I met my mother-in-law some thirty years ago. If I said it was love at first sight for either one of us, I’d be lying. After all, I had come to take her son, a much beloved son she had borne late in life, and she was naturally wary. I understood that then and being the mother of three sons, I understand it even better now.
My mother-in-law was a force of nature
But, there we were.
So, when my husband told his mother that I was the one, she said the three words that every young man wants to hear from his mother upon imparting such news, and they were, “Are you sure????”
She was a force of nature, a whirling dervish, a person who liked to make an entrance. I am a bit more reserved, laid back, a person who prefers to slip into a room unnoticed. She was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and I am slightly more monochromatic. As it turned out we were perfect foils. We didn’t clash but we sometimes collided. Gently.
When we were first wed my mother-in-law said, “Helene, let me show you how to iron G’s dress shirts,” to which I responded, “Let’s show G how to iron his own shirts.” She replied, “I did NOT send my son to Harvard Law School to learn to iron shirts.” Well, I had also gone to law school and although the comment rankled, I smiled, watched the ironing demonstration with great enthusiasm and took my husband’s shirts to the dry cleaner the next day.
But my mother-in-law and I were both adaptable and we found our way. As the years went by we found common ground. Frankly, when I was 23 I thought a lot of what she said was foolish but as I racked up life experience, a lot of her advice began to have the ring of truth. And, there is no grander common ground than grandchildren.
She began to tell me that I was a good mother, a more patient mother than she’d been and her praise meant a lot to me. I began to understand that having 20 people for dinner, which she did routinely, was no small feat. I became a better cook. She became freer with her compliments. I began to appreciate the strength of her character, her optimism, her iron will and her enduring friendships.
Later, when I visited her in the hospital or rehab she would insist on proudly telling all who dared enter, “This is my daughter in law.” She would clutch my hand and tell me how happy she was that I had come and how brilliant of me to come just when she most needed me.
One of our last interactions was at rehab. There we were, just two moms. Talking had become difficult for her. We sat, mostly in silence, and then with some effort she said, “You have three wonderful sons.” “Yes, and you have a wonderful son also,” I quipped. “As good as gold” she answered.
But, I would argue better than gold because gold cannot buy the kind of devotion my husband showed his parents. That can only come from the heart. At the end, my husband doggedly pursued his parents’ comfort and dignity with tremendous compassion even when he was so tired he could barely hold his head up, internalizing their pain and doing everything in his power to ease it.
Mom, I miss you.