Maybe it’s the color of the woman’s hair as she moves briskly through the parking lot of our local farm market. It’s cut short and straight, the way my mother-in-law began to wear her hair after she’d finally forsaken the permanents she had endured every few months to give her locks the curl she always admired on others. Or maybe it’s a certain type of beach cover up that catches my eye and the tote bag she’s carrying, similar to the canvas one my mother-in-law would bring to the beach each day, neatly packed with all of her reading essentials. There would be whatever book she’d most recently checked out of the library along with that day’s The New York Times and probably some gardening magazines for inspiration and brochures for whatever European bike trip she and my father-in-law would embark on in the fall.
When I spy her doppelganger, my gut reaction is relief. There’s been so much I’ve wanted to talk to her about. I’d want to know what she was reading and how the tomatoes in her garden were doing and whether she’d seen a certain smash hit on Broadway and if she loved it as much as I did. I’d tell her all about my new house, how some mourning doves built a nest in the branches outside my daughter’s bedroom window, and we’d talk about how wonderful it was that my two oldest kids had graduated and landed grown up jobs. We’d shake our heads over how quickly they and all the grandkids were growing up. And, man, would we both have a lot to say about Donald Trump.
But then, just as quickly, I realize that it’s not my mother-in-law after all. It’s just another small-framed woman in her 70s with short hair and not the woman I met right after my 16th birthday who taught me how to add bone meal and fertilizer to the soil before I planted something in the earth and that All Things Considered makes for good company while cooking dinner. That same woman with whom I’d end up spending countless hours over 25+ years talking about our gardens and politics and what we were reading and the kids.
And although her family would often joke that their matriarch sometimes lacked that filter the rest of us have between our brains and our mouths, the one that prevents us from really telling people what we think (and she had some pretty infamous zingers), I’d say about 95 percent of my interactions with my mother-in-law over the years were perfectly pleasant.
I mean, I also don’t remember childbirth being that big of a deal so obviously I am pretty good about glossing over the more negative stuff in life. It’s a gift.
All the same, I think it would be fair to say that my mother-in-law and I were cut from a similar cloth and as such, were pretty fond of each other.
I got the call that she was in hospice one Monday afternoon in April as I was just sliding back into my car after picking up some dinner fixings at the market. It was my sister-in-law, we’d both been married to brothers, calling to tell me that our former mother-in-law had suffered a stroke that morning and was in the hospital down in Florida where she and our father-in-law had spent their winters for about 20 years.
And even though in retrospect I probably should have been preparing for the call for a while, I’ve never been really good about reading the writing on the wall. Instead, I found myself stunned and sobbing in the car.
I mean, I knew her health hadn’t been great these last few years. She looked so frail the last time I’d seen her. I’d heard she’d started to need an oxygen tank to help manage her COPD and that she had fallen and broken her hip a few months earlier. But I was under the impression she was on the rebound. I’d overheard her voice when my oldest son called to check on her while she was in rehab and was glad to hear how strong she sounded on the other end, promising him she’d be out of there in no time.
That last time I saw her was at my son’s college graduation last year. Honestly, I was irritated at first when I noticed her and her husband making their way up to where we were all sitting in the football stadium, me and the kids and their dad. I was still so angry with her for believing she needed to choose sides following the divorce and, frankly, that she did not choose mine. I still have dreams in which I find myself screaming at her for dropping me like a hot potato. For forsaking all of the hours we logged together over the years sitting on the beach or around each other’s houses for holidays and birthdays or summer days reading on the porch of their cabin in the Poconos. Hadn’t that meant anything?
I had known that their family’s immediate response to conflict was to cut a person off, so I had written a letter to her in the throes of the divorce in an effort to circumvent an estrangement. I tried to reason that we could still be a family even though I was no longer married to her son, unto no avail.
In short time her presence began to fade from my life. Gone were the Christmas and birthday cards and thoughtful gifts – the glass hummingbird feeder for my garden or the copper mixing bowl like the one she used to whip cream for her famous chocolate cake. She no longer called to see what I thought the children might want for Christmas and when I ran into her on the sidelines at one of the kids’ soccer games once, she gave me a perfunctory “hello” and went back to watching the action on the field. She acted as if I simply didn’t exist.
And it kinda broke my heart.
One of the things that attracted me to my former husband way back in the day – aside from the killer blue eyes and smooth bad-boy ways – was his family. Especially back then. They enjoyed being together and I loved being a part of that. Spending hours around the coffee table in the living room duking it out over Trivial Pursuit or out in the yard throwing bocce balls on a warm summer night. That sense of family unity was something that I desperately craved. I still do. And even though things changed over the years, the kids got older and we started spending less time together, my mother-in-law and I could pick right back up and fall into our old, comfortable groove whenever we were together.
And all of those days and hours and conversations have infused much of who I am today. A good mother. A reader. Gardener. Ardent Democrat. Someone who’s gone on vacation by herself and owns a cooler with a flat top for the beach because that only makes sense.
But as I watched her at the graduation slowly make her way up the stadium steps to our row, I began to soften. She was winded by the climb and the early-morning Virginia sun was already strong and I could tell she was not doing that great. Over the next 24 hours we engaged in pleasant conversation, just like the old days. We talked about books and the kids and when it came time to say good-bye, we both had tears in our eyes as she gave me a big bear hug. We stood and embraced surrounded by black-robed graduates and proud families, and it was like we silently forgave each other. In a weird way, as I watched her slowly walk away, I knew I’d never see her again.
She died a few hours after I got that call about the stroke and just a few days before she was to have celebrated her 80th birthday. In a sad twist, her four children and a couple of grandkids had tickets to fly down to Florida to surprise her that weekend for her birthday. But it had all happened so fast and she was gone before anyone could get to her to say good-bye.
The kids and I cried long and hard after we got the news that she was gone. The girls were still both away at college so we commiserated over the phone but the two boys were at home so we sniffled together on the couch. It’s the kids’ first brush with losing someone they loved and the first time for me since the last of my grandparents passed away some 15 years ago.
The day after she died, I went food shopping and bought devil’s food cake mix and a package of pudding and baked my mother-in-law’s chocolate cake, even though only the two boys were home to eat it and I really need to lose 10 pounds and not gain 10 pounds. But it felt good to pull it out of the oven and remember all the times we ate that cake together over the years for birthdays and barbeques, the warm, chocolatey slices slathered in the whipped cream she’d beaten in the icy bowl pulled from the freezer.
Then I dragged my youngest guy over to my in-law’s house in the next town to see her garden. I hadn’t been there in years and it looked like it was waiting for her return from Florida and bring it back to life. I’d spent so many happy hours in that yard, swinging in the hammock and playing bocce. Getting a tour of the garden from my mother-in-law as she pointed out the bright red poppies blooming along the side yard or the tangle of pink roses at the end of the driveway. And man, did I cry.
But I was also glad for my 13yo to see me so sad as he came over to the middle of the yard and wrapped me in a hug, leaning down to rest his head on my shoulder. For him to understand that even though I wasn’t married to his dad, I could still really love his dad’s family.
Because they had been my family, too.