I must begin with a confession: I was terrified of my mother-in-law for about the first year that I knew her. And any of you who ever faced her wrath will understand completely what I mean. But the fear that I felt then as a young woman entering her family is not what is on my mind today.
For several weeks now, I have been thinking about a black dress, not just any black dress, but a black satin dress that my other mother made me for a formal occasion. You see, that’s what I called her: my other mother.
Years ago, when I worked for a government contractor in northern Virginia, the company had these huge, extravagant Christmas parties, affairs at which people such as the Beach Boys and Ray Charles performed. I wanted a special dress for the occasion, and I picked out a Vogue pattern of a tea-length strapless dress that was fitted like a corset on the top, and had a very full skirt on the bottom. It was quite gorgeous, and it never occurred to me that my other mother would not be able to sew this creation for me. She was that talented. The dress had stays and top stitching, and of course, I chose an unforgiving fabric without really thinking about how hard it would be to work with. The finished dress was magnificent. I felt like Audrey Hepburn when I wore it. Everyone I knew asked me where I had bought my dress. I only smiled and told them that someone special had made it for me.
Later, when I became pregnant for the first time and found that maternity clothes consisted of big bows and garish prints, my other mother made me a maternity wardrobe. Again, the compliments I received were endless, and again, I said that someone special had made them for me.
I’m not trying to define my other mother through her sewing abilities, although to be sure, they were phenomenal. Rather, the point is that she made these things for me out of love, because she knew how much I appreciated everything that she did for me. And I loved her for her many talents and how she shared those talents with her family and with her friends.
I would like to think that the two of us were more than just mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. We were friends, friends who shared a love of British mysteries and histories. Friends who watched Mystery on PBS and then talked about the shows afterwards. Friends who shared confidences as easily as we shared books. And then there were the times when she was my mother-in-law, the times when she did not hesitate to tell me what she thought I was doing wrong or how I was going about something in the wrong way. I would get so frustrated. I mean, she could be quite formidable when she wanted to be. But I was thankful when our relationship survived even when I was no longer officially her daughter-in-law. She never changed in how she treated me, and for that I was very grateful.
But she was a very generous friend—generous with her time and generous with her talents. She loved her family, especially her grandchildren, and she loved her church. Each year, while she was still able, she would help to sew the costumes for the Christmas pageant. Each year, she would help to decorate the church for advent. For many years, she lent her voice to the church choir, in which she sang alto, and she would say of her voice that it was strong, but that it was not a solo voice.
That’s how she was. Not boastful, and at times, too self-deprecating. I know that she regretted greatly not having a formal education, and sometimes she would make a snippy remark—because those of us who knew and loved her must admit that she could be snippy—a remark about how while she did not have a master’s degree . . . I can still hear it . . . but she was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. Her wealth of knowledge included things like literature, plants, flowers, vegetables, furniture refinishing, home improvement, and cooking. Together we reupholstered a couch and loveseat, and she taught me how to refinish old furniture. I always envied her lush green flower beds, the great expanses of Black-eyed Susans and other perennials and her plentiful summer crop of home-grown vegetables.
But her apple pie . . . That was the absolute best. I loved her apple pie more than anything else that she ever made, more than her turkey, more than her pirate stew. For my birthday most years, she would make me an apple pie; it was something that I looked forward to every year. But the last one that she made me was several years ago, and she apologized when she gave it to me because she didn‘t feel that it was up to her standards. As her memory began to fade, she lost confidence in her ability to cook, and finally, she gave up cooking all together, just as she gave up sewing, and reading, and painting, and gardening.
My other mother was a strong, intelligent, woman who did not suffer fools gladly. But she was also extremely kind and generous. She faced more than her share of heartbreak in her life, but she carried on. In the last few years, we spoke about life and death quite openly. She told me more about her childhood, and she talked about some of her regrets. I know that she hated what the disease was doing to her, and I hated watching this once strong woman gradually fade.
Funnily enough, she never wanted me to know that she secretly believed that boys were smarter than girls. But in spite of this belief, she treated all of her grandchildren with great love and generosity. In fact, I only found out after she died that she had kept a secret for Brett all of these years: When Brett was in grade school and he got into trouble, she asked him if he had learned his lesson; he replied that he had, so she signed the parental notification and promised not to tell anyone, and she never did. That’s the woman I knew and loved.
I do not wish to remember her as she was the last time that I saw her, so small and fragile. Instead, I will remember her sitting at the end of the table at family dinners with her wine glass, how at Christmas we always had Christmas crackers, and everyone had to wear the paper hats and share the trinkets that spilled out after we pulled on the crackers. I will remember the look on her face as she held each of her grandchildren for the first time. I will remember her classic sense of style, her red boiled wool jacket. I will remember how she asked me one time if I liked her sweater and that I told her I thought it looked like a man’s cardigan; then years later, I complimented her on her sweater, and she said, “Well you told me once that it looked like a man’s cardigan,” and I said, well what do I know anyway? I will remember the way that she would curse under her breath as if whispering negated what she had said. I will remember the books we shared and the times she treated me to the symphony and the ballet. I will remember the fairy princess costume that she sewed Alexis when she was four that was later passed down to Rebecca, and the green Power Ranger costume that she made for Eamonn when he was in preschool; he told me that he had the best costume in the school, and he did. I will remember her love of public television and how she shared her Smithsonian catalogue with me. I will remember rocking each of my children in her big rope hammock, and the family cookouts we had on the deck. I will remember spending time with her in the pool as the children grew from babies to school children and how she would make fun of me for not wanting to get wet in the water. I will remember the one curler that she would wear in the front of her hair when she was cleaning the house, and I will remember how she brought us pizza and made us eat after Caitlin died.
I will never be able to smell L’air duTemps without thinking of her. When I read a new book by Elizabeth George, I will think of her. When my peonies come into bloom, I will think of her. And one day, when I finally learn to make an apple pie, I will think of her and know that she would be proud.
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” ~ Albert Pine
The faint echo of a forgotten grief
something I meant to say,
but never found the time.
Your hands were so small,
covered in old scars
(from years of pressing the earth
between your fingers),
and new ones from the onslaught of needles.
You would not have liked
the room in which you died:
pitiless in its sterility.
The place you spent your final days
smelled of age and waiting death,
while your home sat unused
and too quiet.
Lonesome without your presence
even your cat deserted you,
found a new home filled with possibilities.
You would not have liked that either.
What were you trying to say to me
when your hand grasped my wrist
with a strength I no longer knew you had—
when your eyes met mine
your brow arched as if to ask a question?
Yes, I remember the pills,
how easy it would have been
to melt them in warm water
then pour the elixir onto your tongue—
when it mattered the most
I failed you, did not have
the resolve you possessed.
Your Black-eyed Susans have withered
and the rosemary has grown wild—
perhaps you would have liked that,
the asymmetry of things left to do as they will
when nature is left unfettered.
I walk through your rooms
hoping to catch the barest scent of your L’air du temps,
but nothing is left,
only my imagined sense
of your presence.
I had forgotten this part:
the acute loneliness,
the echoing silence,
the desire to eschew human touch,
the inexorable solitude,
the nature of grief.