, it’s harder than it looks.”

Frustrated, I demonstrated the correct swirling technique. I even gave her a different butter knife. It only got worse. My husband entered, tried to fix one up himself. He failed miserably.

I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Have you either of you ever frosted a cupcake before?”

“Well, no,” they both said sideways to each other.

“You’ve never done this before?” This is directed accusingly at my mother-in-law, for all the reasons you might think. My husband’s childhood parties? A family barbeque? A cake walk? A bake sale? Home Ec? Come on! I felt outraged and oddly superior at the same time. My MIL, Mrs. I-have-it-all-together-all-the-time, had no experiece with Betty Crocker and a can of whipped frosting. Wow.

“I’ve always just ordered them or picked them up from the bakery,” she said defenseless.

My background is theater, show business. There is a call time. You work back from that. Two hours until curtain. It was now T minus 30 before the photo-booth was to arrive and I was in sweats without a stitch of make-up. So, you see, it wasn’t only that my mother-in-law had never iced a cupcake before — but I mean, really? — it’s that she pretended at her ability at crunch time.

“Do you think you could have told me that before you ruined my cupcakes?” I said, without charity. After I ruthlessly expelled everyone with “Get out of my kitchen!” I didn’t feel the least bit of guilt.

Look, I’m not going to act all down-to-earth here. Any friend of mine will tell you, I have NO affinity for washing floors and I’ve made it a point to do it as little as possible in my life. But, if asked, I could perform the task with agility. And if I was not sure of the correct technique or the proper usage of cleansers, I would, with utter integrity, out myself as unqualified, and ask for direction. Just saying.

It was the misrepresentation of skill that outraged me, not the incompetency itself. I swear this bleeds into every aspect of life. If it’s something you can fake, fine, go for it. But if you can’t, confess. When lives are at stake, or in this case, a child’s birthday party is on the line, it’s better to plead ignorance. I promise, you’ll get the necessary instruction and clemency will follow. People, in general, will be much more tolerant.

You can be certain that after re-icing, smoothing & lettering each mini-cake, no one noticed a blemish. Frankly, with all the mania around Happy Birthday! and a pinata on the horizon, no one would have blinked if the sugar arrived straight into their vein in a pitchfork-shaped syringe.

In the end, my MIL was, as usual, gracious, loving and forgiving for my “meltdown.” Her word. Others might say I’m bossy, a control-freak, dramatic, snarky. Perhaps a total be-yotch. But I prefer Perfectionista.

Really, is it so wrong to want things done right?

Pam Alster, former stand-up comedienne, Lifetime TV writer & suburban mom brings a decade of living on the dark side to light in her forthcoming debut novel Robin’s Blue. www.pamalster.com

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