3 Months With The In-Laws. How Bad Could It Be? It Turned Out To Be A Bridge For Danielle Patterson.

Aug 11, 2020

There's something about working hard alongside someone else that brings us closer together. That's what Danielle Patterson discovered when she spent a day sweating in the sun with an unexpected partner. 

Earlier this year, we put out a call for your stories about overcoming differences — true stories about finding common ground.

Working with the Austin Public Library and The Library Foundation, we collected the submissions and helped writers shape their stories into pieces to read for the radio.

Danielle tells the story of the time her in-laws came for a visit.

Read Danielle's story below:

“I’m sorry, did you say ‘your in-laws will be living with you for three months?'” a friend asked me.

Her tone implied “blink twice if you need help.” I understood her dismay. But in India, my husband’s home country, a woman typically lives with her husband’s family her entire married life.

By comparison, a three-month visit from my in-laws seemed doable, even to my American sensibilities.  

Even so, I was nervous. I had somewhat of a relationship with my mother-in-law, a retired English teacher. But I barely knew my father-in-law. Due to a language barrier, I could count on one hand the number of conversations we had had. I wasn’t sure how I’d survive living with a stranger with whom I had nothing in common.

The beginning of the visit went as I expected. My father-in-law and I mostly just nodded awkwardly at each other as we went about our lives. Then a week into their stay, there was a knock on my door.

I opened it to find an Austin city employee.

“Ma’am,” he said. “The overgrown bushes on your land bordering the sidewalk need to be removed to be ADA compliant.” My face flushed with embarrassment. 

It was a blazingly hot Texas day. The mass of plants and bushes that needed to be beaten back felt overwhelming.

Still, I started hacking away at the green overgrowth, clipping drooping branches, and yanking up stubborn weeds. Within a few minutes I was surprised to see my father-in-law appear by my side. Without saying a word, he, too, began pulling up weeds at a vigorous pace. 

It was grueling, back-breaking work. The scent of warm, Texan earth filled the air. The piles of trimmings and pulled weeds grew bigger. Our clothes were soon covered in prickly burrs, our arms scratched by rough branches and brush, our skin slick and grimy with a mix of sweat and dirt. My father-in-law’s constant raking provided a rhythmic soundtrack to our work.

Hours went by. Yet neither one of us slowed down. At one point, my mother-in-law tried to get us to pause for lunch. By then, my father-in-law and I were covered head to toe in dirt and completely worn out. Even so, I hated to break our pace by stopping to eat. I looked to my father-in-law for his reaction. His response made it clear we were on the same page:

“No! We will eat only once we have finished.” 

As we continued to clear the land, I couldn’t help but sense something had changed. I realized that my father-in-law and I had more in common than I thought. We both throw ourselves headfirst into a challenging task and take pride in not quitting until it’s done.

After a day of communicating mostly through gestures, I learned that a language barrier is only a barrier if you allow it to be. By the time we finished, our awkward silence had become a companionable one.

As we headed inside to clean up, I discovered that we may have begun the work as strangers, but we ended as family.