Remembering My Mother-in-Law on Mother’s Day

 In Blog

In the early part of our marriage, I determined that I would one day write a book about mothers-in-law, as a thinly-veiled revenge piece for daughters-in-law everywhere. It would not have been a particularly nice book. My own experiences with the mother of my then new husband were not, shall we say, easy. Although she seemed to like me well enough during the initial stages of our relationship, she became stricken when we got serious, and sobbed so loudly during the wedding that some could not hear us recite our vows. During those difficult years, I would often confide in girlfriends with whom I traded mother-in-law stories. Without revealing which one was which, this personal collection of stories included mothers-in-law who:

  • Showed up for dinner over an hour early, in order to catch the young bride unprepared;
  • Woke the young couple up on the morning after the wedding night to announce that she was bringing relatives over to view the
    apartment and have coffee;
  • Dumped a handful of salt into the soup pot, before complaining that the soup was inedible.

Somewhere along the way, at least in the case of my relationship with my own mother-in-law, the tales became less shocking. And also funnier. I had one of those horrible, life-threatening birth experiences during the birth of our son. When my father-in-law held the baby for the first time, he wept openly, and was moved beyond words. Not my mother-in-law. Determined not to react emotionally as my own European mother had done, she cruised into the hospital room, sized up my appearance (‘bedraggled’ would have been kind) and announced loudly, I bet you have big hemorrhoids!   

And then, gradually, the dynamics between us shifted. There began to be surprising shows of support – a paid-for weekend away, thoughtfully-arranged theatre tickets, a standing offer to babysit. Although we never knew exactly what precipitated the change, we assumed it was a grandchild. I’d like to think it was also the realization that her son was actually happy in married life, and that we were doing our best to make family a priority.

Later, things changed again. My in-laws no longer insisted on a command-performance Sunday dinner every week, or being host to every major occasion or holiday event regardless of my own family’s plans. They allowed us, and even welcomed, the opportunity to take over making the big meals and organizing celebrations. As my in-laws aged, we slipped into a further stage, where roles were reversed and we were driving them shopping, running their errands, going with them to the doctor and preparing food for them, until taking care of them gradually became more critical. And as my mother-in-law faded from her snappishly bright, dynamic, colourful and sometimes outrageous personality, she also became softer with me, more appreciative and almost tender.

On my very last visit to my mother-in-law, who was by then in palliative care, I was allowed to push her in her hospital bed out into the enclosed garden so that she could take in the fresh spring air. The nurses helped me and brought blankets warmed in the dryer so she wouldn’t be chilly. When I said good night at the end of that day, I also, said I love you, and she, never having used the word with me before, said for the first time, I love you more. She passed the next morning, with her son by her side.

I still cry to think of it. The woman who had criticized me and found fault with everything I did and said and wore, this proud, brilliant woman is gone from our lives, and I still miss her. I miss her fierce and unadulterated love for her son and his family, her passion for politics, her faith and her sense of hospitality. And when something brilliant happens in our lives, I think how proud she would be, and how she would inflict the stories of our small successes on anyone who would listen. And when something outrageous happens in the political arena, I think how enraged she would be, and how we would have to sit up half the night watching the news and listening to her rant about it.

Although she is gone, my mother-in-law’s life lessons remain. And while it hasn’t happened yet, I hope eventually to join the ranks of mothers-in-law, and suspect that that I, too, will also be a fiercely over-protective pain in the butt. But I also hope that the relationships thus established will become as strong as the one that was eventually forged between my mother-in-law and me.